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Alternatives for Obama library offer test of ideals

HONOLULU — President Obama has preached economic opportunity and equal access to education as cornerstones of the legacy he wants to leave. But in the contest to host his presidential library, two public universities that serve low-income communities fear the playing field has been tilted against them by two elite schools.

As Obama weighs a decision he will announce within months, the University of Hawaii and the University of Illinois Chicago are struggling to offer the resources needed to offset the massive cost of building the library and presidential museum, expected to total nearly half a billion dollars.

The other two schools in the running, Columbia University and the University of Chicago, have a combined endowment of more than $15 billion.


The Obamas are expected to raise much — but not all — of the money themselves, so a university’s ability to contribute will be a major factor.

‘‘Look, when it comes to raw fund-raising prowess, we’re not in a position to compete with New York and Chicago,’’ Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, said in his Honolulu office, overlooking the oceanfront site Hawaii has proposed.

This week, the Obama foundation let it be known that it was displeased with Chicago’s proposals — in particular, that the University of Chicago can’t guarantee access to its proposed South Side sites because they are on city park property.

Still, the blunt warning through the media appeared designed mainly to light a fire under the University of Chicago to fill holes in its proposal.

At the University of Illinois Chicago, student trustee Danielle Leibowitz said the school wants to team up with a community foundation to build the library in North Lawndale, a blighted, heavily black area.

‘‘If he wants to be consistent with the message he’s given throughout his presidency, it really only makes sense to give it to us,’’ Leibowitz said. ‘‘To suddenly hand over your legacy to a private institution seems rather hypocritical.’’


The University of Chicago and Columbia declined to comment for this article.