Quality of Life, UIC, and the Catholic Contribution

By Albert Schorsch, III,
Associate Dean, UIC College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs
7/30/96, revised 7/20/00

Copyright 1996, 2000, Albert Schorsch, III, All Rights Reserved


At a downtown meeting to plan how Chicagoís universities could help our local grade and high schools get connected to computer resources like the Internet a few years ago, a very dedicated professor from a prestigious university stated that, although the purpose of his university was to educate world leaders in their fields, his institution found it valuable to help children in local K-12 schools get resources--if it did not interfere with their own university students studies.   This great university was experimenting with what for them was a new concept, the assignment of graduate student assistants to community research and service.

It was a happy moment for me, not only because a student community service and research model pioneered by UIC two decades ago was being adopted by one of the worlds great universities, but because that university also concluded that such a program wouldnít interfere with a student becoming a world leader in their field!

Afterward, I struggled to express, in just so many commonsense words, the mission of the University of Illinois.   Somehow, Illinois leaders didnít quite match up to the phrase, World leaders. Traveling back and forth from Chicago to Springfield and Urbana to work with colleagues on programs that would improve education, computer access, and local community conditions, I tried to express the mission of the University of Illinois in just one phrase: To improve the quality of life in the State of Illinois and beyond.  The mission of the great state land grant universities established in America in the middle of the 19th Century is directed not just to an intellectual ideal, but to an outcome: To make life better for our citizens.

But then reality hit me, a contradiction.  It is easier for a professor or professional at UIC to accept the proposition that UIC exists to improve our quality of life, than it is for a new undergraduate student lost in a big classroom or waiting in line to straighten out a snafu to accept it.  A UIC professor or professional, especially when involved in one of our UIC Great Cities projects, knows that were helping to lead the world, really, in what a university can do for its community and state,  whether in education, in public health, in community computing, in economic development, in computer imaging, in the integrated teaching of math and science, in information management, in urban planning, economics, and administration, in public access to information through libraries and information systems, in languages and philosophy--the list goes on. For UIC faculty or professional staff, this is a very stimulating and exciting place, with now an international reputation for research and public service.  From the top-down point of view, UIC is a great institution. 

What about from the bottom-up? How can faculty better share this excitement and experience with our students?  We have to acknowledge that people and things do still get lost at UIC.  We have a big bureaucracy to contend with.  Not everyone speaks the same language.  Not everyone, because many of our students, and some faculty, are concerned with their day jobs, has time--to relax, to socialize, to have fun, or to study as much as they would like.  Because UIC is now a world access point for Third World students seeking the chance to jump to the First World, there are tensions among different groups of students.  University leadership is attacking these problems on many levels, by the obvious things like adding trees, flowers, fences, flags, fresh paint, accessibility repairs, computers, new programs, and by a much tougher and less visible task--tackling the complexity of the bureaucracy.   Over the past twenty years that I have been acquainted with UIC, both as student and as staff, I have seen a reduction of the empty ego space symbolized by our original architecture, and its gradual replacement with livable, person space.  I can assure you, there is a much warmer atmosphere about UIC today than in years gone by.  But this is only the beginning.

The missing dimension in every bureaucracy is the personal dimension.  And here is where our religious traditions can really contribute to the solution to the intractable problem of impersonal bureaucracy.  For the Catholic Christian, the person is more than matter, but also spirit.  Our Catholic, Christian personalist tradition passes down from Jesus through saints like Benedict, Francis of Assisi, and Teresa of Avila--and put succinctly, surprise, by the philosopher Immanuel Kant--to the dictum of treating a person not as an object, but as a subject.  Each of us can begin this change through the sometimes radical act of treating each person we meet at UIC, not as a thing, but as a person.  That person sitting behind a desk shuffling papers reacts quite differently when we first say, Good morning, instead of Iíve got a problem.  If we first recognize a person as a person, many good things can happen.

Faculty and staff must practice the discipline of realizing that behind each piece of paper or e-mail directed their way represents a human being deserving of respect and challenge.  We faculty must make a constant and greater effort to include students and their points of view in our decisions and plans.  Recently, a newspaper story contained the confession of a dean elsewhere that he had not read student evaluations of faculty for years!  We have a responsibility, as faculty and staff, to pay attention to students, even if their opinions sit on a silent pile of papers on our desks.  On the other hand, veteran staff, who carefully prepare guidebooks and important notices which can direct students to important resources and deadlines, often complain that these lay unread on students desks as well, even when personally mailed to the students homes.  Reading each others messages is a two-way street.  Communication takes work, and faculty, staff, and students can improve our UIC quality of life by doing the grunt work of better communication. 

So here are a few personalist suggestions for changing the human ecology of UIC, which can be useful to students and staff alike. 

Get Connected: †††††††† Make sure you not only activate your e-mail account when you first get to UIC, to more easily stay in touch with your friends, and your teachers, (and the JPII Center!) but use the computer resources provided to you to find new friends and things which interest you.  Free seminars and workshops are available to you, as are UIC facilities and programs.   Many of them are listed in the UIC home page system. The computer can thus become a tool which can bring you closer to others.

Get Introduced:       Take the initiative and introduce yourself to your classmates, your students, the folks at JPII, your teachers, and even your dean or other administrators. This lessens the chance that you will be treated as a number, and it can make your academic department a friendlier place.  One way to be treated as a subject and not an object is to treat others as persons, first.  Iím sure Iím not the only administrator who finds it refreshing when my routine is broken by student stopping by to say hello.

Get Committed:         Find some community activity and get involved in it.  The JPII Center keeps a list of these.

Get International:     You didnít think Id completely concede to another university the world leader claim, did you?  As a matter of fact, despite the usually good-natured joking on the part of Chicago-born students, UIC is indeed a world university, drawing our own United Nations of talent and sophistication.  Our immigrant students, especially those who have traveled here by their own efforts from impoverished situations, are outstanding and courageous persons who have left much of their lives behind--for a chance at UIC.  Many return to become leaders in their own countries.  You may not ever find a more diverse cultural environment than here.  Take advantage of it, and make a friend. 

Get Educated:  This is your chance!  Youll never have as much time to learn new things as you have now, or the same accessibility of resources at your ready disposal. You will long for these some time later, and not have them. If you are Catholic, I urge you especially to learn the adult version of Catholicism, as reflected in the Scriptures, the writings of the Vatican Council and the Catholic classics, including the new Catechism, many of which are now free on the Internet.   John Paul II himself has some great ideas, and it would be a shame if your faith got stuck at the First Communion level by avoiding this thought.  Even, and especially, if you disagree with these writings, you will be engaging in a conversation with the Lord.  The Church has a very deep and stimulating tradition that speaks to you as an adult, and confronts problems like social justice, the workplace, the home, and politics.   Donít let your college years go by without discovering it. 

Despite our ďmedievalĒ reputation among some intellectuals, Catholicism has been a leader in the human rights revolution which has shaped the later part of this century, and has much to say about life influenced by technology, urbanization, poverty, and nationalism.  These influences are very much a part of life at UIC.  As a Catholic, or as a person exploring Catholicism, you have a special opportunity to contribute to the quality of life at UIC.  I promise to do my part, and encourage you to do yours!

Albert Schorsch, III, an urban planner, works as associate dean in the UIC College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs. (E-mail: schorsch@uic.edu)