Following in the footsteps of other American universities, the University of Chicago cancelled its winter quarter Hong Kong: Economics program. The University went a step further by moving the program to its Center in Paris. This announcement came in the wake of recent developments in the anti–Extradition Law Amendment Bill movement, commonly known as the 2019 Hong Kong protests. The movement has made the threat of violence a reality on the region’s university campuses, leading to concern for the safety of UChicago undergraduates studying in Hong Kong. The study abroad department’s decision ultimately prioritized a commitment to student safety. However, the lack of transparency and delay of this decision must not be a precedent in any future relocation plans.
Although the administration ultimately made the right decision to move the program, its lack of correspondence to students registered for the Hong Kong programs prompts concern. Before the announcement of the relocation, students in the winter economics program received little to no information about the possibility of relocation or termination. This ultimately reflects a disappointing lack of administrative oversight pertaining to the concerns of students.
As someone who has studied abroad through UChicago twice, this situation was surprising. There was a strong standard of precaution and safety promoted in both of my programs. While applying for the programs, I was interested in the Cairo: Middle Eastern Civilizations program and was required to meet with the program coordinator to discuss the safety logistics of the program before even applying. Ultimately, I attended this past summer’s Paris: European Civilization program. During my time in Paris, the UChicago Center would frequently forward us advisory warnings for possible riots in the city, and asked us to register for U.S. State Department alerts. Following this program, I attended the autumn quarter London: British Literature and Culture program.
Universities like Georgetown immediately instructed their students in Hong Kong to leave Hong Kong following protests on university campuses. UChicago, however, delayed any response to student outreach. When some students contacted members of the study abroad office, advisors, and administrative figures, they either received no response (in the case of the spring 2020 program) or were told that more details would come in the following days. A College student accepted to the spring quarter Hong Kong: Colonizations program told The Maroon that they received a vague response when they emailed the study abroad office inquiring about the status of the program. The department informed the student, who requested anonymity, that more information regarding the status of the program would come eventually but that the program would occur as planned. The student was “frustrated by the lack of consistent information and transparency.”
Until November 18, the only substantial administrative development regarding Hong Kong study abroad programs was the recent announcement of a new autumn 2020 program for gender and sexuality in world civilizations in the region. While violence in Hong Kong escalated, the University continued to plan for a program a year in advance.
Opened in December 2018, the University’s new Hong Kong campus was the result of an endeavor to massively expand UChicago’s graduate and undergraduate presence in the region. The UChicago campus in Hong Kong is on the coast, away from much of the protest activity, possibly explaining the delay in the University’s decision to relocate. However, all UChicago students studying in Hong Kong board at the Robert Black College guest house at the University of Hong Kong. Members of the winter cohort would have been placed in a location that would potentially be another site of the protests. This concern gas been at the forefront of Hong Kong universities that have elected to end classes for the rest of the term due to safety concerns for students.
UChicago has relocated study abroad programs in the past. In 2016, the University moved its Istanbul: Mediterranean Civilizations program to Paris following a bombing in an Istanbul shopping center. Regarding the move of the Istanbul program to Paris, Sarah Walter, the director of the Study Abroad office, emailed the program, “...holding your Civilizations program in Istanbul this year would be subject to continued unrest, and could at best offer a highly constrained experience of Istanbul.”
The University had planned three programs for the 2019–20 school year based in Hong Kong: a September human rights program, the winter economics program, and a spring colonizations program. Despite the rise in violence and concerns over safety, the University chose to run its human rights course this past September. The University offered escorted transportation from the airport to the dorms, but failed to consider the chance of delivering a dangerous and “highly constrained experience” to members of the cohort.
Ultimately, the delayed announcement displays unacceptable administrative neglect of the needs and safety of students. The University gave students in the winter economics program the opportunity to withdraw and not go to Paris, but with only a few days to make this important decision that could impact the rest of their college careers. Many of these students did not have housing arrangements for the winter quarter. Should they have chosen to withdraw, they may have been in the stressful position of needing to find a place to live, registering for classes, and abruptly rethinking the rest of an academic year they thought they had planned out.
Brinda Rao is a second-year in the College.