Few cling to tradition like the students and faculty of the University of Chicago, but when the Searle Chemistry Laboratory opened its doors to students eager to procure free lab materials last week, this tradition got a little out of hand.
The closing of a chemistry lab at the U of C is usually an opportunity for the acquisition of hand-me-downs by faculty and students in the department. This tradition offers them the chance to obtain items that assist their studies, serving as a charitable way of reusing materials that would otherwise be discarded.
Normally, labs close on an individual basis and the redistribution of materials occurs on a small scale. The pending renovations of the Searle Chemistry Laboratory, however, resulted in the simultaneous closing of many labs. The large number of labs with materials to spare attracted some uninvited members of the University community, unintentionally creating a chaotic free-for-all.
Stringent considerations for safety and security were not made by either facilities staff or chemistry department faculty, who assumed that only those trained to handle chemical materials and respect lab facilities would be present. Somewhere along the way, however, word about the Searle open house traveled beyond this intended audience, and the results were both unsafe and embarrassing. Undergraduate students made off with dangerous chemicals, such as a kilo of sodium, as well as syringes, fire extinguishers, and a half-bottle of scotch. Other materials were carted off for the wasteful wiles of Scav Hunt. These students showed little respect for the facility, and soon Searle was trashed.
While the chemistry department does not condone the behavior at Searle last week, the mediocre safety measures practiced at the open house are nonetheless disconcerting. The University should be more careful with materials that are biologically or chemically hazardous. It is the practice of many labs to donate materials to Chicago Public Schools, and this would have been a better option for the large quantity of Searle materials that needed new homes.
The open house is not a poor tradition. Who better than a U of C student to treasure outdated 1950s textbooks, obsolete computer parts, and obscure paraphernalia like a rotating party light? But such a giveaway should be conducted with the professionalism that is expected of a world-class institution. For almost two weeks now, ground-level windows on Ellis Avenue have enabled prospies traipsing by to peer into the wasteland of Searle and form a bad impression of the U of C. If the intention is for glassware, furniture, and lab coats to be inherited by academically motivated science students and faculty, the University must ensure that this is what actually happens.