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First Chair

Taking his place as Chicago's president, Don Michael Randel is an exceptional scholar and experienced administrator. He's also an amateur jazz musician who reads economics for fun, an architecture buff whose new office is in one of academe's ugliest buildings, and a bibliophile who never bought a book he didn't keep.

PHOTO:  Mr. and Mrs. RandelAs a teenager in the Republic of Panama, Don Michael Randel dreamed of going on the road, playing horn with Les Brown and the Band of Renown. The aspiring jazz sideman and (with his father) frequenter of Panama City's nightclub scene also had a bookish side, and reading material was close at hand. His parents had purchased the University of Chicago-inspired Great Books series, installing the multivolumed set in the family dining room. The first of those texts he remembers "reading at" was Freud, "something about which one heard, even as a high-school student, but nobody was teaching in high school."

Encouraged by his favorite teacher-Donald E. Musselman, AM'50-Randel decided to combine his love of music and books and attend college in the States. Today, with three degrees from Princeton University-A.B. magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, 1962; M.F.A., 1964; Ph.D., 1967-the silver-haired, bespectacled musicologist is an expert on Renaissance and medieval polyphony, "right up there in the big leagues," he says, "when it comes to obscurity of scholarly specialty."

Sometimes mistaken in print for a Benedictine monk ("Dom Michael Randel, OSB"), in real life he is married to Carol Randel, who majored in mathematics at the University of Michigan. They have four grown daughters: Amy Constable Keating, a postdoctoral fellow in computational structural biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Julia Randel, a tuba player and doctoral student in musicology at Harvard; Emily Constable Pershing, a veterinarian turned full-time mother of two in Ithaca; and Sally Randel Eggert, a third-year law student at Cornell.

Although he has spent his adult life in the cloisters of academe, he is quick to disabuse anyone who thinks that educators, especially humanists, are off in Cloudcuckooland: "I like to tell those people that the first thing a musician does is learn how to count." Indeed, in 32 years at Cornell University he became someone the institution could count on, steadily ascending the ranks of academic administration; in 1994, when Cornell's top office opened, he was the "inside" candidate-and the outsider who got the post quickly named him provost.

At 60 Randel still plays the trumpet and cocktail-lounge piano. He also has a new day job, one with a lot of night and weekend gigs. On July 1 Don Michael Randel took the stage as the 12th president of the University of Chicago.

Alumni and other Chicago watchers are already seated front row center, eager to judge the new president on his technical proficiency and, even more critically, on his skills of interpretation.

That critical eye is in part institutional zeitgeist, in part a legacy of the institutional change that characterized his predecessor's seven years at the Chicago helm. Hugo F. Sonnenschein has acknowledged that the rapid change-or the perception of rapid change-left some alumni believing that the essence of the University had been threatened. Announcing his decision to step down, he wrote, "I have come to feel that it is time for another president, one who is less a symbol of change and who has less reason to initiate change, to carry the momentum forward."

Led by Board of Trustees Chair Edgar D. ("Ned") Jannotta, the trustee and faculty committees charged with finding Sonnenschein's successor took as a given that the next president would be an exceptional scholar and an experienced administrator. They also hoped to find, in the words of faculty chair Frank M. Richter, SM'71, PhD'72, the Sewell L. Avery distinguished service professor, "a powerful and persuasive voice," someone who "could remind us-and also explain to those who do not yet know us well-why it's so important that there has been a University of Chicago for over 100 years, and why it's so important to continue."

Don Randel had the requisite curriculum vitae in terms of scholarship (Mr. Randel's Opus) and institutional leadership. After completing his doctorate (including research in Spain on a Fulbright grant), he taught for two years at Syracuse University, then joined Cornell in 1968 as an assistant professor of music; in 1971 he was made associate professor and department chair, a post he held for five years. Promoted to full professor in 1975 (in 1990 he became the Givens Foundation professor in musicology), he served on a plethora of advisory groups, from the visiting committee at the Eastman School of Music to the Graduate Record Examination's Committee of Examiners for Music. Named associate dean of Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences in 1989, he was promoted to a five-year term as the Harold Tanner dean of the college in 1991.

While dean, he regularly grappled with issues of undergraduate education, heading an institutional task force asked to determine "the shared goals for the education of all undergraduates at Cornell." The final report called for a common undergraduate core across the institution's seven undergraduate colleges, more undergraduate participation in research, co-curricular education, internationalization, outreach ("serving and learning from society"), and stronger interdisciplinary programs.

In 1995 Randel was tapped by Cornell's president-elect to be provost. Hunter Rawlings's deputy and Cornell's chief educational officer, he was also the chief architect of the university's $1.4 billion operating budget. As provost, Randel revamped Cornell's admissions and financial-aid structure, separating the two functions to provide better coordination across the undergraduate colleges for both recruitment and financial aid. He drafted a university-wide sexual-harassment policy, adopted in 1996. Through it all, he got top marks from his boss. Rawlings told the Chicago Tribune: "He's a true intellectual, not just an administrator."

And on the all-important "understanding the importance of Chicago" scale, the Cornell provost scored high from the start. Ned Jannotta recounts the search committee's first telephone inquiry to Ithaca: "They called Randel, who said, 'I'm a lifer here at Cornell. I'm building a new home. I love my job.' Then he hesitated. 'But the University of Chicago .'"

Randel admits to few surprises since arriving in Hyde Park. "Once one becomes an academic of any seriousness, one knows about the University of Chicago," he explains, describing instead the "pleasure in being here and seeing how very Chicago Chicago is." Central to Chicago tradition is what Randel calls "rambunctious debate." He's comfortable with such debate, he told the Chicago Tribune last December, because the community "has much more in common than almost any other group of alumni. Yes, they argue, but that's because they care so deeply." What they care about "first and foremost" is "the character of intellectual life." Alumni share their concern with the latest crop of entering students: "First-year students this year are enormously articulate about why they came here and in what ways they expect the quality of the intellectual experience to be much higher than at most other institutions."

Knowing the institution by reputation, he acknowledges, "doesn't make me a member of the community." And so he has been touring the far reaches of the campus ("I haven't gone into the steam tunnels, but I've poked my nose down them") and beyond. He presided over Summer Convocation, welcomed College first-years (and advised their parents to "send cookies"), was feted at student and alumni gatherings, and speed-typed responses to alumni questions in an online chat sponsored by the Alumni Association. At a Navy Pier civic dinner in September, he reminded the city's leaders of the ongoing partnerships between city and University-one the creator of "tall buildings," the other of "tall ideas." With Carol he has hosted receptions for neighborhood leaders and for visiting College parents. They attended opening night at the Lyric Opera, and he joined Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor Daniel Barenboim for a cultural event billed as a "Symphony of Words." In those public appearances, says Frank Richter, Randel "has done a very good job of representing the University. He speaks in ways that rekindle my pride in being at the University of Chicago.

"Within the University," Richter continues, "he has been wise to adopt the posture of a learner, rather than a prescriber." Asked to give Randel a midterm grade, Richter demurs: "[T]he report card will only start to get filled in once he does begin prescribing remedies to our more pressing problems-which are not only material but of the spirit as well." For now Randel is firmly in the listening mode. "To the extent that there has been some amount of controversy on campus, and things done that some number of people wished hadn't been done and wanted not to be done," he says, "I'm often asked, What are you going to do about this? What are you going to change?"

But he says, "It's not in the nature of this University, which has such a strong and deep tradition, to say that it needs radical, fundamental transformation. It's not a question of changing something that any of my predecessors might have done, or changing something fundamental about the spirit of the place. It's a question of how to help make still stronger a great institution. We will not be the same old University, although the same old values may underlie it. We will change steadily, as we must. As we invent new ways of thinking about things, that in itself is a great engine of change."

If Randel is matter-of-fact in his approach to change, he is equally matter-of-fact in acknowledging that a university is also a business. But he is adamant about "what kind of a business we are. We are an educational institution, and our objectives are academic objectives." The goal is to "develop objectives that will keep us in the lead about how knowledge is made and transmitted."

Despite a blue-ribbon investment year (a 40.9 percent return took the endowment from $2.76 billion to $3.70 billion), one of Randel's first tasks is to help the institution prepare for its next major capital campaign (the last such effort, completed on June 30, 1996, yielded $676 million). The campaign will not be a product of desperation, he says, but rather of aspiration: "If we did not aspire to great things, we could live within our means," he argues. "The only reason that we have a need for more resources is that we would like to do more things, and truly important things, that we think would be good for the University and good for society at large.

"So, the question is how to understand what those aspirations ought to be for us, and then how to size the resource requirements to support those aspirations to an appropriate degree. That's not something that any one person gets to decide. It is necessarily a discussion among lots of people in which those objectives are formulated and in which we try to place some bets on what we think we might like to accomplish."

Unlike Stanford University, which in October announced a $1 billion campaign for undergraduate education, Randel expects that Chicago will "pursue a broader range of goals," with a larger dollar goal as well. "The College will remain essential to our traditions," he says, "but essential to the College's traditions is its place in the larger institution and in that environment of academic excellence without compromise."

When they moved to Chicago this July, Don and Carol Randel kept their house in Ithaca-architecture buffs, they were about to move into a contemporary home built to their specifications when the U of C offer arrived. If his new home and office (of the 1940s Admin Building, Randel says, "I used to think the administration building at Cornell was one of the least attractive buildings in the world, but it has met its match") are not quite his architectural ideal, the varied offerings of Hyde Park and Chicago have more than compensated: the museums, the concerts, the people, and, not least, the bookstores.

"There's a wide range of things I'm genuinely curious about," he declares. "I like to read books about economics. I love to know about everybody's work, and that's one reason I can go to a bookstore and buy just about everything." With relish he lists "the fruits" of a recent Sunday afternoon outing to the Seminary Coop Bookstore, a block from the President's House: "We'd been to see The Invention of Love at Court Theatre the night before, so I naturally had to get myself a volume of Housman, but then I also found a volume of Propertius and I bought some Catullus, and I bought another play by Tom Stoppard that I hadn't read or seen, Arcadia, that was mentioned in a New York Times review, and so I thought I'd better get that." The new books were happily carried home, where they joined the contents of "a couple of hundred cartons of books" that the Randels brought from Ithaca.

"I started by thinking, What books would I bring, and what would I get rid of, and what would I leave?" Randel says, but his attempt at triage was soon abandoned. The book "junkie" confesses, "The more I thought about it, the fewer I could leave." Along with the books came the CDs, mostly classical, some jazz, some Latin pop, and souvenirs from his days of teaching a freshman writing seminar on current popular music: "Metallica and Guns & Roses and things that I probably would not have bought on my own."

Wanting to keep a library as well as a house in Ithaca, he bought duplicate copies of some musical materials. And he temporarily parted company with one old friend: "I left that set of Great Books that was in Panama," Randel says with a smile. "Talk about having a working library! No matter what I should likely want to think about when I'm back in Ithaca on the odd weekend, if I have the Great Books there I'll never want for something to read."

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