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Hugo Sonnenschein
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Pan-Asian persuasion

 


image: FeaturesOn June 30, Hugo Sonnenschein ends seven years as president of the University of Chicago. In this interview, he talks about how those years changed his life-and how he hopes they've changed the life of the University.


July 1, 2000, is the first day in seven years that you won't be president of the University of Chicago. What are your plans for that day--and beyond?

My calendar has me in Michigan--with Beth, with our daughter Rachel, her husband Mossi, and our granddaughter Halima--on the beach. We're hoping for sunshine. We have a place in Michigan that we have had too little opportunity to visit. It's a holiday weekend, and I look forward to being there with family.

image: Reunion 1998
Reunion 1998 Hugo Sonnenschein breaks bread with Chicago's first president.

In a more general sense, I'm hoping to have time to think broadly and at leisure about more than the University and the role of universities, and to change the pace of my life. The work of auniversity president is very consuming, as it should be, and in many ways, University life has been our life.

I often think of being a university president as similar to being the conductor of an orchestra. It's the orchestra that makes the music; it's the orchestra that the audience comes to hear. But the conductor has an important role as well: to help the orchestra understand how the music really sounds, to guide it, to integrate the sound of the individual musicians. At the end of a piece, the conductor is sweating--and no wonder. I look forward to some reduction in intensity--to the special pleasures and demands of playing in the orchestra and having a bit more time for other activities. The first pleasure will be my return to thinking about and teaching economics. I'll start teaching at Chicago in the fall of 2001; this fall, I'll be spending time with my East Coast grandchildren in New Jersey and teaching a course at Princeton. Besides teaching and research in economics, I want to spend time thinking about what I've learned in the last seven years and what it means for who I am and what I will do next. You're a different person once you've had this kind of experience. You grow enormously when you work with such extraordinary people and when you have the privilege of work that is so very much worth doing.


Did you find being president different from being a provost or a dean?

The breadth of problems is greater, as is the extent to which it's necessary to think very long-term. The hardest situations are the ones where there isn't easy agreement, where there may be a need to do something that may not be popular but all of the evidence that you've put together suggests that this something should be done. And you're the one who has to say, Do it.

Being president increases quite a lot the amount of pressure. It also increases the satisfaction.


Looking back at your tenure, what do you consider your most important accomplishments?

I'm proud that we made exciting new appointments, enhanced programs, enhanced fund-raising, enhanced facilities--but what I'm most proud of is to have asked some very tough questions about what we are as an institution, and where we're going.

image: Hugo Sonnenschein
President Sonnenschein

Some of this goes back to my conductor analogy. A conductor should help an orchestra to understand how it sounds. I feel that I have been effective in helping the University to understand itself a little bit better. The part that the University understands very well--and has always understood--is that our commitment to learning and discovery is not one commitment among a large number of commitments. For the University of Chicago, it's what we're about.

But you have to be properly critical of the sounds you're making and how well they're integrated. For example, from the start of my presidency, I have argued that a university with this heritage and faculty deserves to be the school of choice for a high percentage of the most outstanding, intellectually serious college students--and that we could achieve this goal without sacrificing what's at our center.

There was some feeling that we would have to change to be that strong in College admissions. I never believed that, and I believe we've demonstrated that it's not necessary to change what we fundamentally are. But we did have to look at ourselves and understand the places where, despite the University's basic strengths, we simply should be better.

You will not maintain, over the long run, an extraordinary faculty or extraordinary academic programs or excellent resources for graduate education, without a vibrant College, and without outstanding facilities.

Although some things I've done have been controversial, in the mail I get and in much of the rhetoric I hear, there's conviction that the changes were right. There is, however, the feeling that they've been painful. It is painful to look at a place that represents something so special, to feel its fragility, and to say we will have to make some changes. The fear is that the changes will affect the qualities that make the place so special. I am convinced that the changes we have undertaken, rather than altering the character of our University, will help us retain our special qualities in the very long run.

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