February 4, 2014

Broken Links can be mended

Effective change to Summer Links requires trust.

Yesterday evening was the deadline for applications to Summer Links, a 10-week-long internship program focused on social justice in Chicago. The program traditionally paired students only with non-profit organizations, but has expanded to include internships regarding social responsibility at for-profit organizations. This, along with the sudden firing of the esteemed program director, has resulted in outrage. Students, many of whom are Summer Links alumni or are involved with the University Community Service Center (UCSC), say that the changes were made without student input and threaten to undermine the program’s unique focus on social justice. Even though changes to Summer Links have the potential to strengthen, not weaken, the program’s social justice focus, its success will be limited if students invested in the program feel disenfranchised.

The autumn firing of Trudi Langendorf, the beloved former Summer Links director, has cast a shadow on the UCSC changes. Honored by the University with the Marlene F. Richman Award last June for showing the “highest levels of dedication, care, and compassion,” Langendorf was fired just a few months later when it was announced that the UCSC would be restructured. The decision to fire an employee passionately dedicated to students and the mission of Summer Links, and who in turn was deeply respected by students, was a mistake. Administrators should have understood her critical role in mentoring social justice activists and instead incorporated her passion to improve the UCSC. After seeing someone so committed to a program so swiftly dismissed, students have every right to feel that those making changes at the UCSC don’t care about the input of those deeply invested in the program.

Taken on their own, however, the proposed changes can enhance Summer Links’s focus on social justice. New internships with for-profit organizations will be offered in addition to, not in place of, existing non-profit opportunities, according to a University spokesperson. A broader range of internship opportunities will attract students who approach social justice from multiple perspectives. Combined with Summer Links’ practice of cultivating discussion of fieldwork in weekly meetings, the new internships will give students a broader sense of the challenges, complexities, and opportunities related to social justice.

Although a University spokesperson said that undergraduate program alumni are still eligible to contribute as program coordinators, students have been told otherwise. If the UCSC is maintaining this aspect of the program, that is commendable, and should be communicated clearly to the students involved. But if the students are correct, then administrators need to remember that allowing students to pass on their passion for social justice to the next generation is crucial to facilitating sustained engagement. One of the most valuable aspects of Summer Links is the community it has fostered, and shutting out those who could add to this community would be a huge loss for the UCSC.

One defining feature of Summer Links is its structure, which allows students to participate in weekly discussions about their internship experiences. So long as the UCSC is committed to maintaining this outlet for discussion, the program will be inherently self-constructive and allow students from all perspectives to participate—regardless of the overarching shift in the program’s focus. On this level, students have the opportunity to make the program what they want it to be.

When students delivered a petition with more than1,000 signatures on Friday to administrators outlining their concerns, some held a banner that urged not to “fix what isn’t broken.” But just because Summer Links has thrived doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved. Administrators have a long way to go to regain the trust of students affected by the way the Summer Links changes were made, but students must also recognize that these changes can make one of the University’s best programs even better.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.