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Reversal of I-House fortunes:
Building, programs to stay

image: Campus NewsThe Gothic angles of International House stood out against bright blue skies on May 25, presenting a picture-postcard view. The blue-skies imagery was appropriate. In a message to the campus community, President Hugo F. Sonnenschein had just reversed plans to close the international- and graduate-student residence on June 30. Instead, while a $1.8-million fire-alarm system is installed to bring the building up to code, the public spaces and as many of the residents' rooms as possible will remain open. Meanwhile, a full-scale reassessment of I-House will be launched.


Read the full report of the Committee on the Future of International House

The March announcement of I-House's closing ("Chicago Journal," April/00) was met by waves of dismay, including a letter of protest from the international-studies faculty, a series of demonstrations organized by I-House residents, a lawsuit charging that, in planning to separate the program from the building, the University was flouting the intent of International House's original donor, John D. Rockefeller Jr., and a Save I-House fund-raising campaign (as of May 31, the Save I-House Web site cited $130,000 in gifts and pledges, including a $100,000 challenge grant).

Responding to the protests, on March 28 President Sonnenschein announced the formation of the Committee on the Future of International House, co-chaired by Richard Franke, a U of C trustee and the retired chair and CEO of the John Nuveen Company, and Edward Cook, associate professor in history and secretary of the International House Board of Governors. Also on the committee were five other professors; two graduate students (and I-House residents); University trustee Paula J. Wolff, AM'69, PhD'72; and Stanley D. Christianson, MBA'60, president of the International House Board of Governors. Asked to report their findings by May 31, the committee interviewed nearly 100 members of the campus community and made its way through several hundred e-mails and letters. Finishing ahead of schedule, they presented their recommendations on May 24.

The next day, Sonnenschein pledged to take steps in accord with all of the committee's recommendations. Not only would I-House remain open past June 30, but the University would also "reconstitute and strengthen the International House Board, appoint a new, full-time director of International House, assume the management of the International House building and financial planning, and initiate a process to plan for the future of the International House building." Also in accordance with the recommendations, Sonnenschein announced that the University would embark on a "comprehensive study of international education at the University of Chicago in the 21st century."

image: The I-House lawn
The I-House lawn sports a a billboard.

As the committee noted, the planned mothballing had united a number of campus and community groups around a number of issues: "…aging facilities, the growth of programs, the changes within international studies, the impact of globalization, and changes in the Hyde Park real-estate market." Recognizing that "as often is the case with such matters, no one involved had a complete view of the issues," the committee focused on providing an accurate snapshot, one that would show where more detailed study is needed.

One area for study is the building itself. Calling I-House's building "particularly well suited to its mission," the report noted that while it is not the U of C's most distinguished example of the collegiate Gothic style, its placement on the Midway has made it an instantly recognizable campus icon. Inside, its common spaces "are a significant resource for the University as a whole," impossible to replicate.

While the basic fabric is sound, major systems--plumbing, electrical, elevators, and roof--are at the end of their useful life. Summarizing the renovation plans that I-House has considered over the past decade, the committee called for the planning to begin again. In thinking about how to reconfigure I-House, the committee suggested that planners explore the possibility of housing undergrads in addition to graduate residents as well as short-term visitors. It also emphasized that many of the building's existing qualities lend themselves to hosting small conferences.

Not only is the building basically sound, the committee concluded, but the University needs the room-and-board space it offers. With a 1-percent vacancy rate in the Hyde Park rental market, it would be hard for several hundred suddenly displaced students to find space locally and almost impossible for graduate students who want to live alone to find housing at comparable prices. In addition, a lack of guest accommodations near campus has meant that I-House provides approximately 15,000 nights of visitor housing each year. Many of the stays are connected to University business.

Despite the tight rental market, it's true that I-House is not at full occupancy (just over 500 residents). The committee traced the declining numbers (fall enrollment of 335 residents, a figure that has held steady for three years) to several factors. In the mid-1980s, 40 percent of I-House residents were GSB students, but as the GSB shifted to older students with more work experience, fewer wanted a dorm-like living situation. In addition, many American students want more personal space than offered in I-House's small rooms. Last but not least, the mid-1990s introduction of a more expensive food plan (now replaced by an experimental, voluntary program) proved vastly unpopular.

image: Room with a view
Room with a view: I-House residents turned the former gift shop into headquarters for the Save I-House campaign.

Even at less than full occupancy, the report noted, I-House performs an important service. Most residents are first-year graduate students (in physical or social sciences, or the humanities) whose home is outside the U.S. Up to 25 percent of international graduate students live for a time at I-House. While only 5 percent remain on after their first year--many find friends and move into apartments--the committee found that "the social matrix created by living in I-House, even though it may be for only the first year of a student's program, creates bonds that extend beyond the narrow compass of degree work."

Yet the committee acknowledged that it had heard little "about how I-House fits into the University's international programs or its intellectual mission. Currently it is not clear that there is a very close fit at all in either regard. If considerable resources are to be devoted to a renovation of I-House, which will in turn involve a major commitment from the University administration, from the Development Office, and from supporters of the University, this will have to be seen as desirable on intellectual and programmatic grounds by important constituencies within the University." Recommending a separate, comprehensive study of international education at the U of C, the report said such a study should include I-House and its role.

Just as International House should be more closely tied to the University's intellectual programs and goals, the committee argued, so it should be more effectively integrated into the University's day-to-day management, following models more closely analogous to those of other University boards, such as those for the Smart Museum or Court Theatre, both of which are effective fund-raisers.

With a June 30, 1999, endowment of $8.4 million and a 1998-99 operating surplus of $258,000, International House received only $156,000 in gifts last year. To make fund-raising a priority, the committee suggested, I-House's current board should be reconstituted to in-clude more high-profile political or business leaders, including international members and U.S. members outside Chicago, with a capacity to raise money. As fund-raising--both for capital purposes and programming--is made a board priority, the role of the I-House director or president would also change. The report recommends the hiring of a full-time professional director to manage the programs, oversee fund-raising, and make I-House a resource for the City of Chicago.

Moving the building management and financial planning under the University umbrella, the committee said, would underscore the House's significant role as a graduate-student residence, clarify the University's relationship to I-House, and properly maintain the building, thus avoiding a repeat of the problems that helped spark this spring's controversy.

In calling for such integration, the committee sounded a cautionary note: "[I]t is neither desirable nor realistic to expect I-House to become the central element in the international programs, no matter how symbolic its presence is for many people."

Within a week of the report's publication and the president's response, the Save I-House Web site had posted an open letter to Hugo Sonnenschein, thanking him for responding to the recommendations "so promptly and constructively." While in agreement with the gist of the report, the letter also emphasized its writers' belief in the necessity of maintaining I-House's autonomy: "We firmly believe that it would be wise to make every effort to pattern the governing structure of our International House after the successful and well-tested models of its sister institutions, International Houses of New York and Berkeley. These Houses contribute greatly to the local universities, while retaining their freedom to fulfill their own mission."

Incoming U of C President Don M. Randel, with whom Sonnenschein conferred about the report, will appoint the new international-education committee. He told the Chicago Maroon, "We all want the programs of International House to flourish. Now it is clearer how we might go about that."--M.R.Y.

  JUNE 2000
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Hyde Park revisited
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Hugo Sonnenschein
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Pan-Asian persuasian

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