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.