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A group of young Chicago activists are arguing that the University of Chicago — a leading candidate to host the library and museum — should be ruled out unless it takes action to restore adult trauma care at its medical center.
The lack of an adult trauma center at the hospital has been a perennial source of tension between the elite university and the predominantly African-American community surrounding the campus since the university medical center shuttered its unit in 1988, citing financial pressures.
With universities in Chicago, Honolulu and New York preparing to submit their bids for the Obama library before next month's deadline, activists from a group known as the Trauma Center Coalition have begun a campaign to raise questions about the suitability of the University of Chicago to host the library.
The activists note that Obama made access to health care and stemming gun violence focal points of his presidency and argue that he shouldn't reward the university they charge has neglected the needs of a community that is at the epicenter of gun violence in the city that saw more than 400 murders last year.
"Mr. Obama has worked hard to try to raise awareness about gun violence and the issues facing young black males in places like the south side," said Victoria Crider, 18, an organizer with Fearless Leading by the Youth. "The University of Chicago has done nothing at all to provide resources to solve the epidemic of violence on the South Side."
Officials at Chicago State University, the University of Illinois-Chicago, Columbia University in New York and the University of Hawaii have also indicated that they will submit proposals for the library. But the University of Chicago has deep personal connections to the Obama family and is widely seen as the front-runner to win the library.
First lady Michelle Obama grew up on the city's South Side and was an executive at the University of Chicago Medical Center before moving to Washington in 2009 when her husband began his presidency. The president also spent several years as a constitutional law professor at the university. And the university's bid for the library is being assisted by Susan Sher, a former chief of staff to the first lady.
University of Chicago spokesman Jeremy Manier suggested the activists' push to link the trauma center to the library bid was out of step with the broad enthusiasm on the South Side to win the library for Chicago.
"Efforts by a group of protesters to link the library to unrelated issues do not reflect the widespread support of the community," Manier said.
The university has also pushed back against suggestions by activists that it has turned a blind eye to the issue of violence in the neighborhoods surrounding the university and medical center. The medical center has sponsored a series of projects aimed at stemming gun violence and has collaborated with other groups to address links between gun violence and teen depression.
The university medical center, which faced demonstrations last year over the trauma care issue as it opened a new $700 million facility, has held the position that it can't afford to take on adult trauma care on its own.
"The University of Chicago contributes critical medical services that are available nowhere else on the South Side, including the area's only burn unit, a pediatric trauma center and a neonatal intensive-care unit," Manier said. "Shifting extensive resources to create an additional trauma center could reduce the medical center's ability to provide other life-saving services."
But activists dismiss the university's fiscal reasoning. The medical center's endowment stood at $782 million at the end of the last fiscal year.
"The university is not the type of institution that is so cash-strapped that they have to make a choice between scarce resources," said Emilio Comay del Junco, a University of Chicago Ph.D. student and Trauma Center Coalition activist. "They have the resources."
Chicago has six trauma centers within the city limits — all on the west and north sides of the city — providing trauma care to roughly 3 million people. But gun violence in Chicago occurs most frequently on the west and south sides of the city.
A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Public Health that looked at a decade's worth of data from the Chicago area found that those suffering gunshot wounds more than five miles from a trauma center were more likely to die from their injuries.
Crider, the youth organizer, says the 2010 shooting death of fellow activist Damian Turner, 18, illustrates the need for adult trauma care at the University of Chicago.
Turner was gravely wounded just blocks from the medical center. But the injuries were so severe, the Chicago Fire Department paramedics had to drive Turner about nine miles north to the Northwestern Memorial Hospital's adult trauma care center, where he died from his wounds.
Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democratic lawmaker who represents a large swath of the city's South Side in Washington, has called the area the "number one trauma desert" in the country and has pushed for more federal money for trauma care.
The issue is one that resonates deeply with the veteran lawmaker. Rush's son Huey Rich, 29, was shot just a few miles from the University of Chicago Medical Center in 1999. He was transported to the nearest trauma center, which ended up being a hospital several miles away in the south suburbs of the city, where he died four days later.
Rush told USA TODAY that "the U of C has the capabilities to bring" a trauma center to the South Side and "as a major hospital should respond to its community needs."
But the congressman, who successfully beat back a primary challenge from Obama in 2000, suggested in a written statement that he opposes mixing the campaign for adult trauma care with the university's bid to win the library.
The "effort to help bring jobs and economic activity to this area should be considered separately from the issue of trauma care as our community is also suffering from a dearth of economic activity," Rush said.