Letter: Former I-House Directors Defend Dorm’s Tradition and History

By Ralph Nicholas

The University of Chicago’s decision to devote International House entirely to undergraduate housing violates the objective to which the building was dedicated in 1932 by its founder, John D. Rockefeller, Jr.:

“The purpose of the International House generally is to establish a center of common interest, an exchange of views between students of various nations, and to promote the ideals of world peace and general welfare through mutual understanding and good will, it will be the purpose of the house to foster and encourage and which it is hoped will result in expression of such ideals by the residents of the house upon their return to posts of influence in their respective countries.”

Pressure to create additional accommodations for undergraduates has already eaten away at the space allotted for international graduate students and researchers. Now it threatens to take the last of their rooms. If the University did not have any alternative quarters for undergraduates, it would be a bit easier to justify the violation of Rockefeller’s intention.  However, there is clearly ample space in other buildings for undergraduate housing.

For more than eight decades, scholars—most of them adult graduate students and postdoctoral researchers—from around the world, working in various disciplines, have lived together and learned from one another in that appropriately named building. There is ample evidence that the experience of living, studying, dining, and enjoying convivial fellowship together has indeed contributed to international understanding, not only among these people as individuals, but more significantly through their widespread influence.

The tradition of a community of international scholars having a “home away from home” in International House has a value that cannot be equated with its distinguished series of public programs dealing with international affairs. The administration’s claim of the necessity of the displacement of those people is regrettably unpersuasive. Certainly, what is “temporary” from the perspective of the administration is permanent from the point of view of the international community that will be evicted.

The irony of removing the international community from International House at the same time the University aspires to be a “global university” is surely apparent. While creating “hundreds of programs, initiatives, and partnerships in over 38 nations and on every continent,” with numerous study abroad programs for College students and four overseas University of Chicago Centers, the oldest international program on campus, with a record of enduring influence over eight decades, is summarily destroyed.

Each of us served as Director of the International House. Our experience, the experience of current residents, and abundant testimony from some 40,000 former residents around the world overwhelmingly support the continuing importance of the purpose for which it was created. Evicting the current community of international scholars ignores the distinguished history and traditions of International House. This is a decision that should be reversed.

—Ralph W. Nicholas, I-House Director 1993—2000; Henry Pernet, I-House Director 2000—2003; William L. McCartney, I-House Director 2005—2010