For many students and officials who think tuition is high enough and that Northwestern does enough for its community already, this may seem like the correct decision. After all, Evanston as we know it would not exist without Northwestern.
Former Senior Vice President for Business and Finance C. William Fischer may have summed up that line of thinking best in a 1992 letter to the Chicago Tribune. “Who is the overall beneficiary in this relationship?” Fischer wrote. “As our students say: ‘Let’s get real.’”
Conversation and beyond
So how have Evanston and Northwestern put to rest their contentious relationship over money? If you ask officials, the answer is simple: talking it out.
“My sense is a lot of it has to do with communication,” says Evanston City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz. “When [Northwestern] President [Morton] Schapiro came in 2009, he understood that there were issues and he went out of his way to be very forthright and communicative with the city.”
From the University’s end, Cubbage agrees. “President Schapiro has made a real effort to improve relationships with the community,” he says.
That’s true on both sides of the relationship. Schapiro and Tisdahl now meet at least once a quarter to discuss town-gown issues, and relations are strong all the way down the line.
“Our facilities management people work really well with the city zoning folks, our University police are an incredible resource for Evanston police,” Cubbage says. “I think there’s that kind of professional respect for one another at the staff level.”
That respect seems to have paid dividends, at least metaphorically. Barring student-centric controversies like the death of The Keg and Evanston’s abandoned plan to more strictly enforce the “three-unrelated” ordinance (the brothel law, as students know it), public relations between the University and city have been relatively warm these past few years. Northwestern hasn’t taken the city to court, and Evanston hasn’t tried to extract revenue in new and exciting ways from the University and the student body. Though there are occasional minor brouhahas—the construction of the new visitor’s center and arts buildings along the lakefront caused some consternation for residents near south campus—it feels as though relations between Evanston and Northwestern are humming along in a way they haven’t in the past. “I think the war is officially over,” as Mayor Tisdahl put it to The Daily Northwestern last year.
Part of that has to do with funding. Under Schapiro, Northwestern has favored an approach that moves from project to project, making large and concrete donations. Along with the fire engine mentioned above, the University purchased an ambulance for the city. Northwestern has also partnered with Evanston to cultivate area startups, and invested heavily in relations with the local public education system.
“What Northwestern has done, to a great extent, is support financially the school districts,” Cubbage says. Through its “Project EXCITE” program, Northwestern offers math and science enrichment for minority elementary school students all the way through high school. The “Good Neighbor, Great University” program offers significant financial aid to students coming from Evanston and Chicago high schools. Northwestern even has a full-time employee who works as a liaison between Evanston Township High School and Northwestern.
The campus is also involved in the community in countless other ways. Northwestern students frequently choose Evanston-area charities as targets of philanthropy. Most notably, Northwestern University Dance Marathon has for 17 years donated a portion of its proceeds to the Evanston Community Foundation, a partnership that topped $1 million in total in 2014. Northwestern also employs more than 1,700 Evanston residents on the undergraduate campus. The slew of students, faculty, visiting scholars, families and assorted other travelers that NU brings to the area spend huge sums in the area, too. In a 2006 study commissioned by the University, an urban economics consulting firm estimated the monetary benefit to the Evanston economy from Northwestern’s presence to be somewhere between $145 million and $175 million annually.
Still, student philanthropies and economic activity aren’t the same as taxes, and the financial disparity between the University and city remains vast. Northwestern’s contributions to its community are valuable, but they pale in comparison to its own vast income. Take that $550,000 firetruck from 2009, for example. That same year, Northwestern brought in more than 50 times that cost in unrestricted private donations alone.
As We Will and campaigns like it add to Northwestern’s endowment, the disparity between the University and its community will only grow. Communication eased that tension, but a quarterly conversation isn’t quite the same as a PILOT. Almost 160 years ago, Northwestern was declared forever free from property taxes. The controversy surrounding that clause and the tone it set for financial relations with Evanston, even if it goes quiet occasionally, seems likely to last just as long.