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.
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
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.
Sonnenschein breaks bread with Chicago's first president.
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.
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.
you find being president different from being a provost or a
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.
increases quite a lot the amount of pressure. It also increases
back at your tenure, what do you consider your most important
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.