November 27, 2007

Trustee discusses community relations at forum

U of C students met with Jack Fuller, a member of the Board of Trustees, and Hank Webber, the vice president for community and government affairs, last Tuesday in the first of several “fireside chats” with University trustees scheduled for the year. While the stated focus of the discussion was University–neighborhood relations, attendees posed questions ranging from divestment from Darfur to the Woodlawn neighborhood.

Fuller, a retired president of the Tribune Publishing Company and a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist, chairs the Board of Trustees’s Committee on Community and Civic Affairs. Fuller began the discussion by describing the role of the Board of Trustees as the organization with financial responsibility for the University. However, he added that this role could be changing, explaining that many university boards are currently realizing that “they need to be serious about things other than just fund raising.”

The board is “ultimately responsible for the character of the [University], although it’s extremely mindful of the importance of not trying to become involved in an unpleasant way with academic issues,” Fuller said.

“The overall character of the University of Chicago, particularly the intellectual character, is of utmost importance, as important to me as the financial health.”

Students’ concerns spanned the entire South Side neighborhood, from apprehension about the future of the Co-Op Markets to questions about how the University can affect the dilapidated housing complexes between East 61st and 63rd Streets along South Cottage Grove Avenue.

College second-year Kate Singer, a member of the Community Service Leadership Training Corps, said her question about the meager availability of produce in Woodlawn was prompted by a recent college-wide University Community Service Center service project focusing on hunger in Chicago.

Fuller responded that one goal of the board is to use University resources toward “what we do best,” which may not necessarily fulfill all the needs of the surrounding community.

“To say that we’re not in the food distribution business is obvious at this stage, and we don’t know how to do that particularly well anyway,” he said.

“To me, it’s always made enormous sense to allocate those resources to educating kids—that’s where the emphasis should play,” Fuller added, referring to the University’s charter school programs.

Another point of criticism for several students at the meeting was the University’s Darfur investment policy.

Fuller stressed that the University’s contentious decision not to divest from Darfur last spring was not made for financially self-interested reasons, but rather to cultivate the spirit of “free inquiry” prized by the University.

“Our policy [on Darfur] is not to have a policy, and we’re not going to be taking positions as an organization that in any way restricts that free inquiry. So, I think it’s a wonderful reinforcement for the intellectual character of the place, and not a betrayal [or]some moral vacuum,” Fuller said.

Susan Sullers, a first-year graduate student who grew up on the South Side, said she attended the meeting with concerns over University–community tensions as well as the “invisible wall” between the University and Woodlawn.

Fuller, who was also raised on the South Side and worked as a police reporter in Woodlawn, said that, growing up, he could not have imagined the Woodlawn community in today’s deteriorated state.

Webber added that the University’s charter schools educate more pre-collegiate students than there are in the University’s graduate division.

“I think we try to focus on the things that help the largest number of people and are the fundamental backbones of the community,” Webber said. “I think we could be a lot of a bigger jobs generator for the South Side, but I think we’ve made a lot of progress.”

But socially responsible investing in the community is different from the Darfur case, Fuller added.

“There is something to be said for ‘feeling good,’ but there is also something to be said for making sure you know what you’re feeling good about,” he said.