Open(ish) letter to the University of Chicago

This morning, I received an alumni survey from my alma mater, the University of Chicago.  At the end, there was a section for extended comment.  Since I indicated in the survey that I highly valued my education, the connections I made, and the mission of the institution, but that I had no plans to give in the future, I thought I should explain myself.  Here’s what I wrote:

I used to donate to the University of Chicago, in large part because I received an excellent education that prepared me for graduate school, and for my own career in academia.  In the past few years, four factors have kept me from giving, and will likely keep me from giving for the foreseeable future:

1) President Zimmer’s salary in comparison to other major research universities – since 2011, President Zimmer’s salary has been among the top 15 highest base salaries paid to presidents of private institutions.  While being a university president is certainly a role that requires skill and expertise, Dr. Zimmer’s salary suggests an institutional emphasis on administrative prestige, rather than on the support of students.

2) Safe spaces – earlier this year, the University published an ill-informed (with regards to the theory of safe spaces) and, from the perspective of a faculty member, misguided statement on the place of safe spaces at the University of Chicago.  There were a number of very thoughtful critiques of this statement, but for me it signaled a fundamental disregard for students who fell outside of dominant categories.  Put simply, by dint of their race, class, gender, gender presentation and sexual orientation, some students experience the world as safer (both in terms of discourse and in terms of physical safety) than others.  That the University of Chicago would ignore these disparities, and criticize some of the student-led structures that push back against it was, for me, unconscionable.

3) Rachel Fulton – I took undergraduate classes with Dr. Fulton.  She was an excellent lecturer, and fundamentally shaped the way I approach my own teaching.  She is absolutely entitled to her political opinions, but I was shocked that the language she used to describe women in some of her posts (this in particular – http://fencingbearatprayer.blogspot.com/2017/02/bully-culture.html) and even more shocked that no one in a position of power at the university thought that it would be good to disavow those ideas (I’m not, by the way, calling for Fulton to be fired).  In this case, the university seemed more interested in studied non-action than it did in reassuring students that one faculty member’s thoughts about women’s sexuality, appearances and students’ sexuality in general did not represent the institution as a whole.

4) Unionization – the arguments that are being offered against graduate student unionization this week further undermine the value of a University of Chicago education.  Lawyers for the university have argued that graduate students do not teach for the benefit of undergraduates, are not assessed on the quality of their teaching, create more work for tenure-track faculty (presumably detracting time from their own research) and are just there to learn to teach(apparently at the expense of undergraduates).  I don’t believe this to be true – it reads as classic anti-union rhetoric – but if I take the university at its word in these proceedings, then I must conclude the University of Chicago cares only for training graduate students, and not for either faculty or undergraduates. If I take the rhetoric that the university disseminates about the value it places on education and research at face value, then I  must conclude that it is more important to defeat a graduate student union than it is to be consistent in values.

In sum, the actions of the University of Chicago in the past years suggest to me a fundamental disregard for undergraduate education specifically, and higher education more broadly.  I do not recognize the institution that I attended from 2002-2006 in the institution of 2016-2017.  I see no reason to give my money or support to a University of Chicago that seems so alienated from the views it has historically espoused, which drew me in as a student, and which supported my own education.

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