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Northwestern and Evanston’s relationship in the modern era 

January 28, 2022

Across the blocks and streets of homes in Evanston, many residents have rectangular signs displayed in their front yard—some to commemorate graduations, others to express support for political candidates. Only one of these signs, however, targets the foundation of Northwestern and Evanston’s complex relationship: a sign urging Northwestern to pay its “Fair Share.”

In March of 2000, 83.5 percent of voting Evanston residents casted their ballot in support of the “Fair Share” referendum, an act that directly protested Northwestern’s tax-exempt status. 

Following the vote, little progress was made on the matter—with yearly contributions to the City of Evanston still only hitting $1 million, despite Northwestern’s endowment of nearly $15 billion. However, the history of this dispute can be traced even further back.

Leonard explains the origin of Northwestern and the City of Evanston’s tax-related conflicts.

“Northwestern acquired a lot of property early on, and that property was not generating tax revenues for the city, so, as the city develops, and as more expenses [pile up], people have tended to look at this big institution, more than other big institutions, [like] the churches in town, [which] collectively are considerable and are on tax-exempt land,” Leonard says. 

All in all, Northwestern occupies land that would otherwise bring the city an additional $40 million per year worth of property taxes. While non-profits are typically exempt from paying these taxes, with Northwestern being the wealthy, prestigious institution it is, many residents and city officials feel that the university is obligated to contribute. 

In fact, other tax-exempt universities ,such as Princeton and Yale, contribute far more to their host cities—$21 million and $15 million respectively. Northwestern’s monetary benefactions come in the form of their “Good Neighbor Fund.” Starting in 2015, the university has contributed $1 million annually to jointly agreed upon projects in Evanston; for example, the 2021 initiatives revolved around strengthening racial equity. 

While that funding has been a vital component of Evanston’s budget, school districts—the beneficiaries of 70 percent of property tax revenue—receive nothing. Other states, such as Massachusetts, have plans that require tax-exempt institutions to pay 25 percent of the normal property tax rate. Under that proposal, the school districts could receive as much as an additional $8 million from Northwestern per year. 

“Northwestern has 100 percent been selling the school districts short. I’d say the city has gotten its fair share from Northwestern,” Reid expresses. “And I think that doesn’t just follow Northwestern. I think it’s probably [on the] community too. It’s our responsibility to demand of our neighbors an expectation that they’re good neighbors and they contribute fully to the fabric of our city.”

Reid’s call-to-action doesn’t mean Northwestern would lose their tax-exempt status; it just means the university would give back to the future generations of their community.

“Northwestern, if they really want to benefit the community, would be coughing up a whole lot more money to ETHS and [District 65]—to the tune of several million dollars a year, which would have a tremendous effect on both districts’ annual budgets,” Reid further reflects. 

 Ultimately, these problems don’t just arise between the city, school districts and Northwestern. Evanston has to make up for this loss of revenue somewhere, and in this case, that money comes straight from the pockets of Evanstonians. 

“There’s tensions between neighbors, particularly close to the campus and the university around things like off-campus student housing [and] the university purchasing property, which essentially takes the property off the tax rolls and results in increased property taxes,” Evanston mayor Daniel Biss says. 

 On the other hand, Northwestern might make up for this loss of tax revenue by contributing in other forms. 

“To me, the benefits of having an institution like this in the community far outweigh any of the difficulties that have arisen over the years,” Leonard explains. “There is money that’s spent by Northwestern students, by Northwestern itself and by Northwestern faculty in this community [by] going to local merchants and [paying] local taxes. There is taxation on the sale of athletic tickets, so a well-attended football game makes a significant contribution to the City of Evanston.”

Taxation isn’t the only conflict that has emerged between the two groups. The late 1900s was a time marked by social justice movements, and Northwestern’s campus was no exception to this. After a “noisy rally” was held by more than 1,000 Northwestern students in May of 1972 to protest the Vietnam war, the Evanston Police Department billed Northwestern for the additional police force and equipment used to quell protesters—a bill Northwestern ultimately refused to pay. 

This wasn’t an isolated incident. Too often was Northwestern on the wrong side of history, and too often did its students have to respond ferociously to their school being behind the times—leaving the City of Evanston right in the middle. 

However, in comparison to land and tax conflicts, these political sparks did little to alter the relationship between the two institutions.

“If you’re looking at the 1960s, development of a youth culture and the types of behaviors that might be associated by some of that youth culture, rebelliousness, defiance, drug or alcohol use, political opposition to more mainstream values,” Leonard says, “I don’t know if I consider [that culture] too serious an issue—these things peak and valley. To me, they don’t seem to be long lasting. The long lasting conflicts between Northwestern and the broader community have been over [use of] land and taxation, rather than behavioral issues or politics.”

Nonetheless, in spite of the tension between Northwestern and Evanston, the two groups have managed to partner in meaningful, beneficial ways. In 2012, Northwestern began its “Good Neighbor, Great University” initiative that allowed a series of collaborations to take place between the city and university—one of which created a partnership office in ETHS.

“Before the Partnership Office, there were a lot of things that went on, a lot of things that were built between the university and the high school, and that’s been going on for years and decades before the formal partnership, but things weren’t strategic or coordinated. So, it was about who knew who or who would reach out to who,” Partnership Coordinator Kristin Perkins reflects. “New students would come into Northwestern, they would have an idea, [but] they would have no idea whether it’s been done before or how to logistically go about it or who to contact. So, I think the biggest shift [is that we’re] more strategic, more coordinated, and we can be more visionary.”

Now, the office has between 85 and 100 different forms of collaboration each year, with four main areas of strategic partnership: diversity in STEM pathways, arts and design in STEM, college access and career pathways as well as identity and social consciousness. 

Within the first area, diversity in STEM pathways, the partnership has created a Women in STEM group that connects with the Society of Women Engineers at Northwestern. New this year, another program allows Black and Latinx fellowship students at Northwestern to mentor students in ETHS math classes. 

The second area, arts and design in STEM, is responsible for the STEAM Design and Innovation course, and the third area, college and career pathways, provides high school students with Northwestern’s resources. Students hear from renowned speakers, sit in on classes and start to figure out post-high school plans. 

Finally, the last area, which revolves around social consciousness, led to the implementation of the Black male summit as a part of their Black Men Lead initiative—just the first of Northwestern’s many summits at ETHS.

“There are some areas of partnership that students may never directly see. For example, building the data visualization course, or we’re helping work with Ms. Litt, who is starting a BioTech course next year, and we’ve got a professor and graduate students who are going to be building these custom labs for her class. Students will do the labs, and they’ll see the course and things like that, but they may not know how deep the Northwestern partnership goes into that,” Perkins adds. “Whereas, others are very student focused; Black Men Lead is very student focused, Women in STEM is very student focused.”

Unlike many other college-high school partnerships, ETHS and Northwestern are unique in their dedication to ensuring the initiatives are mutually beneficial. Thus, while the Women in STEM program offers ETHS students a female-targeted mentorship program, the Northwestern students also gain research and outreach opportunities.

“I think that the partnership between the university and ETHS has helped folks be able to see different perspectives because this partnership is so unique, and it’s so focused on that mutual benefit. But, we have to find different ways of thinking and different ways of approaching common goals and be okay with that complexity and be okay with working through that,” Perkins says. 

“We’ve intentionally done that and stuck with it, even when it’s uncomfortable, even when folks disagree, but we’ve stuck with it now for 10 years, and I think folks are starting to say, ‘Okay, we can agree on common goals.’ That’s a really good starting point.”

It’s not just ETHS and Northwestern benefiting from the formal partnership—the office has been able to connect with the Evanston Public Library, YMCA, Family Action Network and other organizations that all serve to make the community a better place. 

Perkins has seen the ways that the partnership office has bridged the gap between Evanston and Northwestern.

“The Evanston community—that includes ETHS, includes the city, includes Northwestern—we’re all part of this one community, and we need to figure out ways of working together and figuring out what the joint goals [are]. What are the things that we can all agree are important to us, collectively as a community? And, then, how do we work towards those together? 

“Even if the goals may be 20 years in the future or 50 years in the future, we can co-imagine what kind of world we want this to be and what kind of community we want this to be 50 years from now.”

Although conflicting viewpoints do come up from time to time between the two institutions, in general, ETHS and Northwestern have been able to build a productive relationship that has only strengthened since the partnership began.

“Complexity and struggle are not bad things; they’re not things that have to be avoided. They’re things that naturally come up when we’re all working towards this better collective future, and it doesn’t mean that anything’s wrong—it just means that we have different points of view,” Perkins describes. 

“What I’m most encouraged by is that folks are coming to the table together to work through those [issues] together and say, ‘What kind of community do we really want to build together?’”

In recent years, admissions to Northwestern from ETHS have increased, along with diversity among the applicants from ETHS. Before the partnership, most ETHS students that applied to Northwestern either had family members that worked there or had other connections, but, through the office’s work, more students feel as though they can really belong at Northwestern—leading to an increase in overall applications to the university.

“The two home communities, [Chicago and Evanston], have a special relationship with ETHS and Chicago Public School (CPS) students. So students from ETHS and CPS do get kind of a longer look at their applications,” Perkins notes. 

“But Northwestern is highly selective, and admissions is really competitive, so I never want to over promise. I’m always encouraged when students are interested in Northwestern, and I think it should be one of several schools that they’ve applied to, as with any highly selective school.”

From connections to ETHS or to the city overall, there is an inextricable link between Northwestern and Evanston. Despite their difficulties, Northwestern has been indisputably beneficial to the political, social and economic fabric of the city.

“It’s a positive resource—there’s no question in my mind. I don’t agree with everything, and there are times we have difficult conversations, and there are plenty of things I’d like to see change,” Biss says. “But to have that much teaching, scholarship and thinking occur right here is a really positive resource that we can all benefit from.

“But I also do it with the understanding that [Evanston] thriving requires a thriving Northwestern and thriving requires training. So, ultimately, what we need to find are solutions that work for both institutions.”

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