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May 28, 2010

MFIRE plan renews faculty clash with admin

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A faculty group has renewed its protest against the development of the Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics (MFIRE) with a petition seeking to change the Institute’s name, which the group considers indicative of conservative politics with which they do not want to be associated.

The group, the Committee for Open Research on Economy and Society (CORES), received 125 signatures from faculty members on its petition by Thursday morning, almost a week after the University announced it had selected Ann Beha Architects to renovate the space that will house MFIRE. The building, at 5757 South University Avenue on East 58th Street and South University Avenue, currently houses the Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) and was purchased by the University in 2008 with the intention of housing MFIRE.

If the firm finds the building is a suitable site for MFIRE and the Economics department, it will renovate the building, potentially altering elements of its historic design. The CTS will move to its new building south of the Midway, and the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, located in the building’s basement since 1961, is expected to move as well.

CORES fears this development is indicative of a larger corporatization of the University, in which the University is more interested in the bottom line than faculty input, said Bruce Lincoln (Ph.D. ‘76), a Divinity School and Religious Studies professor who has played an active role in CORES since its inception in 2008.

According to Lincoln, the move represents “an evermore aggressive pursuit of outside funding, and with that we have seen evermore willingness to abridge faculty governance and compromise our [the University’s] principles of academic integrity.”

However, it is unclear if the 51-member authoritative body of the faculty, the Council of the Faculty, has jurisdiction in the case of MFIRE, according to the spokesman of the highest faculty body, sociology professor Andrew Abbott (Ph.D. ‘82).

“The Milton Friedman Institute is not a piece of the University that will grant degrees, and since it’s not going to grant degrees, and it’s not going to appoint faculty…it’s not really clear that the council has any particular jurisdiction on it,” said Abbott, the spokesman of the Committee of the Council of the Senate, a seven member group that informs the larger Council.

In its petition, CORES explained that it sought a faculty vote on the issue. “Contrary to University statutes, no votes have been permitted in any representative body. We continue to view this as an infringement not only of faculty governance but of basic democratic values,” the petition read.

CORES was organized to oppose the establishment of the Milton Friedman Institute in 2008, an opposition that led to the first meeting of the Faculty Senate, which consists of all 1,100 members of the faculty, in 10 years. But President Zimmer, who ran the meeting, did not call a vote on the issue as CORES had demanded.

Abbott said the Faculty Senate was functionally more important to the University as a way for the president and provost to understand the views of the faculty.

“The Council of the Senate and the Committee of the Council serve as a way for the senior administrators [the president and the provost] to get a sense of the faculty’s views and, in the case of the Committee of the Council’s views, to hear them in a purely confidential setting, about matters that may or may not be subject to actual faculty control,” Abbott said.

However, CORES concerns extend beyond MFIRE to the group’s perception that the move represents a larger corporatization of the University that can also be seen in its business mentality, the use of academic activity to raise money, and “strategically-timed dumps of such information over the summer or at the end of the term, when the faculty cannot respond,” among others, the petition said.

“A full reorientation is necessary to extricate the University from a misguided and destructive corporate model, and to restore it to its rightful tradition and mission,” it said.

The University did not respond to claims made in the CORES petition because it has not received any contact from the group, University spokesman Jeremy Manier said in an e-mail.

“The University administration has not yet received a communication from faculty members about these issues. If a letter or petition is submitted, University leaders would want to consider it fully and respond thoughtfully to the whole document, through the appropriate channels,” Manier said.

Lincoln said the University would deliver the petition Tuesday morning. “If the University wants to talk about it, we’ll talk about it. We wanted to make public our concerns and we wanted to make them known in a forceful manner," he said.

Not all faculty are in support of the petition. Economics professor James Heckman said the perceived corporatization of the University could be a positive development for faculty. “There is a danger in a faculty approach,” he said. “Yale and Harvard and Princeton are way ahead of us [in terms of endowment] and there is a sense in which having that base of money really does make it possible support basic research," he said.

Abbott said discussion amongst faculty and administration would likely be catalyzed by the petition. “As far as the current petition is concerned, it’s worried about whether the University is getting excessively corporate. That is an issue that can be talked about, and, because of this document, probably will end up being more broadly discussed. There’s no question about that,” he said.

Among the faculty who signed the petition were History department chair and professor Bruce Cumings, English professor Bill Brown, and Anthropology professor Marshall Sahlins. Most signatures came from the Humanities department, with some from other fields. No economics or business professors signed.

Heckman said that MFIRE was allowing for more interdisciplinary research between economists and those in the humanities, pointing to a project between economists, psychologists, and philosophers. "I guess as a consequence of the upheaval, the steering committee is very eager to reach out," he said.

The move of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore may be one the major changes to campus attributable to MFIRE’s move to 5757 South University Avenue. Current, tentative plans call for the store to move to the building just north of the Robie House, which currently houses CTS offices and is owned by the University.

“I think it’s actually a great opportunity for us,” said Heather C. Ahrenholz, an assistant manager at the Co-op.

She said a new location would allow the bookstore to design “a space that will appeal to people who really love the store.” She added that it would be a nice change over the space they now occupy, especially given that the plans call for some space on the ground floor as well as basement work.

Plans have the bookstore moving by fall of 2011. Abbott added that the Co-op’s move also had to do with handicap-accessibility.

But some community members are concerned over MFIRE’s move into the CTS building. Some are afraid that renovations will not take into consideration the integrity of the building's original design. Longtime Hyde Park resident Charles Staples (School of Social Service Administration ‘61) has taken a special interest in preserving the CTS building. His unease primarily revolves around the future of the stained glass windows in the building. If they are to be removed, it will be due to the University’s lack of respect for antiquity, he said.

“The architecture was designed so beautifully for ecclesiastical use. It has some of the most beautiful stained glass windows in the city,” said Staples, a founding member of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. “It’s a very sacred place and they’re ripping the guts out of it.”

Jack Spicer, Preservation committee chairman of the Hyde Park Historical Society, shares many of the same concerns. “The quality of the CTS is timeless- it can’t just be renovated.” Spicer said.

Both men disagree with the University’s decision to allow this space to be used beyond its original religious intentions. Staples said that this move is part of a larger shift of priorities within the University.

“The University has been moving towards giving preference to those departments that will bring in the most alumni donations. Business and economics are the new religion at the University. They are making those a more central factor than history.”

Spicer hopes the MFIRE architects will be respectful of the integrity of the building.

“It is difficult, but not impossible to recreate buildings that were made for one purpose and used for another purpose,” Spicer said.

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