May 15, 2004

Shuttle is normal University Perk

Like many students, I initially found the idea of a Red Line Shuttle bus distasteful. I believe my exact reaction was, "Um, yeah, we already have that, and it's called the #55." But now that it's here, and it's available, I have a hard time impeaching it on any kind of ethical grounds. And the more that I think about it, the more frustrated I get with all the arguments against it.

The plight of the economically disadvantaged is, and should be, distressing to anyone sensitive to social injustice. However, the shuttle bus is hardly an emblem of white entitlement, thrown in the faces of those who are forced to ride the #55 instead. University of Chicago students, regardless of race, are generally pretty recognizable while waiting at the bus stop. Anyone in the South Side community who is aware of the University's existence is also aware that the individuals who attend it are endowed with certain privileges. Even aside from the fact that the vast majority of students already have better job prospects, a more affluent background, and greater access to resources than some in the area, college students are inherently given special services as their reward for paying $40,000 per year in tuition. South Side residents who are not students, for example, cannot use the e-mail kiosks in Reynolds Club or anywhere else. They can't buy Microsoft Windows for $10 from the campus bookstore. They can't ride the #170, #171, or #172 buses for free. Is this "fair," in a sweeping, equal-opportunities-for-all sense? No, it is absolutely not fair. University of Chicago students, like students of other elite universities, are in a better position than most, and the reasons for this can be attributed to all kinds of ethical misdeeds, past and present. But if you start thinking like this you can either drop out or go crazy with self-loathing. Or, I suppose, as a third option, arbitrarily throw all your guilt about your privileged status at a new University service designed to help students.

Loyola University in Rogers Park has a free shuttle bus that takes students from campus to Water Tower Place (the same shuttle buses, in fact, that are used for our new #55 shuttle). There are CTA methods of getting from one place to another, but the school provides this service nevertheless. And I doubt that its inception created protests saying it implied that the middle-class, predominately white student body of Loyola is superior to the middle-class, predominately white Rogers Park population that surrounds it. It is true that the University could put funds into a more frequent #55 schedule, into a bus shelter, or into a free shuttle for everyone, but for that matter, the University could operate a soup kitchen, establish a low-income housing fund, or subsidize all Hyde Park buses for anyone who lives in the area. These would certainly be nice, magnanimous gestures, but they're highly unlikely because the University's main priority is not to improve the South Side or to help the less privileged, but to cater to its students. We happen to be lucky for getting to go to a great school and having access (through whatever means) to the funds that pay our way through it. Most people don't have that opportunity. But let's not kid ourselves about the community's awareness of our status. I highly doubt that seeing the Red Line Shuttle go by will cause any more resentment than, for example, overhearing a conversation on the #55 about how someone got a car and a laptop for his or her birthday, or reading a statistic about the average annual salary of a U of C graduate. The shuttle isn't going to induce angry epiphanies about social inequality in the minds of those it passes along 55th Street. If you want to feel guilty about something, feel guilty about naively attributing that much significance to a silly little bus.