At her remote field placement in late January, master’s student Sara Bovat receives a surprising message: The School of Social Service Administration (SSA) at the University of Chicago is changing its name to the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, in recognition of a $75 million donation from James and Paula Crown. When she finds out James Crown is director of the board for General Dynamics Corp., the third-largest defense contractor in the United States, her surprise turns to outrage.
“To think that our social work school would be named after a family that profits off of the military-industrial complex just felt very hypocritical,” Bovat says.
The Crown family’s wealth has been closely tied to General Dynamics for more than 60 years. By 1986, James Crown’s father, Lester, had acquired a 23% stake in the company that was worth more than $700 million. James Crown now receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual compensation through stocks and options, along with an annual retainer for board service.
More than a dozen social work students (including Bovat) published an op-ed in the student-run Chicago Maroon, denouncing the “startling hypocrisy” of the name change. They argued that the Crown family’s “efforts to promote continuous, violent, global conflict” and its “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.”
General Dynamics has received billions of dollars in U.S. military contracts for its weapons. In December 2019, the corporation received $22.2 billion—the largest sum ever awarded by the Navy — in a multi-year deal for nuclear-powered submarines.
In early 2019, In These Times reported that General Dynamics bombs killed 97 civilians, including 25 children, in Yemen. General Dynamics received hundreds of millions of dollars in Saudi weapons deals, and its stock price rose from $135 to $169 per share between the start of the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen in March 2015 and May 2019.
In April 2018, the USS John Warner, co-built by a General Dynamics subsidiary, became the first of the new Virginia-class nuclear submarines to engage in combat, firing six Tomahawk missiles in Syria. Although the Pentagon denied any knowledge of civilian casualties, Syrian state television claimed three civilians were injured in the strike.
Master’s student Alexandrea Wilson, who wanted to become a social worker to push back against capitalism, was disillusioned when she heard about the name change.
“If you have money in the system of capitalism, you can do whatever you want,” Wilson says. “For the Crown family to be able to donate such a large amount and have their name put on a school of social work as well known as SSA really says a lot about this system.”
Since February, Wilson says, organizers have met multiple times with school administrators. Demands include reverting SSA’s name, transparency around the conditions attached to the donation, the creation of a student-run oversight board for continuous “input on the allocation of funds,” more scholarship funding and a tuition freeze for current students.
SSA students are not the only ones to raise concerns about the Crown family. In June, artist Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, who has an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, withdrew from activities at the museum, citing museum board member Paula Crown’s ties to General Dynamics.
“It does not feel right to participate in programming for families sponsored by an arms manufacturer profiting from the death of [Palestinian] children,” Hill writes. The F-16 fighter jets Israel uses to bombard Gaza were originally developed by General Dynamics.
On May 24, students launched a letter-writing campaign asking the University of Chicago’s dean to condemn violence against Palestinians. Some SSA students also condemned the University of Chicago’s refusal to divest its endowment from corporations that sell weapons to the Israeli military.
In a statement to In These Times, University of Chicago spokesperson Gerald McSwiggan noted “the Crown family has given generously over several generations to the University, and we are deeply grateful for their support.” McSwiggan also indicated that the Crown gift would increase student financial aid and support faculty research and hiring.
General Dynamics and the Crown family did not respond to comment requests.
As a precedent for challenging philanthropic power, the SSA activists point to Tufts University, which removed the Sackler name from its buildings because of the family’s role in the U.S. opioid crisis. “We propose that this shift is possible at the University of Chicago,” SSA students write in the op-ed, “and it can start with us.”
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Maryum Elnasseh is a writer based in Richmond, Virginia and an editorial intern with In These Times. She graduated last year from Virginia Commonwealth University with dual degrees in journalism and political science.