Northwestern University has been a part of the city of Evanston, Ill., for more than a century now. According to city officials and the university itself the relationship has had a few problems in the past. With the help of Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl and Northwestern President Morton Schapiro, however, the connection between the two has improved drastically. With Schapiro’s support of the Evanston Township High School and the city’s services available to the university there seems to be a bright future ahead. It is up to the city businesses to make students and citizens alike comfortable in Evanston.
Town-and-gown relationships are relatively strained by nature. One of the major issues that city governments have with academic institutions is the fact that as non-profit organizations they do not pay taxes. The issue between Northwestern University and Evanston is no different.
The university and the city have had their problems, especially a couple decades ago.
“In the 1990s, citizens sponsored an advisory referendum calling on the tax-exempt university to pay its fair share for the city services (such as fire, police in some cases) it receives. The referendum passed overwhelmingly,” Evanston Review reporter Bob Seidenberg said.
Seidenberg added that the connection between NU and Evanston is not perfect, but it has significantly improved since four or five years ago when Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl and NU President Morton Schapiro began their terms.
Evanston officials and residents do not seem to see a connection with the university students. The local government holds a relationship with Schapiro, but mostly when it comes to business matters. The students, on the other hand, view Evanston as external. To them the city is not exactly their home, but a place with restaurants, stores and a movie theatre to pass the time.
“Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl and Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro came into office at the same time and appeared to establish a good relationship at the start,” Seidenberg said.
One of Schapiro’s main concerns, according to Tisdahl, has been the improvement of Evanston Township High School (ETHS).
ETHS students, however, do not seem to notice the university’s efforts.
Shaquita Blackwell, who has always lived in Evanston, said NU is too expensive and that, like her, most of her classmates have not considered to study there.
This is surprising, as according to Tisdahl, the university has always had an important presence in the high school.
“President Schapiro wants to help ETHS become the best high school in the nation,” Tisdahl said.
Although some high school students, like 15-year-old Jonathon Connerly-Bey, believe Northwestern gives students of Evanston someone to talk to if they need help, most do not think there is a relationship at all.
In spite of this the relationship between the city and the university has considerably improved.
“The relationship has been strained and worse in past decades,” Seidenberg said.
According to Tisdahl President Schapiro’s efforts to help the city have taken the connection forward. She called them a “wonderful goal.”
“[It is] a major change from a relationship that used to be described as The Hundred Years War,” she added.
Seidenberg, who has been a reporter with the Evanston Review since the 1980’s, has witnessed the improvement himself.
“I think another reason the relationship has improved is that the city recognizes how important students are to local economic development, frequenting restaurants, downtown shops, purchasing goods and services from local businesses.”
In exchange, the city provides fire service to the university for free and paints businesses purple once a year to support Northwestern, Tisdahl said.
“There are many more exciting opportunities for collaboration, which we are exploring,” Tisdahl said.
For example, “when building multimillion dollar buildings,” Tisdahl said, “NU could require contractors to hire Evanston young people as apprentices.”
Seidenberg also said he thinks that the relationship will definitely improve. The key will be to target both high school and university students.
“In the future, the city is making a bid to persuade students to stay in Evanston upon graduation and use their skills to open tech and Internet businesses,” he said.