Retiring political scientist Dick Simpson reflects on 55 years at UIC

Dick Simpson, UIC professor emeritus of political science. Photo: Kristina Sherk

For over five decades, Dick Simpson has been an influential figure in Chicago, synonymous with UIC. His involvement with the city and university will continue, but in a different manner, as he embarks on the “good fight” in retirement.

The former Chicago alderman established himself as an authority on political matters of all kinds, from corruption and voting patterns to budgeting and civic engagement. While producing reform-influencing research and more than a dozen books, he has always taken pride in his teaching. He has shared his expertise widely beyond UIC classrooms as a frequent contributor to media coverage of city and state politics.

Simpson will be honored Sept. 19 during a special Constitution Day UIC Alumni Exchange event, where he will converse with Steven Schwinn, UIC professor of law, about the complex web of political, social and economic challenges he sees endangering the state of American democracy. “The Crisis in American Democracy Today” is a virtual event co-sponsored by the UIC College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, UIC Library, UIC School of Law and UIC Alumni Association. Advance registration is required.

Simpson recently spoke with UIC today to look back at his career, consider the current state of the country and share his active plans for retirement. 

For those new to UIC or unfamiliar with its history, can you reflect on the evolution of UIC since you arrived on campus in 1967?

When I arrived at UIC in 1967, it was still being constructed. The library, Student Center East, then called Circle Center, and University Hall were constructed as were the ugly overhead concrete walkways. There was a Greek amphitheater in the center of the campus. But all the rest, like the Behavioral Sciences Building, came later. We had only a couple of thousand students, not the 34,000 we have today. The medical campus seemed far away and wasn’t part of UIC. A law school wasn’t even a dream.

But it was exciting coming to a brand-new campus being completely made over from its original days at Navy Pier. It was also the 1960s, with their attendant political and social ferment. I and my students thought we could end problems like racial segregation, the War in Vietnam and political machine control of Chicago in just a few years. So, we not only learned in the classroom but attended demonstrations and worked precincts for candidates we admired like Eugene McCarthy, who was running for president.

While we didn’t change the world quickly or the way we wanted, UIC has fulfilled our wildest dreams and expectations. We joined with the medical campus and recently the law school to become a comprehensive research and teaching university. We have local, national and global reach.  We have graduated hundreds of thousands of students who are changing the world.

What have been the most meaningful moments or accomplishments of your career at UIC?

I have always, first and foremost, seen myself as a teacher although I have held public office, become an ordained minister, fought the political machine and political corruption, and published many books, journal articles and newspaper op-eds. Winning all the teaching awards at UIC — including the student-awarded Silver Circle Award twice — and two national teaching awards from the American Political Science Association have validated my effort.

You’ve stated previously that the country’s democracy is in danger and your new book uses Chicago as an example to examine how the political, racial, economic and social inequalities dividing the nation play out in neighborhoods and cities. What needs to happen to reverse this trend?

“All politics is local.” I began my own political awareness and activism in the Civil Rights movement in Texas in the early 60s when it was a dangerous thing to do. Today, in my book “Democracy’s Rebirth:  The View from Chicago,” I list eight major challenges, show how they affect us in Chicago, and advocate 25 specific changes that need to be made. Most of all, I write that we must create a social movement to achieve a rebirth of democracy. We must create the local institutions for participatory and deliberative democracy here at UIC, in Chicago, and in communities around the country. As the Greeks believed 2,500 years ago, you learn democracy by practicing democracy locally.

Teaching and promoting civic education have been key parts of your career, and many of your former students have gone on to serve in various levels of public office. What advice do you have for current UIC students?

In 55 years of teaching at UIC, I have tried to teach my students not just dry facts, such as we have three branches of government. I have tried to teach them how politics and government really work and that they can participate effectively as an elected official, administrator or citizen. And many have gone on to be elected to public office from alderman, county board member, senator, ambassador and presidential candidate.

For students who care about the challenges to our democracy and want to have an effect, it is not enough to study in the classroom. You have to get involved. It can be in student government, community organizations, protest movements, or electoral campaigns. But you have to act, reflect, learn and act again.

What are your plans for retirement?

I am still trying to learn what retirement means for me. Luckily, I have two books in the pipeline, a role on the boards and committees of civic organizations, and I may someday teach another course or two.  I still get called upon by TV, print and electronic media to explain Chicago politics. I am working on mayoral and aldermanic campaigns as adviser and fundraiser. But I am slowing down. I have begun taking piano lessons again. I swim and walk in the park near my home. But I don’t have the pressure of preparing lectures, PowerPoint slides or class discussions. And other than PhD dissertations, I don’t grade papers. After 55 years, it is time to retire. But I am glad I was here at the beginning to have seen the contributions by the faculty and students who laid the foundations. I look forward to seeing what future years may bring UIC.

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