A group of 37 faculty members at the University of Chicago sent a blistering letter charging the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago with a “total lack of regard for the values” of the university and community in its decision to fire the popular executive director of the school’s Hillel, along with its 17 board members.
The action was taken several weeks ago after the Federation and Hillel reached an impasse over the Jewish campus group’s request for autonomy.
In a letter to the Federation dated April 18, the professors praised Dan Libenson, the executive director of the Hillel, for his efforts over the last six years that they said “surpassed what any of us believed possible and greatly enriched the lives of the students we serve to educate.”
The letter said the decision to fire Libenson abruptly, including changing the locks on his office, “shocks the conscience” and shows “disregard for our community” and “a total abdication of Jewish values.”
The faculty members, from a variety of fields and disciplines, urged Federation to agree to the dismissed Hillel board’s request for “mediation, with the ultimate aim of restoring University of Chicago Hillel’s independence.”
Federation officials have insisted that they “own” Hillel and that Libenson and his board were not playing by the rules in seeking full autonomy.
The 17 Hillels in the state of Illinois are agencies of the Chicago Federation, the only such arrangement in the nation.
The tensions between the University of Chicago Hillel and the Federation centered on the nature of proposed budget cuts, with the Hillel refusing to trim programming or personnel expenses and the Federation insisting on them.
For now, Libenson told The Jewish Week that he, with the backing of his board, plans to launch a new, independent Jewish organization on campus that would continue to emphasize outreach to all students .A Jewish Week editorial this week noted that this could result in wasteful duplication of resources.
The Federation has installed an interim executive director at the Hillel, and says it will continue its program.