IMAGE:  February 2003 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
APRIL 2003
Volume 95, Issue 4
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GRAPHIC:  Also in every issueFrom the President
The best defense
President Don M. Randel discusses how uncertain times affect the climate and work of the University.

I write this in the final week of the winter quarter. It is a moment of recurring tension and concentration in the academic calendar. For students and faculty alike there is the pressure of exams and papers. For the administration and the Board of Trustees there is the need to make decisions about the University’s finances for the academic year 2003–04. But there have been two longed-for sunny and warm days, and everyone hopes that spring recess will make things seem better.

Yet spring recess coincides with the beginning of a war. A moment in which the normal life of the University calls for concentration coincides with a moment in which that focus is steadily assaulted by the world’s need to concentrate on solving its considerable problems in some reasonable way. My Internet browser has multiple bookmarks for news sources in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, and it is hard to resist checking them one after another throughout the day. How to focus the mind, and on what?

Uncertainty confounds our ability to concentrate on the whole range of our affairs. That is, of course, precisely the effect that terrorism and threats seek to produce. At the level of the University’s financial affairs, we are captives of the great uncertainty that hangs over the economy. As financial markets remain depressed, income from our endowment declines. Fears of all kinds have driven extraordinary increases in insurance costs of all kinds. Revenue shortages among the states and growing federal deficits mean that state and federal governments will spend less on higher education. With jobs still being lost by the hundreds of thousands in the economy at large, more of our students’ families need more help with financial aid. Philanthropy too has slowed somewhat.

In this environment we read that other leading universities face significant deficits and have imposed salary freezes, hiring freezes, and other measures to right the balance. Fortunately the careful application of cost controls over the last year or so and the continuing generosity of alumni and friends have so far kept this University’s budget in balance and spared us the need for harsher measures. Even in the current uncertainty, we believe that the University’s budget will be in balance again next year.

But current trends could make the following year more difficult. Upward pressure on costs that we cannot control and downward pressure on revenue streams that we do not control put upward pressure on the biggest revenue stream over which we do have some control: tuition. Undergraduate tuition will rise next year by 5 percent, which, though no one likes it, will be in a narrow band typical of the best private institutions. The only good news is that we are not among the public institutions, where massive state budget cuts will drive comparably large tuition increases, though on a much lower base.

Much more important is concentration on the purposes for which the University exists. How are we to think of these in time of war? Let me say again that if ever universities have been important, they are more important now than ever. Their importance lies in their ability to bring reason and understanding to bear on the situation that we now confront and on our future prospects. Essential to this understanding is the freedom to explore and debate fully the problems before us. At a minimum we must know our enemies. Simultaneously we must be capable of self-criticism. This exploration and debate may at moments be disturbing in the face of calls to patriotism or ideology. But our first loyalty must always be to the pursuit of understanding to whatever degree the human mind is capable of it.

There are many concrete respects in which work at the University will contribute to the defense of the nation against its declared enemies today. We lead a scientific effort to combat select agents in bioterrorism such as anthrax. Through our stewardship of the Argonne National Laboratory, we are developing the means to detect attacks and to ensure the security of the nation’s communications and energy infrastructure. And humanists and social scientists are proposing ways to better understand the character and motives of our enemies.

Ultimately, however, our work remains what it has always been. The best defense of a free society will always be to remain a free society, even or especially in the face of threats to that freedom. Thus the University, while contributing directly what it can to defense against any current enemy, must contribute to the enabling conditions for a free society into the indefinite future. Those conditions include a deep understanding of human history in all its variety, a pursuit of science that aims both to satisfy an innate human curiosity and to improve the health and quality of human life, and a commitment to the study of the structures and forces embodied in human societies. Of course we are distracted from our long-term pursuits by everything that confronts us today. But we must assert the will to concentrate on what has always mattered and what will matter always.

President Don M. Randel



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