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March 7, 2013

Engage thy neighbor

The University must make a sustained and meaningful attempt to extend a hand to members of the South Side community.

We live in a neighborhood mired in tension. The University often finds itself at odds with the Hyde Park community and the rest of the South Side. Historically, there is no love lost between the University and the surrounding areas: University-led urban renewal programs that forced many black residents out of Hyde Park are still a great source of anger. Though the University now claims that it wants to have a positive relationship with the community, it has yet to overcome well-justified suspicions and resentments that are decades old.

The trauma center is emblematic of the lack of true dialogue between the University and the community. Activists with Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) and Students for Health Equality (SHE) have lobbied the University to reopen its trauma center. The University has not done so. This in and of itself is not necessarily the problem; the University may not be able to able to meet all of the community’s needs and will ultimately choose to distribute its resources as it desires. However, the University approaches community members in bad faith when it fails to recognize the legitimacy of their concerns and consider their points of view. Such an attitude will only create negative feelings and bad press for the University.

Here are several steps that could be taken to improve dialogue with the community:

1. More administrator engagement and ownership: We need administrators to take responsibility for the University’s actions and be more involved in discourse on the ground, not just when something goes wrong. Blurbs from Zimmer or Rosenbaum about how the University is invested in freedom of expression give no assurance that the purview of discussion will expand beyond the University community. The fact that most of the charges pressed against those arrested at the hospital were not dropped is a greater indicator of the University’s position in this matter than any formulaic and vague profession of values.

When President Zimmer was asked to meet with social justice groups during “A Leadership Conversation with President Zimmer,” he replied that he was not the right person to talk to about those issues. Though Zimmer is not the only one making decisions at the University, it is his job as the president to represent it. If Zimmer cannot be bothered to concern himself with a problem that anyone would concede extends beyond our campus, it sends the message that the University cannot be bothered either. If it is this difficult for student groups to make their voices heard about issues that involve the community, then community members themselves stand no chance.

2. Joint discussions run by the University and the community: We have seen many events concerning the trauma center run either by activist groups or the University. A jointly run forum would have a positive impact for two reasons. First of all, attendees would be able to hear a diversity of viewpoints from student and non-student activists and the administration. Secondly, the cooperation necessary to host such an event would likely contribute to mutual understanding. Even if officials and community members leave with the same opinions they came in with, seeing that the people on the other side are individuals who have reasons behind their beliefs may ease hostilities.

3. Consideration of community suggestions: Most of the time, the University does not seem to take its neighbors’ feelings into account. Though the University is not willing to open a trauma center and doesn’t seem likely to change its mind any time soon, perhaps there are other ways for the Medical Center to contribute to better urgent care or a reduction of violence on the South Side. We contribute a lot of volunteer and outreach manpower, so why wouldn’t we listen to what the community itself wants so as to ensure our efforts have maximal impact?

These three strategies could help the University have a more honest dialogue with the community and figure out solutions that would fit both the University’s capabilities and the community’s needs.

Why is it important that the University try to maintain a good relationship with the community? As a wealthy, powerful institution in a disadvantaged area, the University has an ethical obligation to help residents, not ignore them or treat their needs like a burden. This is even more salient for the University of Chicago in particular because of its history of harming those around it to further its own cause. University members are also constantly in contact with the community and its residents in a variety of settings—and how can you ignore your neighbors? Giving our community the cold shoulder makes the University look bad. That, if nothing else, should encourage this administration to be more open to dialogue.

Maya Fraser is a third-year in the College majoring in sociology.

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