This appears in the current issue of the University of Chicago Magazine:
Recently at a coffee shop near my home, a scruffy young barista looked at the University of Chicago T-shirt I was wearing. His face soured and he disdainfully said, “I don’t know about the University, just their economics department.” It’s a reaction the shirt has been getting more frequently the last few years. He was more or less implicating me by association with creating the economic crisis many of us are still slowly clawing our way out of. I felt stung. I’m a social worker, and not only do my politics not agree with that of the Chicago school’s libertarian bent, but in the wake of the crisis, with the state and federal budgets that pay for my work being slashed, I certainly haven’t reaped any financial rewards from my association with the University or its economics department.
Now, sure, maybe Surly Barista Guy is a die-hard radical leftist and feels the Original Sin of Chicago’s having propagated free market neoliberalism across the globe is so great that all the good done by other alums in the many fields of study and practice the University produces is rendered irrelevant. Maybe, like a lot of millennials, he just feels salty because he’s been stuck doing barista jobs since the recession hit and can barely cover his student debt, let alone save for retirement or buy a home. Maybe he’s upset that the Chicago school he’s read about advanced theories and policies that would ultimately make a very small number of people extraordinarily rich through financial business practices of at least questionable ethics if not legality while everyone else was left struggling to keep their homes. Perhaps he’s also aware that former Treasury secretary Hank Paulson was hired by—the University of Chicago. Paulson’s migration to Chicago remains a direct link in many minds between the free market economic policies that emanate from the University and the global financial meltdown that nearly resulted from them.
When I applied to Chicago, the school’s reputation was for its Great Books curriculum and producing top-notch teachers, not global finance Masters of the Universe. Over the 16 years since I graduated, I’ve been able to watch how reactions have shifted when I tell people where I went to school. Whereas the U of C used to be considered closer in character to schools like Reed or Saint John’s Colleges, it’s now more associated with places like the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. People are surprised to find that I work directly with poor communities and have used my Chicago education to serve the public good.
The University has never addressed its role in forming and advancing the economic policies that destroyed trillions of dollars in wealth during the financial crisis and created epic human misery across multiple continents. It has heavily publicized and promoted its many Nobel Prize for Economics winners, driving the public’s perception of Chicago as a one-dimensional institution. I doubt I’m the only alum who would appreciate the University making a statement addressing the economics department’s role in creating the crisis and articulating a plan for how its policies can benefit the greater good by expanding opportunity and prosperity for all. I also doubt that I’m the only alum who would support the University shifting its focus back to producing graduates who want to live the “life of the mind” rather than to conquer the global marketplace. We would appreciate it, frankly, because we’re getting tired of the guilt by association thing.
Jeff Deeney, AB’97
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