Northwestern University in white letters on a purple sign above purple flowers.

The entrance Sign and gardens to Northwestern University.

(Photo: iStock/via Getty Images)

How Wealth Inequality Is Subverting Higher Education at Northwestern

The problem of wealth inequality in higher education transcends the favored treatment that many admissions officers give alumni donors; well-heeled contributors pursuing personal agendas can place the very soul of an institution at risk.

With the Supreme Court’s dismantling of affirmative action, legacy admissions are now the hot topic in higher education. But the impact of wealth inequality transcends the preference that many admissions officers give well-heeled donors. When a university allows benefactors with large fortunes to pursue personal agendas, the educational mission itself becomes a casualty.

My alma mater, Northwestern University (NU), is a poster child for the phenomenon.

To be clear, my wife and I have been dedicated Northwestern alumni for decades. We met there as undergraduates and both obtained advanced degrees. Over the years, we have made substantial contributions that helped to create scholarships, fund a lecture series, and endow a professorship.

When a good friend of many years goes astray, silence is not an option.

My wife and I have also taught there. I was an adjunct professor in the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences (WCAS) and in the Pritzker School of Law; she was a clinic director and lecturer. I’ve served on several NU committees and was the keynote speaker for the 2010 WCAS Convocation ceremony. My wife and I chaired our respective reunion committees. We bleed NU purple.

But when a good friend of many years goes astray, silence is not an option.

Educational Mission? What’s That?

Like most institutions of higher education, Northwestern has a “Mission Statement”:

“Northwestern is committed to excellent teaching, innovative research, and the personal and intellectual growth of its students in a diverse academic community.”

But NU is allowing a donor with deep pockets to subvert that mission. Catering to the whims of a single alumnus with big bucks, the university is now seeking to build an $800 million outdoor performance venue in the midst of a quiet suburban Chicago residential community. The project makes a mockery of NU’s Mission Statement.

Why is it happening? Because a single wealthy donor wants it.

NU’s project seeks to attract top pop/rock concerts that would perform from late spring through early fall. Its proposal acknowledges that most students would be away when the concerts occurred. Only incidentally would the proposed stadium also host a handful of college football games. [Full disclosure: We live a few blocks away from the current football stadium, which the proposed venue would replace.]

  • With a concert seating capacity of 28,500, NU hopes to compete with top Chicago-area venues—including the United Center (the home of the Bulls and the Blackhawks; seating capacity: 23,500) and Allstate Arena in Rosemont (where the Chicago Wolves hockey team plays all of its home games; seating capacity: 18,500).
  • In addition to 10 mega concerts throughout the summer, NU seeks permission from the City of Evanston to hold an unlimited number of events with a seating capacity of 10,000 fans—a formidable crowd.

How does the project square with Northwestern’s “Mission Statement”? It doesn’t.

Why is it happening? Because a single wealthy donor wants it: Patrick Ryan (B.A, ’59), who played football at Northwestern, founded AON Corp., and—along with Justice Clarence Thomas—is a member of the recently newsworthy and elite Horatio Alger Association. Ryan and his family have donated $480 million dollars to help cover the cost of the new state-of-the-art open-air stadium.

You might ask, “What’s the big deal? NU gets a new stadium.”

But Ryan’s contribution won’t come close to covering the total cost of the project. The remaining balance—hundreds of millions of dollars—will come from Northwestern University funds that could actually have been used for purposes that are consistent with its Mission Statement.

Therein lies the insidious subversion of the university’s stated mission.

University “Values”? What Are Those?

Northwestern also has a “Statement of Values”:

  • “Commitment to faculty, and to excellence in research, scholarship, creative work, and teaching
  • “Commitment to student experience
  • “Commitment to balancing Northwestern’s present and future needs
  • “Commitment to diversity and inclusion”

How is the proposed entertainment venue consistent with those espoused values? About as well as it serves NU’s stated mission.

Students won’t even be on campus for the summer pop/rock concerts. A concert venue does not contribute to faculty excellence. Apart from NU’s unenforceable promise to “work with minority- and women-owned business enterprises as part of the construction,” it does nothing to promote diversity or inclusion. It is, instead, a donor’s vanity project and a proposed profit center for a non-profit university.

What’s Next?

The City of Evanston has not yet approved NU’s proposal. The plan has encountered serious opposition from the community because the adverse impact on the neighborhood—which has no buffer zone separating it from the stadium—would be profound:

  • Dangerous and disruptive noise pollution would blanket what has been a quiet residential area that includes schools, playgrounds, parks, churches, and a hospital with a Level 1 trauma center.
  • A series of pop/rock concerts requiring “load in,” “set up,” “tear down,” and “load out” would create a summer of endless construction projects. Above is a video of the seven-day “load in” for a Rammstein concert in Dresden—a comparably-sized outdoor performance venue.
  • Northwestern has yet to develop a comprehensive transportation management plan to handle the unprecedented traffic, congestion, and parking burdens on the community that the venue would create.
  • The construction period alone would take years, starting with demolition that NU estimates would result in 70,000 tons of demolished material.

Sustainability? Climate concerns? The list of open questions about what NU economists would call externalities goes on and on, but Northwestern is urging a fast track toward approval.

As the battle continues, Northwestern has all the weapons of wealth: a massive endowment ($14-15 billion); a big law firm pushing the project forward (DLA Piper); the ability to dangle potential revenue dollars that tempt a city needing them; and a cynical willingness to divide the community along racial and socioeconomic lines.

Will grassroots objections from residents who have the most at stake prevail over such a mighty adversary?

As summer turns to fall and NU tries to rush its project through the approval process, we’ll all find out.

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