NEWS

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June 3, 2008

VP for Community Affairs search stalls as more candidates sought

The search for the University's next vice president for community and government affairs has stalled, administrators involved with the hiring process have confirmed.

After interviewing four finalists for the position last month, administrators have decided to consider additional candidates, possibly extending the search into the summer. In an interview last month, President Robert Zimmer said he expected to fill the post before the end of the quarter, although that now appears unlikely.

"This is a long process where we've actually spoken with dozens of candidates over the last several months.... The most important thing is that we get it right," said Vice President for Strategic Initiatives David Greene, who has been in charge of the search. "If it [the search] takes additional weeks, months, for someone at this level, that person is going to be here for a substantial period of time."

The decision to seek additional candidates has suggested that despite the broad variations in background and skill sets represented by the four finalists, whose information and résumés the Maroon has obtained from multiple sources, those responsible for filling the post remained uncertain about the candidates' qualifications to assume the leadership of one of the most influential offices at the University and on Chicago's South Side.

Despite the step, the four finalists have not been ruled out, Greene said.

The vice president for community affairs is charged with fostering the University's relationship with surrounding constituencies and with overseeing the University's involvement in the commercial and economic development of Hyde Park and its environs. The office assumes broad oversight roles of the U of C's local public education programs as well as campus policing and security policies.

The position was vacated in February when vice president Hank Webber, who had served in that capacity for 11 years, left the University to take a similar job at the Washington University in St. Louis.

Over the course of his tenure, Webber's position was frequently the object of vocal community protest over what many in Hyde Park as well as in neighboring communities saw as University imposition. The southward expansion of the physical campus into Woodlawn has been the most recent and persistent of these concerns, but the recent acquisition of several commercial properties in Hyde Park has also raised unease among some community activists wary of University efforts to spur Hyde Park's retail and commercial development. Administrators have maintained that their engagement in external relations has consistently sought to incorporate community input and participation.

Considered comparatively, the four final candidates who visited the University for interviews last month were noteworthy for their widely differing qualifications. Each candidate would represent a notably distinct assertion by President Robert Zimmer and the hiring committee of the priorities that the administration has set for the future of the office, for the approach that the University will take in developing its relationship with the surrounding communities, and for establishing its roles within the city of Chicago.

At the request of multiple quoted sources with direct knowledge of the candidates who expressed concern about the integrity of the hiring process, the Maroon is withholding the names of those on the administration's short list.

Urban university experience

The first candidate presents a firm academic background in urban youth and educational development, race politics, the media, and community relations as well as considerable experience working for a major research university in a large city.

His role in overseeing his university's relations with surrounding communities as well as dozens of university-community partnerships suggests familiarity with the types of relationship-building abilities that are critical to the office of vice president for community affairs, but his university's situation within a neighborhood considerably more affluent than the U of C's is indicative of the stark difference in approach that would be necessary to foster successful town-gown collaboration.

His expertise in race politics, particularly among the African-American community, could be appealing to the administration, because it would allow the University to "put out articles that look good" about the University's relationship with its predominantly African-American neighbors, said one source involved in the hiring process, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

Another source familiar with the candidates said that while the first candidate seemed uniquely qualified for the office, there were doubts as to the administration's likelihood of selecting him because of the commercial and development interests that the University also has in Hyde Park.

Understanding Chicago politics

The second candidate's professional training as an urban planner and policy analyst in Chicago, her extensive involvement with the city's financial institutions, and her employment within the upper administration of the municipal government make her the most politically and financially connected of the four finalists. Her experiences would benefit the University in affording it "the most political clout with town hall," one source said.

She has been engaged in public and private projects for local sustainable development and also in advising financial institutions on socially responsible spending and grant-making.

Her financial role in administering multi-million-dollar budgets for public and community development programs, both private and municipal, has earned her public recognition within the nonprofit sectors and by major Chicago media outlets.

Community education outreach

Most recently, the third candidate has worked for some of the country's most prominent private foundations, as director of several education policy associations and as an analyst and researcher for multiple public school districts.

His research on learning and teacher development and his role in formulating education curricula could lend guidance to the educational outreach and charter school programs that the University has enthusiastically presented as illustration of its interest in fostering positive relationships with its surrounding communities by allocating significant financial and institutional resources for the benefit of its neighbors.

"If what you want is someone who's going to address community engagement, I felt that he had the best sort of tools both cognitively and intellectually," one source said.

Commercial planning and development

The fourth candidate's professional experiences lend themselves more than any other candidate to the commercial, retail, and property development of the University's surrounding area.

"He seemed to be about plans on charts and the bottom line dollar," a source said.

Given the University's recent purchase of Harper Court, its plans to redevelop the Harper Theater Building on East 53rd Street, and its stated interest in overseeing the commercial development of Hyde Park, the fourth candidate would provide a firm hand in guiding the administration's policies toward the University's physical redevelopment efforts.

He would be among the most qualified candidates for taking the lead on the University's collaboration with municipal authorities to formulate a successful bid for the 2016 Olympics, whose central presence in Hyde Park will make the University one of the key players in that city-wide effort.

Next steps

Administrators would not comment on the extent of the expansion of their search for additional candidates for the vice presidential position or whether specific applicants were being sought out.

"Because of the breadth of this position and because of the University's aspirations, there's no one person that's going to have all of the relevant experiences," Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Greene said. Instead, the administration has sought candidates who can "assemble a team" of associates that will most effectively tackle the University's many interests in its community while incorporating it in the University's decision-making process, he said.

Throughout the process, the University has had conversations with community leaders about their wishes for the office's successor, Greene said in response to questions about the limited transparency of the search's progress.

But ultimately, he said, "the person we're hiring is a University official and a University employee."