September 23, 2012

O-Issue 2012: Campus Controversies

While events ranging from the firing of a popular campus leader to potential speeches by prominent conservatives raised the ire of some students, few controversies affected the whole campus last year.

The most divisive incidents to spark controversy on campus occurred at year’s end when two campus fraternities faced accusations of racial insensitivity.

In the first incident, a student reported seeing Alpha Delta Phi brothers wearing oversized sombreros mowing the fraternity’s front lawn while Latin music played, seemingly perpetuating Hispanic stereotypes. The complaint was made to the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA) and the Bias Response Team. Members of the fraternity met with University officials and later released an official apology.

Student anger was compounded after learning that members of Delta Upsilon, another campus fraternity, created a Facebook event for a party titled “DU Presents: Conquistadors and Aztec Hoes.” The title and event description allegedly trivialized the events of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, and complaints were lodged claiming the event implicitly condoned violence against women.

Upon learning of the controversy, members of DU quickly took down the Facebook event and, later that week, cancelled the party. They subsequently met with members of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA de UChicago), a Chicano student group, and students affiliated with OMSA to discuss what had happened and to publicly apologize for their actions.

Student outrage erupted earlier in spring quarter with the abrupt firing of the campus Hillel’s executive director, Dan Libenson. Widely admired for his innovative new programs, including the popular Mega Shabbat, Libenson, along with the entire board of directors, was dismissed by the Jewish United Fund of Chicago (JUF), which owns Hillel’s building, endowment, and name. Hillel has struggled financially for many years and Libenson clashed with the JUF over budget cuts and his desire for greater autonomy from the larger organization.

It’s unclear what the new academic year will bring for the campus’ Jewish community. The JUF appointed Paul Saiger (A.B. ’68), formerly executive director of The Hillels of Illinois, as interim director at Hillel, while Libenson has stated his intent to continue his work on the University of Chicago campus through JUChicago, a new Jewish student organization.

Political activism continued to grow on campus last year, as a dedicated group of students made their opinions known. Students Organized United With Labor (SOUL) continued their protests against the University, demanding that the institution sever its ties with Adidas, which manufactures University apparel, over its labor practices.

After taking a report card to President Zimmer’s office denouncing the University’s contract with the sportswear company and writing an editorial in the Maroon, SOUL’s campaign quieted and the campus bookstore continues to sell Adidas apparel.

In the fall, student protesters, inspired by the Occupy movement, tried to bring its energy to campus. Although UChicago Occupy was denied RSO status, the group met throughout the fall and staged an “Occupy the Quad” protest in early November in order to bring attention to their group.

The next week, many of those involved with “Occupy the Quad” joined Occupy Hyde Park to protest an upcoming talk being given by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson. Rice and Paulson pulled out of the talk soon after the protest, citing “an unforeseen scheduling conflict,” although members of UChicago Occupy claimed that their actions precipitated the cancellation.

The late winter also saw protests in the community surrounding the University. Activists concerned about the closure of public mental health clinics throughout the city attempted to barricade themselves inside a clinic in Woodlawn that was scheduled to be shut down at the end of April. While police forced them out, protesters continued to regularly demonstrate outside the clinic for the next several weeks, resulting in the arrest of more than thirty demonstrators, including several university students. The clinic, however, closed as planned and remains so today.

Students continued their activism into the spring and summer, as many participated in marches and demonstrations throughout Chicago as part of the larger Occupy Chicago movement.