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December 16, 2014

Campus awaits climate surveys, Diversity Advisory Council

After a series of events centered around on-campus treatment of sexual assault and racial and ethnic minorities, the University announced on Friday that the administration will examine these issues through two campus climate surveys. In addition, the University will convene a Diversity Advisory Council consisting of both faculty and students.

In a campus-wide e-mail, President Robert Zimmer and Provost Eric Isaacs called these actions part of an “institutional commitment.”

“It is crucial that we continue to cultivate a campus climate that welcomes talented faculty, students, and staff of all backgrounds, and that we attack bias, discrimination, and harassment that can threaten the culture and the individuals within it,” they wrote. They announced three specific steps the administration will take.

First, over the next six months, the University will conduct a survey studying the campus climate in regard to sexual assault and misconduct. This survey, which has been in the works since at least the first few weeks of the quarter, will be followed by a similar survey examining the campus climate on diversity, inclusion, and underrepresented groups.

In addition, the administration will institute a Diversity Advisory Council to make suggestions about the University’s approach to these issues, programming during O-Week and throughout the academic year, and ways to improve the campus climate for underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in general. The administration will also organize an event during the first few weeks of winter quarter to foster a dialogue about the issues across campus.

Several students who have actively called for campus climate surveys and other administrative responses to these issues expressed wary hope.

“I am glad the University is taking on this endeavor, but it really is the bare minimum they can provide,” fourth-year Olivia Ortiz, who filed a Title IX complaint against the University regarding its handling of her sexual assault complaint in April 2013, wrote in an e-mail. “Even though I think marginalized voices should not have to be quantified in data to be heard, I am excited about this prospect and the potential for influence on the campus climate, which I think is fairly high.”

Third-year Vincente Perez also acknowledged the University’s actions but emphasized the importance of including students in each step. Last month, Perez helped organize a petition that gained almost 2,500 signatures calling for a campus climate survey, cultural awareness programming and curriculum, and more transparency by the administration regarding these matters.

“If this council is going to be effective, it absolutely has to include first and foremost the presence of students,” he said. “[The administration] can only see the student in this abstract form, whereas students are the only ones who have actual experience navigating [these obstacles]—students have to be the most important of this all because otherwise it’s administrators making decisions for people, and they don’t know what these people are dealing with.”

For this purpose, several students are in the process of forming a coalition called SACRED (Students Against On-Campus Racial and Ethnic Discrimination), which plans to closely monitor the University’s actions with the surveys and the council, as well as its handling of future situations.

Third-year Student Government (SG) President Tyler Kissinger, who has lobbied the University for a campus climate survey since his election last spring, said he looks forward to involving students in the short- and long-term actions taken by the University. “Initiating [these actions] is a strong step in the right direction, and SG is excited to bring students—along with faculty—into the planning and implementation process,” he wrote in an e-mail.

The University has seen a significant amount of student activism in support of administrative action to combat issues of both sexual assault and racial insensitivity on campus this past quarter, and many issues have been present far before this academic year.

This February, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights launched an investigation into the University’s potential breach of Title IX, stemming from Ortiz’s formal complaint in April 2013. In late September, a list accusing several Hyde Park residents—including University of Chicago students—of committing sexual violence was posted on a Tumblr and around campus, in an attempt, as the authors described, to “[keep] the community safe—since the University won’t.” This resulted in several protests around campus in support of sexual assault survivors, which increased after a group that calls itself the UChicago Electronic Army hacked the website of an RSO and posted threats about rape on campus.

The November movement organized in support of minorities on campus similarly resulted in several on-campus protests and also took place virtually, with more than 1,500 tweets with the hashtag “#liabilityofthemind” documenting students’ encounters with racial insensitivity on campus. This came a year and a half after a Facebook page entitled Politically Incorrect Maroon Confessions sparked a campus-wide discussion about inclusivity and tolerance of racial minorities on campus. In addition, in the past few years there have been several instances of bias incidents at University fraternities, from a 2013 prank played on Phi Delta Theta involving packages mailed with racist and homophobic slurs to a pledging activity organized by Alpha Delta Phi in 2012 where students mowed the lawn while wearing sombreros.

It may take more than just action by the University to make the campus feel more welcoming, according to Yün-ke Chin-Lee, a Ph.D. student at the Booth School of Business and member of the sexual assault advocacy and support group Phoenix Survivors Alliance—though she noted it’s “high time” the campus climate surveys were instituted.

“For all we know, students who are apathetic or antagonistic may be the majority,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Hopefully the survey [will] uncover insights about the student body that could improve our ability to educate/communicate with them and improve the climate.”

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