Roosevelt University: Bearing The Torch for Every Daughter and Son

roosevelt university
Photo Credit: Zol87
One of my favorite things about history is unearthing the obscure. Sitting in front of a computer screen or with a musty book in my hands, and discovering a name I do not yet know, whose story is compelling, whose work was to reflect on the world as it was and say, “No, this way”— and then grab the earth by it’s hand and gently lead, or lean their back again the globe and shove. A good deal of the job lies in knowing which touch the world needs at the moment of contact. Another sizable chunk involves risking your all, and perhaps not even being remembered for it: changing the world so effectively that it is eventually imperceptible, a given, and your name lives only in the lives of others who go on to benefit from that gentle tug or dramatic push so long ago.

One such name lost to history is Edward J. Sparling, a Chicagoan, who started a revolution in higher education for Chicagoans, and eventually others around the country who would come to our great city to seek out an education at Roosevelt University.

Sparling was president of Central YMCA College in Chicago. During his term as president, he fought discrimination against minority students. He persuaded the board to allow teachers to speak on race relations in the classroom, and tried to advocate for minority students when they complained of unequal treatment. But it became apparent that he could only change so much at YMCA. So, on April 17th of 1945, he left the college. He was pushed to action when he was asked to provide the demographic data of the student body. He knew this was the beginning of an effort to institute quotas for black, Latino/a, female, Jewish, immigrant, and other minority students. He refused. Instead, he stood, braced himself, and thrust backward. He gave the world of Chicago education a nice shove.

Inspired, about half the faculty and staff left with him, as well as a majority of the student body. Roosevelt University was born out of protest, activism, and a commitment to justice. A group of people who were not specifically committed to social justice by profession acted because they knew what they were witnessing was not right. The school maintains a social justice mission statement and operates not on a notion of exclusivity, as some universities, but instead on the notion that people, when given the opportunity, can rise to the demands and rigors of higher education. They recognize that everyone deserves this chance.

As of the Fall 2009 enrollment, RU had a total of 7,306 students. 1,490 identify as African American and 830 as Hispanic. Only half of the student body identifies as White. 334 are international students. 4,975 are female. It’s a far cry from the YMCA College in 1945. In 2009 Roosevelt was named one of the most diverse private universities in America by the New York Times, and the U.S. News and World Reports named it the second most diverse in the Midwest.

The university is not content to rest on these numbers though, and it makes social justice a part of every student’s education, as well as integral part of their identity in the higher education community. The schools mission statement includes educating “socially conscious citizens.” Students must take courses that address current issues, and many required courses build volunteer work into the curriculum. Typical English or writing classes often have students reading about urban, race, and gender issues.

Roosevelt University now has two campuses, one in downtown Chicago and one in Schaumburg. The Chicago campus has several buildings, the center of which is housed in Adler and Sullivan’s beautiful Auditorium Building at 430 S. Michigan Avenue. A historical landmark, it features the beautiful Ganz Hall performance space on the 7th floor, stained glass windows in the stairwells, and the lobby, with its grand staircase, is impressive and inviting. The well-known Auditorium Theatre, on the “Wabash side,” as the students say, is connected to the building. It is used to pull off cinema-worthy commencements, to host guest speakers, and is used by the local Joffrey Ballet as well as national touring companies and concerts.

One of Chicago’s best kept secrets, it’s still a small school, and young, by university standards. This year marks its 65th anniversary. The school was at first primarily for local students, but dorms have been built over the years, and the Chicago College of Performing Arts is attracting students from near and far. It seems the only direction from here is up, as the university has broken ground on a new 32-story building on Wabash to support a projected 50% increase in the number of full-time students by 2017. The new building is very modern, sleek glass and angular, an interesting juxtaposition to the Auditorium building just behind it.

But perhaps this juxtaposition completes the Roosevelt University story. When Sparling and his brave cohorts left YMCA to found a more inclusive and progressive school, they moved into the Auditorium Building with nothing. One of the first deans of the school, Wayne Leys, said, “If it is foolhardy for 68 men (including a significant number of women) to resign their jobs without assurance of future security, the faculty of Roosevelt was foolhardy. If it is impossible to remodel an 11-story building in 33 days, equipping it with classrooms, a library, laboratories and offices, Roosevelt was an impossibility.”

Yet, here it is. From an impossible task to a tangible manifestation of a “foolhardy” mission, to soaring 32 stories into the Chicago skyline. The old and the new, separate and unique, abutting.




Full disclosure: Mary-Margaret attended Roosevelt University, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Social Justice and a Minor in Women’s and Gender Studies. She loves her school.

Mary-Margaret McSweene

About Mary-Margaret McSweene

Mary-Margaret McSweene makes her home in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago with the love of her life, a pit bull/black lab mix, named Jake. Buying old things that no longer function but offer extreme aesthetic pleasure is her vice; typewriters and rotary phones are favorites. Mary-Margaret also believes that anything in life can be articulated by a Tom Petty song.

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