I-House: 1 year after

By John K. Wilson

One year ago today, Hugo Sonnenschein announced that the Administration would reverse its previous decision and allow International House to stay open.

It was a remarkable event, and I-House residents will mark the date Saturday night with a free Save I-House 1st Anniversary Party (to which everyone 21 and over is invited).

This was the only time I’ve ever seen the Administration respond to student protests and admit a mistake. For weeks after the announcement in March 2000 that I-House would be closed, residents held protests that drew hundreds of supporters. They paraded, with a Chinese dragon and signs and chants, to the quads every Friday at noon. They stayed in a tent in front of the Administration Building to symbolize the future I-House. They rallied letters and petitions from I-House supporters around the world, and raised $132,000 in donations toward the remodel of I-House (which will be used this summer to renovate the kitchen for residents, a first step in the permanent renewal of the building).

The protest worked. The Administration appointed a committee to review the future of International House, and when the importance of I-House and the support it has was revealed, the committee recommended keeping it open.

The Board of Governors hired an I-House alum, Henry Pernet, who in just a few months as director has revitalized the building and its activities. In Spring Quarter — for the first time in anyone’s memory — the number of residents actually increased compared to the Winter Quarter.

However, the “Save I-House” movement is still needed. Stopping the Administration’s goofy decision to close the building was just the first step. The Administration may have gotten credit for “saving” I-House, but so far it hasn’t put one penny toward International House, apart from temporary loans. The nearly $2 million fire alarm installation was taken from the I-House endowment.

If you talk to Dean of Students Ed Turkington, who served as interim director of I-House until December, he’ll tell you that he’s pessimistic about the possibility of I-House remaining open permanently. He doesn’t think the money for renovation will be raised, and that a few years down the road, I-House will shut its doors forever.

That would be a tragedy, both for the University and its students. I-House provides a vital community for international students with its activities, ESL programs, and supportive environment. Over time, as rents in Hyde Park have skyrocketed, I-House has served another purpose: providing affordable housing for graduate students (and undergraduates, who can also live in I-House). Next year’s rent for I-House, at $426 a month for a nine-month contract, is cheaper than any studio apartments in Hyde Park (which usually require a 12-month lease and utilities). Some remodeling plans would require doubling the rent – and even then, I-House rooms couldn’t match the luxury apartments in the same price range.

In the end, the fate of International House depends upon the priorities of the Administration. To save I-House, the Administration needs to recognize the importance of creating a diverse community of scholars with an affordable place to live. I-House needs to be among the top priorities of the University of Chicago capital campaign which will be launched later this year. President Don Randel needs to personally make a determined effort to find money for I-House. And the Administration ought to provide some of the money to renovate I-House from uncommitted donations given to its general revenue fund.

This isn’t an example of throwing away money at a charity case. I-House saves the University a lot of money. I-House provides low-cost housing for needy students, and even offers some residential fellowships (which are being cut back because of I-House’s financial needs). I-House provides great programs — from the Festival of Nations to Global Voices programs and speeches by consuls and ambassadors — for the entire community without any subsidy from the University (in fact, I-House, like other units of the University, pays money to provide its share of central administration expenses). For nearly 70 years, I-House has helped the University of Chicago enormously without costing it anything. A few million dollars to keep those benefits going for decades to come is a small expense for an institution that added nearly one billion dollars to its endowment last year.

One year after a committed group of I-House residents, staff, students, alumni, and community supporters helped to save I-House, the hard work of saving this institution for the long term is only beginning. But for the moment, we’ll celebrate all that has been accomplished so far.