On Friday afternoon, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke to a full house of University of Michigan students and community members at Stamps Auditorium. As part of the class Entrepreneurship 407: Entrepreneurship Hour, Emanuel discussed entrepreneurship and innovation, drawing both on his past and present experience in politics.
Emanuel was elected as mayor in 2011, and before served in Congress and as Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama. He explained that during his time in the White House, there was never a shortage of crises, specifically within the financial sector and automotive industry. But he noted with each challenge came a new lesson in his role as a politician.
During his opening dialogue, Emanuel highlighted several of Chicago’s merits, explaining of the top ten cities in the world, Chicago is the only one that is neither the financial nor political capital of its nation. He then addressed what he calls “The 5 T’s”: Talent, training, transportation, technology and transparency — those of which he feels makes Chicago competitive.
Specifically, he said 38.5 percent of the people in Chicago have a college education, while 31 percent of the people in the United States has this level of education. Also, Chicago has the most connected airport in the U.S., and a public train system which Emanuel's asserts has a 94 percent satisfaction rating. The city is rated the sixth hottest tech spot in the world. In terms of transparency, however, Emanuel explained while the largest tasks he faced in office were financial in nature – solving pension issues and lowering healthcare costs – he also feels these issues aren’t the only ones that are significant.
“The reason I ran wasn’t just to grow the economy and keep Chicago global,” he said. “I ran to fix the public education system.”
Emanuel explained for the last five years, the graduation rate of Chicago schools has been four times the nation graduation rate. When he became mayor, the graduation rate was 56 percent. Last year, it hit 78 percent. It’s predicted that in two more years, the rate will be 84 percent.
“Today, even though 83 percent of our kids are (living in) poverty or below, they match the United States in going to college or community college,” Emmanuel said. “Even though every person who quote the next person would tell you not those kids, not that background, not that zipcode.”
During the speech, several protesters stood up and questioned his decision to spend $95 million on a new police training academy, a policy that has sparked backlash as the provision also meant closing of several city public schools.
"You want to hear him shut down Black and brown schools, that's what you want to hear,” one protester said in response to calls to “sit down” coming from an audience member. “You want to hear more neoliberal garbage.”
Protesters questioned Emanuel’s actions to alleviate police brutality, a topic that has induced criticism of Emanuel’s policies and left him with an 18 percent approval rating in 2015. Protesters chanted, “Money for kids, not for cops. No cop academy,” and after the protesters left the room, Emanuel stated, “They had legitimate points.”
He addressed the protesters concerns, acknowledging the consolidation of public schools while also explaining that, in addition to the police academy, many of the resources from closing the schools and other facilities will be used to build more updated provisions across several city neighborhoods.
“One of the jobs as a mayor is how to take the growth that is happening in the city and make sure the other parts of the city are seeing those same benefits,” he said.
Emanuel was then joined by the College of Engineering Dean Alec D. Gallimore for a Q&A session. He addressed topics surrounding his experience working in the federal government, his views on higher education and criticism, and why he views Chicago as such a special city.
When asked about his advice for young people, Emanuel encouraged students not to be afraid of failing, recounting his own setbacks and challenges and explaining without these experiences, he would not have the tools necessary to face adversity in the present.
“You’re going to fail and you’re going to learn the most when you fail … failing will be your greatest experience in learning what you’re made of,” he said. “It is better to have tried and failed than to resent not having tried at all.”
LSA sophomore Leann Abad said he thought the discussion was enjoyable. He thought Emanuel, rather than shutting down criticism, addressed the concerns of protesters in a respectful manner.
“Other than the obvious pitch for Chicago, I think, especially with the (protests) that happened today, he handled it with poise and actually addressed the issue that they brought up, and I can see, from my perspective, why he became mayor,” Abad said. “He’s very charismatic, and also it seems like he cares and that’s probably why he got voted into office.”