Everything Evanston: A complicated marriage

Linus Hoeller, Reporter

Northwestern University and Evanston — name a more iconic duo. It’s an age-old relationship, filled with ups, downs and even a battle before the Supreme Court. You know, all the usual couple stuff. Yet they seem to always come back to each other. In this episode of Everything Evanston, we will take a deep dive into the fascinating story of town-gown relations in Evanston — and on the way, we will find tax disputes, a proposed merger with UChicago and mayoral cookies. 

LINUS HOELLER: Northwestern University and Evanston — name a more iconic duo, I dare you. I’ll wait. It’s an age-old relationship filled with ups, downs and even a battle before the Supreme Court. You know, all the usual couple stuff. Yet they seem to always come back to each other. In this episode of Everything Evanston, we will take a deep dive into the fascinating story of town-gown relations in Evanston — and on the way, we will find tax disputes, a proposed merger with UChicago and mayoral cookies. From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Linus Hoeller, and this is Everything Evanston. 

STEVE HAGERTY: My wife and I moved here 20 years ago, for her to go to Northwestern University. And at that time, the relationship between the University and the city, the town-gown relationship, was pretty contentious. 

LINUS HOELLER: That’s Steve Hagerty. He’s been the Mayor of Evanston since his election in 2017, and remembers a time when the atmosphere between NU and the city was as frosty as the Midwestern winter. 

STEVE HAGERTY: There were lawsuits that were flying around, there was something called the, like, the fair tax or something like that, which some folks here in town devised that would apply to employers that employed over like 10,000 people. Well, surprise surprise, the only entity that employed over 10,000 people is Northwestern University. 

LINUS HOELLER: To understand where this animosity comes from, we have to go way back in time, all the way to 1855. That year, the trustees of North-Western University — then spelled with a hyphen between “North” and “Western” — sent an amendment to their charter to the Illinois state legislature. One of the things that was amended: that “all property of whatever kind or description, belonging to or owned by said corporation, shall be forever free from taxation for any and all purposes.”

STEVE HAGERTY: State governments gave universities charters, many years ago, a hundred and fifty years ago or so in Illinois, that universities would not have to pay tax on their property. And the rationale for that was because leaders at that time thought that education is so important in this state and in this country that we are going to give a tax benefit, so to speak, to entities and individuals and groups of people that want to set up universities in this country.

LINUS HOELLER: While this may have been a noble ideal, the state legislators did not foresee the challenges such a rule would bring in the future. In the 1930s, it foiled a plan to merge the University of Chicago with Northwestern because of persistent rumors that UChicago was only pushing for the deal for tax evasion purposes. The tax regulation also caused and continues to cause animosity between residents and the University. Evanston’s taxes and fees are high in comparison to most of Cook County’s and Illinois’, and some residents are upset for such a large and wealthy university to have a tax-exempt status. 

STEVE HAGERTY:  I have, you know, residents that will come to me and say, “Mayor Hagerty, the taxes in the city continue to go up and up,” and they’re not wrong. It’s not cheap. And they will say, “Look, the University doesn’t pay any property tax and look at all the property that they have right there on Lake Michigan. Heck, they were even allowed to build out into the lake to create more property back in the 60s, shouldn’t that be taxed?”

LINUS HOELLER: This idea is nothing new. In 1875, the Cook County tax collector said Northwestern had failed to pay its fair share and the county taxed NU an equivalent of around $200,000 in current dollars. Northwestern took the issue to court. After the Illinois Supreme Court sided with Cook County, Northwestern took it even further — all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case known as “University v. People.” The People lost, and to this day, NU holds considerable tax benefits. What came in the century and a half after the Supreme Court decision were repeated attempts by residents and the City Council to find ways around the regulation. Some residents proposed, among other things, a “Tuition Tax” in 1983 that students would have to pay. The low point in town-gown relations was reached at the turn of the millennium, when a referendum among Evanstonians showed an overwhelming 80 percent support for asking the city to negotiate Northwestern into paying its, “fair share.” Then, in 2009, things took a turn for the better. 

DAVE DAVIS: That relationship begun to change at the time that President Schapiro was elected the 16th president of Northwestern University. When he came on board to the University, the city of Evanston had just elected a new mayor, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl at the time, and they really wanted to develop a better relationship. 

LINUS HOELLER: That’s Dave Davis, executive director of Neighborhood and Community Relations — a department that didn’t exist before Schapiro’s time as University president. He tells the story of the very beginning of Northwestern’s project-based involvement in Evanston.

DAVE DAVIS: And the story goes — you may have heard this story already — Mayor Tisdahl, and her grandchildren, they cooked a batch of cookies, and they went and delivered the cookies to President Schapiro when he first moved to Evanston. And as a result of that, the mayor left with a half million dollar check to buy a new fire engine.  So not sure what she put in those cookies, but they must have been pretty tasty. But all joking aside, that was the start of what I think was a wonderful relationship. And never underestimate the power of just personalities. And when people actually like each other, that allows them to create a bond that’s necessary to foster trust, and so they really hit it off well.

LINUS HOELLER: Mayor Hagerty agreed that there was a special chemistry between Schapiro and Tisdahl. 

STEVE HAGERTY: Under their time, and Liz was the mayor for two terms — for eight years — that relationship, you know, steadily improved. To the point where they created a good neighbor fund, a “Northwestern University Good Neighbor Fund,” which still exists to this day. 

LINUS HOELLER: Davis said that Schapiro had a more transformative approach than his predecessors. For example, he launched the “Good Neighbor, Great University” initiative, which saw Northwestern provide additional financial incentives for students from Evanston and Chicago to attend Northwestern University. He created an office hub at Evanston Township High School, where Northwestern has two full-time staff members to connect the University to high school students. What started off as a partnership that was very academically focused has since blossomed into more than 100 different partnerships that that office supports.

DAVE DAVIS: President Schapiro wanted to move beyond some of our transactional approaches and partnerships to something more transformative. And then he created my office ultimately, just so that we can think more strategically around how we partner with the city of Evanston to produce really good outcomes for not only the University, but some of the most marginalized communities in Evanston.

LINUS HOELLER: And so over the course of just a few short years, the relationship between the University and the city went from outright frosty to warm. 

DAVE DAVIS: And Mayor Hagerty, and you know, he might get in trouble for me saying this, but I think he’s been one of the strongest supporters of the University that we’ve seen in a lot of time, and he’s typically out there in front during City Council meetings or when he’s speaking to the press or to speaking in public about how much he values the partnership and what an important resource and institution and asset the University is for the city of Evanston. And, you know, some people may say that he just showers a little bit too much praise on the University. But I would say that we feel the same way about him. I mean, he’s been a real champion for us.

LINUS HOELLER: No matter how rosy relations between the city and the University may seem today, there are still some points of contention. These range from noisy neighbors to ongoing construction and sometimes even a feeling that the benefits of having NU in their town don’t really reach the residents. 

DAVE DAVIS: Because I am the University’s liaison, I tend to be the recipient of a lot of the town-gown complaints, whether that’s around student behavioral issues or some nuisance complaints. We have students from all over the nation and world that come to Evanston to go to school at Northwestern University, and they’re living off campus. And oftentimes, this is their first time living off campus. And so they’re learning how to be a good neighbor, right, and they’re younger. And so they’re not always mindful of, hey, your sleep schedule may be different than the sleep schedule for your neighbor next door. And so there are some neighbors that would like to see the University pay more. But you know, as the relationship has improved, I think the community members, they see us as a reliable partner. And that we can work together to really drive economic development in Evanston if we do this a smart way. 

LINUS HOELLER: One such way, the University has decided, is through relatively narrowly defined grants. In July, the administration announced that they intended to continue their annual “Good Neighbor” fund, but that they hoped to change it up a bit. From then on, $1 million would be made available to Evanston and an additional $500,000 to Chicago to advance racial equity and social justice, as it said in the press release. Still, some City Council members and residents feel like the University is not doing enough. They argue that, compared to Northwestern’s immense wealth, $1.5 million are barely of any significance to the institution.

STEVE HAGERTY: Listen, nobody’s ever doing enough. Okay? Let’s just be, let’s just be  straight up. Very seldom do I go into a situation where somebody says, “You’re doing too much, you know? You’re doing just the right amount.” So, look, could they do more? Yeah, I mean, you look at that — again, you look at the budgets, you look at the endowments and all. And you say, well, listen, couldn’t you do more than $1.5 million? You know, we could make some demand and say, we want, you know, $10 million a year, and if they don’t give it, then we fight, fight, fight. And there are some people that that’s their approach. And it’s an approach, I don’t personally subscribe to that approach. I’ll fight when we need to fight. And I think the University is sort of that way too. 

LINUS HOELLER:  Another point of contention is Evanston residents’ relationship with Northwestern student activists. This fall, the student group NU Community Not Cops has pledged to march every day until Northwestern cuts ties with Evanston Police. Following the 20th day of protest, Mayor Steve Hagerty wrote to President Schapiro. Hagerty stated that the protests had cost the city tens of thousands of dollars in overtime pay and damage. He said that he expects Northwestern to cover the cost. 

LINUS HOELLER: So while the city’s top leadership places a great deal of emphasis on good relations with NU and it’s students, this goal is not always shared by the residents of Evanston. Though the debate over Northwestern’s property tax-exempt status has died down, the discussion is not dead — partly because a lot of the University’s more than $11 billion dollar endowment is held in the form of land and buildings. Occasionally, bouts of interest break out about the idea of a program called PILOT — payments in lieu of taxes — which some other universities have agreed to, and would mandate that Northwestern pay a significant amount of money to Evanston annually. The University has rejected the idea as unproductive, instead focusing more on funding for individual projects and funds, such as financing a new ambulance or maintaining the recently enlarged $1.5 million Good Neighbor Fund. Some Evanston residents feel that the University ought to do more. Mayor Hagerty, however, thinks that the city’s approach under his leadership has paid off. He considers three concepts central to the relationship.

STEVE HAGERTY: Our wealth, our wisdom, or our work.

LINUS HOELLER: While he says he thinks the University could do a lot more in all of these categories, he also warns not to be put off by a few loud voices. 

STEVE HAGERTY: In the day and age in which we’re living, we can often think that something’s a problem because, you know, a couple dozen people are screaming about it on social media. So of course you are going to have voices that aren’t happy about something, or have a different approach that they want to take to it — that is very natural. We don’t know what the majority of people think. Nobody, nobody really does. With Northwestern, people certainly know my approach and where I stand. And whether I run again or not or if somebody else runs again or not, Northwestern will always be part of an election conversation in Evanston. 

LINUS HOELLER: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Linus Hoeller. Thanks for listening to another episode of Everything Evanston. This episode was reported and produced by me, Linus Hoeller. The audio editor of The Daily is Alex Chun, the digital managing editors are Molly Lubbers and Jacob Ohara. The editor in chief is Marissa Martinez.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @linus_at

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