The 2015–16 school year marked the University of Chicago’s 125th anniversary, which Dean Boyer commemorated by dropping a 700-page tome on the history of the University. What’s missing: the chapter that we as students are helping to write right now. Below is a rundown of the major stories from ’15–’16 to get you up to speed and ready to jump into ’16–’17.
The first news of the year came in early September, before classes had even begun. After years of pressure from the Trauma Center Coalition (TCC), the University announced that it would partner with Sinai Health System to build a Level I adult trauma center at Holy Cross Hospital on the South Side. In December, the University announced a change of course: the trauma center would no longer be built at Holy Cross, but at the UCMC instead. The $269 million plan was approved by the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board in May, and the trauma center is slated to open in 2018.
Back in May of 2015, the South Side got some other big news when the Obama Foundation announced that Washington Park or Jackson Park would be the future home of the Barack Obama Presidential Center. Though signs initially pointed to Washington Park, the foundation announced its pick of Jackson Park in July. The center will open its doors in 2020 or 2021 and will be designed by the same firm responsible for the Logan Center for the Arts.
A University posting policy violation in October foreshadowed a tense year for students on both sides of the Israel-Palestine debate. Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Chicago (SJP) filed a complaint with the Office of Campus and Student Life after flyers they had put up across campus for a “Day of Action” were vandalized with handwritten graffiti that included “Six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust,” and “Stop Venerating Terror.” Unsigned flyers also appeared, one of which played on the SJP acronym with “Stabbing Jews for Peace.”
Campus stood still at the end of fall quarter when President Robert J. Zimmer announced via a university-wide e-mail that all classes and activities would be canceled on November 30. The reason: a gun threat posted as a comment on worldstarhiphop.com that read: “This is my only warning. At 10 AM Monday morning, I’m going to the campus quad of the University of Chicago. I will be armed with an M-4 carbine and two desert eagles, all fully loaded. I will execute approximately 16 white male students and/or staff, which is the same number of times [Laquan] McDonald was killed. I will then die killing white policemen in the process. This is not a joke.” The man who posted the threat, a University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) student named Jabari Dean, was identified and arrested by the FBI around midday on November 30. Though nothing came of the threat, Zimmer announced in a follow-up e-mail that the University would beef up security around campus for the remainder of fall quarter.
An alleged sexual assault was reported at Delta Upsilon (DU) fraternity in October, setting the stage for a debate about Greek life and sexual assault that would amplify as the year continued. In March, rumors circulated on Yik Yak about another alleged sexual assault that had been reported at the Psi Upsilon (Psi U) fraternity in August of 2015 but garnered little attention at the time. The rumors prompted the complainant to set the story straight on the public Facebook group Overheard at UChicago. Just hours later, another UChicago student revealed on Overheard that she too was assaulted at Psi U in April of 2015.
In early February, The New York Times reported that Dr. Jason Lieb, a UChicago professor in the Department of Human Genetics, resigned following allegations that he sexually assaulted a student while she was under the influence of alcohol. Lieb had taken a leave of absence in November of 2015 after the University began investigating the allegations, and formally resigned on January 21. The resignation raised questions about how and why Lieb was hired in the first place, given that he faced similar accusations during his tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (ORC) launched a campus-wide investigation into a potential breach of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs or activities. This February, the ORC opened two new investigations into the University for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.
Students responded to the frequent and public allegations of sexual assault by pressuring the administration and Greek life to more strictly enforce disciplinary measures for perpetrators and bolster awareness and prevention efforts.
But the University finds itself stuck between a rock and a hard place. Last month, a male student twice investigated for sexual assault by the University sued the school for violating Title IX by creating a “gender-based, hostile environment against males.” The suit is one of several recent—and typically unsuccessful—instances of male students across the country suing their universities for favoring females over males as a result of public pressure to eradicate their campuses of sexual assault. Last month, however, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of a similar suit against Columbia University.
The same week The New York Times broke the news about professor Lieb’s resignation, BuzzFeed News published an article with leaked racist, Islamophobic, and misogynistic e-mails that had been circulated to the listhost of Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi), a historically Jewish fraternity, between 2011 and 2015. Administrators sent an e-mail condemning the language of the AEPi e-mails, but many students were displeased with their lack of action. College Council (CC) passed a resolution authored by members of the Muslim Students Association (MSA), Organization of Black Students (OBS), and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and endorsed by 42 student groups demanding that the University suspend all ties with AEPi and mandate yearly sensitivity training on diversity and sexual assault for members of Greek life. AEPi released an apology on Facebook and has said it is taking steps to combat intolerance.
That same week, The Maroon received a tip from an alumnus and former brother of Phi Delta Theta (Phi Delt) that the fraternity’s UChicago chapter would be suspended and eventually “recolonized” on account of unspecified “risk management policy violations.” This summer, a rising third-year and former Phi Delt pledge filed a lawsuit against the Phi Delt fraternity, the Illinois Beta chapter at UChicago, and 13 students who were members of the chapter. He alleges in the suit that he was the victim of hazing and physical assault in the chapter house during spring pledge week of 2015. Phi Delt has not commented on whether the incidents presented in the suit are related to the charter suspension.
Though administrators remained hands-off and close-lipped throughout the Greek life controversies, they urged students to complete the upcoming Campus Climate Survey, promising to work toward long-term solutions for issues of diversity and inclusion. The University launched its campus climate project in 2015 in response to complaints and concerns raised during the 2014–2015 school year about the safety of UChicago campus life. It circulated the first survey at the end of 2015, which was focused on issues of sexual assault and misconduct, and the second this April, focused on the experiences of underrepresented and potentially marginalized groups. About thirty two percent of students completed the first survey, which found that “UChicago students experience sexual misconduct, including sexual assault, at rates similar to those reported by other institutions.” The results of the 2015 survey were used to redesign O-Week programming and improve training for undergraduate and graduate students. Twenty nine percent of students completed the second survey, the results of which will be released during the upcoming year.
In January at Bartlett Dining Hall, a student cut into her grilled chicken to behold a screw. She notified UChicago Dining, which investigated the incident and found Aramark, the University’s food supplier of 27 years, responsible. At the time the screw was discovered, the University was in the process of renegotiating its contract with Aramark and was considering proposals from two other companies, Sodexo and Bon Appétit. Bon Appétit, which has the highest food service ratings of the three providers, ultimately won out and took over on July 1. Most students are happy about the change, but not members of the Fight for Just Food (FJF), a group that advocates for in-house, or self-operated, dining services. FJF argues that the University supports mass incarceration because it contracts with food suppliers who profit from serving food in prisons. Though Bon Appétit, unlike Aramark, does not directly provide food to prisons, its parent company owns other food providers that do. The group organized a rally and a day-long hunger strike after the University announced its pick of Bon Appétit, and later proposed a resolution to CC calling for self-operation that failed.
At the beginning of spring quarter, a group called U of C Divest launched an effort—in response to the “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS) movement—to get the University to divest from 10 companies it sees as complicit in Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians. U of C Divest presented a resolution to CC that passed after heated debate at an unusually crowded meeting where audio and video recording were prohibited. The resolution divided campus not only over the Israel-Palestine conflict, but also over the question of whether Student Government (SG) should represent the student body on controversial political issues. The administration responded to the passage of the resolution by saying that it would not divest from the listed companies, citing the 1967 Kalven Report, which maintains that the University stay politically and socially neutral. The University has refused to divest from fossil fuel companies for the same reason, despite sustained efforts by the UChicago Climate Action Network (UCAN).
When SG elections rolled around in the spring, United Progress was elected to the executive slate for the third year in a row, this time without Tyler Kissinger, who graduated in June after serving two consecutive years as student body president. Third-year Eric Holmberg took his place, joined by graduate student Cody Jones as vice president for student affairs and second-year Salma Elkhaoudi as vice president for administration. United Progress beat out three other slates: Our Campus, Unite and Support, and DU’s satirical Moose slate. Our Campus won the overall College vote, but United Progress’s pro–grad student unionization platform earned it all but two graduate divisions: Booth and the Law School.
Both the outgoing and incoming United Progress slates made graduate issues a priority at the end of the year, with the main focus on grad student unionization. Graduate Students United (GSU), a group of around 700 graduate students that has been advocating for graduate students’ rights since 2007, intensified its fight for unionization after non–tenure track faculty successfully unionized in December. GSU had a major win in August when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate students are workers under the National Labor Relations Act and have the right to unionize at private universities. However, administrators and other graduate students worry that unionization will inevitably shift the professor-student relationship from mentor-mentee to employer-employee, redefining and perhaps jeopardizing the graduate student experience.
The outgoing United Progress executive slate made a final push in May to leave its mark on SG. It proposed a plan to pay future members of the executive cabinet using $16,979 in rollover funds from the 2015–2016 budget. The proposal failed after two representatives walked out of an extraordinary session of General Assembly (GA) that had been called by petition to discuss the plan, denying quorum and preventing a vote. Also unsuccessful was United Progress’s attempt to streamline the way graduate students vote for their divisions’ representatives, in accordance with SG’s election code. The majority of graduate student representatives argued that the diverse processes suit the individual needs of the various divisions and schools, and GA voted to pass an amendment officially allowing Graduate Council to determine the electoral process of its members on a division- or school-specific basis.
To the dismay of many students and alumni, College Housing sold satellite dorms Broadview, Maclean, and Blackstone at the end of the year to 3L real estate, which is leasing out rooms for 2016–17. Broadview, Maclean, and Blackstone’s house names, along with New Grad’s house names, were retired and the houses moved into Campus North, the megalodon of dorms that your class will christen. North Campus follows in the footsteps of Max P and Granville-Grossman as part of the University’s effort to centralize student housing and retain students after their first year. Dean Boyer even suggested at a CC meeting in April that another dorm south of the Midway may be on the horizon.
Cut to finals week in June, when everyone dropped their textbooks and picked up The New York Times to read an article entitled “University of Chicago Student President Faces Expulsion on His Eve of Graduation.” Tyler Kissinger was indeed summoned to a disciplinary hearing, but only received disciplinary probation and was allowed to graduate with the rest of the Class of 2016. He was summoned for “creating an unsafe situation” when he used his status as SG president to gain entry into the building under false pretenses and prop the door open for protesters to enter and hold a sit-in outside Provost Eric Isaacs’s office. The May 14 sit-in was an extension of a “Rally to Democratize the University,” organized by the IIRON Student Network (now called Chicago Student Action), of which Kissinger was a member. A change.org petition petition calling on the University to drop charges gained over 3,000 signatures as students expressed concern that the administration was contradicting its values by discouraging freedom of protest.
The “Rally to Democratize the University” was the largest campus protest of the year, with more than 150 participants. IIRON, the social justice umbrella network that coordinated it, is made up of organizations including Fair Budget UChicago (FBU), the Campaign for Equitable Policing (CEP), Students for Disability Justice (SDJ), and UChicago Climate Action Network (UCAN). The protest covered a range of issues, from a living wage to UCPD accountability to fossil fuel divestment. It was organized in response to administrators’ failure to meet with student activists on numerous occasions throughout the year.
IIRON frequently targeted Isaacs, who left his post to become Executive Vice President for Research, Innovation, and National Laboratories at the end of the year (He is succeeded by Daniel Diermeier, whose academic work has focused on politics, the interaction of politics and business, public perception, and crisis management). During winter quarter, 60 students from Fair Budget UChicago, one of IIRON’s member organizations that advocates for a $15 per hour minimum wage for campus workers, organized a march across the quad. The march ended outside Isaacs’s office in Levi Hall with the delivery of a petition signed by over 1,000 people calling for a higher wage for University workers.
Fair Budget UChicago also participated in a protest over higher-education budget cuts in April outside the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where two University trustees were in attendance. That month, the University announced that it would roll out a Shared Services program over the next two years. Shared Services is a cost-cutting initiative meant to consolidate administrative services between departments. Similar programs have faced opposition at other universities in recent years from groups like FBU that argue they hurt workers and waste money.
Perhaps the biggest controversy of all came last: Dean Ellison’s letter to you, the Class of 2020, delivered on August 24. The letter affirmed the University’s commitment to academic freedom, but in so doing denounced trigger warnings and safe spaces. Some, who felt that the administration was taking a needed stand against a culture of political correctness in higher education, praised the letter, while others condemned it, claiming that the administration was unfairly conflating trigger warnings and safe spaces with speaker silencing.
Academic freedom always looms large at UChicago, but this year it will be at the forefront of the conversation like never before. Last year was marked by controversy after Black Lives Matter protesters shouted Anita Alvarez off the stage at the Institute of Politics and the UCPD shut down an event featuring Bassem Eid after a Q&A session turned heated. This year’s dialogue is sure to be influenced by trigger warnings and safe spaces thanks to Ellison’s letter. Lying dormant in the background is a free speech resolution with 136 signatures that was tabled indefinitely by CC in the spring. The resolution, which calls on the University to condemn any student who “obstructs or disrupts” free speech and to enforce such condemnation, may be brought up again for discussion at any time.
Here’s to another action-packed year at the third highest-ranked college in the country (well, tied with Yale).