I met Henry Bienen, 76, at Northwestern University's Lake Shore Drive office, one of the perks that comes with being president emeritus. He has clear views of the lake, a lovely assistant, and his wife, Leigh, who teaches half-time at the law school, has an office three floors down.

Before taking the job as Northwestern’s president (his term ran from 1995 to 2009), Bienen spent 28 years at Princeton, becoming a distinguished university professor of political science and dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He has had a fascinating career, including a stint working for the CIA. “Bob Gates brought me there under a Republican administration [H.W. Bush]. I never did anything on the covert side. I was always on the analytic side. So I wasn’t sitting there spying on anybody.”

When Bienen moved out of the president’s house in Evanston, he requested an office downtown, convenient for his wife and close to their apartment. Leigh Bienen has a degree from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She’s a published short story writer, is the author of a just-released work of nonfiction, and has been a dedicated capital punishment foe both in New Jersey and Illinois, where she worked closely with former governor George Ryan.

Their three daughters, all grown and with their own children reaching college age, live in Portland, Seattle, and New York, but the Bienens—he’s from New York, she's from California—remain here, although they leave for their house in Berkeley in the coldest months. He tells me they love Chicago, but he adds, “One good thing about the Bay area is you drive two hours and there are lot of nice places to visit. I love Chicago, but it’s hard to go anywhere.”

He first came here in 1960 as a National Defense Fellow in Russian Studies and, in quick order, earned a master's and a PhD from the University of Chicago.

Having started his college career at Cornell as an English major before switching to government/international relations, Bienen has just become the interim director of the Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry Magazine, which he calls “the best poetry magazine in the world.”

More on poetry toward the end of this post, but first to his service on the board of the Chicago Public Schools—a decidedly prosaic undertaking. Bienen tells me at the start of our talk, which lasted more than 90 minutes, that when Rahm Emanuel, a social friend—“I had a lot of dealings with Rahm both when he was in the Clinton White House and then in the Obama White House”—asked him to serve in May 2011, “I said yes, although I did not think it would be a reputation-enhancing job, and it wasn’t to say the least. I thought Rahm really cared about the schools which is why I said yes.”

I had interviewed Bienen before, by telephone in 2013, and we talked mostly about the impending closing of some 50 schools.

He’s now off the board, Bienen says, by his own request. When I ask him if he thinks he would have been removed from the board along with three of his colleagues, he says “It’s hard to know that because it didn’t come up….My personal feeling is I could have stayed.”

Here’s an edited and much condensed transcript of our conversation.

Did CPS improve during Rahm’s first term?

The schools improved, there’s no doubt about it. If you look at graduation rates, they are definitely up. If you look at truancy rates, they’re down. If you look at college readiness, it’s still very low, 17, 18 percent but up from 8 or 9 percent. I can’t see it comes from any lowering of standards in any way. So, yes, that story’s good. The stories that are not good are the obvious ones. I mean the place is broke.

When you look at the school board votes, so many are 7-0, or 6-0 if one person is absent. Why?

I think most people just agreed. I think we gave the benefit of the doubt to the president of the board [David Vitale, just removed from the board by Rahm], but beyond that you made up your own mind. I was only inclined to vote against the recommendations twice. Once on a bond issue, and another one I wasn’t convinced a school that wasn’t a military school should become a military school. 

The hardest thing to do in public policy is to evaluate programs that are ongoing. I think for the most part board members were very good people, and so you say how come the votes are always one way. In my experience they were pretty independent people and they asked very tough questions. One of the problems is that sunshine laws don’t allow for the board to really debate issues among themselves. I’m against sunshine laws for that reason. When you’re briefed by the staff—that’s what I thought was the most interesting part of the job—and I raised lots of questions, whether about bonds or financing or programs, I would have liked to have had those debates with all my fellow board members.

You couldn’t just say to three other board members, “Let’s have dinner on Tuesday night?”

Absolutely not, that’s against the rules.

Where did the directives come from—Rahm or Vitale?

They come from the CPS staff most of the time. I wouldn’t say from President Vitale. But he’s clearly in alignment with CPS staff. If I ever regretted a vote, obviously, it was the no-bid vote

What were you thinking when you voted yes?

I’ve asked myself the same question. It wasn’t that we somehow didn’t know that Barbara Byrd Bennett had some involvement with SUPES. We certainly knew that she had an association with them in Cleveland and Detroit. And so part of the reason to do it was because she was knowledgeable about it.

Were there signs there was something wrong with the SUPES principal training program?

One of the things that would happen at the school board is you go out to the schools. You may go out for one purpose, but now you’re talking to principals. And you start hearing other things. And one of the things I started hearing was that people didn’t love this program. Many of them were negative about it. And that was nervous making.

This was after the contract had already been let?


So then what happens?

You come back and you tell staff, I’m hearing negative things. This is again one of the frustrations about being on the board. You hear negative things. So maybe you heard five things, but there are 670 schools, so you don’t know how to calibrate that. Is it a case where if there’s smoke there’s fire? Board members would go to the staff and say, “Hey, we’ve heard enough things; you really need to look into this." On the question of SUPES, it was really hard to sort it out. Not everyone disliked it.

What do you think about an elected school board?

I think that elected school boards are a poor idea. One, I think they will be heavily controlled by the union. Most people couldn’t give a hoot. The turnout will be very low in the election. I believe in democracy, but in my experience, if you look at the school councils, district by district, you have some great ones and you have some horrendous ones. And if you talk to the principals, good principals are often so frustrated by decisions that can’t get made. The councils block each other. And sometimes we’ve lost good principals who have just said, “The hell with this.” Or, “Take me out of here, I want to go someplace else."  I won’t give you stories, but I could give you lots of stories. The press always talks about the school board as the mayor’s hand-picked school board. Well it is hand-picked. Rahm wanted these people. I think for the most part they were very good people. We’ve had this in New York, we’ve had this in Chicago, where the mayors took control of the system by having the ability to appoint their board. If they don’t have that ability, they can’t control the system.

What about the union in all of this?

The trouble with the union, from my point of view, is it has never met a reform it likes. I’ll give you an example. [CTU President] Karen [Lewis] was against the expansion of international baccalaureate. If you look at the data, the IB schools did better than non-IB schools. Now if you look at the makeup of the IB schools, the majority of students—55, 58 percent, more than 50 percent are minorities. So her view, and she said this publicly, is this is racist because the percentage of students in the IB schools who are minority is smaller than the percentage in the school system as a whole. I understand the point, but it’s a bizarre point. What you should care about is that large numbers of minority students were doing better in these schools, so the mayor wanted to expand the number of IB schools, which he has. I was with him on that. I think a lot of the union folks were against more selective schools because they thought it was elitist. The number of students who could get into selective schools and benefit from them is higher than the places in those schools. You’ll lose people, black, white, Asian American, Hispanic American, if they don’t get in and they can’t afford to go to a private school or a parochial school, they’ll flee the city. So you really want to accommodate very good students who can benefit from a selective school. I think Rahm is completely right on that and I believe it very strongly, but again it wasn’t something that the union loved. In my view, I just never saw the union open to new ideas. The gut response is always to be negative. And now they talk about going down to Springfield to help lobby the finances. But we asked them to do that going back to the negotiations in 2012 and they wouldn’t do it.

Why is the CTU agreeing to do it now?

The crisis has been with us forever. You didn’t have to be Lord Keynes to see this coming down the pike. So often the union said publicly, “It’s a made-up crisis.” That’s a crazy kind of view. “You constructed this crisis so you don’t have to pay us more.” My view and the CPS staff’s view was to try to find a way not to make severe cuts. You didn’t want to hurt students. So we start off the year saying we don’t have more reserves and then we’d find reserves. I mean, they would go through the budget and they would find this and they’d find that. So to some extent, I think the union felt you guys cry wolf all the time. You say there are no more reserves and then we find $200 million or a $150 million. Sometimes I was surprised when they would come up with the money. But now the reserves are all gone. Done. And the union, I think, finally, they always knew it, just didn’t have the sense to say it. But the union finally came to the conclusion, “That’s it. No more reserves.”

Do you see any benefit in CPS declaring bankruptcy and starting fresh?

CPS can’t declare bankruptcy. It can only be done by the state. The governor put forth the idea, but he can’t do it by himself either. It has to go before the General Assembly. It’s not in the power of the board to declare it, or the mayor to declare it. But the question is, would it be a good idea? And while it would wipe the slate clean, that’s the positive, the negative is it would be a huge blemish on the city. Because the city is trying to posture itself as this great global city, which to some extent it is, and it’s trying to attract headquarters here and it’s trying to attract industry here…We’re not Detroit. We have a much bigger economy, a much broader base, so to have one of the biggest parts of the city, the school system, declare bankruptcy, politically, I don’t think it’s a good idea for the reputation of the city.

Going back to Rahm’s first two picks for CPS superintendent, Jean-Claude Brizard and Barbara Byrd-Bennett. Were they good picks?

Barbara was much more hands-on than Jean-Claude. Frankly I was pretty shocked [at what came out about Byrd-Bennett]. She liked to sort of control things. I think she had a very good grasp of the issues. But so did Brizard. He was not ignorant of his job in any way.

Rahm picked these two people pretty much on his own. Would it have helped if the board had input?

By the time I came on the board, Jean-Claude had really been picked. In fact, the only time the board as a whole sat down with him was before it was a board. We had dinner at [former CPS board member] Penny Pritzker’s before we were officially on the board. We could actually do that because the sunshine laws didn’t apply.

What about Rahm’s third pick, Forrest Claypool?

I don’t know him. I’ve met him a couple of times. I think it’s important that the mayor really trusts somebody and not have a long, extended search. I don’t know how attractive the job is at this point. I don’t know that the board is really competent to make those kinds of decisions. Most boards, even school boards, they’re oversight boards. They’re advisory boards. They’re not staff. The seven of us lined up to at least try to dig into a lot of different things. It’s time consuming. It wasn’t that the meetings were bad. You were trying to get a handle on all kinds of issues.

Should members of the school board have children in CPS?

What difference does it make?…I don’t like those kinds of conditions. They exclude people you might want on the board.

How about expanding the size of the board—maybe having it be a mix of the mayor’s seven appointees and seven elected people. What I hear from parents all the time is, “I wish there were people on the board who actually had kids in CPS.”

Jesse Ruiz has kids in CPS.

No, his children go to the University of Chicago Lab School. 

Maybe the mayor should work harder to find some people who have kids [in CPS], he could. I understand the impetus. I always wanted people on the Northwestern board who were alums.

Would you be surprised if the teachers go out on strike this fall?

I would. Nothing really surprises me about this union, but I think by now they know how desperate the situation is. There’s really no money. You’re in a huge crisis already…. Unions want to maximize the benefits for their constituency. That’s their job. I understand it. And they probably would like to increase the number of their constituents. But you can’t always do that. And I think their reflex is to say, “We’d rather have cuts than lose benefits and lose salary.” This is a deduction more than a statement about empirical evidence. At the end of the day, I think, they’d rather have more teachers cut if they saw it as a way of saving money—though they would deny that—than to have flat or declining salaries or have benefits cut. I’ll give you an example. On health benefits, we pay them all, essentially. Most people pay some share of their health benefits. There are very few places that have as good a deal as the CTU on the benefit side. But they’re completely resistant to paying anything on the health side. Now I understand it that it is the job of unions to represent the interests of the people that work in the workplace, but at some point it’s not tenable. You have to make compromises. So what are you going to go on strike for?

If you had it to do again would you serve on the school board?

I would. Before I left the school board I did talk to some potential board members. And I argued they should do it. One of them did it. The emeritus president of Loyola was one of them. I talked to Father [Michael] Garanzini, and I said, “Look, you’ll have your frustrations and people are not going to be throwing flowers at you, but you’ll learn a lot and it’s really important. And the mayor is trying hard to do really good things." So I said from that point of view, I think you ought to do it. I was unequivocal about that.

Okay, on to the poetry part. Will you be accepting and rejecting poetry for Poetry Magazine?

No. There’s a very good editor and the editor makes editorial decisions.

Do you read poetry?

When I was a freshman at Cornell, my poetry teacher was W.D. Snodgrass, a great poet. I met my wife in his class. She was an English major and I was thinking about being an English major. I had lunch with Snodgrass, who was a very wonderful guy, very informal. He said to me, “Henry, either you have a very complicated ear for poetry, or…" And the 'or’ just hung there, and if I were going to fill that sentence, I would have said, “Or you’re a lousy poet.” By my sophomore year, I knew I was going to be a government major. I can’t say I read 10 poems before I go to sleep; maybe I will now.

When we talked the last time, you mentioned that you been interested in an appointment as an ambassador in the Obama administration, that Rahm, then Obama’s chief of staff, was behind the idea, but that things didn’t work out. Which countries were you offered?

Rahm really carried the ball on that. I was offered two different countries. The first one I wasn’t interested in. It was in Africa. We had lived in Africa for five years. [Bienen spent time in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Senegal; his dissertation was on Tanzania.] I have nothing against Africa. I just didn’t want to go back. Life as an ambassador can be very constraining for security reasons, any African embassy especially. I didn’t want it where you couldn’t go out on the street unless you have five guards with you. The second one was, “Would you be interested?” If I had been offered more than one which was not Africa, I would have gone. At the last minute, Obama picked someone that a very senior congressman wanted. Rahm said, “Hold tight. I’ll find something else,” which he did do. The country was okay. The job was ambassador to an organization rather than to the country. I said no.

Would you revisit the ambassadorship possibility should Hillary Clinton become president?

I’ve thought about it. I’m not really interested. For lots of personal reasons. I want to see my children and [my six] grandchildren.

What does it mean to be an emeritus university president?

Nothing. I happen to be doing a reasonable amount. My successor [Morton Schapiro] asked me to chair the medical school’s capital campaign. When Mrs. Buffett [Warren Buffett’s sister, Roberta Buffett Elliott] gave us a very big gift recently…. my successor asked me to chair the search for the new director of this Global Engagement Institute.

Does an emeritus president serve for a particular term?    

Until you die.