Great Responsibilities: Bill Gates speaks to the next generation about the importance and contradictions of philanthropy, and the South Side responds

(Sam Bowman)

by Harry Backlund, Anna Fixsen, and Rachel Wiseman
The sun is setting through the stained glass windows of the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel, named for the famous oil tycoon, and for two blocks up to the chapel’s front doors, a line of anxious students is hoping to see another of the world’s famous wealthy. Inside, the vast, vaulted nave is full of noise as a crowd of about 1700 slowly files into the pews. In the center of the stage is a huge projection screen. White letters on a maroon background read, “THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO Presents Bill Gates.”

The event, entitled “Giving Back: Finding the Best Way to Make a Difference” is part of Gates’s three-day, five-college tour meant to encourage young people to take on global social problems. It is his first visit to the University since stepping down as the head of Microsoft to work full-time running the largest transparent philanthropy organization in the world. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation focuses on expanding global access to healthcare, reducing extreme poverty, and enhancing educational opportunities in the United States.

At exactly 7:15pm, University president Robert Zimmer steps onto the stage to introduce Gates, and the crowd hushes. “Bill Gates’s work throughout his life has fundamentally altered the way the world works.” He describes how Microsoft’s technologies and innovations affect each of our lives on a daily basis. There are more than a billion PCs in use worldwide, he says, and the number will double in the next five years. His foundation has committed over twenty-two and a half billion dollars in grants in over 100 countries around the world. 213 million children have been immunized as a result of these efforts, and millions of lives have been saved. The foundation has paid unwavering attention to the two and a half billion people worldwide who live on less than two dollars a day. “It is an honor and a privilege,” he concludes, “to welcome, to the University of Chicago, Bill Gates.”

Gates stands up from his seat in the pews on the side of the stage and walks in front of the crowd. Applause begin, and after a moment it rises into cheers, and, in a few places, shouts of support. A microphone clipped to his shirt, Gates stands away from the podium, in the center of the stage, shifting awkwardly with his hands clasped in front of him, his shoulders hunched forward, his weight on one foot. “Thank you. Well, I’m very excited to be here today,” he says. As he makes his introduction, cell phones appear above the crowd as dozens of audience members record the moment.

“When I dropped out of college some time ago, I did tell my Dad I’d go back to college. So I kind of do it one day at a time to work out this promise that I made.” After this joke, he poses his question to the audience: are the best minds working on the most important problems? “This is difficult to be precise and numeric about,” he admits. “But certainly, any reasonable definition would include people who have the chance to be educated at, say, the top 50 universities in the world. So it would certainly include all of us here.” He outlines the problems on which he sees a global consensus: the inequities facing the poor, access to healthcare and food, access to a great education (which he emphasized is not solved anywhere in the world), the need for a new way of generating energy that is environmentally friendly and cost-efficient. His message is straightforward and his ideas pragmatic. “We have a number of problems, but not a large number,” he says. “I think you could pick maybe a dozen or so, and the progress we make on those would determine the improvement in the human condition almost entirely.” Gates doesn’t say much that his audience hasn’t heard, but he doesn’t have to. Old words take on fresh meaning when spoken by Gates, despite his awkward delivery. Gates is surrounded by a $53 billion aura.

When Gates is finished speaking and the applause has faded, he takes questions from audience members lined up across the room. One student asks about the drawbacks of pressuring teachers to meet success defined numerically, in terms of test scores. “In a market economy, there’s an expectation of performance, and that probably does create some stress,” he replied. “If you want to drive performance,” he says shrugging, “you’ve got to have some measurement.”

Bronzeville Lighthouse Charter School, at the corner of Root and State Street, is a strong example of the kind of result-oriented education that the Gates Foundation supports. In the reception area of the school’s main office, there’s a sign that reads “Bronzeville Lighthouse Charter School: 98% attendance,” and their website proudly advertises that it has shown the second highest improvement on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) of all charter schools in Chicago. Laura Cummings, the school’s director of instruction, says, “We make sure that our instruction is rigorous, that every child has an exceptionally talented and exceptionally strong teacher in front of them to get them on that path. We use well-researched, strong, core curriculums in order to get students to that point, and we also have a strong data focus, so that we constantly know where every student in our school is and how close they are to the goals that we have set for them.” But through their arts-based curriculum, Bronzeville Lighthouse Charter School also acknowledges that test scores are neither the only nor the best measure of success. Cummings notes, “It’s really important that we have multiple measures and are looking at our school from all angles. If one hundred percent of our students are proficient but we’re not infusing the arts at all and our kids are robots–that’s not what we want. Having multiple measures makes us a more well rounded school and allows us to show our strengths in many ways.”

The Friday morning after Gates’s speech, six blocks south of Rockefeller Chapel in a third floor classroom of the University of Chicago Woodlawn Charter School, Nicole Buckner speaks about the fundamentals of preparing a college resume to a group of eleventh-graders, who listen more or less attentively. “Let’s talk about college readiness,” Buckner says. Her voice is full of enthusiasm and she commands the respect and admiration of the dozen students. “How many people have completed their college resumes?” Ten hands shoot up.

Buckner’s class is part of 6to16, a college-readiness program developed by the University’s Urban Education Institute, which Gates mentioned in his talk as an example of intellectual institutions taking on social problems. 6to16 is designed to increase the number of low-income, first-generation college students and provide guidance from 6th grade to their senior year of college. The program focuses specifically on the development of skills, self-confidence, and mentorship. The Gates Foundation provided $1,894,228 in March 2008 to support the development of the 6to16 curriculum and 6to16’s Internet education platform. The program was piloted in 2009 in four Chicago high schools, reaching more than 400 students. Today, the program is in demand across the nation for public school districts and charter schools.

There’s a debate in Buckner’s classroom when the question of what Bill Gates the person might be like is raised. “I think he’d be nerdy and talking about technology a lot,” one boy muses, “But, I guess he’d be cool…sorta like me,” he adds with a smile. “I think he’d see what you have to say and see if he would want to give you money,” a girl offers. Benitta Jacobs, an implementation leader on the staff of 6to16 said, “I think he’d be quiet and unassuming, as if he could sit by you on the train and you would never know it.”

After the question and answer period is over, Gates walks across the street to the Booth School where, in a bare, white-walled room, he gives a brief interview to a Chicago Weekly correspondent and a representative of the Chicago Maroon.

Up close his hair is flecked with grey, and there are lines at the corners of his eyes. He slouches in his chair, and his head hangs forward. He wears silver rimmed glasses and a yellow dress shirt with his initials WHG embroidered in purple across the left breast pocket. His face is tan and bright, and he flashes a smile as he shakes hands around the room, but he looks tired, distracted, like he’s been talking a lot today. As the cameras snap, Gates sits down. His aid puts a can of Coke on the table in front of him and opens the tab for him. The photographers are led out, and the interview begins.

When the questions begin, Gates lights up. We ask a question asked to us by the parent and enrichment specialist at Bronzeville Lighthouse Charter School about how funding from the Gates Foundation will balance out financial difficulties within the Chicago Public Schools. “What is the approach of the Gates Foundation in taking on problems that have traditionally been shouldered by local governments?”

“Well, we don’t take on problems that have traditionally been shouldered by local governments. What we’re doing in all our programs is helping with experimentation. Often an experiment like starting a charter school.” As Gates describes the economic advantages of charter schools, his left hand almost never stops moving through the air, and when it does, it’s only to sit for a moment on his chin while he makes a point. “All we can do is help drive some models that will hopefully help the state get far more value out of the money it spends.”

The Maroon editor asks another question. “The Gates Foundation takes changes that have proven successful on a smaller scale, scales them up, and applies them more broadly, which can be a tricky approach when those initiatives conflict with local values. When conflicts do arise, how do you balance pushing forward the initiatives with objections of people that might actually be undergoing those changes?”

“Well, most of the things we do don’t get into those things…[but] if you really get into the poor countries, sometimes we’re telling mothers how to take care of their kids, how to keep their babies warm. Sometimes that goes against local practice, and we bring in social scientists and local people. We did have a thing in Nigeria where the polio vaccine was claimed to be a plot to sterilize Muslim women. So I went up, and the head of the Muslim church in Nigeria and I gave polio drops and talked about how that rumor should be quashed.”

The most intriguing answer Gates gave us comes when we ask a harder question. “How do you balance the need for organized research and innovation on a large scale with being an individual human being who wants to help the people that you see in your every day life? If you, Bill Gates, are walking on 57th Street and the homeless man in front of the bakery asks you for a dollar, would you give it to him?”

Gates smirks slightly. “Oh, that particular guy? Oh yeah, I’d give him lots. But the guy on 56th…hmm, I don’t think he spends it well.” He softens, and gives a more sincere answer. “There was an interesting experience where I showed my daughter a video clip of polio victims and I said, ‘Ok, with luck and lots of great partners, we’ll eradicate that disease.’ Her reaction was to say, ‘Well, what about that girl?’ I said, ‘What girl?’ She was referring to a girl in this movie who she saw limping, and her connection wasn’t to some statistic about how many kids have been paralyzed. She was thinking, (That could have been me–I could have been that girl. Are you helping that girl?) That was a stark reminder. Then again,” his voice strengthens, “there is value to the ivory tower. It’s not completely wrong to think in the abstract and think about theories of behavior and write books on those things. It’s a hard thing to balance. For me, the way I get the balance is by going out to Africa and spending a week every year at least, and going to India and spending a week every year, and sitting down with the mothers there. Going out to the schools. That balance of having the human touch and knowing whether it works or not–that’s pretty important.”

As Gates leaves the room, walking out to the driver waiting to take him to his next destination, the crowd has mostly cleared out of Rockefeller Chapel. When asked why he came, one student replies, “Because it’s Bill Gates.”

1 comment for “Great Responsibilities: Bill Gates speaks to the next generation about the importance and contradictions of philanthropy, and the South Side responds

  1. February 26, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    this is so stupid and long

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