Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Henry Bienen on the Ups and Downs of Serving on the CPS Board

The academic, a friend of the mayor, talks about school closings, charter schools, and the health of American public schools.

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 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].


1 year ago
Posted by CarriOh

"Charters significant waiting lists" You should have caught WBEZ's Becky Vevea recent investigation of the TRIB claim that there is a charter waiting list of 19,000.

The Trib printed that number, which charter advocate Andrew Broyd provided. But Vevea found the number incredibly overstated. And she found that 3,000 to 5,000 charter seats are unfilled right now.

"Charters recruit students" WBEZ also found that 2/3rds of the charters featured at the annual CPS charter student recruitment fair at Soldier Field are underperforming. If there is a waiting list, why does CPS spend thousands on a fair to recruit students?

"Underperforming charters stay in business" They don't have union encumbrances to hamper their innovative work with the kids, right? So why are so many underperforming? And why are those rarely is ever closed down?

"Gates Charter Compact" Interim CEO, Terry Mazany said no charters should open until CPS determines which are performing well. The Gates Compact, which CPS signed, commits it to opening 60 charters over the next 5 years. Is the demand for charters being manufactured by creating overcrowded traditional public schools?

"Reforms that don't address poverty" Test scores is how corporate "reformers" define failing traditional public schools. And you see a direct correlation between poverty and low test scores, including charters. But charters aren't closed, a double standard that is hardly a ringing endorsement of the value of "reforms."

"Older cities: concentrate poverty and segregate races" Trade agreements and the economic crisis created very high unemployment among minorities. The consequent jump in childhood poverty in cities soars well past the national reported average. What "reforms" address this?

"Testing" One hallmark of corporate "reform" is the explosion in standardized testing. It is high-stakes, expensive, coercive and punitive. It limits learning and narrows the curriculum to boring test prep and stressful testing -- week after week after week. Right now, CPS kindergartners take 14 standardized tests a year, up from none last year. First graders take 20.

How much time does it take away from learning? What is the cost of this? Are the tests developmentally appropriate? Have they been field tested? Has the national curriculum, the Common Core, been field tested? Why not? Testing is a "reform" with terrible consequences for children. The money should be spent directly on helping children.

"Another "reform" -- closing schools" CPS will consolidate 47,500 kids in 54 fewer schools. Safety will be compromised. Classroom sizes will go up. And the ISBE is proposing lifting the cap on the number of special ed students in a classroom

This "reform" means larger classrooms and fewer teachers, including fewer sp ed teachers if ISBE rips up its rule. How can this improve student outcomes, at the same time CPS introduces an explosion in testing? It can't. But it can create a cheaper school.

"Charter corruption and lack of oversight" Dan Mihapoulus broke the story about UNO charter chain, nepotism and crony capitalism. UNO is the largest chain in Chicago. Parents have no seat on a local school council, they have no right to oversee the school budget.

Would parents have been able to uncover the UNO conflict of interest if they had oversight responsibilities? Now parents have no one looking out for them or their investment of their tax dollars in charters.

1 year ago
Posted by Chicago Native

Dr. Bienen's statements all just seem very removed from reality. (Rod Estvan analyzes the comments about being on the CPS Board better than I can, I would be ashamed to admit that I expressed interest in an ambassadorship as a retirement option if I had not been a campaign bundler or lifetime foreign service officer. Ambassadorships and positions on the Chicago Board of Education are not golden parachutes. They need people who are going to be inquisitive and take initiative. Dr. Bienen has demonstrated neither trait.

1 year ago
Posted by Tim Furman

This man should have to face voters like school board members do across the state. He's entitled to his ideas and opinions, but he's not entitled to be on what should be an elected board just because he's politically connected. Until the appointed board is removed and replaced with a democratically elected board, there will be no legitimacy in anything they do. This man took the school board position because "it fell into his lap," -- a phenomenon that apparently occurs in appointed school boards but not in embassies.

If there were elections, the majority of voters might just elect someone with a little more oomph. A little more sense of stewardship over a public institution. A willingness to fight the defunding-through-TIF that any other school board would battle against.

Not this guy.

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