Buildings and the ideas behind
President Don M. Randel highlights the promise
implicit in the Chicago GSB Hyde Park Center and the Comer Children’s
As a professional student of medieval liturgy,
I am perhaps unusually sensitive to yearly cycles of activity and
observance. But in an academic community like ours, most everyone’s
pulse quickens at the start of an academic year, no matter how many
times one has been through it.
Meeting new students has always been at the heart
of this experience for me. No matter what I was teaching or how
many times I had taught it before, the first days of the new year
have always been accompanied by the kind of nervousness associated
with a blind date. However good your friends (in this case, your
colleagues in Admissions) may have been at making the right match,
there comes a moment when whether it will all work out or not is
up to you.
In this sense, the beginning of the current academic
year is like many others—full of excitement and promise, with
some mild apprehension thrown in. But there are also strikingly
visible ways in which the early part of this particular year will
be marked. Most prominent are the openings of a new home for the
Graduate School of Business and of the Comer Children’s Hospital.
Each will house an essential sphere of the University’s activities.
More important, each will help to make possible what matters most
at this University. At the University of Chicago, ideas matter.
We should not neglect the fact that architecture
forms part of the world of ideas. Architecture is, or ought to be,
one of humankind’s noblest activities, and it will remain
as evidence of what we thought and valued. Architecture is not mere
ornament on what truly matters. It is instead profoundly revealing
and not easily made to lie, for when architecture attempts to lie—fascist
architecture, for example, or much commercial architecture, including
those suburban branch banks that try to suggest that they were designed
by Thomas Jefferson—it is quite likely to reveal its deceit.
At a university, architecture itself must aspire
to ideas worthy to be part of the debate for which the institution
stands. (In this context I must recall instructions that I give
to my students on writing about music: “I like it” and
“I don’t like it” do not count as ideas and thus
do not usefully contribute to debate worthy of the name.)
At the same time, however, we create architecture
on the University’s campus primarily to enhance our ability
to create ideas that matter. Indeed, it can be argued that a building
is only as good as the ideas created in it. In the case of the GSB,
we can say quite straightforwardly that, unlike many business schools,
it is a place that produces ground-breaking ideas. Finance is now
conducted worldwide in fundamentally innovative ways that rest on
theories generated in the GSB. Were that not so, our new building
would be far less important—another episode in the competition
among business schools for what are thought to be necessary trappings
and amenities. Instead we can celebrate a great new building (See
because it will house the continuing, spirited debate that produces
ideas that change the world.
The Comer Children’s Hospital also will
be a place that produces meaningful ideas—ideas that matter
desperately to children one at a time and that also matter to children
around the world. The new will be a place where sick children and
their families are supported in direct and human ways. Simultaneously,
the medicine practiced there will be the fruit of the spirit of
debate and inquiry that characterizes our faculty.
The ways in which certain childhood diseases
are studied and treated worldwide are forever changed thanks to
our faculty’s commitment to creating ideas with impact. This
commitment will ensure a magnificent hospital—an enormous
benefit to every child treated there and to the many others whose
treatment elsewhere will derive from the ideas created in it.
The new academic year, then, will start with
both usual and unusual kinds of excitement. But ultimately the excitement
is all about the celebration (a word often used in the study of
liturgy) of our commitment to come together once again as a community—eager
to engage in inquiry and debate of the very highest order so as
to discover the ideas that matter most.