This is a University, not a war zone — so why do we have to die before Northwestern changes the rules?

Gabrielle Bienasz, Op-Ed Contributor

There was a time at this school when the names of four students who had died here were written on the tree by the rock. One of them was Chuyuan Qiu, who was hit by a cement truck while riding her bike on Sheridan Road in 2016 – before we had a bike lane.

But students knew that biking on Sheridan Road was a problem before then. So did the administration. In 2011, after increased instances of non-fatal accidents due to construction and congestion, cyclists expressed frustration with the dangerous choice between “dodging pedestrians” on the sidewalk or biking on traffic-heavy Sheridan Road.

In 2017, in an article for The Daily, reporter Colin Boyle wrote, “The push for bike lanes on Sheridan Road gained renewed attention after the 2016 death of Chuyuan Qiu.”

Chuyuan Qiu should not have been a martyr to the cause of bike safety on campus. But she is hardly the only student whose death has prompted the administration to take more aggressive action to solve an issue.

Looking at campus-specific problems, like funding CAPS, it appears the University changes policies to better support students only after a student death underscores the problem.

But this is a University, not a war zone — so why do we have to die before Northwestern changes the rules?

Jason Arkin died by suicide in 2015 after being referred to the CAPS waitlist. In 2016, NU lifted the 12-session limit and added capacity to see students for short-term appointments. Dean of Students Todd Adams said “student voice was paramount,” when deciding to remove the limit, and articles covering the development noted students had been pushing for the change for years.

Why did Arkin have to die before they listened?

(A 2012 Daily headline looks remarkably familiar in 2019: “After Weaver suicide, Schapiro assures ‘close look’ at Northwestern’s mental health services.”)

My years at this University have been marked by student suicide, at least one per year. Scott Boorstein. Ananya Agrawal. Kenzie Krogh. Jordan Hankins, to name some of them.

This academic year, the Fund our Care Collective has re-centered the campus conversation around the issue of mental health as a fatal one and stressed that it especially impacts marginalized students. They have organized actions on campus in the past and will host an upcoming town hall on how the administration can “help students ‘stay alive,’” by funding mental health services. I admire their work and wish to add to the conversation from my own perspective, not to take any credit for their ideas.

I’ve been in ASG since my first starry-eyed step on this campus: I nabbed an unwanted seat in the Senate in the now-defunct freshman residential caucus, (Senators now represent the undergraduate schools) served on the public relations committee and on two campaigns, and I am now vice president of public relations. Through all of this, I have seen and participated in quite a bit of dialogue with the administration and student groups.

It seems there are three ways to change things on this campus: die; emphasize a crisis of some sort that is validated by concrete numbers or headlines in national news outlets; or devote an unreasonable amount of time to student activism, through involvement with student government or another student group.

None of these are reasonable, nor should they be required of us. But all evidence points to these being the only three avenues through which to effect change. Each one is filled with problems, traps, obstacles. Many of them are only accessible to students with a certain amount of privilege.

As for method two, we see the University change reactively in moments of crisis. After students on campus were grabbed by men, SafeRide lifted its three-block distance minimum. When the 2015 Campus Climate Survey revealed the rates at which students at NU were experiencing sexual violence, the Office of Equity was created. Previously, campus partners concerned with sexual violence had created the Center for Awareness, Response, and Education in 2011 following a grant proposal submitted to the Office of Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice. The SAE allegations in 2016 that generated headlines in major news outlets seemingly prompted another administrative reckoning around sexual violence, which is reflected in the 2019 Campus Climate Survey.

That was also the result of concerted student activism in the wake of the events. But why did it take an event that traumatized the entire campus to motivate a reissue of the survey?

Some students turn to advocacy addressing administrators through student groups.

In my experience, student government requires about 15 hours of work a week to be effective. It demands a ludicrously difficult combination of relationship-building with administrators, of working with the Senate, of working with other committees in ASG, and on and on and on. And even then, we only get something small.

As for the administrators we work with: many of them care and they want to help.

But the ones who care about students are not the ones who have power who assist us in the way we most need: a structural reallocation of resources toward departments and programs that keep us safe, mentally and physically well and provide vital spaces to find community, like CARE, the Office of Equity, the Women’s Center, Student Enrichment Services and Quest, to name a few.

As my colleague in ASG put it recently, it’s MSA, CARE and students versus the board of trustees. It’s grossly outmatched. It’s the suffering students and the adults who care for them versus the people with the money and the power. We are up against people who are more worried about a suicide headline getting into the Chicago Tribune than wondering why students here are dying.

The question of why our students are dying should pervade policymaking and money allocation at this University; it should preoccupy members on the board of trustees.

Look at our peer institutions: why are their students not dying?

In April 2017, Chuyuan Qiu’s mother wrote, in a tribute to her daughter: “Your death reminded everyone of the importance of bike safety and encouraged Northwestern to provide its students with a safer environment.”

A student has died every year I have been at NU. Four of their names used to be painted on the tree by the rock. There used to be a white bike on Sheridan Road; there used to be a student here named Chuyuan Qiu. But not anymore. I have no reason to believe that matters to the people who have the power to fix it, without our unimaginable and unrealistic sacrifice.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the year in which the Center for Awareness, Response, and Education was created. It was founded in 2011. The Daily regrets the error.

Gabrielle Bienasz is a Medill junior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.