NU employee could bridge gap between school, city

Ben Geier

For the first time in recent memory, a Northwestern employee will serve on Evanston’s City Council.

Ninth Ward residents elected Coleen Burrus, NU’s director of corporate relations, as their new alderman April 7. In a race to replace retiring Ald. Anjana Hansen (9th), Burrus took nearly 60 percent of the vote and decisively defeated her two opponents – Mimi Peterson and Michael Drennan.

Burrus has a long career in public service, actively working with the Woman’s Club of Evanston and the Democratic Party of Evanston. She said running for the city council seemed to be a natural next step.

“I’m pretty excited about it,” she said. “I feel like I have a lot to bring to the table for the city.”

When discussing Burrus’ new job as alderman, there’s an obvious elephant in the room – her employment at NU.

NU and the city council have had a well-documented rocky relationship, particularly in the past decade. Burrus is confident, though, that she will not have any problem serving in both roles. She said she feels her experience will be valuable to the council when dealing with issues regarding NU.

“What I think that has been lacking on city council previously is someone that really understands higher ed,” she said. “It’s not just about understanding Northwestern; it’s about understanding how higher education works.”

Burrus said it was unlikely that many issues would arise for which she would have a conflict of interest. In the event that something did, she said she would not hesitate to recuse herself.

Jane Grover, the alderman-elect in the 7th Ward, said she agrees with Burrus that more NU employees and staff should become involved in Evanston. Grover knows Burrus through this year’s “Leadership Evanston” program.

“I’d like to see more representation from people from Northwestern on our boards and commissions,” she said. “Affiliation with Northwestern ought to be a qualifier, not a disqualifier.”

The last time an NU employee ran for city council was in 2001, when Kellogg Prof. Allan Drebin narrowly lost to Ald. Arthur Newman in the 1st Ward.

Tim Angell, who served as the communications director for Burrus’ campaign, agreed that Burrus has an opportunity to enhance the NU-Evanston relationship,

“I think she understands that as an elected public official here, and as a Northwestern employee, there’s a lot of collaborative efforts that could take place,” said Angell, who said he has known Burrus for almost two decades. “And she’s in the unique position to lead them.”

Aside from improving city-university relations, Burrus has a number of priorities as she moves into her new role. Many of them come from her professional roots as an urban planner, a discipline in which she earned a master’s degree from St. Louis University in 1991.

“Economic development,” she said, is a priority. “There’s been talk about a joint entity between NU, the businesses and the city and I believe that we need to push that.”

Burrus was elected to a four-year term, but she said if things go well, she could extend her service further.

“If the residents of the 9th Ward think I’m doing a good job three years from now, I would love to represent them again,” she said. “That would be my ultimate goal.”

NU University Relations declined to comment on Burrus’ election.

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