U of C activists demand a “People’s Library” and a “People’s University” with no administration or Board of Trustees

August 2, 2021 • 10:15 am

The more I read about woke groups and “progressive” liberals, the more I see their demands converging on a type of university communism in which hierarchies are spurned, power rests in the hands of all the people, who decide everything as a group, speech is censored, and people get stuff according to their needs, not their abilities (ergo the calls for dissolving the meritocracy).

At least that’s the idea that struck me when I read a new op-ed in our student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, by the “Library Activist Network at UChicago,” a group of activists who work at the library but refuse to give their names. Even the title of the piece, “A People’s Library and a People’s University”, conjures up that image. The anti-hierarchy and meritocracy trope is particularly strong when the anonymous writers argue that they want the University administration abolished (along with the Board of Trustees), and “replaced with student-staff-community council.”

You can read their beefs and demands at the site below (click on screenshot):


Their complaint is that the library as well as the administration are foci of “structural racism”, and the library and University must take action to remedy this. That includes abolishing the University police force— long a demand of student activists here.

First, what is the evidence that the library is structurally racist? I can’t find any. The long op-ed mentions “racism in library spaces in the past year” But Googling “racism University of Chicago library” leads back only to the op-ed above and an earlier one by the same group that gives no examples. If the Library is rife with structural racism, we should be hearing of incident after incident there; but I’ve seen none in the “progressive” student newspaper. Now surely, as in all areas of society, some people in the library have racist attitudes, but that is not structural racism, which is racial discrimination embedded within the library system.

One complaint is that the library workers are underpaid and subject to authoritarian dictates by those above them in the hierarchy, who are “privileged.” There may be some truth in the poor treatment of workers, but I can’t speak to that. But the activists’ important concern is their objection to the University of Chicago police, who have full police powers on and around campus. For some reason I can’t fathom, the activists want the campus police completely abolished, which only a chowderhead would argue would make the campus safer—much less attract students. Here’s the big complaint about our cops in the op-ed:

The Board of Trustees, outgoing president Robert Zimmer, and Provost Ka Yee Lee refuse to tell us how much they spend on a private police force that shot a student during a mental health crisis, taunted student protesters and endangered their health, and harassed students. While UCPD is exempt from public oversight, its few published statistics show that officers disproportionately stop and question Black people, the majority of whom are not breaking any laws. Despite daily reminders that UCPD does not keep our community safe, University leaders continue to defend UCPD and seek to avoid and delay accountability through yet more committees that go nowhere and accomplish no actual change.

I don’t think Universities regularly reveal the budgets of their constituent units budgets to the world, and so don’t know see that is so odious. As far as I know, nearly all units of the University, including my own department and others, have a budget that is not publicly available.

As for the student shot “during a mental health crisis”, I described it in a 2018 post. Charles Thomas, a fourth-year student with mental health issues, was accosted by campus police after he went through an alley, breaking doors and car windows with an iron bar. He then started screaming and went after the University police who showed up; here’s the Maroon‘s own description:

Bodycam and dashboard footage released by the University shows officers confronting Thomas.  As he walks toward them, an officer can be heard shouting, “Put down the weapon!” while Thomas shouts “What the fuck do you want?” and “Fuck you.” About a minute after the officers arrived on the scene, Thomas begins running rapidly toward the individual wearing the body camera, who commanded Thomas again to drop the weapon, and then fired a single shot into his shoulder.”

The Chicago Sun-Times reported that the cop repeatedly asked Thomas to drop the weapon, which was a three-foot-long iron bar. This is verified by the bodycam video shown on the Sun-Times site (see also the second video on this page.) Thomas was jailed for a while, had another episode in which he was tasered (not by the U of C police), and finally underwent a program that prompted the prosecution to drop the felony charges against him.

Still, this incident is repeatedly cited by campus activists as a reason to abolish the University of Chicago Police force! What was the cop supposed to do? Let himself get bashed in the head with an iron bar? He shot the student in the shoulder to disable him, not to kill him, and I see that as proper police procedure.

The accusation of disproportionality in stopping people of color on campus or in traffic should be taken seriously, and there is disproportionality of confrontations compared to the community composition at large. But as John McWhorter and Glenn Loury have emphasized repeatedly, this depends on whether there is a disproportionality of incidents among groups that require the cops to be called. (Traffic stops are a different matter unless there is differential disobeying of traffic laws, but studies in other areas have shown evidence of racism from traffic stops,—but not from shootings.)

Finally, as for “endangering the health of student protestors”, this refers to students occupying the University Police Station after a demonstration in front of the Provost’s house (which was illegal but allowed to go on for a week) was broken up. The “endangering health” business apparently refers only to the fact that although the students were trespassing and asked to leave, they were neither arrested nor kicked out. Their “health was endangered” because they were not allowed to order pizza, receive food brought by others from outside, or use the cops’ restroom, which is not public; and they were told that if they needed to get food or use the restroom, they were free to leave the station, but would not be let back in. That, too, sounds like a fair deal. After all, the occupying students could have been heaved out of the police station or arrested for trespassing, but were not. And actually, the students were endangering their own health as well as that of the police, for this crowding into the police station occurred at a time when Covid restrictions prohibited such crowds.

But none of this has anything to do with a “people’s library”. It reflects the misguided sentiments of activists who work in the library, and are using present social unrest to leverage a number of changes they want.  Within the library itself, this includes forgiving all library fees and fines, ending police and security presence in the library, raising benefits for staff, including free remission of U of C tuition to workers (even faculty don’t get that), create a committee to investigate the library’s connection to slavery, open the library to everyone from the South Side Community, and “hire librarians and library workers with expertise in reparations to support the proposed critical race studies department.”

And then there are all the “demands” that have even less to do with the library, including supporting the BDS movement and “cutting all University ties to Israel”. To wit:

The Library Activist Network also endorses the demands of the individual organizations of the UChicago Student Activist Network:

  • Release the budget, disclose investments and endowment spending, and give students control in determining where University money is spent (UChicago Student Action)
  • Cut all University ties to Israel and adopt Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) principles on campus (Students for Justice in Palestine)
  • Fully fund student and community-led community centers and an ethnic studies department (#CommunityCentersNow and #EthnicStudiesNow)
  • Defund, disclose the budget of, disarm, and disband the University of Chicago Police Department (#CareNotCops)
  • Allocate money for affordable housing and end University expansion (UChicago Against Displacement)
  • Create a truly accessible University that includes physical, academic, and digital accommodations, with a fully funded and community-led disability community center (Students for Disability Justice)
  • Divest from all systems of war and militarism, domestic and international, including UChicago’s Crime Lab that works in service of the Chicago Police Department (UChicago Dissenters)

As usual, these organizations take stands verging on anti-Semitism. For “cutting all University ties to Israel” goes beyond the BDS principles. And do they realize that abolishing the campus police, who have a number of call boxes scattered across campus, will result in parents refusing to send their students here?

I suspect there are some reasonable demands scattered throughout this histrionic list of reforms, but their force is weakened by their being embedded in a list of things that will never happen and in fact will alienate potential allies like me. It’s as if the social unrest of the last 18 months has somehow given campus activists a license to ask for everything, including things that are impossible or unfeasible. It makes them look petulant and unreasonable. They are “demands,” not “considerations”.

And the activists’ refusal to give their names bothers me as well. I suppose that, if asked, they would say that they fear retributions, but this is the University of Chicago, and retributions against those who speak out—even against the University—are strictly forbidden. That’s part of our free speech policy.

In the history of social activism that I know about, I don’t know of many cases in which protestors insist on hiding their identities. This is a fairly new trend. And it’s unjustifiable in light of the University’s policy of not punishing peaceful protestors. In this case, anonymity is in fact a sign of cowardice—of refusing to stand behind your words as an identifiable person.

30 thoughts on “U of C activists demand a “People’s Library” and a “People’s University” with no administration or Board of Trustees

  1. The tactics of groups such as these are particularly odious—and clever. They claim that (many of) America’s institutions are inherently unjust yet, when taken to task, they retort that the counterarguments are themselves products of those entrenched institutions, thereby providing further evidence in favor of their thesis. In other words, arguments against them simply prove their point. These arguments, being unfalsifiable, are particularly difficult to deal with. Now, on top of that, the sources are anonymous. Oh boy.

    1. That’s ‘Conspiracy Theorist 101’.

      Evidence for the conspiracy is evidence for the conspiracy.

      Evidence against the conspiracy was planted by the conspiracists and is evidence for the conspiracy.

      Lack of evidence for the conspiracy means the conspiracists removed it and is evidence for the conspiracy.

  2. Scary that such people have influence over a university’s library. Can the “structural racism” to which they refer be in the books themselves? This is why there are no racist incidents reported.

    1. I am just waiting for the day one of these students actually wonders into the stacks and sees what’s there. Then we can expect the calls to “de-colonize” the library, probably with bonfires.

  3. This is one of their demands:

    Adopt a restorative justice model to move away from calling law enforcement on patrons and staff. Adopt a reparative justice community agreement for internal operations.

    If I had to make a guess, I’d say that the “racism in library spaces in the past year” involved a person of color making an extensive ruckus over something or other, and they called the cops without taking slavery into account. Or the two could be unrelated. No idea if it was justified even if I’m right. The “restorative justice model” and “reparative justice agreement” sound a bit ominous.

    Back when I was a college student I once complained to a library administrator about what I considered a social justice issue in the local library. I’d been fruitlessly looking for Agatha Christie books under “C,” and discovered they were all filed under “M” for “Mallowan,” her married name. Wtf? I was quietly outraged. Why does “Mark Twain” get to be “T” instead of “C” for “Clemens?” Not just stupid, but sexist. The administrator agreed, but apparently the problem went all the way back to the Library of Congress and her hands were tied. I let the matter drop.

    I seriously doubt the U of C students have any such issue in mind, though.

    1. Bizarrely, I believe that the British Library and the Library of Congress jointly agreed that books written by dead authors via so-called “mediums” would be filed under the name of the ghostly writer – e.g. William Shakespeare (spirit)!

  4. So the “racist” practices consist of a hierarchical management structure, and not including low-level employees in the decision-making process? I am unmoved. Why was the petition opened up to the non-University community? I say that if they don’t like the University, they should find one they do like. (God knows, if it’s anything like it was in my day, there are plenty of transfers going on already.) If there’s isn’t one, then they should found one…if they can get the donors. If they want to separate, then separate.

    1. I expect the replacement structures would be as non-hierarchical and egalitarian as communist governments are non-hierarchical and egalitarian. 😉

  5. Related, Peter Boghossian has posted on his twitter site a streamlined chart with “woke” expressions and their translation into ordinary English. It’s rather stunning and there is also a link to a pdf so that it can be downloaded and easily read.

    (Note: Dr. John McWhorter and Andrew Sullivan also posted it and you can quickly tell by comments that it has hit a note not liked by people who are used to defining and redefining words and terms to suit their aims and ostracize those in disagreement.)

    Your thoughts?


  6. I believe domestic violence is now one of the greatest threats to our democracy. Would these unnamed folks like to explain how the institution or any community is suppose to deal with this threat with no police force. Also, if you have no management structure to your institution you have only one thing and that is chaos. Maybe grow up and get a real job, then come back and see me.

  7. Well that is a lot of nonsense.
    Besides the usual flurry of Demands, what also gets m’goat are the demands for student organizations to be included in decision making that is normally ceded to administrators. The rebuttal is this: Persons who wish the right to make decisions on behalf of an institution must first earn the appropriate degrees and work experience for the job. Its like hearing a 15 year old demanding use of the family car. Get your license first, kiddo.

    1. This is the breakdown of our systems of merit, mostly enabled by social media and the internet. I usually defend the internet, so that may sound strange to those familiar with my comments. Of course, the blame lies with users of the internet, not the internet itself. Although it is wonderful that the internet enables virtually everyone to have a voice, that’s also its downside. Society is going to have to learn how to deal with it. IMHO, meritocracy must be defended and implemented in some way, and to some extent, on the internet and social media. It may sound authoritarian, and it sort of is, but meritocracy is a little authoritarian. This similar to another fact that people have to come to grips with: we can’t have capitalism without winners (billionaires) and losers. Both dimensions just need a little guidance and constraint imposed on them.

  8. AB Phil, Class of 1969 here. What’s old is new again, I suppose. But I can’t completely oppose calls for change in higher education – why force non-science majors to take a Physics or Calc class, for example? Why do grades signal a meritocracy – isn’t what the individual puts into a course, and gets out of it, more important than a grade? Hard to measure subjective things, of course, so Pass or Fail can be justified. Most critically, why do we still have so many four-year, residential colleges today? It made sense 1,000 years ago when literacy was rare and books were written by hand, then stored in in a few libraries. As for the sillier or more provocative demands some students may make, we’ve brought it on ourselves by pampering youth and prolonging adolescence so much in our culture.

    1. “Why do grades signal a meritocracy?”

      Are you suggesting issuing grades such that they can only be used by the individual to measure their own progress and, particularly, not by potential employers who are seeking the best employees?

      1. Depends. What’s the role of a college education? To prepare you for a job? To make you a better person? A good little Marxist? I’d hope “free thinker,” that’s all .

        1. Yes to the first two, no to “good little Marxist”. Unless of course, you really mean “good little citizen”. I’m ok with that as long as dissent is also allowed.

          1. As a comedian pointed out in a Sunday newspaper yesterday, the UK government has been doing the Marxists’ job for them by defunding the police since 2010…!

    2. a. Who is opposing all calls for change in higher education?
      b. Grades can take into account what people put into a course, and they’re not entirely, as you say, “subjective”
      c.I’m not supposed to criticize entitled students because I brought it on myself? I don’t have any kids, so why are you indicting me in this tsunami of wokeness. You cannot pin all this stuff on the parents’ behavior, for crying out loud.

    3. “Why do grades signal a meritocracy – isn’t what the individual puts into a course, and gets out of it, more important than a grade? Hard to measure subjective things, of course, so Pass or Fail can be justified.”

      A binary grading might be sufficient when we do not look further than grad students (like typically for teachers and similar), but you need more nuance when you select for postgrad programs and want to avoid subjectivity there too.

  9. Dear activists, as a German born in the 70s, I know the People’s Republics, People’s Armies and People’s Congresses of the Eastern European bloc states more than enough.

    Indeed, the Greater German Reich even had a People’s Court from 1934 to 1945. Its most notorious president was Roland Freisler. As Library Activist Network you will certainly be familiar with this name, won’t you?

    Don’t misuse the noun “people” for your misguided ambitions and totalitarian dreams.

  10. This stuff is so tiresome: the blatant dishonesty (e.g., about the Charles Thomas case, the “endangering the health” of pizza-loving protestors, etc. etc.) and the incessant use of the term “Peoples” as an adjective for anything the writers pretend to favor or hope to control. Reminiscent, of course, of the former “Peoples Democracies” of east-central Europe.

    As a matter of etymology, Lenin introduced the usage “Peoples’ courts” 100 years ago in prescribing judicial repression of the Socialist Revolutionary party, the largest grouping of the anti-Bolshevik Left. He wrote: “”intensification of the repression of the political enemies of the Soviet regime and the agents of the bourgeoisie (in particular the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries); the use of such repression by Revolutionary Tribunals and People’s Courts in the quickest and, for the revolution, most effective manner.” TThe resulting1922 trial of Socialist Revolutionary Party leaders set the template for the later festivities of the Great Purge.

  11. Noun
    maroon (plural maroons)

    (slang, derogatory) An idiot; a fool.
    Synonyms: see Thesaurus:fool, Thesaurus:idiot

    1. Haha I initially read it as the Chicago moron…hmm that seems appropriate but then realised it was maroon so both your definitions are correct

  12. … type of university communism in which … people get stuff according to their needs, not their abilities …

    IIRC, the old Marxist formulation was, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his work” during the transitional socialist phase, and, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” once the ultimate communist phase of the proletariat revolution has been achieved.

    1. According to Wikipedia

      Some scholars trace the phrase to the New Testament. In Acts of the Apostles the lifestyle of the community of believers in Jerusalem is described as communal (without individual possession), and uses the phrase “distribution was made unto every man according as he had need” (διεδίδετο δὲ ἑκάστῳ καθότι ἄν τις χρείαν εἶχεν):

      Though it’s an aspiration not highlighted by most biblical literalists today for some reason… https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/From_each_according_to_his_ability,_to_each_according_to_his_needs

  13. He [the U of C police officer] shot the student in the shoulder to disable him, not to kill him, and I see that as proper police procedure.

    I kinda doubt that the shot in question was intended merely to disable the student. I believe officers are taught to aim at the body mass of an assailant posing a sufficient danger to warrant the use of lethal force. It was probably just a matter of luck that the bullet hit the student in the shoulder rather than in the chest.

    Reminds me how, in the criminal defense game, when putting on a self-defense case at a homicide trial, any shot that missed the victim is, eo ipso, “a warning shot.”

  14. I started to ask why those people are even at the university, as they seem to believe they have nothing to learn from anyone, but the answer came to me almost immediately.
    The university is the only place where anyone would be likely to take them at all seriously.

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