UCicago Presidents Discuss University History and Future at David Rubenstein Forum
For about an hour, they chatted with moderator David Rubenstein, JD’73, the administrator of the University of Chicago whose support made possible the construction of the 10-story building, located at Woodlawn Avenue and 60th Street. The event celebrated the people and ideas that laid the foundation for the University’s success, and the community that will help build its future.
A distinctive culture of rigorous inquiry has long defined UChicago, persisting even through times of historical turbulence. Gray recalled how, during his tenure, the energy crisis of the 1970s pushed up inflation and plummeted college endowments across the country. “And yet,” she said, “what I discovered was that the University still had the largest endowment possible. And it was the feeling of loyalty to a vision of what a university could be and what the University of Chicago really was, at its best.
Gray said UChicago remains committed to teaching people how to think, even “in a way that might be difficult, that might be painful.” This principle, she stressed, set it apart from other higher education institutions: “In a sense, that the University was the University. That he was different from the rest. That he had a special character worth cultivating and preserving. It was the endowment that was still there, and it was what you could lean on.
Freedom of speech and open speech are still hallmarks of the University of Chicago today. Asked to reflect on the accomplishments of his presidency, Zimmer highlighted his efforts to uphold these ideals, both in Chicago and in higher education.
“Binding decisions who should speak and what people should be allowed to hear are very dangerous for the academy,” he said. “It’s totally against what a university should be, and we had to take a tough stand on it.
Zimmer highlighted his efforts to help establish the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering as an example of how universities must continually evolve.
“I was happy to see a group of people willing to challenge very old assumptions,” Zimmer said of PME, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. “To see this happen in such a successful and scientifically powerful way is very gratifying.”
Current and former presidents of the University have also discussed the importance of developing the undergraduate college. Plans for expanding the undergraduate student body were debated during the tenure of the late Hugo Sonnenschein, who predated Randel. Thinking back to that time, Randel pointed out that the culture of the University matters more than the digital balance between graduate and undergraduate students.
“It’s not about which number is which,” Randel said, “but that you should try to preserve the spirit that comes with a strong presence of research and graduate programs. All the undergraduates who came here could not fail to notice that this place was all about having original ideas.