Who's Afraid of Paula Wolff?
The U of I Chicago plays find the leader
May 17, 1991
Paula Wolff was a near-legend in statehouse circles in the 1970s and ‘80s. As head of Big Jim Thompson’s policy shop, she was loathed, feared, and admired in pretty much equal measure. When she applied to become the new chancellor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, as it then was, you’d have thought she was leading a one-woman march on Versailles.
My editors subtitled the piece, “The UIC Chancellor Flap: What Was That All About?” and rereading it I was astonished to learn that I took very nearly 14,000 words to explain it—by far my longest piece for a paper for which I wrote my longest pieces.
Back in January, when her colleagues on the staff of departing governor Jim Thompson were getting new business cards printed up, Paula Wolff told an Associated Press reporter that she had put her own job search "on hold." For 14 years Wolff had whispered into the ear of power in Springfield as the head of Thompson's program policy staff, but for the moment she was doing temp work as co-director of the transition team assembled by new governor Jim Edgar—waiting, she explained, "for lightning to strike."
It did. A few months earlier Wolff had formally applied for the job of chancellor of the University of Illinois at Chicago. She was then just another obscure bureaucrat looking to fill just another obscure academic post. But her candidacy was to generate friction in high places between two governors, Mayor Richard M. Daley, the university's president, and its board of trustees that exploded in February. The campaign that had Chicago talking as March's primary day approached was not the race for the mayorship of the city of Chicago, but for the chancellorship of its largest public university.
The Paula Wolff affair proved irresistible to a local press for whom City Hall politics (to quote Crain's Chicago Business) "has gotten dull as dishwater." The Sun-Times, which usually doesn't cover academic contests that don't involve men with whistles, on one day devoted its front-page headline, its lead editorial, the column by its political editor, the editorial page cartoon ("Wolff(s) in Sheepskin Clothing" was the labored caption), and a guest editorial to the story; even Kup weighed in with an item.
So the story was covered. Not all of it was explained.
The facts were straightforward enough.
In April 1990, UIC chancellor Donald Langenberg resigned and packed his bags for Maryland, creating a need for a new chancellor for the west-side campus. UIC vice chancellor James Stukel was named acting chancellor.
One month later, after consultations with the UIC Faculty Senate, University of Illinois president Stanley Ikenberry appointed a committee of 16 UIC faculty, staff, administrators, and students to conduct a national search for candidates for a permanent replacement for Langenberg.
During the autumn of 1990, the search committee began winnowing applicants from among the nearly 100 applications submitted for the job. Lame-duck governor James Thompson talked informally with Ikenberry—who in November would be named cochair with Wolff of new governor Jim Edgar's transition team—and Mayor Daley about what a fine chancellor he thought Paula Wolff would make.
In January 1991, the committee submitted three names from among the four candidates who had impressed it enough to be interviewed. The names were forwarded to Ikenberry, who would recommend one to the trustees, as required; the trustees planned to name the new chancellor at their regular meeting on March 14. Stukel's name was on the short list; Wolff's was not.
During February, the lobbying for Wolff began to resemble a political campaign; even rookie governor Jim Edgar was reported to have made an endorsement. Wolff's other supporters—Thompson, some U of I trustees, and top aides to Mayor Daley as well as the mayor himself—stepped up their lobbying of trustees and Ikenberry on her behalf, urging them to consider her in spite of the search committee's conclusion that she was unqualified. The mayor's involvement in particular triggered public complaints of political meddling from UIC staff and some trustees; the Sun-Times editorialized that politics was "tainting" the selection process. With neither Stukel nor Wolff able to muster a certain majority on the board, Ikenberry asked the search committee to reopen the proceedings.
On March 1, 1991, selected members of the search committee interviewed Paula Wolff and again refused to add her name to the committee's list of approved finalists.
Five days later, an estimated 400 UIC faculty members held what amounted to an anti-Wolff rally; veteran university trustee Nina Shepherd later that day told public radio station WBEZ that the wrangle over the chancellorship was turning UIC into a "laughingstock."
On March 8, 1991, Ikenberry officially recommended James Stukel to the trustees as his choice for chancellor. Neither Stukel nor Wolff was thought to have a clear majority among the trustees, although various reports had five or six trustees "leaning toward" Wolff. Daley and Thompson went public with their pleas on Wolff's behalf.
On March 12, Edgar surprised even some of his own staff when he announced that he planned to attend the March trustees meeting and cast his ex officio vote for Stukel. Two other pro-Wolff trustees got in line behind the governor; thus abandoned, Wolff withdrew her candidacy.
On March 14, the university trustees, joined by Edgar, met in Urbana. James Stukel was named the new UIC chancellor by a vote of eight to one (with one abstention). Everyone involved made a let's-put-this-behind-us, Jim-Stukel-will-be-a-great-chancellor speech.
That, briefly, was the "what" and "when." The "who" and the "why" were more complicated.
* * *
Who is afraid of Paula Wolff, and why are people saying all those bad things about her? Few people outside government circles had ever heard of her, and press accounts of the UIC wrangle failed utterly to convey a useful sense of the role Wolff played during Thompson's governorship. Only a few articles even bothered to list her proper job title, much less attempt to describe what she did; most referred to her simply as an "aide," a word that fits any of Thompson's retinue of suit-carriers.
To the Tribune editorialists, Paula Wolff was a "dynamic, innovative administrator." The Sun-Times's political editor, Steve Neal, tabbed her a "political operative," and editorial-page editor and columnist Raymond Coffey listed her among Thompson's "former aides and flunkies." (Like most of the city's sophisticated news consumers, Sun-Times editors apparently do not give their columnists' opinions credence; the paper described her in an editorial as an "excellent and dedicated aide.")
The fact that such appraisals were contradictory didn't make them inaccurate, only incomplete. As director of Thompson's program staff, Wolff ran a shop of some three dozen policy analysts who did most of the administration's deep thinking about health care, the environment, social services, and education. "Paula's people" liaised with agencies, set up new programs, and wrote the bill reviews that the governor studied before signing or amending new legislation.
Wolff and Stukel had roughly similar academic training. Both have respected PhDs, hers in public administration from the University of Chicago, his in mechanical engineering from the U. of I. at Urbana. However, while Stukel was writing articles for the learned journals of his field, Wolff (to borrow a slur from Steve Neal) was writing position papers for the governor.
"I like to teach," says Wolff. Former colleagues confirm that somewhat unflatteringly, recalling that she liked to play schoolmarm to her staff's obedient pupils. Wolff's sole formal teaching experience came at Governors State University, which is respected from Peotone to Romeoville as the Harvard of Will County but—alas for aspiring academics—not known anywhere else.
Mayor Daley's guileless advocacy of Wolff for the UIC job, like the press's characterization of her as a Daley puppet, offers rich ironies. When Wolff moved to Chicago from New York, she became a Republican largely because she was repulsed by the racism and corruption that then typified the Daley-led Illinois Democratic Party. But Wolff is a very Hyde Park Republican. James "Pate" Philip, the Illinois Senate minority leader from suburban Wood Dale, reportedly nursed an extravagant detestation of Wolff as a liberal. (Project Chance and Parents Too Soon are two programs said to have Paula Wolff's fingerprints on them.) Politically sophisticated people also came to that conclusion. In a 1990 profile in Illinois Issues, Saint Louis Post- Dispatch reporter Kathleen Best went so far as to portray Wolff as the liberal conscience of the Thompson administration.
Wolff does have ties to the ineffectual Left—Mother Wolff was partial to Stevenson in the 1950s, and a young Paula canvassed for Gene McCarthy in '68. However, all you had to do to get a reputation as a liberal in the Thompson administration was drive yourself to work. As a Republican, her activism was rather more constrained by fiscal pragmatism than most conventional liberals find seemly. (Wolff's policy stances tended to be protective rather than proactive; as she puts it, the first priority of social policy is to prevent government from doing anything bad to people.) Worse, she was a faithful servant to a governor who was, in human services terms, no better than he needed to be.
Wolff probably influenced more people than programs. Because of the Thompson administration's remarkable longevity, Wolff had the chance to mentor a whole generation of public servants, many of them women. Among the latter are Sally Jackson, Edgar's new chief of operations, and Karen Witter, until recently director of the Department of Energy and Natural Resources, who describes Wolff as "one of the most principled people in state government." It is said by some in Springfield that you could always spot Paula people by their tendency to be irritating during meetings, but perhaps they are more fairly remembered for opting to remain in public service in disproportionate numbers compared to other Thompson veterans who went on to pimp for corporations, law firms, and big-money lobbies.
Wolff is probably better described as a cultural rather than a conventional political liberal. In her conversations about the UIC chancellorship she posed her alertness to a multicultural, multiethnic future against what she calls the insularity of that campus. The question must be asked in fact whether the prospect of leading a ghetto campus out of the wilderness might have appealed to her as a form of taking up the white woman's burden.
Reporters who portrayed Wolff as just another political hack thus went especially astray. She has that contempt for practical politics that only education at places like Smith College and the University of Chicago can provide. John Camper, the UIC press spokesman who covered Wolff for 20 years in his former life as a reporter, says he cautioned his less-informed colleagues against "dirtying up" Wolff by pegging her as one of Thompson's political flunkies. As he puts it, "There's no water in that well."
This may be generous; even a governor's policymakers become de facto political staff when they work for a governor like Thompson, whose only policy priority was getting re-elected. Still, Wolff was widely regarded in Springfield as the least political person among Thompson's senior staff. As boss of what one veteran calls the "good government side" of the Thompson operation, Wolff's job was partly to champion programs against their subversion by "the sleaze," as Thompson's political and patronage staffs were collectively known. "The nice thing about being program director," she recalls, "is that you can say, 'This is right' and 'This is wrong.'"
This is not to suggest that Wolff is not intensely political. "She was just as political as somebody like [former deputy governor] Jim Fletcher, who was a purely political animal," explains one former Thompson cabinet member. "It's just that her politics were in pursuit of a different agenda." Her partisanship was excited by threats to programs and people (and her own bureaucratic authority) from bureaucratic rivals. Indeed, some who know her found her political dealings with the General Assembly to be surprisingly naive. The upper-floor offices at the statehouse are something of an ivory tower, too.
Strong personalities tend to evoke strong reactions, and Wolff is a strong personality. As one of the people who disciplined errant agency heads on behalf of the governor, Wolff bruised plenty of sensitive egos. Generally speaking, the only people in Springfield who won't hate you after 14 years in state government are the waiters at Baur's, but Wolff left behind an especially vivid reputation. She is described variously as jealous of her own power, impatient, aggressive, occasionally condescending. (No wonder she thought she'd make a good university administrator.) She is in fact rather vain about her rectitude; for example, she liked to personally check her staff's travel vouchers for untoward luxuries billed to the taxpayers.
As an educated liberated female from New York married to a rich lawyer, Wayne Whalen, Wolff had five or six strikes against her on some critics' scorecards. For example, she was scorned as a "millionaire with super-millionaire political connections" by the Sun-Times's Vernon Jarrett, who apparently believed that the UIC search committee erred by not including a needs test among its criteria for the $127,000-a-year chancellorship. Crain's reporter Mark Hornung referred irrelevantly to "the diminutive Ms. Wolff." (Her physical stature at least spared readers any "Who's afraid of the big bad Wolff?" headlines.)
While gender is not the burden in academe that it used to be—the president of the University of Chicago is female, as are five of the nine University of Illinois trustees—a few commentators apparently saw in Wolff's candidacy evidence that behind every successful woman there lurks a man. Wolff says she especially resented being defined in terms of her husband, as Springfield's State Journal-Register did when it summed her up as "a former aide to Thompson, and the wife of a close friend of Daley." Neither that paper nor any Chicago daily revealed anything about Mrs. Stukel's social or political ties, indeed whether there even is a Mrs. Stukel.
The State Journal-Register also called her "a pawn in the hands of Thompson and Daley." Wolff's candidacy did serve causes other than her own. A small faction of the UIC faculty confess to pushing her candidacy (in some cases in spite of their reservations about her fitness to be chancellor) in the hope that it might spur a useful debate on larger issues of university policy. And some trustees clearly were eager to use her sex to shame the Ikenberry administration over its hiring record, since all but one of the president's staff of 21 are male.
However, there has never been a hint that Wolff trafficked in Thompson's patronage markets. And Daley couldn't have picked a worse stooge than Wolff, who is as vain about her political independence as his father used to be about his reputation for personal probity.
Wolff's lack of visibility during the Thompson years was due in part to her having been overlooked by a statehouse press corps that is fascinated by politics but generally indifferent to government. Her anonymity was advanced by her belief that the role of her and her staff was to get Thompson's name into the papers, not theirs. When Wolff did let herself be quoted, it typically was on such topics as the decision-making process in Thompson's inner circle and in such insider publications as Illinois Issues magazine, which in terms of her exposure to the general public were tantamount to speaking off the record.
Why, then, would a woman known for not being known mount such a determined campaign of self-promotion? In the context of her previous career, her posing for a Crain's photographer in front of the UIC administration building was as flagrant a come-on as any hooker's on a street corner. Former associates describe her posing as out of character, at least to the extent it was public. The simplest explanation for her campaign is probably the most accurate: the chancellorship was a job she wanted very, very much.
I asked one of Thompson's former top agency directors, "Did she jump, or was she pushed?"
"Oh, she jumped," he replied.
* * *
The U. of I. is the state's oldest and biggest public university, a world-class institution accomplished in every major field of academic endeavor except deceiving the NCAA. It gave the world the homecoming weekend and Red Grange and the new math. Its annual budget runs into the billions, and these days it boasts a total of 60,000 students. It has two campuses—the main campus at Urbana (founded in 1867) and UIC, formed in 1982 when the university's medical school was consolidated with the Circle campus a few blocks away at Halsted and Harrison.
Most local commentators describe UIC as a sibling to the downstate campus rather than its child. This description satisfies local vanities but it distorts the school's history. UIC owes its present robustness to the protection and patronage of its downstate parent, without which it would languish as another Governors State or Chicago State. (Its institutional robustness—that is, its intellectual robustness—may be traceable to its founding generation of deans.) A family resemblance is unmistakable, if only in UIC's research-oriented mission. Indeed, the conflicts UIC suffers at the moment are almost oedipal—its need at 25 to define itself in its own terms, to find its own way in the world, and demonstrate an end to its dependence on Urbana.
UIC has grown from its commuter school origins to boast a student body of some 25,000 (more than 7,000 of them graduate students) and a teaching staff of 3,600, not to mention the largest collegiate ice hockey facility in the nation. By most conventional measures UIC has emerged in the last decade as one of the nation's major research universities. In spite of its growth (or perhaps because of it), the university's identity and mission remain inchoate, even confused. For instance, faculty members describe UIC as the best-kept secret in U.S. higher education, but it may be the best-kept secret in Chicago higher education, too. Like so many other local institutions of note, UIC has a stature outside the city that it doesn't enjoy inside it. The Trib repeated the jibe that the letters "UIC" stand for the "University Isolated from Chicago."
Our hairier-chested academics have grown defensive about their reputation for irrelevance to the world in which things are made and sold and not just talked about. As UIC associate professor Kelvin Rodolfo put it in the Sun-Times, "We hate being patronized by references to the 'real world' and our ignorance of it." Consider that UIC researchers are at work with Northwestern University and Motorola Inc. on a promising computer-aided traffic management system called ADVANCE. If it works a grateful public may begin to use the term "commuter college" with a smile rather than a sneer.
An index of UIC's connection to the city's life might be the frequency with which its faculty are quoted as experts in the news media. Unfortunately there is no media-expert equivalent of the productivity indexes that measure scholarly relevance by counting how often experts are cited in learned articles. If there were, Northwestern would win handily, thanks to the presence on its staff of Lou Masotti—the Ann Landers of urban planning—and Don Haider. But UIC's experts are far from extras on the media stage. Even people who listen to WBEZ only when they are passing it on the dial have heard UIC's Professor James Cracraft on the Soviet Union. It is impossible to talk sensibly about economic development in Chicago without quoting UIC economics professor Joseph Persky, and Ananda Chakrabarty, discoverer of oil-eating microbes, is more familiar to readers of the New York Times than Richie Daley is. And one of two ecologists leading the national campaign to establish a federal research center for the environment modeled on the National Institutes for Health is UIC's Henry Howe.
Nevertheless, the school lacks the kind of personality and presence of some area campuses. Its teams are never seen on WGN, it is on the wrong el line and too far from the lake. Its campus doesn't feel like one and, because it remains essentially a commuter school, doesn't function like one. Few UIC grads talk about the alma mater with the voluble pride Domers have in Notre Dame, perhaps because a school where one merely goes to classes never makes the impression of a school where one lives. UIC's youth is a factor, too. Stukel has explained that because of UIC's preoccupation with growth, alumni relations, corporate relations, and endowment building have been slighted, even ignored.
UIC has faced some further problems unique to its history. The controversies over the siting of the Circle campus put the neighborhood at odds with the university from the start. Chicago's campuses tend to evolve into enclaves anyway, as their inhabitants turn inward in a protective reaction against Chicago's pride in its buffoonery and its elevation of anti-intellectualism to a cultural style.
How to establish full diplomatic and cultural relations between city and campus was an issue in the chancellor's race. Wolff won on points on the scorecards of most observers, since her Rolodex carried more punch than Stukel's. Her opponents were quick to admit—usually with a smile—that her contacts in the corporate, philanthropic, and government worlds made her a perfect candidate—for a vice chancellor for external affairs.
The day after his appointment, Stukel showed that his Rolodex contained a big name or two of its own when he unveiled his long-planned corporate relations advisory board chaired by Montgomery Ward's go-getting CEO, Bernard Brennan. Indeed, Stukel did a great Paula Wolff imitation in the days immediately after his appointment. He met with the mayor, he did the talk shows, he announced a series of initiatives to deal with those long-neglected "externals."
It was not their isolation from Chicago that seemed to trouble UIC partisans as much as their isolation from Urbana. UIC's putative "weak stepsister" status within the U. of I. system was the cause of much resentful comment during the chancellorship debate. The Sun-Times wailed that the aspersions cast (presumably by Wolff) on UIC's quality constituted "a sad and irresponsible libel fabricated purely for political purpose." Of course, comparing Urbana's 125-year-old campus and UIC's 25-year-old campus is fatuous. A comparison of UIC with Urbana as it was in 1892 would be more telling—and would flatter UIC enormously.
There was a component of outraged chauvinism in the complaints of pro-Urbana favoritism, as well as in the tendency of Chicago boosters to exaggerate UIC's status at the expense of the campus downstate. UIC's entry into the top ranks of research universities has been remarkable, but much of the apparent jump in sponsored research registered by UIC in the 1980s happened when the old U. of I. School of Medicine merged with the Circle campus. Even after the consolidation of the Chicago campuses, the Urbana campus ranks among the top 15 or so U. S. research universities while UIC barely makes the top 60.
Discount for boosterism, however, and UIC's progress toward conventional academic respectability is still impressive. The campus is home to such standout scholars as the former history department chairman, award-winning Andrew Jackson scholar Robert Remini. In the last five years UIC faculty have been awarded 20 fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Only Princeton, Michigan, and Columbia have won more in that period, during which the Urbana campus garnered a paltry eight NEH fellowships.
Perhaps more significant in the eyes of the larger Chicago public, the Fighting Illini last fall suffered their first-ever defeat on the basketball floor by the UIC Flames. Basketball is one of the few scholastic endeavors in which inner-city schools are advantaged, and it is a measure of UIC's maturation as a mainstream institution that it recently signed a nationally recruited all-state academic nonqualifier.
If the U. of I. hasn't starved UIC in the past to feed the bigger downstate campus, Urbana's future generosity will be tested in an era of declining public resources. Upon his appointment as chancellor, Stukel pledged to take a more aggressive and independent role in promoting the interests of UIC in Springfield. In the context of the university's traditions of governance, such a move isn't just innovation, it's insurrection, akin to Yeltsin ignoring Gorbachev in foreign policy.
James Nowlan, the newly appointed director of the Taxpayers Federation of Illinois, taught at Knox College after careers as a state agency director, lieutenant governor, and gubernatorial candidate. He has written often about the politics of higher education in Illinois, and spent several years at Urbana's Institute of Government and Public Affairs. Says Nowlan, "There is strong anxiety at the Urbana campus that, in a world of finite resources for higher ed, any increased role for the UIC ultimately will redound to the detriment of the Urbana campus." However much they have grown to be alike in terms of research budgets or faculty honors, the two campuses still differ profoundly in priority and personality. True-blue-and-orange Illini are accustomed to seeing ivy on campus buildings, not rust stains. To them, the ambiance of the Circle campus, from its crumbling buildings to its polyglot student body, is repellently third world. As one UIC instructor puts it, when they think "university" they think of football stadiums set in cornfields.
Traditionally, the U of I president has lobbied the General Assembly on behalf of all its campuses. As former trustee William Forsyth puts it, "It was never 'we' and 'they.' It was always us." But a bill was introduced into the spring General Assembly by Representative Andrew McGann, a Democrat from the southwest side, that would split the two campuses and establish UIC as a stand-alone institution with its own governing board. Independence from Urbana is an old idea that has long appealed to UIC romantics who see themselves as the Kurds of Illinois higher education. Some Urbana partisans who resent UIC's alien presence within their institutional borders no doubt favor it too. Conventional wisdom in Springfield has always held that UIC would have just about the same chance of making independence work as the Kurds, that Urbana would win any head-to-head contest for resources because of its tradition (and its potent constituency of some 150,000 resident alums).
Past U of I administrations have always fought severance bills. Two campuses give it more than twice the clout in Springfield. And as resentful of UIC as some elements of the downstate constituency are, they are even more fearful of the competition that an independent UIC might give Urbana. The trends favor UIC rather than Urbana. Urbana's historic power base in downstate towns and cities is bleeding population to the Chicago metropolitan area. Student demographics and rising costs favor urban commuter campuses, and Chicago's more varied job market means that star faculty who have job-hunting spouses will find the city more attractive (economically at least) than Urbana.
* * *
It's not always easy to know who is running a big university but it is at least possible to say who is officially in charge. Day-to-day administration of the U. of I. is left to a president and two chancellors (one for each campus), but ultimate authority resides with a nine-member board of trustees. Trustees are elected to staggered six-year terms in at-large partisan elections. Many a loyal Illini would pass up a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court to be a trustee, much the way certain Chicago pols disdain a seat in Congress to be an alderman, but to the rest of the state the board is anything but a bully pulpit. Political scientists for years tracked U. of I. trustee votes as a barometer of party strength in Illinois, on the assumption that people vote for the party they approve of when they don't know the personalities.
Of the present board, seven reside in Chicago or its suburbs, seven are Democrats, five are female, and one is nonwhite; for the record, their names are Bacon, Boyle, Calder, Grabowski, Gravenhorst, Lamont, Reese, Shepherd, and Wolff (no relation). It was these people who were responsible for choosing UIC's newest chancellor. The university's chancellors serve not at the pleasure of the university president but at the pleasure of the board, which appoints them to one-year terms. Such appointments are made only in close consultation with the university community, however.
The search committee assembled to find Donald Langenberg's successor at UIC appeared to be weighted toward the administration, having been loaded with deans and department heads comfortable with the status quo. The search committee had been charged to find female and minority candidates for the job, but of 99 candidates the 3 who survived the screening were white males. True, looking for women and minorities with experience at the top levels of major university administration is a lot like looking for experienced free-market CEOs among the Poles or the East Germans. But the recent search for a new president for Springfield's Sangamon State University—arguably a lesser post in everything but title—turned up 120 candidates and four finalists, among whom three are female.
To skeptics, the UIC chancellor search looked like a done deal that had been set up to permanently install James Stukel, Ikenberry's acting chancellor. (The committee engaged the professional search firm of Heidrick and Struggles—to broaden the search, say trustees; to counter the appearance that the search was an inside job, says one committee member.) Disinterested parties agree that no fix on Stukel's behalf was necessary. Installed as a vice chancellor for research in 1985 after 23 years in Urbana, he had subsequently served as UIC's vice chancellor for academic affairs, executive vice chancellor, and acting chancellor. He is well-known on campus and widely respected. Described by a colleague as "incredibly hardworking," Stukel also demonstrated a commitment to minority recruitment while acting chancellor. The only rap on Stukel was that he was a traditionalist who, if not Ikenberry's man, thinks a lot like Ikenberry—the kind of administrator that a scornful Thompson described as a "good gray dean."
However innocently it was arrived at, the result of the search process guaranteed that the process itself would become as much an issue as the candidates. Anti-Wolff factions defended the sanctity of the search in the name of academic freedom and the tradition of faculty self-governance. At the March 14 trustees meeting, Ikenberry said in effect that the process wasn't broke so they'd fix it. (He promised to recommend to the faculty that a select committee be set up "to help us look afresh at the process.") Pro-Wolff factions conceded that they had interfered in the process, but only when its inadequacies became manifest.
A search often is more an exercise in political consensus building than it is a personnel procedure. Searches for top administrative and academic posts are required by custom rather than law, and candidates submitted by search committees are rejected surprisingly often by university boards, either on their merits or because the latter become deadlocked over the choice. At times a search is little more than a charade, an elaborate waltz danced to the tune of the faculty's discontent, meant to appease various interest groups within the campus community.
Academic searches are thus distinguished from hiring under corporate or civil service rules. The distinction left many non-academics confused. The Sun-Times's Steve Neal likened the Wolff campaign to a hostile takeover bid; it could just as plausibly be likened to an auditor blowing the whistle on a bank fraud. Thompson jeered that he interviewed more people when he hired a file clerk than the search committee did when looking for a chancellor. An exasperated Mayor Daley said at one point, "Why shouldn't she be interviewed?" apparently failing to appreciate that according to search protocol, the "when" and "by whom" of an interview matter as much as the "whether."
Inevitably, each of the complaining parties believed that the way to improve the search process was to include more of their members on future search committees. Certain faculty thought it needed more faculty, some trustees thought the board ought to be represented, and the Trib plumped for naming "prominent community members" who have ties to UIC. In a post-appointment interview with WTTW's John Callaway, Stukel said, "One has to be aware, especially in urban environments, of other issues that have to be addressed," by which we may assume he meant other constituencies that have to be placated. The Sun-Times argued for more fundamental reform, insisting that trustees who were appointed rather than elected would be less beholden to pols.
At issue was not only the process per se but the criteria used to direct it. The chancellor of a big campus is often likened to the chief executive officer of a large corporation, but the skills required of a university chancellor are less administrative than diplomatic. His (or her) external role is the administration's representative on campus, but internally he is the faculty's representative to the secular world, a sort of first among equals chosen to administer the campus's intellectual affairs on their behalf while they tend to their classrooms or their labs. It is significant that when UIC faculty rallied at a March 1 "symposium" to discuss the chancellorship controversy, the topic of the meeting was announced as "faculty governance."
The institutional differences between a campus and a company become vivid when it is time to find a new chancellor. No corporation asks its employees to draft the criteria that the board will use in its search for a new CEO. But both protocol and practical politics required that U of I president Ikenberry consult with the UIC faculty senate regarding the job criteria to be used by the chancellor search committee.
A chancellor's governing style thus must be consensual rather than coercive. Even Wolff's admirers pretty much agree that had she won, she would have taken office badly crippled. She would have faced at best a suspicious faculty, a factionalized board, and an antagonistic university president. She optimistically concluded that the extent of faculty unrest was overstated, and that Ikenberry was a pragmatist who would get along with anyone he needed to get along with and who in any event was unlikely to be president much longer. Her confidence in her ability to lead is matched, detractors say, by her apparent ignorance of how universities work. As Nowlan puts it, "Universities are self-selected communities. A university is built on bottom-up power rather than top-down, the way a corporation or political administration is." Faculty have tenure in their teaching positions; chancellors enjoy no such protection in their appointed roles. Sam Gove, the highly respected U of I political scientist who analyzed such controversies for many years as director of the university's Institute for Government and Public Affairs, came to a typical conclusion. "The faculty just wouldn't go along," he says. "There'd be a lot of turmoil."
The criteria drafted for the UIC search were vaguely enough worded—the key phrases are "significant," "academic distinction," "an understanding of"—that any committee would enjoy wide latitude in applying them. This particular committee opted for a narrow interpretation; as the Trib complained, the criteria used by this committee "virtually ruled out anybody who hadn't grown old within the school's hallowed halls." As for Thompson, the ex-gov bellowed from his new seat in the bleachers that university administrators are a lot like baseball managers: the only people who get hired for the job are people who have proved their credentials by failing somewhere else.
More significant than intellectual or teaching credentials were the various candidates' backgrounds as academic administrators. UIC has had some unhappy experiences with its chancellors going back to its founding. Some placed Donald Langenberg in this tradition, he being a man of impeccable intellectual credentials who is generally described as a weak administrator. The deans in particular probably were eager not to repeat the past. As Stukel explained in his interview with John Callaway, the chancellor does more than push paper. He is the ultimate arbiter of matters involving tenure and appointments, which Stukel called "the most critical judgment of any [academic] institution." While the "externals" were important too, recalled one committee member, "we were not looking for a Paula Wolff."
Wolff has not administered so much as a university department. Largely because of that lack of experience, the UIC searchers ranked her not quite in the top third of the 99 candidates they looked at. To her critics, Wolff simply lacked the essentials to manage in the academic big leagues. (Wolff's colleague Jeffrey Miller, a onetime Thompson chief of staff, was named a dean at Northwestern, but he runs NU's administration and planning operation, which is a nonacademic post.) Steve Neal noted that University of Chicago president Hannah Gray trained in the minors as both provost and acting president of Yale, a dean at Northwestern, and an instructor at Bryn Mawr, Harvard, Yale, and Chicago before being named president in Hyde Park.
Wolff was "disappointed" at her exclusion on these grounds. She believes that the skills of a public administrator are transferable, and can be applied with equal effect in the context of a state government agency, a campus, or a governor's staff. If all that governors' aides do is write position papers, her defenders said in effect, all that most chancellors do is read position papers.
Tradition assumes otherwise, but it is not clear that conventional academic credentials have a lot to do with running a university. Ikenberry for one is no Bart Giamatti or Derek Bok. (One of the things the trustees were looking for when they hired Ikenberry was someone willing to entertain a lot.) The son of a small-college president, Ikenberry's own academic achievements consist of advanced degrees in education from Big Ten schools, training that probably ought to disqualify a man from running a university. (Harvard's new president, in comparison, graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, spent three years at Oxford, and earned a Harvard PhD in Renaissance literature.) Similarly, Stukel performed admirably as acting chancellor in the face of power blackouts and boiler explosions and an occupation of his office by students protesting racial incidents on the campus. His contribution in all cases was as a mediator, a negotiator, a conciliator.
A doer, in short, not a thinker.
* * *
Looking back, it's obvious that Paula Wolff never had a chance. The faculty senate was poised to go to war publicly with the trustees if Wolff's name were added to the list of candidates. The senate's executive committee had approved a resolution declaring her "unqualified" for the post; a vote by the full senate was rendered moot by Wolff's decision to withdraw her name.
That senate resolution was the single formal action taken by the faculty, but it was far from being the only display of opposition. Late-night phone calls were placed and anonymous letters were mailed; motives were willfully misunderstood and reputations maligned. Wolff averred that faculty members who backed her shrank from saying so publicly for fear of retribution by the administration; they replied that she had a hit list of faculty who would feel the ax if she got control. One anti-Wolff faction held a "faculty press conference" to announce a position that at least some faculty members not only didn't agree with but had never heard about. (University professors are people accustomed to speaking on behalf of Western civilization, so it is no surprise that some did not shrink from speaking on behalf of the English department.)
When the Tribune called the UIC faculty "pure-as-snow academicians," in short, it was indulging in sarcasm. At that March 6 rally, Wolff was excoriated for Daley's record in affirmative action and Thompson's failures as a steward of higher education. (Big Jim presided over a decline in public spending for higher education that saw Illinois slip by 1989 to 48th place among the states, a record one UIC professor sarcastically calls "Thompson's gift to higher education.") Such readings of the record flattered Wolff's reputation as an influential rather more than they flattered the professors' understanding of the way government works.
Crain's editorially described the anti-Wolff rhetoric as a species of character assassination; Jim Nowlan describes the UIC faculty's reaction to Wolff as "almost primal." It was as if Daley and Thompson had been caught trying to sneak a harlot into the cloister, but then the psychology of the campus is akin to that of a religious order, and it often has the same deforming effects on its inhabitants. Schisms and heresies are rife; the fact that people believe themselves to be fighting for transcendent principles makes them all the more uncompromising.
The main complaint was that Wolff was an agent of a sexist, repressive, corporate-government establishment. Cries of alarm over the infringement on academic freedom rang out so loudly you would have thought that NCAA investigators had been spotted at the airport. There were dire predictions that faculty would desert UIC like fleas leaving a drowning dog if Wolff were appointed, and the school's name would be sneered at wherever upwardly mobile eggheads gathered. The head of the UIC ophthalmology department solemnly informed the Tribune that a top faculty recruitee had dropped UIC from the top spot on his list of preferred appointments; the out-of-towner had read an account of Daley's meddling in USA Today and evidently feared that he might be expected to consult with Frank Kruesi about his choice of textbooks. Unfortunately, the Trib did not ask how valuable a man might be who made career decisions on the strength of a single story in USA Today.
Not for the first time, it was revealed that professors and pols don't speak the same language. UIC professor and poet Michael Anania explains that if you reply to a suggestion made by a person in a position of power with the words, "Yes, I think that's a good idea," he will understand you to mean, "Yes, I'll do what you suggest." If you make the same reply to an intellectual, he will understand you to be saying, "Thanks for telling me about it." It is the kind of nuance of which Daley aides Kruesi and Tim Dugnan seemed so signally unaware as they made the rounds on Wolff's behalf.
More than a few UIC faculty also were put off by what one observer calls the "crass political terms" in which the Wolff camp phrased the dispute. Springfield has been run for years by people whose secret hero is Bob Haldeman. Many of House Speaker Mike Madigan's operatives affect a tough-guy patois that Sam Spade might have used if he'd been president of the debate club in high school. Whatever its origins, all the blunt talk of hit lists and cutting people's legs off sounded as alarming to many intellectuals as the thud of cannonballs landing against the battlements.
In an atmosphere both contentious and confused, it was hard to figure out what the faculty really thought about the prospects of a Wolff chancellorship. Wolff insists that the extent of faculty opposition was overstated. She figured that a few wanted her very much to be chancellor, a few wanted very much that she not be chancellor, and a few would have stayed strong for Stukel if Aristotle and Mr. Chips were in the race. Some probably didn't want to see anyone appointed chancellor. Most of the faculty, Wolff asserts, probably didn't care. The universe within which most large university instructors dwell is their academic department. Here, the department chairman plays mayor to the instructor's alderman; the chancellor is the equivalent of the governor sitting in a distant statehouse.
Nowlan: "Higher education since the Renaissance has valued its independence from secular authorities over every other value. It's so deeply imbued in academics as to be unconscious." One of the richer ironies of the chancellorship debate was that those factions that most wailed about Chicago having been cheated by downstate favoritism rejected the two people—Daley and Wolff—most eager to advance UIC's cause.
Purity won out. A better model for the campus than the ivory tower might be the spinster's bed.
* * *
For most of this century the U of I has functioned as a quasi-independent city-state within the commonwealth, under the leadership of (usually) politically adroit presidents. The school's lobbying team has long been widely reckoned one of the best in the state. That tradition predates even the school's opening; the university is based in Urbana rather than, say, Kankakee or Peoria because of Urbanans' skill at doing deals in the General Assembly.
"The university wasn't outside politics," recalls Sam Gove of the era that ended roughly with the 1970s , "but it was a different type of politics." A trusteeship was regarded as a public service post, the main qualification for which was loyalty to the school and a very forgiving schedule. Trustees traditionally run on party slates, but for some 50 years the parties assembled those slates from lists of candidates submitted to their state conventions by the school's powerful alumni association. Trustee candidates thus were spared having to endure primary elections, which would have required a compromising amount of politicking for these essentially apolitical posts.
Vetting by the alumni association guaranteed people of safe views, but it also meant that the people who served were familiar with the school's programs and its traditions of governance. Virtually all trustees honored the traditional separation of the academy and the statehouse. They also generally left academic matters to the academics. Instead, they busied themselves setting tuition rates and approving budgets, cooling controversies in the General Assembly whenever a professor offended a local Rotarian, and getting tickets for friends for the Michigan game.
The politics of higher education in Illinois have seldom been partisan, but rather regional in tone. The legislature has generally deferred to the professors in matters of policy, although controversy usually excites the reformer in our lawmakers. Andrew McGann's severance bill, for example, is one of three new bills assumed to have been stimulated—one hesitates to use the word "inspired"—by the UIC chancellorship fracas. (A second resurrects a hoary plan to have trustees appointed by the governor; a third—drafted by a disaffected southern lawmaker aware, as most Chicagoans are not, that Urbana and Chicago both reside in the northern half of Illinois—calls for the election of trustees by geographical district.)
That tradition began to change in the 1980s, when the state Democratic Party began slating some of its own candidates for trustee seats in preference to the alumni's choices. Similar uprisings had occurred before—the Republicans made an end run around the alumni in the 1950s to get Red Grange on the board—but they never happened often enough to constitute a policy. "We're getting more activist party leaders, like Vince Demuzio and now Gary LaPaille," explains Gove. "They don't look on the board the way party leaders used to."
Traditionally, the partisan affiliation of the individual trustees was irrelevant once they were elected. (The exception came when it was time to name a board chairman; the majority party on the board is afforded the courtesy of naming one of its own the chairman.) Former trustee Bill Forsyth says, "In my 18 years I don't recall that anybody on the board had a political job." Gove notes that even though Illinois is an extremely political state, there has been virtually no patronage hiring at the big state schools. "If the present trend continues," he adds dryly, "it could make a difference."
The Democrats' new interest in higher education is one of several factors that have made trustee politics more volatile than it's been in decades. In the days of straight-ticket trustee voting, the slate of whichever party won that year's top-of-the-ticket race for governor or president also won all the board seats up for grabs. But voters have begun to split their tickets in voting for trustees; for instance, a Republican won the governor's race in 1990 but Democrats took two of the three contested trustee seats.
Party affiliation by itself being no longer a guarantee of success or failure in a trustee race, candidates have taken to actually campaigning. In the old days, a "campaign" (especially by an incumbent) amounted to making a half-dozen phone calls. In 1990 Susan Gravenhorst, a Lake Forest Republican and advertising executive, compiled a slick campaign package about herself to accomplish what the old-timers used to do with a firm handshake and a ready smile. Democrat attorney Thomas Lamont of Springfield actually pressed the flesh in downstate Illinois; a chairman of the company board who showed up to do some glad-handing at his factory gate couldn't have startled people more.
Today's more energetic candidates have gradually run off the board traditionalists like Springfield Republican Ralph Hahn (who in 1990 unsuccessfully sought his fifth six-year term). Five new members have joined the board in the last two years alone. Apart from Democrat Nina Shepherd, who has been on the board for 16 years, the tenure of the present members averages a little more than two and a half years.
Newness is about all that the present board members have in common. Chairman Charles Wolff is an Elgin Democrat and factotum to eccentric trader Richard Dennis who is widely thought to have won his slating out of gratitude for having brought that multimillionaire's money into the Democratic Party. Gloria Jackson Bacon—a Chicago African American elected in 1988—is a physician. The first thing acquaintances says about Gravenhorst is that she is true to her school, a woman with blue and orange blood in her veins.
Most conspicuous of the new breed of trustee is Kenneth Boyle, a former state legislator and state's attorney from downstate Macoupin County who since 1980 has directed the office of the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor. Elected to his first trustee term in 1988, Boyle has been described as a good ol' boy, a man who's as at home on the floor of the Illinois House as his predecessors were on the 50-yard line at Memorial Stadium.
Boyle was the most energetic supporter of Paula Wolff among the trustees, and the man who marshaled trustees to intervene on her behalf in the search process. Boyle also was the most outspoken in his impatience with the academy, complaining once to a downstate reporter that the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court would have trouble being approved as U of I law school dean because he doesn't have a degree in higher-education administration.
The UIC chancellorship fight was not just another partisan squabble over a job. (Wolff is a Republican whose most avid allies on the board were Democrats.) The real contest was not between Democrats and Republicans or even between alumni and the unanointed but between Springfield insiders and university traditionalists. The takeover of the U of I board by the state Dems is the latest skirmish in a tussle for dominance between Illinois's contending political cultures that's pitted the boardroom against the clubhouse for more than a century. For decades the U of I board was filled with solid burghers of the middle class—housewives or retirees or businessmen, including a few of what one loyalist flatteringly calls "captains of industry." Whatever their wealth, U. of I. trustees historically were civic-minded citizens (Nina Shepherd, for example, is a former League of Women Voters president) accustomed to seeing themselves as the patricians among Illinois' governing class. To them, the values as well as the style of the new breed are alien. ("His ball game is party politics," one U of I insider says of Boyle's role in the UIC chancellorship search. "He was just acting like a politician, trying to push his views of what a university ought to be.") But what can look like corruption to the traditionalists may be cooperation to the newcomers.
The fact that so many of the new members aren't familiar with the traditions and history of the institution they were elected to run doesn't trouble U of I loyalists as much as the fact that so few of them seem interested in finding out. They suspect that some of the newcomers' loyalties belong not to the institution but to their party sponsors or to their own causes. (Calder and Bacon have been strong on affirmative action, for example; a disappointed Bacon was the only trustee to vote against Stukel's appointment, and Calder abstained.)
Personal agendas were not unfamiliar to the old boards, of course. Certain past members were known as the "voice" of this college or that one, and Ralph Hahn retired having earned a reputation as an advocate for minority recruitment. But a good trustee was one who pursued a personal vision of the university; he did not pursue a personal vision via the university.
It is not yet clear that the newer trustees even have any personal visions of the university. I asked another longtime observer of the U of I, "Who are these people?"
"People who aren't anybody," came the reply, "trying to be somebody."
* * *
Imagine the scene. We are at the Assembly Hall in Urbana, during a state high school basketball tournament. In the stands, U. of I. president Stanley Ikenberry is in earnest consultation with the new governor. What Ikenberry has to say is enough to make Jim Edgar's hair stand on end, if Jim Edgar's hair could stand on end.
"This Wolff thing is doing real harm," Ikenberry reports. "If she's approved by the trustees I'll have a faculty revolt on my hands in Chicago. The nannies of the American Association of University Professors will see to it that we couldn't recruit a Jeff Smith to teach stir-frying in the College of Home Economics.
"Jim Stukel is my man," Ikenberry may have continued, "and he's also the best man, and if he's rejected it will be seen as a vote of no-confidence from the trustees. My credibility with the university and the General Assembly—not to mention the credibility of the university in the wider world—is at stake. In short, it would be difficult for me to continue in my post if Wolff is named chancellor."
That version is not a literal rendering of what was said between the two men, but it probably is a pretty good version of what was communicated. Among the connoisseurs of political survival, Ikenberry stands high. He is a politician of the palace, not the stump, and within that realm he has proved to be every bit as nimble as a Daley or a Thompson. Ikenberry's administration of UIC came up as an issue only tangentially, as editors focused instead on the charges of political interference in the search process. And no one alleged that Ikenberry's motives were poisoned by partisan politics, even though his work as co-director of Edgar's transition team left him vulnerable to the charge.
The spirited advocacy of Paula Wolff by Illinois' secular powers had put Ikenberry in an extraordinarily tight spot. A well-connected colleague—Wolff, remember, co-chaired Jim Edgar's transition team with Ikenberry—wants a job that Ikenberry has practically promised to another man. The lame-duck governor is telling anyone who'll listen what a great person Wolff would be for the job. (Thompson's pointed criticisms of Ikenberry's candidate must have felt like a shiv in the back to the president, who's been a loyal, even abject servant to the governor.) At the same time, elements of the UIC community are also pressing him on the vexing issue of female and minority hiring; at a campus whose nonwhite enrollment is roughly 40 percent, only five of UIC's 24 top administrators are either female or persons of color.
So Ikenberry must make a show of giving Wolff consideration for the UIC post. It seems unlikely that Ikenberry could abide Paula Wolff as his Number Two in Chicago. Ikenberry is not known for gathering strong personalities around him, and he and Wolff are not chums. (People who describe their relationship do not shrink from the word "hate.") Nevertheless, in the summer of 1990 the president gives press interviews that hint that he would indeed welcome, if not Paula Wolff, then certainly a Paula Wolff type onto his team.
Meanwhile, his search committee is preparing to review with its conventional eyes her very unconventional resume. Ikenberry trusts, perhaps even assumes, that her name will not end up on the short list of committee-approved candidates, leaving him free to tell the trustees and the governor, sorry, but I must respect the wishes of my campus in these matters.
Which is nearly what happened. The search committee did find Wolff wanting and submitted the names of three other people, among which Stukel's was almost suspiciously preeminent. But pro-Wolff trustees led by Kenneth Boyle reportedly were angered to learn that she had not even been granted an interview by the committee and insisted that Wolff be given one. At that point in the proceedings the pro-Wolff faction was thought to have enough votes to hold Stukel's appointment hostage until the Wolff candidacy was reconsidered.
This was an extraordinary demand. The search process itself is considered sacrosanct by the academy, even if its results aren't always. Of the intervention in this one by trustees, Gove says, "I've never seen anything like that in Illinois." Ikenberry had to appeal twice before the committee agreed to reopen the process. A subcommittee of its members was assigned to interview Wolff. Members later said they were impressed with her, but the stumbling block of academic administrative experience could not be talked away. They rejected her again.
No other result could have been expected; were they to put Wolff's name on the short list at that point, the search committee in effect would be confessing that their deliberations had been tainted by either incompetence or influence. The prospect of stalemate was nearly as bad as confrontation, and the Tribune among others began urging that the whole search process be scrapped and started over.
Debacle was averted by Edgar's intervention on behalf of Stukel. His action was announced as a move to save the university's reputation, but it saved Stanley Ikenberry's reputation too, and maybe his job. It was widely assumed that the price the trustees would have to pay for Paula Wolff would be Stanley Ikenberry. His resignation was a plausible threat; Ikenberry has been at the U of I a long time, and he makes no pretense of wanting to end his career in Illinois. (While the maneuvering over the UIC post was going on, rumors were circulating that Ikenberry's name was being spoken of approvingly in search committee meetings in Colorado and New Mexico.) It was also a potent threat. General opinion holds that an Ikenberry resignation was to be feared for its public relations rather than for its academic consequences, but that made it no less unappetizing to the university's secular leadership.
Ikenberry later insisted that he never "seriously" considered resigning. Reading a prepared statement at the March trustees meeting, he said, "At no time did I say to the board of trustees, 'Do it my way or I'll quit.'" He didn't need to, of course; hints can be dropped, assumptions made, inferences drawn in such situations that speak as loudly as a declaration. Can sensible adults hear anything but "resign" in Ikenberry's declaration that he had put his "full faith and personal integrity" behind his pledge that "no tricks" would be played on the committee as a result of their interviewing Wolff?
Edgar's decision to back Stukel saved Ikenberry from having to fall on his sword. The pro-Wolff trustees may have been willing to take on the university president, but taking on the governor might have cost them plenty come budget time; perhaps more worrisome for Democrats, the appointment of Wolff would have made what had been a policy dispute look like a power grab.
I asked a senior staffer of the Illinois Board of Higher Education whether the Wolff affair had politicized the university.
His tone in reply made it sound as if I'd asked whether a fish might get wet from swimming all the time. He said, "I have to laugh when I hear that."
* * *
The trustees' clumsy handling of the UIC chancellor search posed a peculiar dilemma for the new governor. Jim Edgar's mentor and former boss, Jim Thompson, had made no secret that he wanted Paula Wolff installed. Mike Madigan, presumably acting on behalf of Mayor Daley through his surrogates on the board, wanted her too, and Madigan is not someone a governor crosses if he can avoid it. Not that Edgar needed much persuading anyway. The governor thought highly enough of Wolff to make his own pitch on her behalf to Ikenberry, although he fastidiously refrained from any more active interference in the search process.
Edgar's decision to cast his ex officio vote for Stukel was a boldish stroke. Illinois governors had cast their votes only two times previously in the history of the university, and never had one voted in a chancellor appointment. By delivering the trustees for Ikenberry's man, Stukel, Edgar simultaneously established his independence from Thompson and asserted his executive authority over the state's flagship university. He appeared statesmanlike, even generous, by approving the president's choice for chancellor over the co-director of his own transition staff. He established a certain credibility on and off campus as a protector of academic independence.
Indeed, Edgar came out of it smelling awfully sweet for a politician who had involved himself in an unprecedented way with the process of naming a chancellor. The day after the chancellor vote, Steve Neal wrote a remarkable column in which Edgar was praised as a man who "thinks that the university should be a center for independent thought and ideas, not a political dumping ground." No mention was made of Edgar's own early advocacy of his transition co-director for the job.
And what of the other governor involved in the affair? Apparently it was Thompson who put the bug in Daley's ear about Wolff and Thompson who first broached the possibility with Ikenberry. Thompson likes to play Sugar Daddy—one of the underestimated rewards of power is the chance it gives you to be very nice to people you like—and importuning half of Illinois officialdom to land the job of a lifetime for a valued former staffer is a typically extravagant gesture.
Nevertheless, his motives for advancing Wolff were open to unflattering constructions. The governor had had 14 years to invigorate the school he once attended but didn't, perhaps because UIC does not offer the football games at which Thompson so loved to hold seminars with students. Steve Neal alleged in a column that Thompson's interest in rebuilding UIC was anything but intellectual. UIC has prepared a massive expansion plan that eventually will add 15 buildings and another 4.5 million square feet of space to the campus—projects, Neal noted, that mean "millions of dollars to be gained in legal fees, consulting contracts, and bond business" by a certain well-connected Loop attorney trying to get a practice going. Under this scenario, Wolff presumably was to have acted as the former governor's shill—a suggestion that probably libels Wolff, however accurately it captures Thompson's character.
It may have been Thompson who was busiest stuffing ballot boxes for Paula Wolff, but it was Richard M. Daley who was accused of the fix. Suspicions were bound to be raised when a mayor who doesn't like to endorse his own party's candidates for elective office endorsed Republican Wolff for an appointive one. The Sun-Times in particular worked hard to cast Daley's endorsement in the familiar mold of the clout story. In Steve Neal's version of the chancellorship fight, for example, Paula Wolff was "Mayor Daley's candidate," someone who would, in return for Daley's backing, turn the campus into a "haven for patronage." This was the "real" Daley, the Daley with horns, eager to control jobs or contracts to hand out to his pals. Some columnists hinted that Daley had his eyes on UIC's roughly 6,000 non-teaching jobs, others that he coveted control of the rich contracts that would flow from the campus expansion.
Daley's presence in the story did not improve the quality of the coverage. Like any body of extraordinary mass, a Daley bends the light that passes near him in his direction. Reporters who began by discussing what effect Daley would have on UIC ended by considering what effect UIC would have on Daley. The Harold Washington Party tried to make what it called Daley's "attempted takeover" of the west-side campus an issue in the mayoral election less because they thought the voters might buy it than because they knew the Chicago political press would. The Trib reasoned that the vision of a Daley trampling the ivy would revulse liberals, and called Wolff's defeat the biggest setback of his mayorship to date. (Academic freedom looms larger in the Trib value system, apparently, than the advocacy of women for top administrative jobs traditionally reserved for males.)
Daley's endorsement of Wolff, like that of the governor, was not necessarily sinister. What looked like strong-arm stuff might have been clumsiness. (A certain ignorance of the complexities of the academic search process by Daley, his aides, or both may be assumed.) He and Wolff met during the state Constitutional Convention in 1970 and later worked together on nursing home reform in Springfield during Daley's tenure as state senator; for all their other differences, the process-minded and pragmatic Smith-educated Easterner and the Bridgeporter from DePaul share a similar approach to government.
As mayor, Daley also has a perfectly legitimate interest in who runs UIC. Closer consultation on such policy matters as the planned expansion of the university's campus (which will require the controversial relocation of the Maxwell Street market) would be welcomed by any Chicago mayor. Ikenberry seemed a man who neither understood nor cared to understand big-city politics; it may be that Daley didn't want Wolff installed as chancellor because he thought he could manipulate her, but because he hoped that Ikenberry couldn't.
The university in effect subsidizes both welfare and the county's and city's public health budgets, providing what those governments cannot or will not provide. James Stukel's various post-appointment statements suggest that Daley may not have gotten the chancellor he wanted but he got what she would have given him, which is assurances from the university that it will honor, even expand its commitment to providing public services to the west side.
In a series of meetings in March, Stukel reminded people that the university already is involved in the city's neighborhoods, offering everything from remedial reading classes to in-home nursing visits as part of an infant mortality prevention program. (Typical is the Community Health Advocate program run by the UIC School of Nursing and the Chicago Community Trust.) In addition, the university's teaching mission makes it a major provider of conventional care to the city's poor, both at its hospital and at a network of outpatient clinics that handle well over 200,000 patient visits a year.
No issue better illustrates the tangled relationship among UIC, the city, and its politicians than the tortured career of the U of I Hospital. To the university it is a vital (if expensive) teaching facility. To the sick it is a source of care, and to the neighborhood it is a source of jobs. To the county government it is a bit of high ground in a health care system that is sinking under the weight of incompetence and institutional poverty. Who runs it—and for whom—matters.
In 1989 the university's 350-bed hospital was 40 percent empty. Insured patients had fled to the suburbs; their loss, coupled with the under-reimbursed care the hospital provided for poor patients, was costing the university some $25 million a year. Concerned university administrators approved a plan to lease the ailing hospital to Cook County. The university saw the plan as a budget saver but a lot of west siders saw it as something like betrayal.
Westside legislators prevailed upon the General Assembly to up the university's budget to cover its losses (it being easier in Springfield to get extra money for the U of I than for the poor). Today the hospital remains in university hands, but its role and its finances have changed. Revenues have increased (in part as a result of more aggressive marketing) but the percentage of patient days paid for by public aid is (at 55 percent) higher than ever, leaving the hospital as much a ward of the state as some of its patients.
On WTTW, Stukel said of the aborted hospital shuffle, "That one act caused a chain reaction that still has not come to rest." The university has made it plain through several spokespeople that it wants to keep the revived hospital as a teaching facility. (An earlier, controversial plan to affiliate UIC's medical school with Michael Reese Hospital became even less viable when Reese was sold to a private for-profit firm.) But it may have to fight to keep what it wanted to get rid of two years ago.
New Cook County Board president Richard Phelan sees the U of I Hospital as a place of healing too, only in his case it's his budget rather than his body that is ill. Early in May, Phelan said that the state perhaps ought to compel the university to give the hospital to the county. A transfer would not expand medical care on the west side—given the way the county's run its general hospital, it almost certainly would diminish it—but it might spare the county having to build a new general hospital to replace the decrepit Cook County Hospital two blocks away.
Everybody knows the neighborhood can be dangerous, but things are really bad when a whole university risks being mugged in broad daylight, and in front of TV cameras too. University spokesmen were quick to decry the idea as foolish. The U. of I. Hospital has only about 60 spare beds, they say, and the county needs about 700. The university—sounding a little like a guy offering a 20 to a mugger in the hope that he won't take his car keys—has already offered to supply resident physicians to Cook County Hospital, for example, and help set up a billing system that actually works.
Proposing to beggar the university to solve the county's health care crisis reveals a system that is bankrupt of ideas as well as cash. True, such programs provide the university with an essential political constituency that gives it clout both at City Hall and in Springfield. The risk is that money-short administrators may be pressured to cut the school's core academic programs to preserve the services upon which their political patrons' constituencies depend. Forced to choose, no legislator will cut the budget for a prenatal clinic in order to continue the chemistry department's study of the vibrational spectra of isotopic ice mixtures for another year. The institution can survive such a shift in priorities, but the university will die.
Hints of that future are everywhere. Closed last year because of money problems, the Mile Square Health Center on Washington just west of Damen was reopened this spring as a joint program of the university and the city health department. Four trustees voted against the project, in part because they were worried that providing pharmacists and dietitians for the patients at Mile Square would (given the unforgiving arithmetic of higher-education funding these days) leave the budget for students and staff a little anemic.
At issue was not whether the west side needed Mile Square but whether the university was the institution that ought to pay for it. Local legislators backed by Madigan's Democrats wanted the clinic reopened in time to improve the health of the mayor's upcoming primary election campaign. Their appeal to the Democratic trustees on these grounds was unprecedented in its bluntness. Former trustee Forsyth recalls that the only time he ever heard from anyone in the statehouse was when a politician tried to clout somebody's dumb kid past the admissions office. The day-to-day workings of the board were "zero percent political." But Nina Shepherd says that the push to reopen Mile Square was the first time in her 16 years as a trustee that she had been made to feel like a Streets and San ditch digger.
She remembers telling people, "This is just the beginning."
* * *
It was a shame, really, that the debate was about what UIC shouldn't be instead of what it might be. Virtually all the controversies now wracking U.S. higher education could have been profitably argued in the context of UIC's future, from racism and affirmative action to "politically correct" speech and whether to train people for life or for work.
Or whether a university is more valuable for what it knows or for what it teaches. The Carnegie Commission includes UIC with the University of Illinois at Urbana, Chicago, and Northwestern as the Illinois institutions deserving to be on its list of the top 70 or so research universities in the country, mainly as a result of the roughly $85 million a year worth of sponsored research being done there, most of it in medicine and related fields.
A major research institution is clearly what the people in charge want UIC to be. There is a symbolic rightness in the decision to make UIC's just-approved $48 million Molecular Biology Research Building a "signature" structure that will mark the entrance to the east side of the medical school campus.
But sponsored research can be a treacherous standard by which to measure a university. Universities in the 1980s began to do more and more research projects paid for by grants from outside corporations, foundations, and government agencies. Public funding for higher education was being cut back, and research grants kept valuable graduate students employed; they paid for part of the university's overhead. A lot of universities' overhead, apparently—federal investigators recently found that every one of more than 20 institutions audited (including the University of Chicago) had charged inappropriate costs to government-grant projects. Of the $9.2 billion spent by Washington on university research in 1990, $2.5 billion paid for so-called indirect costs—in effect, a hidden operating subsidy to the schools.
The new research centers that sprouted on campuses were indistinguishable in most ways from start-up companies, and quickly grew into profit centers within the university. What had happened, basically, was that the very things that used to mark the thinker as useless—his knowledge of arcane subjects—suddenly acquired a market value. Public decision-making that had been left to the politicians was being handed to (or dumped upon) academics, in the hope that disinterested research might yield politically innocent answers to the difficult policy questions of the day.
Unfortunately, the commerce in information obeys the same rules as any other kind of commerce. The system of applied research in agriculture devised by the U. of I. and its brother land grant universities today is producing bio-engineered plants that tolerate the sponsor's chemical pesticides, rather than pest-resistant plants that don't need bug killers.
In many ways, sponsored research is the intellectual version of the trade that is plied on some of the street corners around the west-side campus. Academics whoring after research contracts have helped universities make up for reductions in public funds for research, true, but UIC's success at hiring out its brains to corporate and government clients is potentially more compromising of its intellectual independence than anything Daley or Thompson might have been capable of. Research in such soft sciences as sociology, political science, and economics especially is typically underwritten in the hope of delaying an unpopular political decision or of justifying a position by a special-interest group or bureaucracy.
Worse, big-time research distorts a university's priorities from the teaching of undergraduates to the training of PhDs. The aim of research is to attract more research grants (and the faculty needed to get them) by giving the university a marketable cache. Resources needed for undergraduate instruction often are bled to sustain the vastly more expensive postgraduate programs, but undergraduate students at most top research schools seldom are exposed to the top minds on campus unless they watch public TV talk shows.
The dilemma facing urban schools such as UIC is even more pointed: how to maintain the traditional intellectual standards of a top research institution while catering to an undergraduate population that is less and less prepared for even minimal college work. The two main UIC chancellor candidates basically reconciled the choice by pretending that it doesn't exist. Neither one challenged the rightness of UIC's future as a PhD mill. Wolff was quick to reassure people that she would not turn UIC into another city college, although she pledged instead to merely refocus some of that research into more socially useful goals. Chancellor Stukel has said, "I don't think that having a research institution is incompatible with having a good undergraduate program."
Others do. Sangamon State University in Springfield was founded on the still-radical premise—only imperfectly realized at that campus after 20 years—that college teachers should teach rather than study. Jim Nowlan has suggested that separate career tracks be established within the academy—one for professors of research and another for professors of instruction. Changes in funding formulae would also help funnel money to schools that taught undergraduates the most rather than to those that taught the most undergraduates.
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Research is not only a traditional measure of a university, it is a measure of a traditional university. Successive university administrations in Urbana plainly envisioned UIC as an academic version of branch banking, a place that would offer the services of the parent school in a location more convenient for the customers. For all the calculated brutalism of the Circle architecture, for example, it was designed from the first to be a downtown equivalent of the campus in a cornfield. It was lumbered with the Pavilion (rather than, say, a performing arts facility) because sports is one of the things a "real" university is about. UIC now even boasts a dormitory.
But UIC was founded on the promise that it would be an untraditional university. It was charged with an "urban mission." The term was never very precisely defined—at different times the terms "urban university" and "major university in an urban setting" were in vogue—but it was generally understood to mean that the school should be of the city and not just in it.
Writing a Sun-Times guest editorial, UIC's Kelvin Rodolfo complained that UIC's "so-called 'urban mission'" "perpetually hounds us" by being too narrowly defined and thus misleading. Offering his own department as an example, he observed that dullards on and off campus dismiss environmental studies as irrelevant to an urban university curriculum even though cities are the world's great pollution factories.
William Sampson, the president of Chicago United, attempted an updated definition in a conversation with WTTW. Sampson said that the university "truly ought to be a top-notch research university, a research university that trains poor folks, nonwhite folks in Chicago, and a university that is relevant to the problems that confront Chicago." The Tribune's editors also took a shot at a definition, saying the school "should be a great laboratory for training in such fields as education, public policy, economic development, social services." The mission also survives, officially, in the form of platitudinous program statements like the one the Illinois Board of Higher Education affirmed last fall; this spoke vaguely about "capitalizing on special opportunities to serve the metropolitan area," particularly in the areas of teaching and public health.
With rare exceptions, the faculty is ill at ease with the prospect of playing Peace Corps to the west side's third world. The model that most faculty seem to have in mind for UIC is UCLA. Nonetheless, Stukel told John Callaway, "UIC cannot exist in Chicago without having strong ties to the community." The new chancellor reportedly repeated that theme in a peacemaking visit to the mayor. The new chancellor outlined three areas in which he thought the school could most aid the city—health care, aid to elementary and high schools, and recruitment and teaching of minority undergraduates. Many of those programs are already in place; in April, UIC associate chancellor Ann Smith provided a list to the Trib that would have made Jane Addams proud: volunteer tutoring for illiterates, free school dental and physical exams for poor kids, summer camps, lectures on drug abuse.
"We can do more," Stukel said in an open letter to UIC. Other campuses have. This spring in Atlanta, graduate students of Clark Atlanta University's social work and education departments moved into a public housing complex across the street from the school; they will help devise and run child-care and job-training programs for the residents. UIC has no shortage of either students with low incomes or problematic public housing. Rather than try to improve the public housing complexes (such as the Jane Addams homes on Taylor) that are scattered on or near the UIC campus, university denizens worry about how to detour around them.
Politically, UIC's urban mission helped justify the expansion of a public university into a city whose higher-ed establishment had always been private. Over the next 25 years, UIC may come to define "urban mission" less in terms of helping the city than of surviving in it. As long as it remains mainly a commuter school, UIC's student recruitment will be geographically constrained. Inner-city minority students will be essential to the school's growth, as UIC fights for a shrinking pool of middle-class kids not only with its traditional local rivals but with new local branch campuses of ambitious competitors like Northern Illinois University. Improving inner-city education thus is a form of long-range market development for UIC.
Useful as they are to the institution in other respects, "community outreach" programs are largely tangential to a university's intellectual mission. One faculty skeptic complains that they would convert the university into an "urban service station." Outreach programs also are tangential to many professors' career ambitions; you don't get tenure in the U.S. by teaching kids to read.
There being no exact model for such a university, UIC will have to invent it. Interested observers like Joe Reed, director of Leadership for Quality Education, Chicago business's voice in school reform, suggest that schools like UIC should be to the inner city of the 21st century what land-grant universities like Urbana were to the 19th-century frontier. It should be remembered that the U. of I. served a mainly agricultural constituency until well into this century, a tradition that leaves it somewhat at odds with its present mandate to educate an urban clientele using new approaches and new priorities. Reed: "My sense is that they're not offering much that's very different—yet. That will require something of a cultural change."
UIC's future for the moment belongs to Jim Stukel. Everyone agrees that he will be a good UIC chancellor; a good gray dean is a useful man to have in an atmosphere in which issues tend to be seen only in black and white. The question as the ‘90s begin is, does the University of Illinois need a great chancellor at UIC? Does Chicago? ●