While President Barack Obama hopes to put off the decision about where to put his presidential library for another four years, speculation about a prospective home for the building in Hyde Park and even the U of C is raising hopes—and hairs—around campus.
CBS Chicago reported last year that the University began inquiring about the possibility of housing a presidential library as early as 2009, although officials, including President Robert Zimmer, have called discussions of the library “premature.”
With Obama’s 12-year-long lectureship at the U of C Law School, the First Lady’s position as a senior administrator at the Medical Center, and the Obamas’ connections to well-known Chicago political figures such as David Axelrod, who will open the Institute of Politics at the University next year, as well as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Hyde Park appears to be a formidable contender vying for the honor of housing the Obama library.
However, the idea of an Obama museum close to the University of Chicago campus seems problematic to some.
Charles Lipson, the Peter B. Ritzma professor in political science and the College, stated his opposition to a museum on grounds that it would inevitably be a political institution, incompatible with the U of C’s adherence to political neutrality as stated in the Kalven Report.
“The problem is not with the ‘library’ itself, a federally-run repository for documents, but rather with the celebratory museum,” Lipson said in an e-mail. “Of course, individual students, faculty, and staff may be politically active, but the University itself and its administrative units...must be institutionally neutral on political issues.”
Lipson also voiced his concern that presidential museums and similar institutions are funded by undisclosed private donors, and so can be used as political platforms for former presidents. He cited Richard Nixon’s presidential museum, “which recently thwarted an effort to display materials related to the Watergate Break-In,” as well as the Carter Center at Emory University, which “the former President has used...as his major platform for his own high-profile diplomatic initiatives and non-academic publications.”
Meanwhile, the University of Hawaii has publicly advanced its intentions to bid for the Presidential Library as well, being as the state of Hawaii was the President’s birthplace.
John Perkinson, professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii, is leading a working group to decide whether that university should make a formal bid, while the Associated Students of the University of Hawaii at Mānoa Senate has presented a resolution supporting the location of a presidential library in the Aloha state.
There is a clear economic appeal to any location that would house Obama’s library. Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii Brian Schatz stated that a presidential library “would be a $300 million or $400 million infusion of capital into the state of Hawaii,” in a report by KITV, Honolulu’s ABC station.
Hosting a presidential library boosts tourism, and in 2008 more than 1.7 million people visited presidential libraries, according to data from the National Archives and Records Administration.
Hyde Park is not the only location that could house an Obama library. Seventh Ward alderman Sandi Jackson of has proposed using the 500-acre site of the former U.S. Steel mill, about 20 blocks south of campus on the shore of Lake Michigan, for an Obama Presidential Museum and Library.
White House officials have declined to comment on Obama’s presidential library.