Upstairs, Downstairs at the University of Chicago

Back in May at the University of Chicago, this happened (h/t Micah Uetricht):

Two locksmiths with medical conditions were told to repair locks on the fourth floor of the Administration Building during the day. Stephen Clarke, the locksmith who originally responded to the emergency repair, has had two hip replacement surgeries during his 23 years as an employee of the University. According to Clarke, when he asked Kevin Ahn, his immediate supervisor, if he could use the elevator due to his medical condition, Ahn said no. Clarke was unable to perform the work, and Elliot Lounsbury, a second locksmith who has asthma, was called to perform the repairs. Lounsbury also asked Ahn if he could use the elevator to access the fourth floor, was denied, and ended up climbing the stairs to the fourth floor.

The reason Clarke and Lounsbury were told they had to walk up four flights of stairs—with their hip replacements and asthma—is that the University of Chicago has had a policy of forbidding workers from using the elevators in the Administration Building during daytime hours. As the university’s director of labor relations put it: “The University has requested that maintenance and repair workers should normally use the public stairway in the Administration Building rather than the two public elevators.”

Upstairs, downstairs was once a metaphor for how the lower and higher orders of Edwardian Britain lived (servants downstairs, masters upstairs). Nowadays, it’s a literal rendition of the lives of workers at our most elite universities.

After five months of agitation, including the threat of a rally and support from undergraduates and graduate students who are organizing their own union, University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer has at last issued a statement reversing the policy: “Let me state in the simplest of terms what the policy actually is: the elevators are for everybody’s use.”

If this is what it takes workers to be able to use an elevator at an elite university, a university that is very much in the public eye and susceptible to public pressure, what must it take workers around the country, in small factories and far-off hamlets, to secure more basic rights and privileges? This is a question I wish our academic theorists of democracy would think some more about.


  1. realthog October 8, 2013 at 8:42 pm | #

    Golly! It’s hard to believe such neanderthals still exist.

    When I first came from the UK to live in the US (blame my American beloved) I had to endure the usual taunts about how class-ridden UK society (supposedly) is. Yes, I’m sure there must be isolated examples of this kind of crap still going on in the UK, but basically this kind of discrimination is regarded over there as having vanished decades ago.

  2. beenthere October 8, 2013 at 11:36 pm | #

    I ma not surprised. When I was a grad student at UC, a fellow grad student had an issue that he needed addressed and was told only the Dean of Graduate Students could handle it. When he called to make an appointment with him, he was informed that the Dean of Graduate Students doesn’t meet with graduate students.

    • JTFaraday October 10, 2013 at 6:22 pm | #

      Hey, it’s not easy being Dean of Students. You can get fired for insubordination just for doing your job.

      In fact, it’s… pretty much baked in.

  3. ed scott October 9, 2013 at 11:03 am | #

    The segregation of workmen is alive and well in Manhattan and Brooklyn. It’s part of a deliberate marketing strategy to raise building images as luxurious and exclusive. That the strategy works and that many other little oddities of how we behave in contradiction of our self images is “…a question I wish our academic theorists of democracy would think some more about.”

  4. Howard October 9, 2013 at 11:50 am | #

    This is a guess; but I feel the basic question is if in America rights can coexist with privileges. Maybe my point is plainly obvious; but I suspect that is the start of any full look at the issue

  5. jonnybutter October 9, 2013 at 11:59 am | #

    I think this whole upstairs/downstairs thing will be rationalized in the near future.

    I think there will be a whole range of criteria against which people will be continually assessed, whether they be moment to moment things – like how you smell at any given moment – to how much you, personally, innovate in your everyday life. A low quarterly INNOVATE rating, for example, would be like a low credit score – determined by a private company or companies via proprietary non-public processes. Like a low credit score, it would tend to marginalize you in some important ways, first provisionally, then more drastically and permanently.

    A serious blot on your record, like a persistently low (defined as three quarters or more) INNOVATE score (IS), would trump other smaller assessments. For example, your low IS would bar you from using the elevator no matter how you smelled. That it would also make it very difficult for you to get a job or rent an apartment goes without saying. You might also automatically be barred from walking on the sunny side of the street.

    No need for unions or any other kind of agitation.

    • Bruce Bernstein October 9, 2013 at 8:13 pm | #

      jonnybutter is being sarcastic but, sadly, some Social Media entrepreneur has read this and already prepared a business plan for the INNOVATE rating and score.

      • jonnybutter October 10, 2013 at 9:16 am | #

        be very scared when the preposterous sounds so plausible.

        One’s INNOVATE score (IS) could be influenced by multifarious and dynamic criteria-sets. Clearly, if you were a job-creator, your IS would more-less automatically be high whether you were actually, technically innovative or not. Furthermore, to show that the ISCR (INNOVATE scores Consortium Algorithm) is not excessively impersonal and unreasonable, an ordinary worker who didn’t create jobs (unfortunately it is inevitable that there will be a few of those) could boost his IS by finding ways to continually cut costs (for example, the cost of government services he consumes, conveniently abstracted into equal units of value).

        Your workplace or work-unit would also have a collective IS, which would be factored into your personal IS; again, like a credit rating, the way these scores are factored together, weighted, etc. must be opaque and, above all, in private hands.

      • jonnybutter October 10, 2013 at 8:10 pm | #

        I *was* trying to do a kind of homeopathic satire (or something), Bruce, but you were right of course:

        …., companies are increasingly using personal identifying information collected online to shape the experience of their customers. But it’s not just for harmless personalization: big data is “being used for more and more precise forms of discrimination—a form of data redlining,”


  6. Chere Labbe Doiron October 9, 2013 at 12:07 pm | #

    For those of us who are not academic theorists but live and work in these environments, it is our responsibility to call out these discrepancies for discussion and remedy. The president of the university could learn a lot from the staff who fixes the HVAC….not least of all how a living wage might impact their lives positively, increase productivity, and equality. The physical access of facilities by employees is also a matter of civil rights as legislated by the Americans with Disabilities Act and may already include accommodation for those with physical limitations who work in these environments.

  7. Glenn October 10, 2013 at 12:06 am | #

    I suggest the Left-Right Paradigm be restated in terms of an Upstairs-Downstairs Paradigm.

  8. Minuli October 11, 2013 at 10:55 am | #

    Reminds me of my favorite story about Chicago god, Leo Strauss, from the mid-1950s. A graduate student of Strauss’s is woken up in the middle of the night by a phone call from Strauss’s wife. “Come over, something’s happened.” He hurries over. Strauss and his wife answer the door, their faces distraught. “Come in,” they whisper. “It’s over here. It happened this evening. Can you help us?” The student follows them as he follows their sombre shadows down the long hallway. “Here,” Strauss points up at the ceiling. The student looks up to see an unlit lightbulb. Strauss flicks the light switch up and down a few times. “It happened this evening. It suddenly stopped working. We don’t know what happened. We don’t know what to do.” The student goes out, finds a light bulb, comes back and replaces it. Strauss and his wife are ecstatic, “Thank you so much!”

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