For about an hour, they talked with moderator David Rubenstein, JD’73, the University of Chicago trustee 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 successes, and the community that will help build its future.
A distinctive culture of rigorous inquiry has long defined UChicago, persisting even through moments of historic turbulence. Gray recalled how, during her tenure, the 1970s energy crisis caused inflation to soar and college endowments to plummet across the country. “And yet,” she said, “what I found was that the University still had the most important endowment that it could. And that was the sense of loyalty to a vision of what a university could be, and what the University of Chicago, at its best, actually was.”
Gray said UChicago remained dedicated to teaching people how to think, even “in ways that could be difficult, that might be painful.” That principle, she stressed, set it apart from other institutions of higher education: “In a sense, that the University was the university. That it was unlike others. That it had a special character that was worth cultivating and preserving. That was the endowment that was still here, and that was what you could build on.”
Free expression and open discourse are still hallmarks of today’s University of Chicago. Asked to reflect on the accomplishments of his presidency, Zimmer pointed to his efforts to defend those ideals, both in Chicago and across higher education.
“Decisions constraining who should speak and what people should be allowed to hear is a very dangerous one for the academy,” he said. “It’s totally contrary to what a university should be, and we needed to take a strong position about that.”
Zimmer pointed to his efforts in helping establish the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering as an example of how universities need to continually evolve.
“I was happy to see a set of people who were willing to challenge very old assumptions,” Zimmer said of PME, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. “Seeing that happen in such a successful and scientifically powerful way is very gratifying.”
The current and former University presidents also discussed the importance of growing the undergraduate College. Plans for expanding the undergraduate student body were the subject of debate during the tenure of the late Hugo Sonnenschein, who preceded Randel. Looking back at that period, Randel emphasized that the culture of the University matters more than the numerical balance between graduate and undergraduate students.
“It’s not a question of which number is which,” Randel said, “but that you should try to preserve the spirit that derives from a strong presence of research and graduate programs. Every undergraduate who came here could not fail to notice that this place was about having original ideas.”