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The University of Chicago campus

Students in the University of Chicago’s social work programs are protesting their school’s recent name change after a $75 million donation from the Crown family. 

The school, formerly the School of Service Administration, was renamed the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice in January. U. of C. President Robert J. Zimmer announced the change, writing that the donation would “increase student financial aid, support faculty research and hiring, and strengthen community engagement to address the challenges of inequality and related social problems.”

James Crown, who made the donation with his wife Paula, is the grandson of the Chicago industrialist Henry Crown. The Crown family was the 34th-richest in the country last year, according to Forbes, with a net worth of $10.2 billion. James Crown himself has previously served on the board of trustees at the U. of C. 

But the students who put together the petition are more concerned about the family’s association with General Dynamics, the third-largest defense contractor in the U.S. Recently, the company has received multibillion-dollar contracts from the federal government to build battle tanks and submarines

The Crown family sold Henry Crown’s Material Service company to General Dynamics in 1959 in return for a large share of stock. The family still owns a significant share of stock; James Crown himself has a leadership position on the company’s board of directors and individually owns more than 5% of the company’s common stock. 

“The Crown family’s investments in mass weaponry and war run counter to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) values of social justice, dignity, and worth of the person,” the students wrote in their petition. “As the School shifts its operations to this new capital source, its celebrated programming, scholarship opportunities, and faculty appointments — marketed as an advancement toward social change — will be funded by the military-industrial complex. This is a startling hypocrisy.” 

The petition is calling for student oversight of how the $75 million is spent; tuition freezes and aid and stipend increases; an increase in lecturer salaries; and for the name change to be delayed until 2026, as well as for the Crown family’s name to be removed. 

Maxwell Klug, a second-year master’s student at the school, said that 84 students and 85 alumni have signed the petition so far, as well as three faculty or staff. 

“I would say social work students are good at organizing and coming together, and it was pretty much immediately after the email (announcing the name change) came out that individuals were doing independent research on who the Crown family is,” he said. “It became evident that there was just some unease and dissatisfaction and, really, disgust, at how the Crown family has accrued so much of their wealth.” 

Klug said that the students have not received a response to their petition from the U. of C. administration. Deborah Gorman-Smith, dean of the school, did tell faculty that the donation would not have an influence on the kind of research faculty members could undertake. 

Klug said he and others were skeptical this was true: “I mean, there’s no way a gift that large doesn’t have an impact on the organization, and it doesn’t bend toward the will of the donor.” 

In response to a request for comment from the Herald, the U. of C. released the following statement: “This generous gift — the largest ever to a school of social work — will transform the ability of scholars and students at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice to carry out their interdisciplinary work with far-reaching impact, and to engage with communities to address disparities, repair systemic inequalities, and develop innovative responses during a critical time in the country’s history. 

“The renaming of the school also has long been a topic of discussion among faculty, students and alumni. Many have felt the previous name did not make clear that this is a school of social work, with a strong emphasis and expertise in social policy as well as practice across a range of domains and organizational and community contexts. We believed this was a good moment to unveil a new name, including recognition of the Crown family’s generous support. The Crown family has given generously over several generations to the University, and we are deeply grateful for their support.

“The world needs more social workers, and more research in the areas covered by this gift. Investing in the university helps to support groundbreaking discoveries, new ways of thinking, an education that is distinct and transformative, and an impact that can be seen in Chicago, across the nation, and around the world. The school will continue to seek input from faculty, students, staff and alumni about the school’s work in education, research and impact.”

Editor

Christian Belanger graduated from the University of Chicago in 2017. He has previously written for South Side Weekly, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Reader.

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