“Every year, we have students who initially have University of Chicago on their list, and they go to visit and shortly thereafter take it off of their list because of safety-related concerns,” said Andrew Belasco, chief operating officer of College Transitions, an Atlanta-based admissions company that advises high school seniors.
Located in Hyde Park, U of C has long combated the image that its campus is more dangerous than its suburban competitors such as Northwestern University. Though the university points to its police force of about 90 sworn officers along with its network of surveillance cameras and emergency phones to deter crime, changing attitudes about the role law enforcement should play on campus present a new challenge, especially given past complaints from Black South Side residents about racial profiling.
Even if the renewed attention on Chicago crime, which is surging after months of pandemic lockdown and protests over racial justice, deters future students from selecting U of C, the university known for its quirky essay questions and intellectual intensity can weather a slump. With an endowment of $8.6 billion, U of C is not only one of the country’s wealthiest universities, it’s also among the most selective.
The university, which will charge undergraduate tuition of $59,256 for the coming academic year, drew more than 34,000 undergraduate applications in recent admission cycles and accepted 7.3 percent of them to the Class of 2024, according to school data. Statistics on the incoming freshmen class weren’t yet available.
Arun Ponnusamy, a former assistant director of admissions at U of C who now privately advises students, said he hasn’t seen evidence that students considering U of C decline to attend because of safety concerns, even when they’re from upper- to middle-class backgrounds who aren’t familiar with large cities.
“You’ve got the kids who are truly interested in an urban experience, and they recognize that crime may be part of that, but the flip side may be increased internships or research opportunities or the sophistication of life in a city,” said Ponnusamy, chief academic officer at national education consulting company Collegewise. “There’s a trade-off.”
That evaluation could change, however, if students are spooked by the news this year, Ponnusamy said.
Both U of C students killed by gunfire in 2021 were random targets. Max Lewis, a third-year student, died July 4 after he was shot in the neck while riding a CTA Green Line train back to campus from a downtown internship. A bullet fired from outside the train penetrated a window and hit Lewis, 20. In January, doctoral student Yiran Fan, 30, was killed in the parking garage of his East Hyde Park apartment building. Fan was the first victim of a gunman who went on a shooting spree and died in a confrontation with Evanston police officers hours later.
U of C declined to make an administrator available to discuss its safety strategies. In a written statement, the university said that it was “deeply saddened” by the deaths of Lewis and Fan and that it’s committed to partnering with the city and local groups to improve safety.
“We consider safety and security to be a paramount priority and continue to strive to make our public safety practices a model for higher education and the law enforcement community,” the statement said. “Violent crime is an urgent problem across the U.S., and we do not accept the toll that violence has taken in our city and in American cities nationwide.”
The university said it’s exploring ways to improve existing safety programs, “including expanding transportation options for students and others on campus,” but could not share details yet. It already provides a shuttle to the South Loop during the school year and offers discount programs with Lyft and ZipCar, though students have called for additional shuttles after Lewis’ death. In the last year, the university conducted more than 40 meetings to discuss public safety with campus and South Side residents, the statement said.
U of C also described “extensive reforms” made to its police force, one of the largest among private universities, in recent years to increase transparency, add specialized training and revise policies based on feedback from public officials, South Side residents and a national task force on policing ordered in 2014 by then-President Barack Obama, a former U of C law professor.
Belasco, of College Transitions, said the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia face similar challenges since they’re located in urban settings with a history of crime. He recommended that universities publish campus crime data online to assuage worried parents.
U of C shares some of that information on its website but only began releasing details about traffic and foot stops by its police officers in 2015 after a push by the student body. The university said it discloses data “beyond what Illinois law requires of police departments at private institutions.” By contrast, public records laws apply to the state’s public police forces.
From 2016 to 2020, robbery was the most common crime reported in the Hyde Park and South Kenwood neighborhoods that border campus, accounting for 61 percent of all violent incidents, according to the university. The university data, however, does not denote nonfatal shootings in its crime summary, instead lumping it into the category for aggravated battery or aggravated assault. It also doesn’t include information about Woodlawn, which is south of U of C and not fully included in the police department’s jurisdiction.
School officials said violent crime in the area is generally down “over more than a decade,” but more recent data paints a bleaker picture. UCPD figures shows violent crime in Hyde Park and South Kenwood increased 3 percent from 2011 to 2020 and 4 percent from 2016 to 2020.
Though U of C often highlights the police department, it’s also generated controversy. Student groups calling for the force’s abolition conducted a 19-hour sit-in at the department’s building last summer and demonstrated outside the university provost’s home for seven days.