October 31, 2003

University ranked 7th in student activism

Mother Jones, a nonprofit magazine dedicated to social justice, listed the University of Chicago seventh on its list of top activist university campuses in the world in its September/October 2003 issue.

Integral in bringing about Chicago's sudden status were the "Boot the Bell" campaign and anti-war protests. Last fall, U of C student activists—mainly members of the Anti-Sweatshop Coalition, now known as Students Organizing United with Labor (SOUL)—dressed as tomatoes marched in protest across campus for the campaign to sever the university's ties with Taco Bell, whose tomato suppliers were accused of exploiting farm workers.

A week after the march, the University declined to renew its contract with the controversial Mexican food supplier. Although the decision was officially said to be economically motivated, many protestors viewed the removal as a moral victory.

The following March, student voices were heard when hundreds proceeded to walk out of classes in protest against the war in Iraq.

Jonah Rubin, a student activist, has been working with SOUL for two years. Last year the organization focused on anti-sweatshop efforts, and it is currently working on hospital employee contract negotiations. Rubin, a second-year, notes his initial impression of the school.

"I was under the impression that [the University] was this fortress of conservatism, but I came in to find activism—and a lot of student support for it," Rubin said. "Everyone involved was really pumped up. Still, there were a lot of interesting questions with the administration and the Kalven Report, which hampered a lot of social activism movements."

The Kalven Report is a University document that states that the administration will never apply political beliefs to its business negotiations. It was originally created during the Vietnam War to allow the University to remain impartial among the torrent of student protest. Since that time, the report has been a roadblock for many student campaigns, though activism seems to be thriving despite these difficulties.

Sapna Thottathil, a fourth-year active in the Green Campus Initiative (GCI) and the Environmental Concerns Organization (ECO), said she had mixed feelings about the University's ranking. "There's a part of me that's glad…to see my fellow activist friends receive acknowledgment. I've seen a lot of effort go into campaigns. Still, it is also disheartening. We have a long way to go in terms of activism, and if we're seventh in the world, that does not say a lot for activism as a whole."

She added that the University's student body is educated and opinionated but, except for a handful of activists, lacks the motivation to act on those views.

Another fourth-year and activist in GCI and ECO, Chelsea Souter, agreed with Thottahil, citing the many students who ignored her work on the clean air campaign.

David Gardner, a fourth-year, helped found the University chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty as a first-year, and worked all of last year building wells and teaching local schoolchildren in a Nicaraguan village. He is still active with Action Towards Peace (formerly No War on Iraq), the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, and SOUL.

During the winter and spring, Gardner slept in a tent to protest the war in Iraq. "We were afraid there was going to be a drop in attention towards the war, and we wanted to ensure that anti war activism was a visible presence," he said.

Gerdner said that, although he appreciates the recognition of campus activists, he is skeptical of the ranking because he feels there is not yet enough activism on campus. He also noted that Boot the Bell was an impressive campaign, "not only because it succeeded, but because it encouraged and required others to think and talk about issues."

Other student efforts are underway. Last year, GCI proposed that the University purchase 20 percent renewable wind power to increase its energy efficiency. While the plan was rejected, GCI continues to meet with the facilities department and hopes to maintain friendly relations with them. On Wednesday, October 29, they met for the first time since the summer.

Souter notes that University activists are different from those at other campuses in that they do not fit extremist stereotypes. "We've been able to accomplish a lot more by working with people instead of being confrontational or too radical," Souter said.

The first on Mother Jones' list was the University of Tehran, which may put the University's ranking in perspective. Still, students here feel as though their campaigns make a difference to the world, and said they will continue to fight for their beliefs.

"Activism can thrive anywhere where students start making the university their own and not the administration's," Rubin said.