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Stupid Move?

The U. of C. is booting International House, and critics say it's another sign of disturbing trends at the school.

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By Ben Joravsky and Kari Lydersen

It was during finals in March, when students were cramming in their rooms, that officials at the University of Chicago revealed that they were definitely going to close International House, home to foreign graduate students since 1932. To many observers, it seemed like an age-old public-relations trick: release provocative news when those most likely to be provoked are too busy to do anything about it. If so, the tactic backfired.

Since the announcement, Interna-tional House residents have held demonstrations and press conferences, garnering support from faculty, alumni, and preservationists. And two weeks ago they filed a class action lawsuit that has put the university on the defensive. "I don't think they realized so many people would want to save International House," says Robert Stone, a graduate of the university's law school who's been working closely with the protesting students. "Of course, I believe this is tied to much larger issues."

Those issues have to do with the ongoing conflict over the university's future, a debate that began last year when president Hugo Sonnenschein moved to drop several requirements from the undergraduate curriculum. He wanted to make the university "more fun," as one official put it, and bring in more applicants.

But the changes incited protests from students, faculty, and alumni, who accused Sonnenschein of dumbing down standards. "They made the curriculum easier to attract the gentleman C student," says Stone. "They want to bring in more undergraduates, particularly in business, because studies show that undergrads in business donate more in the future."

Heresy, the protesters charged. "This university was founded or refounded in the 30s and 40s by Robert Maynard Hutchins, then our president, on a rigorous emphasis on the classics," says Stone. "Hutchins emphasized a very rigorous reading of very difficult texts in a careful way, almost like Talmudic scholars. That's difficult. It frightens most people. Other schools don't do that. But that's what gives this university its unique character as a serious place for serious people who want to work hard, a place where middle-class intelligent people from the midwest have gone to be serious students. And this present administration has decided that those types of people don't pay much money, and so they must bring in the kinds who do."

To its backers, International House is as much a part of the university's legacy as Hutchins's curriculum. Built with an endowment from John D. Rockefeller Jr., it had a noble and idealistic mission. "It is my desire that the building shall be used as a place of residence and education for . . . representative students of all nations," Rockefeller wrote in a letter to the university in 1930. "The purpose of the International House generally is to establish a center of common interest, an exchange of views between students of the various nations, and to promote the ideals of world peace and general welfare through mutual understanding and good will."

The university signed on to Rockefeller's principles, took more than $2 million of his money, then hired architects from Holabird & Root. The building they designed at the corner of Blackstone and 59th is one of the most distinctive in Hyde Park. In the words of Sun-Times architecture critic Lee Bey, it "comes on like a great hotel, presenting three stories at 59th, then stepping back to reveal a 9-story apartment block and a 12-story gothic tower."

Over the years International House--which can house up to 500 residents--has been a haven for thousands of students, academics, and poets, including Enrico Fermi and Langston Hughes. "It's a comforting place," says Paul Castle, a philosophy student from Korea. "Graduate students spend so much time alone in our room writing or reading. This helps break that isolation."

Past residents recall a fascinating mix of accents and ideologies. "There were always lively discussions and debates," says Patricia Jobe, a member of International House's board of governors who lived there 30 years ago. "It was an intensely political atmosphere. There were Ethiopian students, refugees from Prague Spring, and a lot of Southeast Asian students. There were a number of Cambodians. I wonder what happened to them after they went home. They were probably killed."

In the past few years the number of residents has fallen to about 350, in part because of a controversial and expensive meals plan, which forced students to pay about $800 per quarter, says Stone, "even if you ate nothing."

The building also needed repairs and improvements, including a new fire-alarm system. A few years ago the board of governors, a group of former residents and university employees, proposed a renovation, but the university rejected it on the grounds that it wasn't extensive enough. The board submitted a second, more extensive plan, but the university said it cost too much. "The board asked if they could begin a fund-raising campaign, but the university wouldn't let them," says Stone. "The university prevented all fund-raising."

In April 1999 the board's chairman, Stanley Christianson, wrote a letter to his fellow board members, notifying them that the university's Graduate School of Business was negotiating with university officials to buy the building to use as a "residential facility." The university's administration, he added, is "aware of the negotiation and endorses it." The administration has "agreed to our continued operation until June 30, 2000, without expenditure on a new fire alarm system with the understanding that this Board and the GSB would come to an agreement during this period."

When the students heard about the plan they protested. The board reassured them, saying the negotiations were only in the early stages and that students would be notified of any definite plan. No one seemed to see it as a serious threat.

That's pretty much where the matter stood until March 6, during finals week, when residents got phone calls from the Maroon, the student newspaper. "The reporter said he had heard that International House was to be closed on June 30," says Castle. "That's how I was notified."

University officials say it would cost at least $20 million to modernize the facility, and they suggest that the students would probably be better off moving to smaller, out-of-the-way sites, such as a vacant Illinois Bell building at 6045 S. Kenwood. They also say they don't know what the International House building will be used for, though they do say the business school is still interested in building an upscale dormitory on the site--which might mean demolishing the structure, a nightmare for preservationists. They also say they might use the building for some other, as yet undetermined function. "There is nothing unique or unusual about this particular situation," said university provost Geoffrey Stone (no relation to Robert Stone) at a campus meeting on the matter. "Just as other buildings have been reused, I fully expect that will be true of the I-House too."

But Castle and many of his fellow residents think the university is being duplicitous. They don't believe the improvements would cost $20 million--"The building's in fine shape," says Castle. And they point out that it would probably cost almost as much to refit another building to accommodate the International House residents.

As the students see it, the plan has everything to do with providing cushy digs for business students, even if that means destroying Rockefeller's dream of a place to foster world peace. "This university isn't interested in knowledge anymore, just money," says Richard Miskolci, an exchange student from Brazil. "They're making all their decisions for economic reasons. They're not interested in international students anymore--unless they're international business students."

The Maroon story ran on March 7, and in the days that followed, the residents were joined by many of the activists who'd waged war against Sonnenschein's other changes as well as by preservationists. Bey wrote an article for the Sun-Times on April 3 asking the university not to destroy the building. "It is far too precious to even contemplate losing," he wrote. David Bahlman, executive director of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, says, "We need to convince them that there really is no demolition option."

Meanwhile Stone recruited Edward Berman, another U. of C. law-school grad, and on April 11 they filed a class action suit on behalf of 56 plaintiffs, including several International House residents. The suit charges that Sonnenschein and Geoffrey Stone "embarked upon a campaign to destroy International House by erecting a series of artificial and unreasonable administrative and financial hurdles which they intended that International House would fail to jump over." Their purpose was to expel the foreign students, the suit charges, "transferring the Building and the Land to the Graduate School of Business--because 'business' is more profitable in the short run than is 'promoting understanding and good will among the students of different nationalities and races'"--a quote from Rockefeller's 1930 letter.

University officials deny the allegations. "It's simply not true that the business school is behind this," says university spokesman Larry Arbeiter. "People are looking for a bogeyman, but the fact is there is no cause and effect. Students making claims about the business school are uninformed."

Arbeiter adds that International House has been running a deficit. "The International House just doesn't bring in enough money to maintain it into the future," he says. "So the question becomes, should the university subsidize people in the current house or find another economically viable way to use the building?"

University officials have established a committee to look into the future of International House, though they say there's virtually no chance it will remain in its present building. Of course, that may not be the final decision, since Sonnenschein is stepping down in June and his successor, Don Randel, hasn't indicated his position on the matter. The students hope that public pressure and the lawsuit will persuade Randel to keep International House open. "In so many ways this doesn't serve the university's interest," says Pinar Emiralioglu, a doctoral history student from Turkey. "Financially, morally, PR-wise, it just doesn't make sense. We're beginning to doubt their sanity."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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