posted by chicago pop
This was Vice President of the Office of Civic Engagement's Ann Marie Lipinski's coming out party, her debutante gala, at which the policy orientation of the University of Chicago in the post-Hank Webber period was rolled out a short three months after her arrival to the newly-created position in January, 2009. Co-blogger Elizabeth Fama and I were kindly invited to share in the ceremony (photographs of the event are hers).
A press release back in January summed up Ann Marie's new job this way:
In her new position, Lipinski will work to share the University's innovative models for civic engagement with peer institutions around the nation, and to learn from those universities' efforts. She also will develop the connection between the University's new international efforts and the city's emerging status as a global city.
I bring this up only to stress that my assessment going into the "Engaging our Communities" meeting last Friday was that there are a lot of little, simple things the University could do that would improve the appearance it gives to the world, from helping to fix the ratty and scary Metra Station at 59th Street, removing the "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here" sign at the westbound lane of 57th and Stony Island, or taking simple steps to reassure residents in advance of major projects or changes that the sky won't be falling down.
In short, the biggest problem the University has, in my view, is a PR problem. Other problems are very real -- economic, social, financial -- but the biggest and potentially easiest to fix is the public relations angle. The University of Chicago, world class institution in a world class city, with a urine-soaked, dangerous, and ramshackle gateway at 59th Street?
The new Zimmer-Lipinski regime seems to be on to this, and we can only cross our fingers that they will leave the siege mentality of the post-war era behind, have confidence in the University's positive contribution to the neighborhood and South Side, know how to listen, and when to move forward in spite of controversy.
In her opening remarks, Lipinski spoke of the narratives that have been used to tell the story of Hyde Park and its Gothic Seigneur. One narrative was that of an institution "founded as an outward-looking" one. Another was a story of "retreat, a turning back on a changing world." What Lipinski was there to suggest was the possibility of a "third narrative."
Just what the content of this third narrative might be was indicated in the proceedings that followed, all of which emphasized varieties of "technology transfer" from advanced research across the University, to practical applications in policing, education, and public health.
The University, as the message is to be understood, is a resource for the local, area, and metropolitan community. Lipinski outlined programs developed to facilitate more effective workplace recruitment from the surrounding neighborhoods, a new "crime lab", and the major project pending at Harper Court. A range of speakers from the Medical Center, the University Charter School, and Kenwood Academy all reflected on the benefits of having access to academic knowledge with real-world implications.
At a rhetorical level, and as a branding strategy, this is a positive and savvy step: to "pivot", as one attendee put it, from a perception of Hyde Park as being in a "deficit situation," to the perception of a place that is greatly advantaged by its proximity to the University.
Whether the course of events during Lipinski's tenure lives up to this welcome change in perspective remains to be seen. I confess to a feeling of surreality as I listened to Stacy Lindau and Doriane Miller describe the organization and goals of the Center for Community Health and Vitality at the Medical Center, with no reference made to the national media scandal of the Hospital's Emergency Room policy and the uproar within the medical profession.
After all, if anything is giving the University a black eye at a national level, this is it. But this live issue, with more real-world import than the still-in-development Center, was left untouched.
Instead, attendees were presented with the following incomprehensible chart:
Everyone I've ever talked to who has worked in Medical Center administration has told me that it's a monstrous bureaucracy comparable to the Pentagon; such charts do nothing to dispel that impression. The well-meaning talk of using data to improve local health care delivery, when there is a very real possibility that the Medical Center's ER policy is in violation of federal law, was jarring.
The audience, comprised mostly of representatives of local community organizations, and largely African-American, seemed receptive to the tone of the meeting, though some of the comments in the Q&A session point to the fine line that Lipinski's outreach has to walk between proffering the University as a resource, and offering it as the promise of a free lunch.
As one questioner put it, directing his comment to Lipinski, in tones reminiscent of many other Hyde Park community meetings:
Everyone I see working here and working at the University doesn't look like me. I'm not a minority, I represent black people who live on the south side. You don't really answer anyone's questions. You just talk around everything. You say you hired 130 people from around here, but I don't know anyone who got one of those jobs. You keep eschewing the point: how are black people going to access the University's resources, access its largess?
This person's remark -- an individual who happened to be working towards a degree at the SSA -- represents the far side of the fine line the University has to walk in relation to surrounding neighborhoods: positioning itself as a resource, but not a social service agency; and certainly not the apex of a patronage system obligated to support a clientele of dependents by showering it with goods and services. It can do its part to help fix area schools, but it can't fix all of them; it can hire some people, but not all of them.
Part of the new orientation must be walking away from the guilt-driven policies of the past that enable this kind of debilitating discourse. Making Hyde Park prosperous, safe, and interesting is not done at the "expense" of other neighborhoods. It is a great opportunity for other neighborhoods to benefit from having a prosperous, safe, and interesting neighbor.
The University's challenge, moving forward, is not to shoot itself in the foot. It already shot off one foot with the $10 million Doctors Hospital fiasco. It is slowly sawing off the other foot with the Emergency Room scandal. Meanwhile, a host of other smaller actions, each of which could generate volumes of good-will going forward, linger unaddressed. As with the Pentagon, we hope the new Zimmer-Lipinski regime recognizes the importance of "soft power" and the importance of persuasion and a proactive approach in working for the greater good of the South Side.
The idea of technology transfer, of using research data to drive social reform in the immediate vicinity of the University, is a powerful one, and stands at the root of modern Progressivism and of the Chicago School of Sociology.
But for a vision worthy of the University as resident of an "emerging global city" imagined so compellingly by Daniel Burnham a century ago, we would suggest more than that: a set of guiding principles outlining the role the University intends to play in its engagement with the major issues that affect Hyde Park's livability. Where are we going to be in 5 years, 10 years, and how will we be working with the University to get there?
Such a set of principles would help the University shed any temptation to revert to a siege mentality, and automatically invite positive participation in a broader discussion in a way that only large-scale visions, like the Olympics, can do.