Joe Ferguson ’81 begins role as President of the Civic Federation
According to Joe Ferguson ’81, he ended up at Lake Forest College by accident. It was a happy accident, though, as his experience at the College prepared him for immense success in his career, from working as an attorney to serving as the Inspector General of Chicago for 12 years, and now working as the president of the Civic Federation.
Originally from Boston, Ferguson’s high school counselor encouraged him to attend Lake Forest College. They had a long-standing relationship with former Dean of Admissions Spike Gummere, who still works at the College in the Office of Advancement, engaging with alumni and overseeing the Spike Initiative.
“My counselor thought Lake Forest would be a good place for me, because I still had some growing and learning to do,” Ferguson said. “A small liberal arts college, it was a place where there was a supportive community both at the teacher level and at the administration level.”
Not having seen the campus outside of an admissions brochure, Ferguson trusted the assurances of his counselor and boarded the first plane ride of his life to go to Chicago and attend Lake Forest College.
“It was the universe looking down on me and putting invisible forces into play that brought me to Lake Forest,” Ferguson said. “There were people watching over me.”
After graduating from Lake Forest with a bachelor’s degree in history, Ferguson spent several years working in the restaurant industry in various managerial and consultant positions. Choosing to pursue a career in law, he attended Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, clerked for two federal judges, worked at a major law firm in Chicago, and then at the US attorney’s office in the Department of Justice. From there, he served as the Inspector General of Chicago, investigating city actors accused of misconduct, and is now in his first month at the Civic Federation.
The Civic Federation, which was founded in 1894 and just celebrated its 130th anniversary, was founded by a group of civic leaders with the mission of promoting effectiveness and efficiency in local government. Putting an emphasis on fiscal responsibility, the media looks to the Civic Federation as the go-to gold standard for analysis of budgets, funding proposals, tax proposals, and other critical infrastructure issues.
Ferguson’s past roles gave him essential foundational understanding of and practice in the core areas of the Federation, but leading the organization will allow him to combine different aspects of his skills and knowledge in a new setting.
“What I’m most looking forward to is bringing those two complementary things, my knowledge of systems and my knowledge of government and governance generally, into configuration with the hyper-intense and high-standard analysis of the fiscal aspect of things,” he said.
While Ferguson has had a long and impressive career that has prepared him well for success in this new role, he attributes his education at Lake Forest College for teaching him to believe in the importance of local government in major cities and the need to keep fighting for change even in the face of extraordinary difficulty.
As the Inspector General, Ferguson was able to stand in the middle of everything Chicago wrestles with, such as inequitable and discriminatory practices, and try to make change in the face of an intense environment of mindsets, personalities, and opinions.
“A lot of the work was leaning into a hyper-politicized environment and system to try to push a different way of thinking and a different set of metrics that would bring about something that is more equitable, fairer, and ultimately brings us together rather than divides us as a community,” Ferguson said.
One example of this work is the investigation done by the Inspector General’s office into the Chicago Police Department after the murder of Laquan McDonald. The investigation resulted in the firing or retirement of many police officers, including those high up the chain, and Ferguson was also part of the police accountability task force that worked with the Department of Justice to build a new infrastructure that created the architecture for reform.
Being part of true, meaningful change is Ferguson’s favorite part of what he does and has been able to do throughout his career.
“The capacity to be in a space where you both attend to the problem and then are also able to speak to solutions is enormously gratifying,” Ferguson said.
Lake Forest College and Ferguson’s professors prepared him for this work by broadening his perspective, encouraging interdisciplinary and outside-the-box thinking, and teaching him to engage with the world in a more creative way. Brought to the College by his high school counselor and Spike Gummere, Ferguson is grateful for their guiding hands that led him here in 1977.
“The world will look out for you as long as you keep your eyes open to the possibilities,” Ferguson said.