In the current climate of political and racial unrest, the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (SSA) has asserted that it will strive to be anti-oppressive and contribute to the dismantling of white supremacy. Yet, the school’s announced acceptance of a major gift from the Crown family and its ensuing name change to the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice belie this supposed commitment. We are a group of SSA students, organizing against this name change on the grounds that it negates social work values and perpetuates harm.
The Crown family’s investments in mass weaponry and war run counter to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) values of social justice, dignity, and worth of the person. James Crown is the Lead Director of the board of General Dynamics, the third-largest defense contractor in the world. By accepting a donation from the Crown family, SSA is complicit in the family’s efforts to promote continuous, violent, global conflict. As the School shifts its operations to this new capital source, its celebrated programming, scholarship opportunities, and faculty appointments—marketed as an advancement toward social change—will be funded by the military-industrial complex. This is a startling hypocrisy. In accepting this gift and the Crown family’s influence on SSA’s future research and programs, SSA fails to uphold the NASW ethical principle of integrity: to “be trustworthy and uphold the profession’s mission, values, ethical principles, and ethical standards.”
We cannot overlook the role that white supremacy has had in the development of social work. Its dominance birthed a modern system of social work that assumes white stories, white truths, white logic, and white means of healing to be the reality for all people. Social workers have been recently called to act as bandages on the gaping wounds of systems of oppression and racism, such as the inherent violence of policing and mass incarceration, separation of families, and the criminalization of migration and of youth. Social workers have a responsibility to dismantle racist and oppressive systems—even our own.
Throughout history, the white and wealthy have used philanthropy to launder their reputations and evade taxes. Despite being taught the consequences of this as students at SSA, we see how our institution has deliberately chosen to be part of this problematic and pervasive form of social control. Not only is this circumventing our state’s internal revenue system—from which social programs have been established—it privatizes our social welfare and prioritizes the values of the funders over the people we serve. We are in a moment in which philanthropic power is being challenged. A prominent example of this is the Sackler family, who famously profited from the opioid epidemic. Institutions such as the Louvre and Tufts University recently divorced the Sackler name from their establishments out of recognition that benefitting from the death and destruction of others should not be rewarded. We propose that this shift is possible at the University of Chicago, and it can start with us. A donation of $75 million to the University’s social work school helps paint a generous image for the Crown family, but they are in fact acquiring material tax benefits, evading ownership for their ill-doing, and portraying a global image of philanthropy.
As a result of the administration’s decision to accept the Crown family’s $75 million gift, as well as their impetuous implementation of changes, we demand that the administration:
- Suspend SSA’s name change until 2026.
- Current SSA students have not enrolled and paid tuition to attend or graduate from the Crown Family School of Social Work, Practice, and Policy. We demand that current students—all two-year and three-year master’s students and Ph.D. candidates—finish their degrees from the school that they enrolled into.
- Remove “Crown Family” from its institutional name, thus reflecting the new name, “School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice.”
We also demand full transparency regarding the conditions under which SSA accepted this gift, including the role of the Crown family in determining the allocation of funds.
- Create a Student Oversight Board to provide continuous student input on the allocation of funds.
- Prioritizing student voices in the funds’ allocation promotes transparency and inclusivity—both of which are critical to a healthy community.
- Use the Crown family gift to implement a tuition freeze until all current students have graduated, and increase student scholarship aid.
- Applying funds toward scholarships and stipends promotes equitable access to social work education.
- Distribute a $10,000 partial refund for all current A.M. and advanced residency Ph.D. students graduating in the class of 2021 and increase continuing A.M. and advanced residency Ph.D. student annual scholarships by $10,000 for the remainder of their degree.
- Beginning in spring quarter 2021, provide quarterly stipends (including summer block) with a value of a minimum of half of the state’s minimum wage to every student with a field placement.
- Provide stipends for early-start field placements with a value of a minimum of half of the state’s minimum wage for each week of work prior to the SSA official start date.
- Create a fund to support low-income students engaging in summer work that pays $24 per hour for up to 15 weeks of work.
- Create at least five new endowed scholarships for marginalized and international students.
- Commit to negotiating an increase in SSA lecturer salaries with those staff.
We acknowledge that this gift is unprecedented as social-work programs do not traditionally have expendable funds; however, SSA fails to center the student body’s core values and mission—the very same ones that the institution’s current curriculum itself has indoctrinated in students—when accepting this gift and showcasing the Crown family. SSA now has the opportunity to depart from the profession’s history of white-supremacist values and reorient itself toward social-work values by prioritizing student and community voices in determining this donation’s immediate and future influence. Our demands offer an avenue for SSA to lessen the harms this donation will cause. If SSA is to be the renowned leader it aims to be, the administration must put its anti-oppressive and anti-racist frameworks into practice.
Vanessa Camacho Munoz
The authors are students in the School of Social Service Administration.