Presidents, mindful of historians who will judge them and students who will read about them, seem to crave affiliations with higher education after they leave office. That might help explain the recent tendency for building presidential libraries and museums at or near universities.
But what’s in it for the universities?
The competition for a development partner for President Obama’s library has come down to four universities — two in Chicago, where he launched his professional and political careers; one in New York, where he earned a bachelor’s degree; and one in Hawaii, where he was born. An article in The Washington Post looks at the prospects of the bidders from the Windy City: The private University of Chicago and the public University of Illinois at Chicago. The others competitors are Columbia University and the University of Hawaii.
UIC, the underdog, is seizing the moment to make itself better known to a national audience.
With 28,000 students, UIC is a public research university just west of the city’s downtown. Its undergraduate population is a racial and ethnic mosaic: 38 percent white, 25 percent Latino, 22 percent Asian American, 8 percent black. More than half qualify for need-based federal Pell grants. It is one the three major campuses in the University of Illinois system, with the others at Springfield and Urbana-Champaign. Richard J. Daley, the legendary Chicago mayor of the mid-20th century, championed the development of UIC. The main campus opened in 1965, right next to a huge expressway interchange known as the Circle. For several years it was called the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. In 1982, the last word was dropped from the name.
Paula Allen-Meares, a former chancellor of UIC who helped organize its bid, said the university is “extremely diverse” and is focused on many issues of interest to Obama, including health care disparities, educational access and partnerships with community colleges. When Obama’s foundation began soliciting proposals last year, Allen-Meares recalled, “I saw it and I said, ‘We need to participate in this.’ Think of it. It just seems so fitting.” Allen-Meares said the university spent little money to develop the plan but put great effort into the proposal, convening deans, professors and student leaders. The UIC proposal offers six acres of university land on the main campus and 23 acres of city land about five miles west in the neighborhood of North Lawndale, a community in need of an economic jolt.
In addition to a library and museum, UIC proposes creation of what it calls the O-4 Institute. It would be based on four O-related themes — “one world,” “opportunity,” “outreach” and “optimism” — and would give Obama a platform for research, academic programs and activism on global issues of his choosing.
“Whether we win or lose, it’s galvanized this campus,” Allen-Meares said of the proposal. “It’s reminded us of our mission in implicit and explicit ways.”
For the University of Chicago, a 15,000-student institution with global reach, the Obama project represents an opportunity to forge closer connections with surrounding communities on the South Side. Founded in 1890 by oil magnate John D. Rockefeller and the American Baptist Education Society, the university is famed for its graduate programs in business, law and other subjects. It draws top faculty and students from around the country and abroad.
But some on the South Side are wary of the university. There are lingering doubts about why the elite school prospered so much in the last century while some residential areas around it did not.
University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer has sought in recent years to build bridges from the campus in Hyde Park to the rest of the South Side. He named Derek R.B. Douglas, a former special assistant for urban policy in Obama’s White House, as the university’s vice president of civic engagement. In that role, Douglas has been a key liaison to neighborhoods near Washington and Jackson parks, two sites where the Obama library could be located.
“We have a shared destiny,” Douglas said. “What’s good for the South Side is good for the university, and what’s good for the university can be good for the South Side.”
For the university, there is much riding on the Obama library plan. It would be a major surprise if Obama does not choose a site connected with the school where he and his wife both worked. Zimmer, officials say, has been thinking for years about the possibility of a drawing the Obama library to the South Side.
“For us, this is fundamentally continuing the deep engagement we have with the South Side community,” Zimmer said. “We are eager to see this come to the South Side of Chicago for a few reasons. There’s a very great emotional connection that the Obamas have with the South Side, and that the South Side has with the Obamas, based on their personal history. It is an opportunity for the South Side of Chicago economically. This is a very large project that would do an enormous amount for the South Side of Chicago. And another reason that’s so important is the kind of impact this could have on young people in the city.”
John Mark Hansen, a University of Chicago political scientist, said the school has reached out to other educational institutions in the area for potential collaborations if Obama chooses to locate the library on the South Side. He said that the library could be a “vehicle for empowerment,” to involve the community in whatever issues that Obama cares about and wants to promote. Some of those might dovetail with the university’s expertise, he said. “This is a university that basically invented sociology, using Chicago as its laboratory,” Hansen said. “And that continues to this day.”
At several presidential libraries, universities play a key role. The Lyndon B. Johnson presidential library was built on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, where there is also a Johnson School of Public Affairs. The Gerald R. Ford presidential library is located at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The George H.W. Bush presidential library was built at Texas A&M University in College Station, which has a Bush School of Government and Public Service. The William J. Clinton presidential library, in Little Rock, Ark., is affiliated with the Clinton School of Public Service in the University of Arkansas system.
The George W. Bush presidential library, the newest, opened in 2013 at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. It came with the George W. Bush Institute, a public policy center with a mission of “advancing freedom by expanding opportunities for individuals at home and across the globe.” At SMU, some professors were skeptical of the institute before the library opened. They wondered what kind of oversight there would be for the institute’s activities.
Thomas Knock, an SMU history professor, was one of the skeptics. But he said controversy about that matter has faded. “I’d say things are just fine,” Knock said. “There’s no way a presidential library is anything but a major plus for a university.”