2000: Features (print version)
SONNENSCHEIN: WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO BE PRESIDENT
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
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.
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
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.
increases quite a lot the amount of pressure. It also increases the
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
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.
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.
it a surprise to you that change
In the abstract, no. But it's very hard to really understand the feelings
until you see them. Despite the pain, I believe that the institutional
self-examination and the changes that resulted were necessary. I believed,
and I still do, that as the university that offers the very best liberal
education, Chicago has the opportunity--and the responsibility--to
demonstrate the value of such an education and to attract the most
talented and committed students. When students who could attend any
college or university choose the place that is known for providing
the best liberal education, then it is a victory for the cause of
made great progress towards being in the position that we should be.
Our faculty has become even stronger. We've garnered financial support,
and we're using that support to build new and needed facilities that
allow us to expand and enhance academic programs and campus life.
These successes reveal a university that is confident and that holds
great promise. It is stronger to say, "We are a special place with
remarkable values; we are doing everything possible to support those
values and to ensure their continuation in the very long term," than
to say, "We're a special place; it's very tough; we're doing the best
there anything that you wish you had done differently in getting the
University to this stage?
are, of course, lots and lots of things that you do wrong, because
there are so many things to do. You miss writing a letter of thanks.
You aren't there at a time when you're especially needed. You don't
realize that there's a particular group of people who are deeply concerned
about an action, and you do not explain the action well enough. You
make wrong judgments.
But when I think about regrets in the larger sense, I see them as
the flip sides of the accomplishments. I think often about whether
we could have accomplished as much as we have accomplished with less
pain and with less fear.
doing these things more slowly would have meant less pressure, it
also would have meant a much longer period of activity that is essentially
very hard for the community. Ultimately, this is work that had to
be done for our University to remain as strong as it's been, to continue
to play the leadership role that we have always played in higher education.
And remember, because of our special values, this is important for
all of higher education.
short, we have moved with deliberate speed, and this has had costs
there a part of being Chicago's president that you found more enjoyable
than you'd expected?
and I enjoyed playing host more than either of us would have anticipated.
It is extraordinary the number of people you wind up hosting for
the University in your home. Some of these people are people whom
we'd met before, but as president you meet them in a most personal
and wonderful way. Our guests ranged from former members of the
faculty, such as Saul Bellow, George Schultz, and Milton Friedman,
to other notables, such as Catherine Malfitano, Toni Morrison, Kay
Graham, Prime Minister Obuchi, Robert Redford, Daniel Barenboim,
and Jim Watson. It's wonderful to be in a position where you could
invite anybody in the world to dinner and there's a fairly good
chance that they will say yes. Hosting Presidents Ford and Clinton,
and Vice President Gore, was also an honor.
great fun and it's a great opportunity to share with your community--with
students, with faculty, with trustees, with staff, and with alumni
and friends of the University. It was perhaps not so much a surprise
that we did so much hosting; the real surprise was how much fun
there a U of C story that you tell, something that sums up the
University for you?
experiences that happen over and over again that I connect with
the unique sound of Chicago. They could only happen here. They
were most stunning when I first started to experience them, but
they keep going on.
In my first
week, Beth and I ordered a pizza from the Medici. I gave my name
as Sunshine, which is a thing that my father did--easier to spell.
When I went to pick it up, the young woman who gave it to me said,
"Sunshine. Oh, you're Mr. Sonnenschein. You're the new president!"
me that she was a second-year in the College, and I asked, "What's
your concentration?" She said, "Art history," and I asked, "How
do you find it?"
looked at me very keenly, put her face almost in mine, and said,
"Brutal!" I jumped back, and as I did, she smiled and said, "Exactly
as it should be."
It was wonderful.
That interchange was pure University of Chicago.
I experienced a very different kind of Chicago story, one that
is telling in a different way. Just a few weeks ago, I attended
the memorial service for Edward Levi. It was a wonderful commemoration
of an important life--most of which was spent right here in Hyde
Park. Edward was a graduate of the Lab Schools, the College, and
the Law School; he was a faculty member, a dean of the Law School,
our provost, and president. Edward was also known outside the
University for his integrity, his brilliance, and his unerring
good judgment-so much so that President Gerald Ford asked him,
at a most troubled time in our nation's history, to serve as Attorney
memorial service, many speakers came to honor and remember Edward.
They consistently spoke about his integrity, his intellect, and
his love for his family and for our University. But the words
that struck me most, amid all of these wonderful stories, were
words that the rabbi quoted from Edward's sons. They said that
their father was not only their very own professor, but that he
was also their very own faculty.
I have replayed
these words in my mind since the memorial, recalling how committed
Edward was to education as a noble, moral, and aesthetic enterprise,
and remembering how firmly he believed that liberal learning was
relevant to life and its myriad choices, including the choices
of citizens and leaders. For me, and especially for those who
knew him well, these words capture an important part of what made
Edward Levi so delightful, as a father, colleague, and teacher.
But for the University, these words demonstrate something else
as well. They demonstrate for us, quite vividly, what is so powerful
about a Chicago education. They remind us of what becomes possible
when a person of great intellectual gifts and high ideals undertakes
a rigorous liberal education.
was the ideal University of Chicago graduate. He had read so widely
and thought so deeply about so many matters that to his own sons--and
to his students and his colleagues as well, I am sure--he was
not a professor but a faculty. Indeed, Edward was a faculty
to his colleagues at the Justice Department, and to the entire
nation. What a wonderful testament to the enduring power of a
great liberal education, experienced fully in youth and revisited
across a lifetime.
On a lighter
note, four or five years ago, I found myself asked to speak to
the football team before a game. Now you think of the presidents
at other universities going in and saying, "Okay, guys, do a great
job!" Instead, I read from Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt.
What's appropriate is different.
So my Chicago
stories are really "only at Chicago" stories. The ones that are
most delicious, the ones that seem to represent what we are at
our best, are the ones that both recognize this as a deep and
serious place and are proudly joyful in that recognition.
advice would you give Don Randel as he assumes the University's
many outstanding qualities to the University--he has both depth
and breadth of experience, and he understands very well the institution's
values and ideals. He has a temperament that balances idealism
and pragmatism. As for advice, I will advise when asked, and be
are the major issues facing higher education in general and the
University of Chicago in particular?
the University of Chicago does is to provide the best example
of what great universities should be, for us the need--and the
opportunity--to provide leadership is exceptionally important.
solving classic problems, solving them in new ways, discovering
new problems, and preparing young people for a life of thinking,
sometimes of scholarship. Universities don't make good finishing
schools or social clubs. Nor are they institutions of social action.
They don't serve when they swerve from their most serious purpose.
need to concentrate on what they should be about and to help the
public understand their mission and their purpose. I think that,
for us, holding onto our core values, reinforcing them, and resisting
the forces that are pushing us to compromise them--these are the
major issues. At the same time, we must continue to represent
excellence in all that we do. I am confident that we will do very