A tale of two universities, both hoping to bring Obama's library 'home'

Bids emphasize diversity and community development

Two finalists for Obama's presidential library are located in the same city—and the Washington Post highlights how their proximity only draws their differences into sharper contrast.

The four finalists

There are four finalists to host the Barack Obama Presidential Center, which will archive the president's papers and serve as a center of scholarship related to the president's time in office. From an original field of 13 proposals, Columbia University, University of Chicago, University of Hawaii, and University of Illinois at Chicago were shortlisted last year.

Read more: Which university will host Obama's presidential library?

Not only will the winning school benefit from the prestige of hosting a presidential library, but the school's community will gain millions in economic activity.

Many in Chicago hope the president's local connections will tip the balance in their favor.

"We feel like he's one of us," says Ghian Foreman, a Chicago-based nonprofit executive who is leading a push to market the city as the site of the library. "He's a Chicagoan. He's not from New York," says Foreman, adding, "the president—this is his home. I don't care about Hawaii."

UChicago: The personal connection

The University of Chicago (UChicago) is in some ways the intuitive choice for Obama's library in Chicago. Prior to joining the Senate, Barack Obama was a senior lecturer at the law school and Michelle Obama served in leading administrative roles at the school's medical center.

A few blocks off campus, a plaque claims to honor the spot where the Obamas first kissed, outside an ice cream shop.

The private university is highly selective, admitting only 8% of students who apply, and currently serves 15,000 students. Located deep in the South Side of Chicago, the campus features neo-gothic architecture that is often compared with the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge.

Susan Sher, who formally served as Michelle Obama's chief of staff and now is advising UChicago on its bid, says hosting the library is "a once-in-a-generation opportunity." She says the school's proposal should appeal to the president because it promises to bring millions in development to an underserved area. "Economic development is extremely important to them," she says.

However, UChicago has faced some resistance to its bid from local community members. In addition, the university spent weeks in a legal dispute over its use of public park land in its proposal.

UIC: The underdog bid

The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) is considered more of an underdog in the race.

UIC lacks UChicago's deep ties to the Obamas' past, but UIC officials say its bid embodies values important to the president. Alfred Tatum, UIC's dean of education, says "We don't pay attention to diversity just because it's convenient. It's truly at our core." Former UIC chancellor Paula Allen-Meares also says UIC's students share many of Obama's issues of interest, such as access to education and health care.

UIC is a public institution, and its profile reflects that mission. In contrast to UChicago's selectivity, UIC admits about 70% of applicants. UIC's student body is "extremely diverse," according to Allen-Meares. The institution's main campus sits just west of downtown, where its modernist, concrete and brick buildings mingle with local landmarks like the Willis Tower.

Other supporters of UIC's bid point out that the location of its proposal would reinvigorate a now-struggling neighborhood that was once a hub for business. "If you want to make the most impact in Chicago… then that's a destination spot," says one supporter.

Even if UIC is not selected to host the library, university officials say they are pleased with the attention the proposal has brought the school and the community.

Both schools have an important advocate in Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who previously served as Obama's chief of staff, and has pledged to work to bring Obama's library to the city.

James Rutherford, who worked with President Clinton to bring his library to Little Rock, Arkansas, says he is "betting on Rahm" to ensure the library comes to Chicago. "The rest can be worked out—and will be worked out," he says (Anderson, Washington Post, 2/22 [1]; Anderson, Washington Post, 2/22 [2], Glueck/Dovere, Politico, 2/19).

The takeaway: Two Chicago universities hope Obama's personal connection to the city and an opportunity for economic development will give them an advantage in the competition to host the next presidential library—but only one of them can win.

Next in Today's Briefing

One state invested $4.3B in higher ed—and got $17B in return

Next Briefing

  • Manage Your Events
  • Saved webpages and searches
  • Manage your subscriptions
  • Update personal information
  • Invite a colleague