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JUNE 2000: Features (print version)


On 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.

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.

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.

Was it a surprise to you that change was so painful?

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 liberal education.

We've 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 we can."

Is there anything that you wish you had done differently in getting the University to this stage?

There 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.

If 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.

In short, we have moved with deliberate speed, and this has had costs and benefits.

Was there a part of being Chicago's president that you found more enjoyable than you'd expected?

Beth 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.

It's 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 it was.

Is there a U of C story that you tell, something that sums up the University for you?

There are 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!"

She told 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?"

Then she 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.

Most recently, 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 General.

During the 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.

Edward Levi 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.

What advice would you give Don Randel as he assumes the University's presidency?

Don brings 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 silent otherwise.

What are the major issues facing higher education in general and the University of Chicago in particular?

Since what 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.

We're about 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.

Universities 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 well.

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