Faculty Engagement at the University

To: University Faculty and Emeritus Faculty
From: Robert J. Zimmer and Thomas F. Rosenbaum
Date: June 9, 2010
Subject: Faculty Engagement at the University

We are writing to discuss decisions to invest in faculty, students, and academic programs, and the central role that faculty engagement plays in those decisions. These matters have been the subject of concerns raised recently by some members of our faculty. The expression of these concerns offers a chance for us to reaffirm the core values and governance of the University.

The two of us together represent 56 years on the faculty of the University of Chicago. We chose to make our academic careers here and now choose to serve in leadership roles because we believe deeply in the values of this University and in their importance as a model for research and education. As with so many of our fellow faculty members, we have always understood that the University is the best place for our own scholarly work to develop, and this has been due in no small part to its free and open environment.

From its inception, the University of Chicago has been a distinctive institution, driven by a focus on inquiry, with an intense research environment and a belief that the best and most powerful education takes place in a challenging environment of open inquiry. It has attracted faculty and students who seek that intense environment. The University is devoted to academic freedom and the free expression of ideas, many of them unpopular or controversial. It benefits from, and deliberately protects, a culture where the widest possible range of perspectives and arguments can be expressed. Embedded in this culture are both an expectation of mutual respect and a recognition that we challenge one another’s ideas and theories with ideas and theories of our own, rather than silencing those with whom we disagree.

The University’s longstanding belief in the importance of academic freedom is realized in part through two important mechanisms: the freedom of individual faculty members to set the direction of their work without interference, and the deference given to departments and schools as collections of faculty with common disciplinary interests, working together to set their directions for academic development and collaboration. These principles, deeply embedded in our culture and practices, help ensure the independence and freedom to develop a wide range of ideas and perspectives. This independence and freedom have fostered the ground-breaking work of many of our faculty and have enabled groups of faculty, centers, committees, departments, and schools to explore new perspectives and approaches to their fields. We have the confidence and mutual respect not only to allow but to foster distinctive and sometimes unpopular intellectual approaches to disciplines and to multi-disciplinary work.

It is essential that the values of the University and the programmatic imperatives of intellectual and educational development always stand foremost in every decision that confronts academic and administrative leaders at the University. This essential position has been the foundation of our work as academic administrators, as it has been for so many of our predecessors throughout the University’s distinguished history.

We rely upon a strong system of faculty governance and effective channels for faculty input into decisions that shape the academic enterprise. Crucial to making these decisions is a model of distributed authority that follows and fosters the principles above. Particular roles are played by individual faculty members, larger faculty bodies, departments, department chairs, divisions and schools, the College, the deans, the Council of the University Senate, and the provost. The set of relationships and the resulting distributed authority have served the University well for decades. They have allowed for appropriate respect to groups of faculty with particular academic interests and appropriate deference to departments, divisions, and schools in the development of their programs. And they have provided for full faculty engagement on the establishment of new degree programs or new bodies with faculty appointive powers, but not on the decisions of how such programs then operate and are organized, matters properly left to the relevant faculty in the programs/bodies themselves.

The decisions made in the last few years to invest in particular academic programs, launch new programs, construct or renovate buildings, hire additional faculty, and expand support for students have followed the University’s longstanding policies and procedures and are consistent with University statutes. Each such decision has resulted from proposals, ideas, and feedback from members of the faculty and is always based upon decanal recommendation. And, of course, for new faculty appointments we follow a standard process of considering recommendations made by the faculty of a department or school to their respective deans, and then forwarded by the deans to the provost.

From time to time, proposals for new programs or initiatives also have been brought before the Committee of the Council and then the Council of the University Senate, the elected representatives of the faculty, in keeping with longstanding practice. By our statutes, the Council must approve any proposal for a new degree or for a new body with faculty appointive powers. Such proposals are presented to the Council by the proposing faculty group and dean. In addition, the Council considers for purposes of information and feedback other topics on which it does not take formal votes. Council discussion is essential to convey faculty views directly to the University administration.

Although the Council is charged with general academic authority just as the president and provost are charged with general administrative authority, like them it does not act routinely in the work and planning that embody the free development of ideas discussed above. Thus, the Council does not take formal votes on the creation of centers or institutes without faculty appointive powers. As with many decisions, this is a prerogative held within divisions, schools, or the College. This model of distributed authority, with powers reserved to specific units without the approval of the entire Council -- i.e. to individual faculty members, groups of faculty, departments, divisions, schools and the College, via the work of department chairs, deans, center and institute directors, and the provost -- has allowed the University to develop its distinctive intellectual character. It creates a balance of local authority and faculty-wide authority, and in doing so fosters the academic freedom that lies at the heart of our institution. We are fully committed to this model of distributed authority, and we will continue to look for ways to ensure that a robust faculty dialogue, appropriate distributed authority, and effective communication are part of our decision-making processes.

This partnership of administrative and faculty effort, and of local initiative and central support, is illustrated in six major initiatives that have taken place within recent years: the Graduate Aid Initiative in Social Sciences, Humanities, and Divinity; the Mansueto Library; the Institute for Molecular Engineering; the Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics; the new PSD/Molecular Engineering building; and our initiatives with respect to research and teaching in China. Each of these initiatives was undertaken because of faculty recommendations, including proposals put forward by faculty committees, and decanal support. Each went through the standard processes and involved the input of faculty in the usual way. The only one that involved the establishment of a faculty appointive body, and hence the only one to be voted on by the Council, was the Institute for Molecular Engineering. In that instance the Council unanimously approved a recommendation of committees of science faculty, supported by the science deans and the provost. In every initiative, investments were made because the case was made by faculty and supported by deans that these were essential priorities for advancing an important aspect of our mission. In no instance was the drive for the program financial -- in fact each one demands an investment by the University. (The scale of these investments naturally varies with the differing needs of the specific programs. Among the projects listed above, the largest investment is for the Graduate Aid Initiative, followed by the PSD/Molecular Engineering building.)

In each instance other than Molecular Engineering, the issues were discussed for information and input at one or more meetings of the Committee of the Council and the full Council. Every one of these initiatives reflects articulated needs by faculty, departments, and deans for the furtherance of the scholarly and educational work of a particular area. We have always welcomed broad input and debate, but, through our model of distributed authority, we look ultimately to the faculty and the leadership of the relevant academic units for guidance on whether the proposed program has intellectual merit, is of high priority, and should be pursued.

This local leadership is essential to the University’s health and intellectual diversity. If new intellectual pursuits were subject to a full faculty or Council vote, we would undermine the distributed authority that has served the University so well and we would threaten the very culture of open inquiry and diversity of thought that has given Chicago the unique reputation it enjoys for dedication to the life of the mind. Indeed, given the distribution of interests in the Council, it is not at all clear that initiatives such as the Mansueto Library, the Logan Arts Center, and even the Graduate Aid Initiative would have received majority faculty assent. Yet each of these decisions to invest resources was reached after significant input by and support from the group of faculty most directly affected by these initiatives. Each, we would argue, was an appropriate decision to protect and enhance the excellence of our University as a whole, including most importantly the recruitment and retention of outstanding faculty and students.

It is this latter obligation -- the recruitment and retention of outstanding faculty and students -- that we believe most strongly defines our service as president and provost. The quality of this University, both today and into the future, rests fundamentally on the quality and contributions of our faculty, the students we admit and educate, and the distinctive culture in which their scholarly activities thrive. Our commitment as University leaders is to promote and preserve this distinctive culture that has been an enduring strength of the University, to foster academic excellence, and to sustain an environment that supports the best work of our faculty and students. We have the concomitant obligation to steward our financial resources in a way that enables the University to sustain and build upon our eminence and intellectual influence far into the future.

Two topics that have figured centrally in recent faculty concerns deserve particular mention. The first involves the governance and core values of the Medical Center and Biological Sciences Division. In the spring of 2006, there was a change in the management structure of the BSD and the Medical Center. At that time, the Dean was also given the title of CEO of the Medical Center, with the express purpose of having the President of the Medical Center report directly to the Dean of the BSD. The goal was to increase the alignment of the clinical enterprise with the academic mission and goals of the BSD and University. Within a few years, it became evident that while this move was a promising one, the new and more unified structure demanded more faculty leadership and engagement to be effective. Thus, within the past year, two key positions have been created, a Dean for Research and Graduate Education in the BSD and a Dean for Clinical Affairs. Both of these have been filled by eminent faculty members, and the BSD and Medical Center are now operating with increased faculty leadership and input appropriate to the new model of leadership in the BSD and UCMC that was created in 2006. Continuing to build faculty leadership and engagement within this new model will be a key task for the next Dean of the BSD.

The second topic that continues to be of concern for some faculty members is the Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics. Its programming over more than a year reflects the rigorous economics scholarship envisioned by the faculty who proposed the Institute. It has invited a series of respected visiting scholars and hosted a range of academic conferences and workshops on a diverse set of topics. We respect the right of faculty members who disagree with the naming of MFIRE on political or ideological grounds to express their views, which indeed some have done during Council discussions and which others continue to do through research critical of the economic approaches of scholars associated with the Institute. But at the same time, following the University’s traditions of open inquiry and of not subjecting the research of faculty or groups of faculty to the control of others, we have supported the prerogative of faculty members in economics, law, and business and the recommendations of the relevant deans to develop such an institute.

We would like to close with some further reflections about the University’s funding. All universities require resources to fulfill their mission, and the University of Chicago is no exception. Faculty and academic units depend upon funding from outside entities in order to conduct the majority of our work. Indeed, the very creation of this University was made possible by a generous gift and a challenge to others to give. Such external funding touches every aspect of our institution, ranging from research grants from the federal government and private foundations to gifts by individual donors, both alumni and friends, in support of buildings, programs, endowed professorships, scholarships, and more. Our donors support our work because they believe in the values of the University of Chicago and want to enable us to achieve our highest aspirations. These donors understand the importance of academic freedom and the essential role of unfettered inquiry. This University has stood firmly on the principle that such external support must never direct or limit our intellectual pursuits. On the rare occasions when conflicts arise, we have always rejected funding opportunities, whether from government or private sources, that might compromise our academic values or limit in some way the direction of scholarly inquiry, the unfettered dissemination of knowledge, or the free expression of ideas and viewpoints. We have been successful in this regard throughout the University’s history, and we will remain vigilant to ensure these fundamental academic values are upheld.

We welcome your thoughts and ongoing discussion of these issues.

Robert J. Zimmer and Thomas F. Rosenbaum
president@uchicago.edu