US universities working out how best to aid local communities

Institutions face both praise and criticism while seeking a proper balance, with the University of Chicago contributing a multimillion-dollar package that includes free meals and cash grants

April 18, 2020
Source: University of Chicago/ Nancy Wong
University of Chicago food service workers prepare meals for people affected by the Covid-19 pandemic

At a moment of deep crisis across higher education, The University of Chicago is offering meals and small business grants to people in its surrounding neighbourhoods with no particular ties to the institution.

The programme is set to last at least three months and supply 225,000 meals and local employer stipends of $7,500 apiece. Amid the Covid-19 turmoil, it reflects what the renowned university describes as a renewed commitment to integration with Chicago’s long-struggling South Side.

“You have to have the mindset that there is mutual benefit − there is interconnectedness between [an] institution and neighbourhoods around it,” said Derek Douglas, the university’s vice-president for civic engagement and external affairs.

The University of Chicago had an endowment of some $8 billion before the current virus-driven economic downturn. That’s about the 15th-largest nationwide, giving it enough padding to spend several million dollars helping its fellow South Siders.

Such moves, however, are far from uniform in US higher education. Even big institutions are facing their own economic anxieties as they await federal bailout money, wonder when classes can resume and ponder a range of advice over what types of community outreach are reasonable and responsible in the meantime.

Key decision areas include the use of buildings left largely empty by departing students. Some cities have asked to use spare dormitories for housing for patients and emergency responders, and some institutions have agreed.

Others, however, are still using their facilities to help students, many from abroad, who cannot return home. Several, including The University of Chicago, have been told that narrow hallways and shared bathrooms make many student housing structures inappropriate for healthcare needs.

Such realities don’t necessarily pre-empt emotional pleas. Yale University got publicly bashed by the mayor of New Haven for allegedly rejecting a dorm-use request. That left Yale trying to explain that its dorms remain full of items left by fast-departing students. Yale then promised to clear some rooms and raise $5 million to address off-campus needs that include healthcare delivery, community educational assistance and aid to local businesses and not-for-profit organisations.

Other large-endowment institutions, including Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania, have been faulted for not retaining non-academic support staff such as cafeteria workers. The University of Chicago, by comparison, is using its food-service workers to prepare the breakfasts, lunches and dinners that it will distribute to thousands of needy residents through the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Neither route protects against criticism. One leading voice of conservative thought, Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, has challenged the wisdom of universities using their endowments on charitable endeavours beyond their educational missions.

Universities, Professor Cowen has argued in the context of the coronavirus outbreak, instead could provide the most overall benefit to society by keeping their focus on their founding missions of education and innovation.

The University of Chicago had that narrower type of attitude for a time, Mr Douglas said. “It was more, I would say, inward facing − the walls were more up,” he said. But, beginning about 15 to 20 years ago, he said, the university found value in community engagement on a variety of levels, including a more concerted effort to have students and faculty study and work locally, beyond the campus.

The neighbourhoods eligible for the university’s emergency aid programme cover a stretch running more than 50 blocks south of downtown and about half that wide out from Lake Michigan. The university sits in the gentrifying Hyde Park neighbourhood, but much of the targeted area still houses communities established a century ago by impoverished black migrants fleeing the South.

The university’s coronavirus-related aid includes rent relief for independent businesses in university-controlled properties, as well as grants of up to $7,500 for businesses anywhere in the designated neighbourhoods. The university has a website that will allow for quick payments that are planned to function as temporary support while respondents await even more aid promised by the federal government, Mr Douglas said.

Part of the hope, he said, is to “inspire other universities to do similar things”.

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