UChicago Women’s Board celebrates 50 years of service

For Nancy Stevenson, the gathering to mark the 50th anniversary of the University of Chicago Women’s Board wasn’t so different from the first board meetings in 1960: civic-minded women from across the city and the suburbs joining together with renowned faculty to learn about the University’s most important research projects.

Over the years Stevenson, a founding member, has heard speakers ranging from economist Milton Friedman to paleontologist Paul Sereno discuss issues important to the academic community and to world leaders. “You have a view of this wide and varied talent that the University brings together,” she says.

The board’s 50th-anniversary program was a little cozier and a little grander than some of their other lectures and tours. They came together at the Four Seasons Hotel to hear President Robert J. Zimmer and his three predecessors in the office, Don Randel, Hugo Sonnenschein and Hanna Holborn Gray, who joined the board for an unprecedented “fireside chat.”

With help from the audience and moderator Ray Suarez, AM ’92, the presidents engaged in a wide-ranging discussion of University issues, some timely and some timeless. Zimmer noted that the Women’s Board, which since 1960 has advocated for the University and raised money for special projects, embodies a vital tradition of leaders from all fields who carry the University’s ideals forward.

“Everybody who is at or connected to the University, whether it’s a faculty member, whether it’s a student, staff, alumni, friend—every single person is a beneficiary of people who came before them,” Zimmer said.

One of the qualities that sets the Women’s Board apart from similar bodies in the city is the UChicago group’s dedication to intellectual exchanges with faculty, in addition to targeted fundraising activities, said Jill Levi, board chair and daughter-in-law of former University president Edward Levi.

"Our board is made up of women from Chicago and the suburbs, and out-of-town, who are civic-minded and engaged in the community, and interested in the intellectual pursuits the Board offers,” Levi said. “We ask hard questions, and we often leave our programs wishing we could be students in the class.”

Though one purpose of the gathering was to honor the fundraising achievements of the 492-member Women’s Board, as always the members also came to think. The night’s main subject was the University of Chicago’s position as a hub of challenging minds and ideas in the 21st Century.

Suarez first asked the panel of leaders: What do you want the “the University of Chicago,” to elicit when people hear that?

Gray defined Chicago as “a university that has a kind of clarity about the academic values and purposes it wants to serve. A university that is not afraid necessarily of countering current fads and consumers’ impulses, in order to do the best possible work and in order to enable the greatest possible individualism.”

The group discussed how to preserve that distinctive ethos even as the University evolves and expands with new programs in Chicago and around the globe. 

Zimmer said it would be a detriment to the University not to think of itself as a global institution, particularly by expanding its study and research programs abroad. He pointed to the Center in Beijing as a promising model for the University’s international reach.

“What we’ve done there is try to find the right balance between clearly making a commitment to our work in China, to faculty and students now and in the future who will want to do work connected to China, but to do it in a way that is very flexible, allows us to experiment, allows faculty to go and be entrepreneurial,” Zimmer said.

From his self-described “musicological perspective,” Randel, a historian of music in Renaissance Spain, added, “We’re interested in ideas, and people who pursue ideas wherever they go.”

Zimmer pointed to the University’s new Institute for Molecular Engineering as an example of evolving ideas. “What the science faculty at the University saw was an opportunity to do something very distinctive that built off of our science and took advantage of the major evolution of science and technology.”

Sonnenschein said such adaptation is essential for every generation of University leaders. “At any institution there are elements of constancy and elements of change, and we build on areas where there are strengths,” he said.

A question from the audience sparked a discussion on a continued commitment to the study of the humanities. Gray addressed their enduring value in a liberal arts education. “You cannot imagine a university, and a set of purposes that belong to the mission of a university, without the humanities,” she said, stressing the vital role those disciplines play in “the reinterpretation, the re-argumentation and re-engagement with the perennial questions of human life.”

Providing support for the ideas that UChicago students and faculty pursue is central to the mission of the Women’s Board, according to Bonita Mall, the group’s Executive Director. The board’s visibility within the University community has increased due to the pivotal role the board plays in creating new opportunities for students and faculty members, including funding to digitize the Chicago Maroon’s photo archive, sending 45 Chicago Public Schools students on a tour of East Coast colleges through the Collegiate Scholars Program, and funding research on advanced cancer treatment at the Ben May Institute for Cancer Research, among many other projects.

Each spring, a committee reviews grant proposals from across the University and its cultural and policy institutions. In fiscal year 2010, the Women’s Board reviewed 54 grant applications.

In addition to its annual fundraising, the board will provide full scholarships for three students in the Collegiate Scholars Program to attend the University of Chicago, thanks to a series of donations from members and a matching grant from the Pioneer Fund that totaled $1 million. The gift was announced during the anniversary dinner.

“We wanted to give this gift in honor of the Women's Board and its special 50-year relationship to this great University,” Levi said. “To provide an opportunity for an incoming college student from the Chicago Public Schools to be a Women's Board Scholar is an honor for us. By making a University of Chicago education accessible to the brightest, most qualified students, we enrich our community and further the University's work.”