An Open Letter to the University Community
Following the recent presidential elections, and in response to growing concerns about safety on campus, Graduate Students United (GSU) reaffirms our longstanding commitment to supporting marginalized members of our community, and to fighting discrimination of all kinds both within and beyond the University of Chicago.
This letter is occasioned by the recent presidential election, which brought forward rhetoric that is racist, xenophobic, homophobic, sexist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, ableist, and classist. Regardless of individual political allegiances, this violent language and the resulting political climate have indisputably caused a spike in hate crimes. Specific events that have unfolded in the Biological Sciences Division and on other parts of campus in the past week again confirm that we are working on what is to many of us a hostile campus. The onus is on all of us to stand by each other, to reflect upon what this means, and to transform it into a hospitable campus. A different university is possible.
We have consistently sought to stand in solidarity against different forms of discrimination, from supporting the struggle for a trauma centre on the South Side, to organizing in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore. We remember the genocide and continued dispossession of native Americans, as testified in our recent statement protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the protest we organised to raise further awareness. At the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions (CGEU) Convention in 2015, our members moved and passed a resolution to expand and provide formal support for Black Lives Matter, simultaneously demanding that excessive funding allocated to campus police departments be re-allocated to the recruitment and retention of black students. In 2016, we supported a CGEU resolution that builds on the previous one.
In Autumn of 2014, following a disturbing pattern of racist and intolerant behavior on campus, a diverse group of students and faculty organised around a set of demands including the demand for a campus climate survey, to which the administration subsequently yielded. The recently released results, along with the 2015 survey results, confirm what many of us have been saying all along: discrimination is an entrenched, systemic problem.
At a time in which Provost Diermeier admits that “we have work to do to ensure a diverse and inclusive campus climate,” racist slogans have repeatedly been scrawled on posters in the public areas of the Biological Sciences Division. This and other such disturbing developments, such as racist messages defacing university property on the Midway, have emphasized the disjunction between the administration’s late realizations and the urgent reality of the problems (a discrepancy that is also echoed in the indiscriminate citation of the Kalven Report). We urge the administration begin by returning to the bulk of the concerns raised by the original list of demands that included the call for a campus climate survey.
It is imperative that the administration face up to the multiplicity of problems endemic to our community: sexism, sexual harassment and assault, homophobia, discrimination against people of colour, against those of Latinx and Asian backgrounds, barriers to students with disabilities, Islamophobia, more broadly xenophobic attitudes, excessive and racist police, discrimination and threats of deportation towards immigrants and internationals, religious intolerance, and class bias.
The fact that the administration neglects to engage with the specific political climate as a source for further worry has increased anxieties. News broke this past week that over one-hundred University Presidents had written an open letter to President-elect Trump to address issues of “harassment, hate and acts of violence.” If the administration truly holds to the values it continues to repeat in campus-wide emails, and cares for the safety of our diverse community, where is President Zimmer’s signature on this letter?
The administration’s 18 Nov 2016 email reaffirming the commitment to protecting international and immigrant students is a welcome but rare exception. Even so, it does not adequately respond to calls for the University of Chicago to become a sanctuary campus, and does not actually commit to protecting students and community members from legal and extralegal actions aimed at detention and deportation. Undocumented students, along with those currently covered under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), are among those facing particular danger under a Trump administration. GSU is committed to working with DACAmented and undocumented members and other students to defend them as members of our community, both now and in negotiating a contract. We also call on the administration to take all possible steps in their defense. While we were glad to see the Provost’s message on the topic, we highlight that as of 22 Nov 2016, UChicago is conspicuously absent from this statement calling for DACA to be maintained, which has been signed by many of our peer institutions.
While we do not have a legally enforceable grievance process in the absence of a contract, we have continued to confidentially support each other for a wide range of acts of discrimination, from unfair termination of employment by a PI to persistently hostile work-conditions, through our Grievance Committee. There are many things we can achieve simply by working together as a union, as evidenced by our active organizing around the international student tax fiasco last year. It is imperative that we continue to stand by each other, and organize together to build a robust, inclusive and democratic union that can bargain a contract which gives us further clearly enforceable rights. As the faculty letter in critique of Dean Ellison’s remarks regarding safe spaces put it, “The best spaces for independent thought and action may be those you create yourselves. For example, graduate student instructors at the University of Chicago have just won the right to organize as a labor union. We applaud their contributions to this national effort.”
Our efforts over the last nine years to unionize graduate employees (further enabled by the NLRB decision in August and conducted with our long-term partners AFT/AAUP/IFT) have striven to give every student a voice and to stand by those groups which are most subject to oppression. President-elect Trump’s cabinet choices continue to increase anxieties but GSU continues to believe in the value of grass roots organization and community protest.
We reiterate our support for all graduate student employees and other members of our community, across differences of race, ethnicity, belief, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, immigration status, class, or any other factor.
Organizing Committee, Graduate Students United