Women, and racial and sexual minorities don’t feel welcome, U of C climate survey says

By Alex Ortiz

The University of Chicago made national headlines in August when it declared the campus a trigger-warning-free zone, igniting a national debate about the lack safe spaces for marginalized students. Now, a newly released campus climate survey validates the feeling of many that the campus’ racial climate is, indeed, rife with racism, sexism and intolerant of people with disabilities.Released in November, the survey found students of color gave the overall university lower ratings for a positive racial climate;

  • 40 percent of black respondents perceive the “overall institutional climate as racist”
  • 41 percent of trans-genderqueer-agender respondents said the institutional climate is sexist
  • 28 percent of females surveyed said the campus environment is sexist
  • About 30 percent of those with a disability perceive the overall institutional climate to be intolerant of disability accommodation

Still, university administrators aim to create a diverse and inclusive campus.

“It is crucial that we cultivate a climate that is welcoming for individuals of all backgrounds,” according to Provost Daniel Diermeier. “That we create the conditions for attracting a wide range of talent; and that we prevent and correct incidents of bias, discrimination and harassment, which threaten the university’s climate, intellectual mission and the individuals within it.”

But at least one student is not buying it.

Jenn Jackson is a doctoral student focusing on the politics of race, gender and sexuality and the managing editor of the Black Youth Project, an online hub and resource for African-American youth. As a black, queer woman, she is not surprised. Despite the survey asking the right questions, the campus  does not do justice marginalized students’ experiences, Jackson said.

“Far too often, these surveys reinforce this idea that you can gauge or evaluate issues like racism, sexism, queer antagonism through a snapshot style of survey,” Jackson said. “This idea that we can just say, ‘Hey how do you feel about this? Rate it on a one to 10 scale.’ ”

What Jackson wants is a survey centered on the students most affected by racism, sexism and homophobia. She wants the university to delve deeper into their everyday experiences navigating the campus and how structural inequalities make this more difficult, both literally and figuratively.

Jackson also identifies as differently abled because of a congenital heart defect and finds herself “overcome” having to traverse the campus to simply find a bathroom. So for someone who might not have full use of their legs, it would be even more difficult.

To Jackson, the reason for the apparent lack of commitment to tackling structural inequalities goes back to a letter the Dean of Students John Ellison sent to incoming freshmen in August. The letter made headlines for expressing the university’s opposition of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” Some, like Jay Michaelson in The Daily Beast, speculated the letter was prompted by rich donors who do not agree with politically correct attitudes on college campuses.

Jackson agrees with that speculation but points to what she considers a lack of financial investment in creating a more inclusive environment and a more diverse student body and faculty.

“The politics of capitalism pervade institutions in ways that commodify the actual humans who are present in the institution,” Jackson said. For example, “having more queer, black women who disrupt and who challenge the status quo is not popular, nor is it financially lucrative.”

Ultimately, to Jackson actions like the survey are simply “performative” and do not actually benefit marginalized students who have been complaining about inequality for years. Those structural problems are still there.

Just this week, posters of Adolf Hitler and swastikas were found on campus. While Jackson admits there have been heightened incidents of bigotry since the Nov. 8 presidential election, that doesn’t mean the campus was safe for students like her even before then.

If there are any positives for Jackson, it’s that there are some structures in place like organized student activists, social media and platforms like the Black Youth Project, which can put more pressure on university administrators. But for now, there is little hope for her in things like the survey.

“I’m not encouraged by it,” Jackson said. “What ends up happening a lot of times, especially when there’s mediocre attempts a progressivism, is that when a little thing happens, that’s not really a victory for the people that need it the most, far too often administrations, institutions, they pat themselves on the back.”

Photo at top: The University of Chicago campus. (Alex Ortiz/MEDILL)