In the early part of 1995, Vartan Gregorian, the president of Brown, flew to Chicago to meet with the board of directors of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a school reform initiative to which he had just awarded $49 million of a large gift he had helped arrange. When he arrived, the board was excited to introduce the man it had selected to be its first president - a young lawyer named Barack Obama.
"They had said to me beforehand," recalled Barbara Cervone, the national director of the Annenberg Challenge, who accompanied Gregorian on the trip, "'You're not going to believe this guy.' "
Gregorian and Cervone were impressed by the charismatic attorney and law school professor, who would chair the board meetings - which included presidents of major universities and foundations - for the next five years.
"At the time, he was seen as a really bright, community-centered ... engaging, personal guy," said Cervone, who oversaw the Chicago project and similar ones nationwide from her office at Brown between 1995 and 2000. Touted by some board members as a "rising star," she added, Obama also brought an understanding of the minority experience in the city. (In fact, Gregorian had specifically urged the challenge's early leaders, in choosing the board of directors, "to engage people who reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of Chicago," according to a 1994 letter.)
The case of the school reform effort in Chicago, which met with both successes and failures, has long been of little interest to those outside the field of education reform. But since Obama's rise to prominence, the project has garnered renewed interest.
Unknown to most members of the Brown community, even those who are familiar with the senator's early career, is that the challenge grant Obama directed before his political career took off owed its existence to the efforts of Brown figures - Gregorian and an influential professor of education.
The history of the initiative has been revisited in recent months for clues about Obama's leadership ability and of his views on education. It has also been looked to by some, especially his detractors, for information about the senator's relationship with the 1960s radical William Ayers, the former Weather Underground member who became a leading figure in the city's school reform battles and co-authored Chicago's grant proposal for the challenge.
Many documents from the challenge - meeting minutes, budget proposals and written correspondence - remain on file at Brown's Annenberg Institute for School Reform. While they are short on details of Obama himself, they shed some light on his early professional work and represent a previously unknown tie between the University and the presidential contest.
U. president organized effort
Billionaire publisher Walter Annenberg appeared at the White House alongside President Clinton in 1993 to announce a $500 million gift to bolster school reform efforts in cities across the country. But behind the scenes, Cervone recalled, were Gregorian and then-Professor of Education Theodore Sizer - who had been consulting with Annenberg and his wife, Leonore, for more than a year about making a large gift to public education.
Annenberg and Gregorian were old friends from their shared time at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s, she said, where Annenberg was a trustee and Gregorian was first a dean and then provost.
After the gift was announced, Gregorian served in the role of pro bono adviser to the philanthropist on the implementation of the enormous public education gift, which was to be handed out to deserving collaboratives in cities that had promising reform efforts already underway. But as evidence of the degree to which Annenberg delegated this responsibility to Brown's president, all correspondence with the grant seekers in Chicago, including the original proposal, was addressed to Gregorian.
The Illinois governor, Chicago mayor and various foundations also wrote to Gregorian to recommend the proposal - critically, in fact, since the $49 million would have to be matched two-to-one with public and private money.
The proposal to create the Chicago Annenberg Challenge described two main principles that would, and did, guide school reform in Chicago over the next six years. The first was giving more local control to individual schools and making decisions from the bottom up rather than from the top down.
The second was forming partnerships with community organizations like museums and symphonies to create enriching experiences for students.
Neither, however, resulted in improved test scores - leading many to conclude that the challenge, for all the money spent on 210 different city schools, was a failure. Indeed, in an article about Obama's views on education earlier this month, the New York Times referred to the Annenberg Challenge as having "barely made a dent."
Cervone argued evaluation using test scores for a program like the Annenberg Challenge was "a fool's errand," and that a respected research group had found some improvement in students' work in participating schools. Still, the consensus that one of the only major efforts Obama has led was a failure has at times given political ammunition to his opponents.
Questions on Obama's past
In recent months on the campaign trail, there has been almost as much media buzz about Obama's relationship with Ayers as there has been about the challenge itself. The senator's opponents wonder not just whether Obama worked with Ayers, but whether he also shared some of the former radical's opinions.
At a televised primary debate in April, Obama was dismissive of questions about Ayers, saying he was simply "a guy who lives in my neighborhood" and "not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis." The fact that records of the Annenberg Challenge show Obama knew Ayers at least as early as 1995, and attended at least four meetings with him, was seized on by bloggers, pundits and others as a sign that Obama was not telling the whole truth.
"This is a professional relationship that they had, and a political relationship," said Steve Diamond, an associate professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law who has written extensively about the Annenberg Challenge on his blog, Global Labor and Politics, in an interview.
He said he became interested in the topic because the reporting on Obama and Ayers' relationship was not accurate, and that it was "up to voters to decide whether (the relationship) is a cause for concern."
Diamond, who says he does not plan to vote for Obama but is "definitely not a conservative," first started looking for records of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge by looking at copies of the records from Brown, which he said initially provided the Internet community with the only real facts anyone had bothered to look up about the project.
Diamond dismissed, however, the efforts of some more hostile commentators to exaggerate the relationship between Obama and Ayers. There is "conspiracy thinking" on both the left and right, he said. "They're drawing political conclusions that are probably unsustainable."
In Chicago, a larger media fray was touched off this summer when Stanley Kurtz, a writer for the conservative National Review, reported that he had been blocked from accessing records of the challenge at the University of Illinois, Chicago, where Ayers is a professor of education and where the bulk of the records on the Chicago Annenberg Challenge are kept.
Kurtz's column touched off rumors that the Obama campaign was interfering with the records, building up so much political interest in the matter that television cameras descended on the quiet Chicago library when the university announced shortly thereafter that the records were accessible once more.
For whatever reason, perhaps because there are fewer records at Brown than there are in Chicago, the Annenberg Institute has been spared the same fate, said Mike Grady, deputy director of the institute. Only a handful of visitors have inquired about the documents in the last year, he said, although the institute has posted a press release on its Web site indicating that the records are in fact public, to stay any rumors to the contrary.