October 27, 2009

Articles of concern

Recent press has put the University in an embarrassing spotlight.

University of Chicago, let’s talk about public relations.

Along with many others in this city, I read a blog called Chicagoist. It’s the kind of blog that people in the news industry think should be punishable by drawing and quartering, impalement on Transylvanian stakes, or at the very least 20 days’ worth of listening to "The Real Slim Shady”—it’s a news aggregator. Chicagoist’s contributors post paraphrased articles from legitimate news sources using the original reporters’ most interesting quotations, sometimes with a sentence or two of editorial, and call it a day. Reading Chicagoist is roughly the equivalent of starting each morning by watching someone make origami hats out of most of the pages of the Tribune and the Sun-Times.

So when Chicagoist posts something about the University of Chicago, it’s exciting—what might the writers have found that perked their collective interest? We don’t make it into their sports recaps like most Chicagoland schools, and now that Barack is gone, Hyde Park and Kenwood apparently have little worth to Chicagoist’s bloggers. Sometimes there’s a note about groundbreaking research, sometimes about visiting speakers, sometimes about quirky U of C traditions like Scav Hunt. But this week it was none of the above: Instead, two vaguely mocking pieces appeared, the first about the University’s impending closure of the 61st Street community garden and the second about the revelation that U of C administrators have been prematurely harassing the White House for a promise that the eventual Barack Obama Presidential Library will come here.

We students spend a lot of time and money to have our résumés say “University of Chicago graduate,” ostensibly so we’ll get nice jobs and have people think that we’re smart. This isn’t a fun or pleasant place—negative 40 degrees isn’t a part of life for people who go to school in other places, nor is the assumption that the career office is going to need to teach the majority of its visitors how to make direct eye contact—so let’s not pretend that most of us students aren’t expecting to get something significantly more tangible than “the life of the mind” out of this school. With one more set of finals each year than most of our friends, the immediate absence of anything that might be called a college town (the collegiately fun part of Chicago, it quickly becomes apparent, is pretty far away), and a penchant for drawing in very smart people who either wear capes or don’t shower (or both), this school is miserable to a degree incomprehensible on most campuses. But we choose to go here anyway, most of us with a very clear understanding of what we expect to get out of it.

So why—why in the world—are the people in the Administration Building making PR gaffes that open us up to citywide mockery? There are a lot of people paid more or less by my tuition dollars to make this place look as glitzy and magnificent as possible—and Chicagoist is being left to advise, “But let’s all just agree to take a deep breath and give Obama a few years into his Presidency before we start talking about plans for after he’s no longer in office.” Community members are left to tell reporters about how the University is ripping apart the “the kind of thing that people are hungry for in city living.” There’s bad press, and then there are things that make the University look silly.

Obviously, the University of Chicago likes libraries a lot—so much that it was willing to spot the Mansuetos’ generous donation with $55 million of U of C cash just so we could be the only school of our size to have all our books here on campus, even though no one has any practical use for that. And development might be the only thing that the University likes more than books, institutionally speaking.

But I, for one, don’t particularly care if these topics are the University of Chicago’s Achilles’ heel, and that someone on Ellis Avenue thought that an Obama Library would make such a nice addition to campus that it would be worth bothering the President of the United States years before it was an even remotely appropriate conversation topic.

And for heaven’s sake, let the neighborhood keep its garden. Yes, the University owns the land; yes, the gardeners knew that one day the U of C would want it back; yes, it would be a highly convenient staging area for the new Theological Seminary. But tearing down the garden—or offering to help neighbors move it elsewhere, when it’s plain that they have exactly no interest in doing so—is an embarrassingly obvious display of disregard for the concerns of the neighbors that administrators have spent so much effort trying to engage. The University’s overtures about cooperation depend on its ability as the neighborhood giant to make the occasional backbend in the name of community goodwill. To ignore this opportunity to sit down with neighbors and tell them that they’re right, the garden really is a meaningful neighborhood institution that everyone can understand and support, even if it means parking tractors someplace else, is not just unwise and shortsighted—it’s embarrassing for those of us who would like to be impressed by administrative decisions and who depend on that impressiveness to get our money’s worth here.

So get it together, administrators. I’m paying for college because I’d like to know some things; I’m paying for the College at the University of Chicago because I’d like to have my diploma say that I lived through four years here—I’m certainly not here because it’s fun. So make some concessions, don’t harass Barack Obama, and please stop giving Chicagoist opportunities to make fun of us.

Claire McNear is a third-year in the College majoring in political science. She is the Maroon Viewpoints Editor.