Newly inaugurated University president Paul Alivisatos addressed a spate of recent violence in Hyde Park during an Institute of Politics (IOP) event with institute director and political strategist David Axelrod on Tuesday night. The event was also livestreamed and recorded.
Alivisatos’s talk came only a few hours after Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng, a 24-year-old recent UChicago graduate, was shot and killed during an attempted robbery in the 900 block of East 54th Place. Earlier that day, gunfire on East 53rd Street led to injuries for Congressional candidate Jahmal Cole as he dove beneath a car to avoid getting hit. Additionally, a 31-year-old man unrelated to the University was stabbed to death in his home on the 5300 block of South Cottage Grove Avenue earlier that morning.
Alivisatos said his office is currently working with local law enforcement around these events. He also emphasized the importance of working with city and community leaders to improve campus safety.
“We had a very productive discussion to try to see how members from our nearby communities and the University can work together,” Alivisatos said, referring to a conversation he had with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra and Bronzeville community leaders on the morning of November 9.
“We wanted to see how we can be supported by our city officials and by the state and by the federal government,” Alivisatos said. “I just want the people here to know that we’re going to do everything we can to try to achieve the public safety that we all need in order to be able to engage in our work here and do the amazing and important work that we do.”
When Axelrod asked about the University’s history of separating itself from the local community, Alivisatos encouraged forging partnerships with local leaders and condemned the University’s past isolationist policies as “not the right approach.”
Alivisatos and Axelrod, who graduated in 1981 and 1976 respectively, attended the College after the University had invested in urban renewal, which indirectly isolated it from the surrounding Hyde Park community. The Hyde Park–Kenwood urban renewal project seized old buildings using eminent domain and replaced them with new housing, displacing approximately 4,000 mostly Black families who could no longer afford to live in the neighborhood.
“We have a creative, resilient community around us,” Alivisatos said. “They want to be partners with us, and we want to be partners with them.”
Though overall crime is lower compared to last autumn, Chicago has witnessed a recent rise in homicides, shootings, and sexual assault. Alivisatos described the issue of violence in the city as an “epidemic of violence” and an “ongoing public health crisis.” He spoke with Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday and said he looks forward to working with a broad coalition of local partners, including city officials, community organizations, nonprofits, and private companies, to improve the safety in the surrounding community.
Alivisatos promised he would present specific measures to improve security soon. “We need to do things in the short term to help us address the security situation, and I will be coming back to the community to describe a number of steps that we will be taking on that front,” he said. “We need to mobilize the resources, and we will put a lot of effort into this.”
After commenting on campus security, Alivisatos spoke with Axelrod about topics ranging from his childhood growing up both on the North Side of Chicago and in Greece, his past and ongoing research on nanocrystals, and the environmental implications of his work. He said that the collaborative approach he outlined for violence in Chicago could also be effective in tackling climate change, income inequality, and issues of democracy.
Alivisatos and Provost Ka Yee Lee released a joint statement Tuesday night describing the day as “deeply painful” for both the city and the University. The statement outlined plans to work alongside Lightfoot, Chicago Police Department Superintendent David Brown, and local aldermen to craft short- and long-term public safety strategies. They also affirmed their support for the safety initiatives outlined in the provost’s August message on public safety, including increased transportation, personal safety classes, and the Safety Ambassador Program.
“The University and the Hyde Park community make up one of this City’s great neighborhoods, and we are fully committed to doing more as a University and as an anchor institution on the South Side,” they said in the statement. “This includes developing comprehensive efforts to reduce violence, and supporting Chicago’s communities in securing a safer future.”
Alivisatos promised to share specifics regarding the public safety strategies that the University is working to develop in conjunction with the city. He ended the message by encouraging students to support each other and to reach out to counseling resources as needed.
Counselors at UChicago Student Wellness are available by phone at (773) 702–3625.