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.
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."
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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."
Randel had the requisite curriculum vitae in terms of scholarship
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.
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
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."
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 ….'"
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."
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.
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?"
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
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."
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
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."
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."
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.
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.
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."
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."