Address to the City Club of Chicago

Robert J. Zimmer
Address to the City Club of Chicago
May 12, 2014

It is a great pleasure for me to be here today. This is the third time I have had the privilege of speaking at the City Club and I have always enjoyed it very much.  

I came to Chicago in 1977, 37 years ago this summer, as a junior faculty member of the mathematics department at the University of Chicago. I quickly fell in love with both the University and the city. I also gradually became fascinated by the relationship and intertwining paths and efforts of the city and the University, and am very grateful to be in the position now where I can participate in the next phase of that development. This is what I would like to discuss with you today, with a particular focus not only on what has happened and is happening here in Chicago itself, but also on Chicago as a “global” city and the University of Chicago as a “global university.” 

So let me begin near the beginning, as one sees both an intensely local focus as well as a critical global focus from the early days of both city and University.  

In 1893, two very important events in the life of the city of Chicago took place. Chicago was the home of the Columbian Exposition (sometimes called the World’s Fair)—in Jackson Park and along the Midway—a major step in Chicago’s evolution into one of the world’s great cities that increased Chicago’s visibility around the globe. And that same year, the University of Chicago completed its first academic year, an inaugural step on the way to the city of Chicago being seen as the home of one of the world’s leading institutions of higher education and research, with a global impact. 

To understand the ambition and impact on Chicago represented by the Columbian Exposition, it is important to remember what was happening in Chicago more generally at that time. Chicago was an explosive boom town. In 1850 the entire population of the city of Chicago could fit into the Wrigley Field of today—and Wrigley would be only three-quarters full. From 1850–1900, the population increased more than 50-fold to nearly two million. In the 1890s not only was the University of Chicago established, but also the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Chicago was a city on the move, some might have said a city on the make, and the ambition and impact of the Columbian Exposition was to thrust it on the world stage, so its name would be known not only in New York and St. Louis, but in the great cities that were centers of at least western culture and power—London, Vienna, Berlin, and Paris. Over forty countries participated in the Exposition, and one of its main architects was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the man who famously said “Make no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

Locally, the boom town created massive wealth, and unleashed energy, creativity, and innovation. It encouraged immigration into the city, and people poured in, creating the culturally dynamic and ambitious environment that immigration into this country has always provided. But it also left a significant number of people behind. There were those who for one reason or another were not beneficiaries of the boom town. Quite the contrary, there were many who found themselves faced with poverty, lack of family support, poor health conditions, and greatly in need of social support systems.

So we see five qualities of the city of Chicago emerging during this period:

  1. a creative, economically vital, innovative environment.

  2. a magnet for people—immigrants and people of ambition from within the U.S. Later, in the early and middle part of the 20th century, this would include the internal migration of large numbers of African-Americans from southern states, seeking, as did so many who came to Chicago, better opportunities and community.

  3. an outward view toward the world, and the desire to see the city as a great city on the world stage. 

  4. a deep engagement of many civic leaders in the workings of the city in a public-private partnership.

  5. a recognition of the need to support the disadvantaged and vulnerable,  those who were not benefitting from the innovative and growing environment.

Most people would recognize these qualities as describing not only Chicago of 1893 during the period in which they began to emerge and solidify, but also Chicago today. For example, every one of these five qualities is a matter that Mayor Emanuel raises regularly. But these qualities, advantages, perspectives, and challenges of the city had their emergence in the boom town Chicago of the late 19th century.

It was in this context that the Columbian Exposition took place and it was in this environment that the University of Chicago opened. It is quite remarkable to see the parallels in the University’s early days to the city of Chicago’s early days.

The University was founded by the vision of two individuals—John D. Rockefeller, its founding philanthropist, and William Rainey Harper, its founding president. Next to the Midway that held the Columbian Exposition, the University was built on land donated by Marshall Field. Harper wanted to create a great and new research university from scratch—something different from the colleges on the east coast. He wanted a whole new model for what a university could be, and he wanted it fast. He succeeded. With the same breathtaking speed that the city of Chicago was growing, within twenty years the University of Chicago was recognized as one of the world’s great universities, setting a model for embedding education in the environment of inquiry and research. Robert Maynard Hutchins, the University’s fifth president, later described Harper and his colleagues as “young men in hurry.” Harper was implicitly following the advice of Daniel Hudson Burnham—he made no little plans, and his ideas were indeed magic. He was able to recruit outstanding scholars from around the country to come to his new university. The city of Chicago business community rose to Rockefeller’s challenge and helped support the new university. Rockefeller, speaking of Harper, said “I gave him an unlimited budget and he exceeded it.” Harper, like the city of Chicago, was indeed in a hurry.

But this explosive and creative growth and importance of being a magnet for people were not the only qualities that I mentioned earlier that the University shared with the city. And it is in fact the other qualities that I want to focus on, both with some background history and to tell you about what is happening at the University now.  

Namely, just as the city leaders had done beginning in the 19th century, the University began with a vision of being deeply engaged with and contributing to the city, both in its creative growth and in contributing to ensuring that the disadvantaged could participate in its benefits. And just as Chicago took a big step in its global engagement with the Columbian Exposition, so the University was founded with a view that it too would be a player on the world stage, not just the local one. It is to these dual engagements—the local engagement of the University with the city of Chicago, and the engagement of the University around the globe—that I now turn. And at the end, I will conclude by bringing these two together, and saying why I believe they are ultimately linked in an important way.

Harper was very explicit about his views on the University’s engagement with the city. In 1894, he said: “This University is here to help the people of Chicago, and especially those in position to receive the more definite character of aid we are able to render. We are here to assist teachers, students, businessmen and women, and particularly those whom circumstances have deprived of educational opportunities once eagerly sought.” He also said: “I maintain that University men and women owe something as an institution to the people who are without its walls. Our obligation does not cease when we give instruction to those who come to us; it is our business to go beyond just as far as our means and opportunities permit.”

This vision of civic engagement articulated by Harper became an important stimulus for University activity related to the city over the next decades. The business school and the law school, both of which would train so many professionals in Chicago, were founded in the University’s first decade. And in the second decade, what was to become the School of Social Service Administration (SSA) was founded. From the beginning, it developed a set of activities and interventions to help the most disadvantaged in the city and to train social workers to carry out this work. But SSA always had a very important distinguishing feature—it did not just train practitioners and those who could provide technical help—it insisted that such education be embedded in understanding evidence so that interventions could be tested, modified, and imagined on the basis of science rather than guesswork. This is an important point to emphasize—all of our work, including our work in the city, is embedded in a culture of evidence-based analysis. The hospital at the University opened in the 1920s, and all of these programs have been critical to the development of the city of Chicago. Over the ensuing years, many programs were developed to benefit those most in need of assistance—programs developed and run by our faculty for public school students, infrastructure support, health clinics, continuing education, and more.

But eight years ago, we began to look at civic engagement in a new light. If one took Harper’s vision of civic engagement seriously, the following question arose: what is the model for the relationship and engagement of a great urban research university with the city around it? If we want to be the model, not just a place with very good programs, how do we think about this and what do we do? Can we follow Daniel Hudson Burnham’s maxim in this arena as well as in others? This has led to a whole reconceptualizing of our civic engagement, a great increase in the scope of activities in and with the city, and a focus on partnerships—with community organizations, community members, businesses, local foundations, city agencies, and the Mayor of Chicago. The key leader in this area for us is our Vice President for Civic Engagement, Derek Douglas. But all of our vice presidents and deans, and many of our trustees, are committed to this effort and are also key participants.

Let me give you some concrete examples so you have a sense of the breadth and depth of this renewed engagement. On the education front, we are operating four charter school campuses on the South Side where students are admitted by lottery. Many come into the schools behind in their studies and yet almost 100% graduate from our high school and go to four-year colleges, a number dramatically better than almost all public schools. The charter schools are embedded in the Urban Education Institute, which has a major research and data analysis arm that provides information on all Chicago public schools. They recently discovered that being on track in ninth grade is the most important predictor of high school success, and this has led to new emphasis on and focus on ninth grade as being key for keeping students on track. Also attached to this Institute is what we call the Urban Education Lab—a team for evidence-based analysis of the success (or not) of specific programs designed to improve school education. This data analysis was instrumental in Mayor Emanuel’s decision to emphasize international baccalaureate programs as a means of increasing college attendance among Chicago public school students.  

We have started a program called UChicago Promise—this removes all loans from the financial aid packages of any student from any high school in Chicago who attends the University of Chicago. We have full scholarships set aside for children of Chicago Police Officers and Chicago Fire Fighters. To help those headed to other colleges, we have an academy for college counselors in all high schools in the city to enable them to better advise their students and help them understand the opportunities for college, and better help students realize these opportunities. Likewise, we have programs not only for college counselors around the city but also for parents and students.

In addition to our Education Lab, we have the Crime Lab, whose goal is to analyze programs designed to reduce violence through evidence-based scientific methods. The findings of the Crime Lab were instrumental in the Mayor’s investment in the “Becoming a Man program,” which President Obama has used as a model for his views on violence prevention.

We are working on helping businesses on the South Side. We recently began a program called UChicago Local, in which we provide business training to increase the capacity of local business owners to be successful. Our goal is to raise their level of capacity so they can compete successfully for the many contracts that we have with outside firms, and in turn use that success to build their businesses more broadly. This program too was taken as a model by the Mayor and World Business Chicago to enlist a set of anchor institutions around the city that would focus on enhancing the capacity of businesses in their neighborhoods. The Mayor, World Business Chicago, and I announced this program together earlier this spring.

To stimulate innovation, we have opened the Chicago Innovation Exchange on 53rd Street, bringing together the strengths of the Booth School of Business in entrepreneurship; technology from our engineering, medicine, and science programs; and new energy storage technology being developed at Argonne, with the goal of stimulating commercialization and innovation around these technologies. While we had the formal opening ceremony with the Mayor last year, the space is now being developed and will open on 53rd Street this fall. This is part of a major revitalization of 53rd Street that we have catalyzed with private developers and the city as partners—bringing economic development to the mid South Side that has not been seen in decades.

In Washington Park to our immediate west, we have purchased some dilapidated property and renovated it in order to establish an arts incubator, led by Theaster Gates. This is a place for local community members to gather around the arts and work in the arts. We are hoping to develop this further into an entire arts block, so that the arts incubator becomes just a first step. Again, we have worked closely with the alderman to make this happen.

In Woodlawn to our south, we are deeply involved in improving schools and working with the local community in doing so.

I could go on. But what I hope you see from this quick recounting is that we are now pressing ahead on four pillars in advancing the city—education, research, innovation, and being an anchor institution. And we intend to keep doing more in the coming years.

Let me turn now to our global engagement. The University has always been open to people from all over the world both as faculty and as students. The entire ethos of the University from the beginning was one of openness independent of gender, religion, ethnicity, and national origin. Harper just wanted the best people—there were no quotas, no assumptions based on stereotypes, as there were in many colleges on the east coast at the time. As a result, the University has always had faculty and students from around the world, and our faculty traveled all over the world for their research. It is this general ethos that leads us at present to have about 25% of our students and 30% of our faculty having been born outside the United States.  

A great deal of this type of international activity grew organically on a faculty-by-faculty and student-by-student basis. But at the institutional level, global engagement also began very early on, building upon the general outward view that Harper espoused and the philanthropy of the Rockefeller Foundation. For example, in 1914, Harry Pratt Judson, the University’s second president, traveled to China as the chair of a commission formed by Rockefeller to make recommendations about medical education and training in China, which at the time was in a dismal state. This led to the development of Peking Union Medical College, supported by Rockefeller. It was an important moment for modern medicine in China, and it was a key early connection of the University of Chicago to China. 

In 1973, one year after the historic visit of President Nixon to China, University President Edward Levi led a delegation to China, one of the first by a major educational institution.

In recent years our global presence has expanded dramatically and systematically. We now have formal University Centers and facilities in London, Paris, Beijing, Delhi, Singapore, and Egypt, with a new center under way in Hong Kong. Within the United States, in addition to operating Argonne and Fermilab for the U.S. Department of Energy, we have a new affiliation with the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, one of the leading private research laboratories in the country.

These centers are in various states of evolution. The Center in Paris will be celebrating its tenth anniversary this fall. The Center in Beijing is in its fourth year, and in its first three years over 7,000 faculty, students, and others, from 25 countries, came to programs there. The Center in Delhi has just opened within the past few months. The Center in Hong Kong will run its first programs this coming fall in interim facilities as we prepare a major new facility in Hong Kong, which will open in a few years.

These global centers do not represent all of our work abroad. Our College students travel all over the world in our “civilization abroad” programs. We have launched a major new joint initiative with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel to support research collaborations to engineer solutions to help ensure the world’s supply of clean fresh water. We announced this a year ago in Jerusalem with Mayor Emanuel and President Shimon Peres.

Why do we view global engagement as so important? There are several reasons. A great research university needs to be investigating the most important problems of our times. Many of these are of a global nature. Our students will need the experience of understanding different cultures and histories and how they have an impact on the present. In understanding other environments with other underlying assumptions, one can better understand one’s own assumptions, and likewise the different trade-offs others may make. The problems we investigate are complex, and we need a full diversity of perspectives to examine them. The best faculty and students will want to be in a university in which global perspectives are embedded with the resulting dynamism and engagement. It is for all these reasons and more that we are attending to our global engagement with the same intensity as our civic engagement. Vice President for Global Engagement Ian Solomon is the organizer of these efforts, which, like civic engagement, involves all of our deans, vice presidents, and a number of our trustees.

Let me finish with some comments on why global engagement and civic engagement, which seem so different, in fact come together at critical points. Let me start by going back to where I started, to 1893. The global aspirations of the city came to the fore at that point and have been an important feature of the city ever since. If Chicago is going to be a leading global city, its leading institutions will need to be global forces as well. This means it needs universities, cultural institutions, businesses, and leaders all with a global perspective and acting as such. It is only through this that the city realizes its aspirations. The fact that within the past two years I have been with the Mayor in both Beijing and Jerusalem is an indication of this.

More than this, however, is the role that cities in general are playing in the world. In 1900, about 13% of the world’s population was in urban areas. Five years ago, in 2009, about half of the world’s population lived in urban areas, and by 2030, about 15 years hence, it is estimated that this number will be 60%. In China alone over the past 25 years a number people approximately equal to the entire population of the U.S. have moved from rural areas to urban areas, and another such number is expected yet again in the next 25 years. Estimates based on current trends are that by 2050 there will be three billion more people living in urban areas than there are today. So the world is facing the highest rate of urbanization in human history.

As we have discussed when we began talking about the city of Chicago, there is a great upside of urbanization, with creativity, growth, innovation, and a dynamic culture all being stimulated in the city. But there are also the vexing and salient difficulties of concentrated poverty, crime, inadequate housing, medical care, and education. Understanding how to manage cities to stimulate the best that cities have to offer and protect all its citizens against the problems that cities can bring is one of the great challenges of our time. And it is a global problem.  

So as the University of Chicago engages the city of Chicago, particularly as a research institution, what we learn in this engagement can contribute to what we understand much more broadly about cities around the world and how we can contribute to these global issues. It is through this feature, the mass urbanization taking place in the world, that the civic and global engagements of the University can powerfully come together.

While we have been doing an enormous amount of work on both civic engagement and global engagement, and I hope I have conveyed some sense of this to you, I hope I have also conveyed how this engagement traces back to the very beginnings of the University of Chicago. Of course, this spirit of engagement needs manifest changes over the decades. But one thing remains constant, which I hope to capture in the following anecdote, as relayed by President Hutchins.

As the campus was being built rapidly in the 1890s, at the dedication of yet another building, a student asked President Harper: “How do you do it, Mr. President?” Harper’s response was: “Chicago, Chicago. You couldn’t do it anywhere else.”

Thank you.