In the past two decades he has spent living and working in Hyde Park, Hank Webber has witnessed the transformation of the University from an isolated, inward-looking institution into an active player in the development of surrounding neighborhoods. Last Thursday, Webber, vice president for community and government affairs at the University, announced his departure for Washington University in St. Louis, where he will assume the position of executive vice chancellor for administration.
Two overarching factors influenced Webber’s decision during the long months of negotiation and soul-searching.
“I have to say first that it’s an extraordinarily attractive position in a very exciting city that’s redeveloping. It’s a chance to have a broader impact on [Washington] University and its community than at the institution I’m currently at. It’s simply a terrific job as a job,” he said.
Webber said that less concrete factors also influenced his decision to leave the University.
“It did seem to me time. I’ve been here [at Chicago] for 21 years and I’ve had this [current] job for just about 11 years,” he said.
“I do believe that change can be really invigorating and it’s not just good for the individual but also for the institution. I don’t think it would be good for Chicago if I stayed with my job for another 15 years until I retired,” he added.
And while Webber said that he is excited to begin this new phase of his career in the spring, his decision to leave his current position, the University, and Hyde Park does not come without regret.
“It was really hard. In the few days I made this decision, I saw one, two, three, and four on the clock and I don’t usually do that,” he said.
“I feel like I’ve been enormously blessed to have been able to do this work for the last 11 years. There were many times I said to myself, ‘I can’t believe they actually pay me to do this.’ I love my job so much. If I’ve contributed, I’ve contributed, but I’ve probably taken much more.”
Webber added that the recent change in University administrations with the inauguration of President Robert Zimmer last summer was not a contributing factor to his departure for Washington University.
“I think that over the past 10 years and under the last three presidents of the University…there’s been a strong commitment by the University to redevelopment of the South Side of Chicago and the health of the city,” he said. “If anything, I think Bob [Zimmer] is committed to increasing the depth of our involvement.”
Developments in improving public education on the South Side have been one of the University’s central community concerns throughout the last three administrations, Webber said. Under President Hugo Sonnenschein, the University launched the Urban Education Initiative, which oversees Chicago-area charter school campuses. The program expanded to include the Urban Teachers Education masters program during President Don Michael Randal’s administration and added its third charter school under President Zimmer.
“I definitely think there is continuity in terms of commitment to these issues,” Webber said.
Webber also identified community redevelopment and integration as other areas of focus during his time in Hyde Park.
“In the 11 years I’ve had this job I think the challenge has been to support the redevelopment of the neighborhoods north and south of Hyde Park. When I first moved here 21 years ago, Hyde Park was very much an island. Very few faculty members went north of 47th or south of 64th [Streets],” he said.
Webber added that as community-relations issues develop over time, he projects that affordable housing and gentrification will become key issues for the South Side, particularly in the Washington Park neighborhoods west of the University. Further development of public education, improvement in public safety, expanding commercial and retail options for consumers, and “finding out ways to make the University a bigger employer of South Side residents” are all issues that will continue to take center stage in Hyde Park town-gown negotiations, he said.
And although Webber envisions the University as an integral player in future campus–community dialogues, he also believes that the University must continue its open exchange with surrounding neighborhoods and residents.
“I think one of my main responsibilities has been helping the University play a role in that redevelopment and helping the University recognize that we are a player and that we cannot nor should be a senior partner in [community] issues,” he said. “We’re one of the most important institutions in the city and it is my belief that institutions are most effective when they combine a sense of the right thing to do with their own interest.”
“I can’t tell you that every bit of controversy is a good thing when you’re the largest institution,” he said.
Yet the good news, he added, is that Hyde Park is distinguished by its community and civic involvement.
“People care about these issues. This is not a place of apathy. Chicago has a strong mayor, a strong non-profit sector, a set of great community leaders and political leaders. I think the challenge is to continue finding ways to work with these people productively and I have every confidence that the University will continue to do this,” he said.
“I have every confidence that the University will continue this work under President Zimmer, under the Provost… so I’m not leaving with worry.”