January 17, 2013

Campus dialogue fundamentals

Low-key nature of Campus Dialogue Fund’s launch shouldn’t set a precedent for its future activities.

Almost three years ago, in February 2010, a fourth-year African-American student named Mauriece Dawson was arrested in the A-level of the Regenstein Library. The charges against him were criminal trespass and resisting arrest. Witnesses, however, described a very different incident: one wherein Dawson, while loud, had done nothing to warrant a UCPD officer asking for ID, putting him in a chokehold, and escorting him out of the building and into custody. The outrage over the event was swift and strong, with an immediate activist response. Out of such efforts has come the Campus Dialogue Fund (CDF). This initiative aims to address years of complaints about racial profiling and tension at UChicago by annually setting aside $15,000 for visiting speakers to discuss issues of race, civil rights, and social justice. Unfortunately, the Campus Dialogue Fund, though still in its very early stages, has suffered from a disappointing lack of publicity that should be corrected as soon as possible.

Dawson’s arrest incited a campus-wide response of unusually large magnitude. A forum after the event, which included UCPD Chief Marlon Lynch, was attended by more than 200 people. Many explicitly voiced their displeasure with UCPD tactics, including former Director of the University Community Service Center Wallace Goode. The blatant and vehement consensus against the status quo, in short, worked. An ad hoc committee was promptly formed to investigate the issue, co-chaired by graduate student Toussaint Losier and current V.P. for Campus Life Karen Warren Coleman. Even more notably, an eight-member Independent Review Committee (IRC)—composed of neutral administrators, students, and community members—released a 17-page report that harshly criticized UCPD internal policy, Library policy, and the Dean-on-Call program.

Since these initial responses, however, the buzz has faded. There are no more forums, no more independent committees. There is only the CDF, which has the potential to widen the appeal of a broad range of issues usually confined to niche student activism and open them up for discussion among the larger community. The need for such discussion, and student support for it, is simple: The issue of racial profiling and discrimination on campus has not yet been resolved. In a September 27, 2010 Maroon article, Craig Futterman, chairman of the IRC and professor in the Law School, even noted that when asked if UCPD has ever stopped them and asked for ID, white students “almost uniformly said no” while the majority of African-American students said “yes, and many times.... It’s just a fact.” This is not to suggest that the UCPD is inherently discriminatory, or that it erred in all the above cases; it is merely to illustrate the presence of a still ongoing problem, and the need to make that problem known.

Applications to be on the CDF Committee were due on November 16 of last year. This deadline was barely publicized; though calls for applications were sent out to some relevant listhosts, the announcement of the CDF itself, and its intentions, was virtually unseen. Such meager publicity should not be repeated when it comes to the actual speaker events tentatively planned for the coming quarters. It’s vital that dialogue on race and civil rights, which consumed campus three years ago, regains its original support in the community. The committee, which just had its first meeting this quarter, should make publicity one of its foremost priorities when organizing its events so that its efforts to spur productive and informative discourse are not wasted.

There is solace to be found in the mere existence of the Campus Dialogue Fund, as it represents a unique and direct product of student initiatives. Precedent, however, is not as comforting. Such issues tend to boil over, fading with time and the turnover of students. While it understandably must rely on niche and past student support to gain traction, the CDF must strive to more broadly emphasize the relevance of its events—and the larger social justice issues they highlight—in order to fulfill its intended goals.

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