Public, Private Universities Fight Over Obama Library Site

In the competition to host Barack Obama's presidential library, two public universities fear the playing field has been tilted against them by a pair of elite private schools with much larger endowments, the Associated Press reports.

Faced with competitive bids from Columbia University and the University of Chicago, whose combined endowments exceed $15 billion, the University of Hawaii and the University of Illinois at Chicago are struggling to pull together the resources needed to offset the anticipated $500 million cost of the library and presidential museum. While the Obamas are expected to raise most, though not all, of the funds — and have pledged not to solicit personally for the effort until after Barack Obama leaves office — the host institution's contribution will be a major factor in the selection of a site. The Barack Obama Foundation, which is tasked with recommending a site, told the AP it would be able to raise the necessary funds regardless of which school is chosen to host the library/museum. "The foundation is looking at each response as a complete package and will choose a partner which, on balance, offers the best opportunity to create an outstanding presidential library and museum," the foundation said in a statement.

Still, when the foundation recently expressed concern about the fact that the University of Chicago's proposal does not guarantee access to the university's proposed South Side sites, which sit on city park district property, it was seen as a not-so-veiled warning; subsequently, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel's office stepped in to say the city was working to acquire the land. Similarly, people familiar with the Columbia proposal told the AP that the school is prepared to absorb a substantial chunk of the building's cost itself and is working to secure an attractive site. Meanwhile, although Hawaii lawmakers have expressed interest in having the state contribute to the University of Hawaii's bid, and the Steans Family Foundation has pledged $5 million toward UIC's bid, both universities, as public entities, face legal and practical constraints on how much they can contribute.

UIC has proposed to team up with a community foundation to build the library in North Lawndale, a blighted African-American neighborhood on the West Side. However, Danielle Leibowitz, a student trustee at UIC, said her university has suspected all along that it is the underdog. "If he wants to be consistent with the message he's given throughout his presidency, it really only makes sense to give it to us," said Leibowitz. "To suddenly hand over your legacy to a private institution seems rather hypocritical."

Marcus Betts, a spokesperson for the North Lawndale Presidential Library Committee, said President Obama has a rare opportunity to demonstrate that one's background need not determine one's ability to succeed. "If you think about what Martin Luther King, Jr. would do, where he would put a project like this, I think the answer becomes very clear," said Betts. "It really boils down to the have[s] and the have-nots."

Josh Lederman. "Universities Competing for Obama Library Site." Associated Press 01/01/2015.