The Squeeze Is On | On Culture | Chicago Reader

The Squeeze Is On 

Can Allen Turner, the former MCA board chair, open the wallets of big donors for Columbia College?

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Columbia College needs big bucks, and the election of Allen Turner as board chairman late last month signals the first all-out effort in the school's history to get it from private donors. Columbia has grown from a scruffy broadcasting school with an anything-that-breathes admissions policy and a faculty of moonlighters to one of the largest arts colleges in the country. It has an annual budget of $160 million--90 percent of it from tuition--and it's the biggest property owner in the South Loop, but it can't keep paying its own way. Crunched on one hand by pressure to keep tuition increases down and on the other by a mushrooming student body (10,500 and growing) that expects sophisticated equipment and campus amenities, Columbia's appointed Turner to lead the charge on the handout circuit.

The piano-playing, poetry-loving, art-collecting, hoop-shooting, self-made south-sider is also a Pritzker partner, celebrated as the city's Medici prince in a Chicago magazine profile a few years back, and he appears to be an inspired choice. As board chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art in the early 90s Turner was instrumental in raising more than $55 million for the MCA's new edifice. (He probably can't be blamed for the way it looks.)

"Create change" is Columbia College's motto; Turner will apply it to his board. First wooed by Columbia president Warrick Carter five years ago, he's been a board member for three years, long enough to get the lay of the land. "We're looking for an active board, people with skills and financial resources," he says. "Columbia has never been in a position where it had to raise a lot of money, but now it is. We have big plans." Described by his colleagues as aggressively his own man, Turner has what he terms a "very warm" relationship with Carter, who survived a rugged first few years. There was, for example, the now legendary e-mail flap in which Carter sent a note meant for a loan officer to Columbia's faculty and staff. Obviously written in haste, the note was rife with typos and grammatical errors and revealed that he had been laid off from his previous job--news to all but one member of the Columbia search committee that had recommended him.

Carter also weathered criticism of the $3.7 million the school spent on purchasing and rehabbing a presidential mansion and periodic protests about his salary and benefits, which two years ago totaled $539,000, including a hefty housing allotment.

In 2002 the Columbia Chronicle wondered why a school with an endowment of only $46 million was paying its president nearly as much as Princeton, whose endowment is 233 times as large. Though Carter said from the beginning of his tenure that building Columbia's endowment was a priority, during the five years he's been there private donations have remained flat or declined; gifts last year were under $1 million. Still, when a small group on the board attempted to oust him a couple of years ago, they were voted down. "At this point," says Turner, "Dr. Carter is very secure in his job. He has his team firmly in place. The vice presidents [a majority of them Carter appointees] are all on the same page. The board is happy with the staff."

Turner's big plans include a student center, necessitated by the fact that Columbia, so long a commuter school, is becoming more residential. By next fall 1,900 of its students will be living in campus housing, including more than 700 in a dormitory cooperatively owned by Columbia, DePaul, and Roosevelt University. Turner says while students he encounters love the school, "we've fallen down on providing some essential services. We don't have a place for them to gather."

The Buddy Guy building on South Wabash, given anonymously to the school six years ago, has been discussed as a possible site; a facility there might cost $35 million. There's also an acute need for classroom space and faculty offices; Turner says negotiations are under way for two sites. His other priorities are to increase scholarships and ease the lot of the faculty. "We don't have enough full-time faculty, and they work too hard," he says. No specific plans here, but he'd like to reduce their hours, increase communication between them and the board, and "make sure they're fairly compensated."

Turner says everyone he sees at Columbia is happy to be there. But the Columbia staff has been divided by an attempt to unionize. Last month the college appealed a National Labor Relations Board decision on a vote that took place last year. Meanwhile the faculty is still nursing wounds incurred by the school's abrupt move two years ago from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution pension program. The change was made when a drop in interest rates and the stock market resulted in a multimillion-dollar pension-fund deficit. Turner, who favored the switch, became the board's most visible spokesman for it, and as a result he's still identified with the pain it inflicted. But he says that if the original plan had stayed in place, "it might have ruined us financially." In 2004 Columbia reported total assets of $220 million and $98 million in debt. Its endowment is now about $60 million.

Last year Columbia announced that its goal is to build contributions to $20 million annually. Now, who knows? "If you've raised all the money you need," says Turner, "you haven't dreamed big enough."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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