We have a problem in Hyde Park. Let's call it "un-researched activism (U.A.)." The most painful example is the Point debacle, where hundreds of otherwise level-headed Hyde Parkers earnestly signed their names away and gave money to a deceptive "Save the Point" campaign, without even seeing the Compromise Plan that the City and Park District had offered us.
A small instance of U.A. occurred this week, but it may have slipped under your radar if you're not a University of Chicago Laboratory Schools student, alum, or parent. It's a valuable case study, and unlike the Point debacle, it has a happy ending.
The Lab Schools have three beloved Public Safety Coordinators (security guards). All three go beyond the call of duty, and are indispensable parts of the school community. The U of C Police, in an effort to reduce costs (ordered by President Zimmer across all departments) decided to outsource their security guard duties to a company called Allied Barton, which pays minimum wage. The three guards were offered employment with Allied Barton, but the pay cut was too severe, so they declined.
Begin the rioting: a well-meaning High School student (a sweet kid and family friend, I should add) started a facebook group to support the guards, saying that the U of C had unceremoniously terminated the guards, and that their last day was on August 15th. She implied that the University had deliberately done it over the summer, so that students and parents couldn't protest or say goodbye. When I joined the group (Wed. 7/29), roughly 350 people were already members (today there are 545) and there were many outraged comments. Parents had also started e-mailing each other, promoting the notion that this was a secretive act on the part of the University, and designed to side-step parental involvement.
That same day I e-mailed the principal of the High School, who sent me on to G. Christopher Jones (Director of Business Affairs) and he was happy -- I'd even say grateful -- to discuss the issue. None of the other facebook members (or, I presume from his tone, parents) had contacted him. Mr. Jones wrote that the Lab Schools administration had gone to bat for the guards, and had asked the University to make a special exception; their arguments were that the Lab Schools is a tiny slice of the security pie (for comparison, the Booth School has 20 guards), and that the personal investment and continuity of these guards are important because children are involved. He said the Lab Schools were participating in ongoing negotiations with Allied Barton and the University. He still seemed to have hope. For one thing, the University's new Associate VP of Safety and Security was sympathetic to the cause, in part because he's a Lab Schools parent himself.
The conclusion of these talks -- reached within the span of a week -- is that the guards will remain as U of C Police employees, and nothing about their status will change.
Now, it would have been fine with me if the facebook group and the flurry of e-mails were simply encouraging people to tell the University that they wanted to keep these guards, and at their current salaries. That kind of message is helpful. What disturbs me is that no one apparently called to check facts before going "viral," and that the story degenerated so quickly into the old "Evil Empire" conspiracy model.
I have a theory about why Hyde Parkers are like this. They're intellectual, and they want to be good, concerned citizens. They think activism is the way to do that. But they're busy -- oh, so busy. So they delegate their research to representatives -- that is, to local community activists, or in this case a high schooler -- or they buy into a sound bite.
Why they leap so quickly to the Evil Empire Model (E.E.M.) is beyond me, though. That's another feature of Hyde Park activism that deserves its own post someday.