The University of Chicago Magazine April 1995
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on how to keep Chicago great

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In many fields, the job market for Ph.D.s is noticeably shrinking. What effect might that decline have on Chicago's long-run planning--and on its responsibility to its graduate students?

I believe that graduate students--in fields from the humanities to high-energy theoretical physics--generally understand the job-market possibilities before they enter a program. We certainly have a responsibility to make sure that our students understand the job market as it is now and what we expect they will face. We must be clear about normal time-to-degree and attrition rates. In my experience, prospective students often decide to enroll in graduate study, despite a weak academic job market, because they feel, "This is who I am, this is part of what I want to be for a lifetime."

At the same time, we need to be more creative in preparing students for their future careers. With the College and its wonderful Common Core program, we have the environment to give graduate students a chance to teach and to work with undergraduates in ways that would open up teaching jobs and other opportunities. We should also provide an education for students who want to do graduate work that leads to non-academic careers.

Although Chicago has a reputation as a world-class university, it is not a household name. Should that be a concern--and if so, what can be done?

It's tempting simply to issue a flat denial. After all, we're often in the news. I can pick up Time magazine and see a cover story on the U of C sex survey. Traveling in California, I turn on public TV and there's Paul Sereno hunting for dinosaurs in Africa. In two other cities on the same trip, there he--and our students--are again. I open the New York Times Book Review and read about a new and highly praised book, Democracy on Trial, by Jean Bethke Elshtain, who teaches in the Divinity School.

Chicago, MIT, Caltech, and the Institute for Advanced Study all suffer a deficit in name recognition because of the absence of Division I football. Still, I wouldn't have us change what we are in order to be better known. Let's be proud of who we are and let's be sure that we're being heard on our terms.

But it does hurt to realize that there are students--some as close as the suburbs of Chicago--who are exactly the kind of students we want and who might be reached if we had a bit better name recognition. I believe that we can and should work to improve this situation. What we do at Chicago is remarkable, and it deserves more attention.

In January, you were among a group of college and university presidents invited by President Clinton to Washington to discuss financing higher education. What's the best way to explain higher-education costs to the public, many of whom feel those costs are excessive?

One way of putting the cost of a college education into perspective--and it's been done by other college presidents before me--is to look at the price of a mid-sized Ford. In 1960, that Ford cost about $2,500. The price of a mid-sized Ford today is about $25,000. Full tuition, room, and board at Chicago and the places we compare ourselves to was also about $2,500 in 1960, and it's also about $25,000 today. Yet no one talks about the rate of increase in the price of autos!

When alumni speak about what they received from the University of Chicago, many of them voice the belief that it was the best investment of their life. In fact, a college education is a spectacular investment. It lasts for a lifetime in economic returns and in terms of who you are.

It's also necessary to remind people that tuition revenues at universities like ours don't come close to meeting the full costs of providing an education. And if you're a student who can't afford to come to the University, we give you the education--or a substantial amount of it. More than 60 percent of our College students and virtually all of our graduate students are on financial aid.

Some of the questions about the cost of higher education may reflect hostility towards higher education. Today, most institutions--from the courts to churches to political entities--are viewed as not quite measuring up to what we as a society expect of them. Most people believe fundamentally that we're not achieving as much as a society as we should be. And universities get placed into that mix.

One shouldn't run from this sort of hostile attitude. I'm an unabashed proponent of the continuing worth and importance of higher education. And it's particularly easy for faculty and administrators at Chicago to answer these angry questions. In terms of the discovery, learning, and character- building that occur here, the University is good enough to be an answer.

How would you define the role of the University within Hyde Park and the city of Chicago?

Great cities need great universities; great universities need great cities. The city of Chicago is most fortunate to have us located within its borders, and we should not be afraid to say so. At the same time, we derive great benefit from being a part of this wonderful city.

With respect to our immediate surroundings, a particular strength of the University is the large percentage of faculty and students who live in Hyde Park. This is vital to our attainment of intellectual community. My hope is that our neighbors in Hyde Park--who take great pride in the University--will also come to view us as an exemplary neighbor.

We have a large stake in the neighborhood, and we are a big neighbor. It's easy for people to view us as able to accomplish anything and responsible for everything. And it's easy for people to expect too much of us. These are perceptions we need to address.

Hyde Park and the surrounding neighborhoods--Woodlawn, North Kenwood-Oakland--are their own communities and must flourish on their own terms. Our role is to be here, ready and willing, if asked, to offer help and advice.

Take the current revitalization projects in those neighborhoods, for example. We're not the leadership of those efforts--and we shouldn't be. But we have loaned funds to establish community organizations, guaranteed loans to organizations constructing housing, and helped make mortgage financing available for faculty and staff. Private development is taking place, and we're supporting it.

Another aspect of being a good neighbor is the volunteer work that our students, faculty, and staff do. In the case of our students, this work is all the more impressive when you realize that many have ten-hour-a-week jobs and all have demanding academic schedules.

In the two years since you were named president, what has surprised you most about the University?

Having come to Chicago every few years to give a talk, having good friends here, and having spent a summer here as an undergraduate student, there was a lot I already knew before my appointment. What I couldn't really appreciate, although I knew it intellectually, was what it would feel like to be in a place that defines itself, first and foremost, as a scholarly community. I'm a teacher and a scholar, so it's natural I would find a place that values scholarship so highly quite wonderful. But you have to experience it.

In recent months, the media have been full of stories about the demands of being a university president. What parts of the job do you find most demanding?

It's a life, a marriage. Even if you're away, you're thinking about it. You learn what it feels like to keep going all the time, to have little letup, and what it feels like to have many people depend on you and watch closely what you are doing.

This kind of public attention and responsibility is something university presidents--typically, we began as teacher-scholars--don't often come to early in life. As much as I sometimes miss my scholarly work and my everyday relationships with students, I find it extremely invigorating to be engaged in work that is so very different from what I've done before. To do that as president of the University of Chicago is an enormous privilege.

Look at who preceded me: William Rainey Harper, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Edward Levi, Hanna Gray. What other university has had such presidents? That, too, explains some of the weight one feels.

You've become known as an accessible and very visible administrator. Has that been a conscious effort?

You're expected, quite properly, to be out and about. I find this enjoyable--and how else can you really know what's going on?

I also try to bring groups together. After the trustees meeting in February, for example, we had the trustees and Shakespearean scholar David Bevington, with about 25 of his students, over to our home. It wasn't the type of mixture that you can have every day, but it was a group that really reflected what Chicago is all about.

I try to give a lecture or two each quarter. I go over to visit the dorms, to sports events, to student musical productions, to UT and Court Theatre. When you add to that the fact that you have to be out of town a day or two each week, you want to figure out ways to do cloning!

Over time, you learn to fit all of these public activities together with your personal life. My wife and sometimes my daughter Rachel and her husband, Mossi, join me, so that attending campus events becomes a family affair.

In your conversations with U of C alumni, what have you found to be their dominant concerns--and what do you find yourself telling them?

Graduates of this University are quite splendid, and, by and large, they believe in Chicago, they believe they received a remarkable education, and they want to make sure its values are cherished and preserved. They are very strong on this final point.

We are vitally dependent on our alumni. But alumni, I believe, also need us. They need to feel that they are part of a broader University community, one that continues beyond the days when they are on campus. And so I say, "Please remain in touch with the University. Help us to understand what we must do to keep you close to Chicago."

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