Henry Bienen

David Trotman-Wilkins/Chicago Tribune

Henry Bienen, 73, a longtime friend of Rahm Emanuel’s, accepted a tough assignment when he said yes in 2011 to the Mayor’s request that he serve on the board of the Chicago Public Schools during one of CPS’s most difficult and tumultuous times. 

When I read a DNAinfo.com report of a meeting last Monday at Lincoln Park High School that honed in on the closing of the George Manierre Elementary School, 1420 N. Hudson, and the moving of its students to Edward Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts, 1119 N. Cleveland, I decided to call Bienen—the retired president of Northwestern University (1995-2009).

Bienen was seated in the audience at the LPHS’s theater when a Chicago Teachers Union official, as well as a teacher who went to Northwestern while Bienen was president, recognized him and noted his presence. According to reporter Paul Biasco, Bienen was questioned directly by a disgruntled Manierre parent: “Are you going to visit Manierre in the next 15 days….?”  Biasco reported that parents were concerned about the safety of their children walking to Jenner, “another underperforming school,”  and wondered why they couldn’t go to schools nearby and to the north, such as Newberry Math and Science Academy, which accepts students city wide via a lottery, and LaSalle Language Academy, which is a magnet school. Both are far more racially diverse—Manierre and Jenner are 97-plus percent African American—and both are fully enrolled.

In a telephone conversation with me Thursday afternoon, Bienen disputed having walked back a statement that he was willing to visit.  

He answered all my questions except when I asked him whether CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett seemed to have a stronger hand on the tiller and more independence from the Mayor than did her predecessor Jean-Claude Brizard.  All he would say is that Brizard is a friend and BBB is doing a “fine job.”  

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

CF: How did you happen to be at the Lincoln Park High School meeting? 

HB: CPS school board members have been and are going to attend a number of these community meetings on mergers and closings. I was asked to attend.

CF: Will you be visiting Manierre?

HB: I don’t freelance. Any visit would have to be organized through the CPS board. I’m scheduled to go to a couple of schools but not that one. I suppose I could if I insisted…. I think the schools I’m visiting are on the South Side, not the North Side. I don’t yet have the names of those schools.

CF: Mayor Emanuel has seemed to say that the list of 54 schools to be closed is a done deal; that these decisions, despite hearings, will not be reversed.  Is it your sense that some of the decisions to close particular schools could be reversed?

HB: The school board has to vote on every closing. It hasn’t done that yet. Yes, in theory certainly it’s possible. It’s not impossible. I'd be surprised if there were lots of changes.

CF: Could you imagine that you personally would vote against closing a particular school?

HB: I could envision it if I thought I had good information and was persuaded. [After the Monday meeting] I reported to CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and I reported to the secretary and the president of the board what I heard. I did get satisfactory answers by talking to those [CPS] people…. I told them if they wanted to send me to Manierre I’d go, but they have me going somewhere else.

CF: Are you positively inclined toward charter schools?

HB: I am positively inclined. I have said… where we have weak charters we should close them after a period of probation like neighborhood schools.  I’m in favor of charters, but I don’t believe every charter is successful.

CF: Did you know Rahm Emanuel before he appointed you to the school board in 2011?

HB: Absolutely. I didn’t know him when he was a student at Northwestern; I was still at Princeton. But yes, I visited him when he was in the White house during the Clinton years. Of course I went to see him; it’s good to have a friend in the White House. I saw him when he was a congressman and when he was chief of staff in Obama White House…. After I retired, Mayor Emanuel put me on his transition team [on the Economic Development and Planning Committee]. And, yes he is a social friend.

CF: Did you have to be persuaded to take the CPS board responsibility?

HB: I saw it as an interesting challenge…. When I stepped down from the presidency of Northwestern in August 2009, I wanted to do public service. I had an interest in being an ambassador and Rahm was extremely helpful. For lots of personal reasons, I didn’t pursue that. But if felt that if I could be of use to the Mayor, of use to the city, I’d welcome the opportunity….

The health of our public schools is incredibly important to the country. There is an unsuccessful K-12 situation in just about every big city in this country.  If you look at graduation rates and college readiness, you see a poor record, almost a paradox, because we have a really excellent higher education system, yet a woeful performance in K-12 in big cities…. I don’t agree with much that [Chicago Teachers Union President] Karen Lewis says, but I don’t disagree with one thing: You can’t expect schools to cure poverty and malaise in the inner city. Kids come from single-parent homes; some are, in effect, homeless…. That said, the union is against almost every reform….

On the issue of charters, they’re not a panacea. There are weak ones as well as strong ones. But there are significant waiting lists. Parents and students vote with their feet and there are more people than spaces.   

CF: Speaking of Karen Lewis. She slammed you in her famous video for serving on the board of Bear Stearns [2004-2008] at the time the firm “crashed.” 

HB: I’m not sure what the connection is between Bear Stearns and a public school board would be. But yes it’s true I was on that board.

CF: The CPS board, currently with six members is short one member since Penny Pritzker resigned last March. Why did she resign?

HB: I don’t know. She didn’t tell me. I wasn’t surprised. I know her name has been mentioned as secretary of commerce…. She was an excellent board member.

CF: Who will replace her?

HB: That will be the Mayor’s and the president of the board’s decision. I don’t know what the mayor intends. He doesn’t discuss it with me. [Assistant Press Secretary Lauren Huffman said she’d get back to me with information on when Pritzker’s replacement would be named and who that person will be.   No response by press time.]

CF: Are you still interested in being an ambassador?

HB: I don’t think so…. [It's a] hassle to go through the process. If an embassy dropped in my lap, but that’s not the way it works. [Bienen has studied and taught in Kenya and Uganda respectively.]

CF: Right. Political ambassadors almost always are big bundlers for the President. I looked up your contributions to Obama and they’re nowhere near that level.

HB: I was modest in contributions. First, I’m not that rich. I didn’t bundle anything. I supported President Obama when he ran. [$2,300 in ’08 and $1,000 in ‘12] As did my wife. [$2,300 in ‘08.]  I knew him when he as a state senator and when he was a U.S. senator. His brother in law was an assistant basketball coach at Northwestern and I’d see him at games. He gave a commencement speech while I was president.

CF: You came to Northwestern from Princeton [Bienen spent part of the ‘60s, much of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and early part of ‘90s there; he rose to become a distinguished university professor of political science and dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs] and you were reared in New York and got your BA from Cornell. None of your three daughters live here and yet you and your wife have stuck around. [He and wife, Leigh, live in downtown Chicago.]  Why do you stay in Chicago?

HB: I like Chicago. I first came here to graduate school in 1960. [He earned his MA in ’61 and his PhD in ’66 from the University of Chicago]. After leaving the presidency of Northwestern, I was offered jobs in New York. I turned them down. My wife still teaches at the law school. We bought an apartment downtown about five years ago. Chicago is extraordinarily livable. I’m on the Steppenwolf board, my wife is on the Lookingglass board. Our friends are here. We want to be here. 

CF: Did your daughters go to public schools?

HB: Yes, public schools in Princeton.

CF: And your grandchildren?

HB: All six go to public schools [in Portland, Oregon, outside Seattle, and in New York].