I am indeed grateful to Warren for retrieving this salute to my father. The two-page document that has come to be known as the Kalven Report is titled “Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action.” Written at a time when students were demanding that universities take a stand on the Vietnam War and other issues, it addresses the question of when, if ever, it is appropriate for the institution to take public positions. While allowing for the possibility of exceptions, the report eloquently articulates the principle that the university cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions of freedom of inquiry and discussion that are its reason for existing.
For present purposes, what is striking is the sharp dichotomy between those core values and the way the institution conducts—and explains—itself when it acts as a corporate entity. Like other urban universities, it gets into disputes with the neighbors. Recent controversies have included stealth real-estate dealings by the university in a neighborhood west of campus, charges that its medical center systematically deflects the poor, and debate over its plan to destroy a large community garden in order to make temporary use of the site as a staging area for a construction project. (I have participated in the latter as both reporter and advocate.)
Such issues fall within the domain of Lipinski in her role as vice president for civic engagement. The university describes her mission as “overseeing an effort to create a new model for an urban research institution acting in partnership with its city.” In practice, Lipinski stands at the center of a formidable apparatus for managing public perceptions of the university in the service of its institutional agenda. Her office promotes university programs and, when controversies arise, is deployed to do damage control.
The issue here is not Lipinski. She is doing her job as defined by her employer. It is, rather, whether the news cooperative will be encumbered when a story about the university requires penetrating the official narrative promoted by the Office of Civic Engagement? Or to put the question another way, would the Chicago News Cooperation place on its board the chief of public relations for a major corporation or government agency it covers? How is this different?
Similarly, how will the cooperative cover its funders and philanthropy in general? The MacArthur Foundation is a major force in Chicago and beyond, yet it receives remarkably little sustained scrutiny from the press. Will it receive even less now that journalists are clamoring for its support? (More disclosure: MacArthur is also among the funders of this magazine.)
Beyond the question of how journalists will cover the foundations that fund them is a question of how they will report on public policy areas that those foundations have invested in. A case in point is the Chicago Housing Authority’s “Plan for Transformation”—the demolition of high-rise public housing and its replacement (now largely stalled) with so-called new communities. Over the last decade, the MacArthur Foundation has strongly identified itself with these policy objectives. It describes its relationship with the city in this context as a “partnership.” The embodiment of that partnership is Julia Stasch. As Mayor Daley’s chief of staff, she was the architect of the city’s plan for public housing. Then, in 2001, she joined the MacArthur Foundation as vice president for human and community development, where she has had a central role in making some $65 million in grants related to public-housing “transformation.”
In view of the news cooperative’s dependence on MacArthur funding, will it investigate the realities on the ground for public-housing residents? If the facts so dictate, will it challenge the official narrative the city and foundation have worked so hard to construct? Is it prepared to risk damaging a key funding relationship in pursuit of an important story involving some of the city’s poorest, most vulnerable residents?
Over the last ten years, the MacArthur Foundation has, in effect, policed the parameters of permissible discourse about public housing in Chicago. As the major funder in this area, it has provided support to virtually everyone working in the field (including, briefly, me). At a glance, one might imagine this reflects a commitment to robust debate. In fact, it more resembles a political machine that absorbs and thereby neutralizes potential challengers. For the most part, this dynamic appears to be less the result of deliberate strategy than a byproduct of grantsmanship.