Northwestern University's Ryan Field stadium.

Northwestern University’s current Ryan Field stadium seats 49,000.

(Photo: Greenstrat/via Wikipedia)

Northwestern University’s Guide to Quashing Community Dissent in 3 Acts

From a professed desire for transparency surrounding a new stadium project, Northwestern has moved all the way to a surreptitious assault on free speech.

The problem began as a vanity project for one of the school’s largest donors. Along with his family, billionaire and Aon founder Patrick G. Ryan pledged $480 million to the university—provided that a big chunk went toward a new $800-million football stadium.

But the site’s main purpose had nothing to do with football. It would be a for-profit, open-air outdoor performance venue competing with the Chicago area’s largest, including the United Center (seating capacity 23,500; home of the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks). The arena would seat 28,500 concertgoers and replace the existing stadium in the midst of a residential community with schools, parks, playgrounds, churches, a fire station, and a hospital with a Level 1 trauma center.

In the past, Northwestern University (NU) has tried and failed to get zoning changes and special use permits for large concerts at the current stadium. The city of Evanston would have none of it.

Northwestern wanted this time to be different.

Act I

First, the university tried to co-opt potential voices of dissent. While developing plans for the stadium, it formed a working group consisting of four NU representatives with key leadership roles in the project, four residents from the neighborhood surrounding the stadium, and the Evanston city council member representing the district where the current stadium is located. A resident member later described Northwestern’s promises to that working group:

At our first meeting, it was agreed that this would be an informal and transparent way for Northwestern to listen and solicit input from the surrounding community regarding the stadium rebuild project.

The university described the group as a “key stakeholder” and “expressed its hopes that this forum would be the beginning of an effort to rebuild trust with community residents.”

From March through June 2022, residents in the working group canvassed neighbors and reported concerns. Among the most important: Neighbors did not want the use of the stadium expanded.

Residents thought Northwestern was listening to them—until the university announced that it had completed a single stadium design concept that contemplated pop/rock concerts. The residents in the working group didn’t see it until September 28, 2022, when Northwestern announced the plan to the world.

Act II

The working group died, but it had served a useful purpose for the university. The canvassing had revealed residents’ widespread concerns about expanding the stadium, so Northwestern tried to obfuscate them.

In early January 2023, the university hired a consultant to conduct a telephone poll of 500 registered Evanston voters. A slight majority—56%—answered yes to this loaded question:

As you may know, Northwestern has proposed a plan to replace the existing Ryan Field with a new stadium with significantly less seating and that is environmentally sustainable and accessible. Do you support or oppose removing Ryan Field and replacing it with a new stadium in the same location?

Without providing any information about the challenges that rock concerts pose—dangerous sound transmission, traffic congestion, transportation complexities or parking problems—phone interviewers asked the 500 respondents what the “right number of concerts per year” would be. This time, unlike the exhaustive canvassing that the working group had performed, Northwestern got the answer it wanted: numbers greater than zero.

Mission Accomplished. Northwestern now had its disingenuous talking point on the biggest obstacle facing the plan.

But it didn’t stick. Facts about the project and doubts about Northwestern’s false assurances became clearer. Grassroots opposition grew. Voices of dissent got louder.


So the next scene in this saga took a bizarre twist. Under a 19-year-old consent decree that settled a case Northwestern had brought against the city, the parties had established a “town-gown” committee to discuss the university’s plans for certain areas of the campus, including one of the Ryan Field parking lots.

But the public committee hearings had now become a forum for residents to register their complaints about the new stadium. More importantly, the media—even Northwestern’s student newspaper—was covering them.

So unbeknownst to residents and Evanston city council members who opposed the plan, the city asked a federal judge to modify the decree to protect Northwestern. Remarkably, it wanted to ban residents from discussing the proposed arena in the town-gown committee hearings.

Stunning as it seemed, even before the first zoning commission hearing on the university’s unprecedented request to amend the ordinance, Evanston had aligned itself with Northwestern—in secret.

On June 29, 2023, Northwestern and the city filed a joint brief supporting the ban.Stunning as it seemed, even before the first zoning commission hearing on the university’s unprecedented request to amend the ordinance, Evanston had aligned itself with Northwestern—in secret.

The Reckoning

The scandal came to light in response to an Evanston resident’s FOIA request. Facing criticism for his failure to notify Evanston’s city council of the action, the city’s corporation counsel later said that his department had determined that he did not need its approval.

So who approved it? All lawyers act at the direction of their clients. The corporation counsel reports to the city manager. Did the city manager authorize the filing? The city manager reports to Evanston’s mayor and city council. What did they know, and when did they know it?

On July 23, the Chicago Tribune broke the story: “Evanston residents angry about legal move by city to bypass public discussion on Northwestern stadium project.” The following morning, it appeared on the front page of the newspaper’s print edition.

On July 25, Northwestern and the city of Evanston lost in court.

“I have crystal clear contractual language, and you all are asking me to read in this limitation,” U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Maldonado said while denying the motion. “No one put this in there, no one limited the discussion of the committee…”

From a professed desire for transparency, Northwestern has moved all the way to a surreptitious assault on free speech. Apparently, it has allies in Evanston’s city government willing to do its bidding.

The scandals at the university—and now Evanston’s city government—aren’t over. Not by a long shot.

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