UChicago Admin and Trustees Off Mission, Unaccountable

A guest post from David Mihalyfy, a GSU member and Ph.D. candidate in the Divinity School:

Because of references I’ve made in my past two Jacobin articles and will make in an upcoming editorial, as well as its relevance to our campus’s sometimes unwelcoming climate and Provost Isaac’s recently announced budget cuts to “control… administrative costs”, I would like to clarify some of the bases on which I have publicly questioned the commitment of UChicago administrators and trustees to core academic and civic values.

As publicized by the Maroon a year-and-a-half ago, a UChicago policy reportedly instructed all uniformed employees to avoid elevators when President Robert Zimmer was in the Administration Building—a policy, furthermore, at the root of an alleged violation of the American with Disabilities and Civil Rights Acts, in which a locksmith who had received two hip replacement surgeries was asked to use four flights of stairs, multiple times if necessary.

As I have stated and will continue to state until any other dependable information emerges, documentation and UChicago’s subsequent response strongly suggest that Zimmer or someone close to him began this policy because of his preference not to share the elevator with a certain class of persons, then used much staff time to maintain and cover up this policy in the face of a series of extended and growing challenges to it.

All UChicago staff seem uncomfortable with the original policy, whatever its form.  In a 2012 response to an employee email inquiry about restrictions “while President Zimmer is in the building,” a Facilities Operations director declined to release a previously posted flier since “it requires updating,” instead recommending the employee  “consult directly with… supervisors.”  In the May 2013 grievance of the locksmith with two hip replacements, there was again a reluctance to leave a paper trail, as evidenced by his manager’s alleged refusal “to repeat that order in writing.”  Later, white collar staffers like the Labor Relations director skirted around the fact that the policy apparently applied in only one building and only in Zimmer’s presence, with their issuing of the implausible July 2013 justification that “maintenance and repair work should be performed in minimal-use periods.”  Finally, after announced protests, a carefully worded and likely legally vetted October 2013 email issued in Zimmer’s name characterized the policy as “communications… that misstate and misinterpret University policy,” set up a replacement policy that “[t]he elevators are for everybody’s use,” and retroactively claimed Zimmer’s unilateral but unexpressed support for this replacement policy because “[t]hat has always been my intent.”

Despite many informational inquiries explicitly for the purpose of an editorial, no UChicago staffers have ever identified who began these “communications”—the new term for the original policy.  UChicago spokesperson Steve Kloehn avoided the question and said to refer to Zimmer’s email, “which speaks directly to the question of what University policy is,” then he even derided “several false premises you are clinging to, despite our best efforts to help you understand.”  After a rephrased inquiry asking who began “the communications,” Kloehn did not respond.  Chairman of the Board of Trustees Andrew Alper responded that “this is clearly not a board matter” and referred the inquiry back to Kloehn.  University Vice President David Fithian said he knew nothing, but did not acknowledge a request to help identify someone who could assist; he then did not respond to another email reiterating that request.  Zimmer, incoming Provost Eric Isaacs (now tasked with assessing campus climate), and outgoing Provost Thomas Rosenbaum (now president of Caltech) simply never responded to multiple email inquiries.

In contrast to this unacknowledged and unattributed policy, Zimmer and Rosenbaum immediately denounced the more heavily publicized monitoring of a protest by an undercover cop as “totally antithetical to our values,” put employees involved on leave within a week, and eventually fired those responsible.

Cumulatively, the simplest explanation for all of these circumstances seems to be that which I offer in my editorials on the state of higher education:  Zimmer, or someone close to him, began a restrictive elevator policy because of his preference not to share the elevator with a certain class of persons, then used much staff time to maintain and cover up this policy in the face of a series of extended and growing challenges to it.

Beyond basic issues of transparency and accountability, such actions call into question the depth of UChicago’s commitment to respect, and thus should be of concern to every true Maroon.

Sadly, such socially destructive behavior now seems excusable among UChicago’s guardians, just like the financial malfeasance outlined in my most recent Jacobin article:  amidst trustee contracts, $7.6 million was given in pay raises to 8 people over 5 years, even as UChicago moved towards a credit downgrade.

Our trustees and administrators should prioritize mission, not mutual self-enrichment and actions harmful to campus climate.