Update on University Initiatives

March 21, 2008

Dear Members of the University Community
Last academic year, I wrote to the faculty to begin framing a set of questions that would be important for the University to address in the coming years.  My considerations at that point were derived from an extensive set of discussions with deans, faculty, staff, students, trustees, and other members of the community, from letters on this topic I had solicited from the faculty, as well as from my own experiences as a faculty member for more than two decades. In the intervening months, these discussions have continued and sharpened with the goal of determining how best to identify and address strategic opportunities and challenges in the years ahead.  These deliberations have already led to the launching of a number of initiatives that we announced previously and many others in various stages of planning and discussion.  I write today to update you on these broad deliberations.

The areas of focus and initiatives highlighted in this letter are not meant in any way to be an exhaustive list of needs and opportunities.  In fact, while they are representative of exciting areas for possible investment, the deans, provost, and I hope that highlighting activities occurring across the University will stimulate your thinking about areas that need additional attention or opportunities that have the potential to extend the highest contributions of the University.  We welcome your thoughts on these issues.

In my letter of last year, I briefly described the context in which we need to think about the future as follows:

All considerations of what initiatives we take as a University must be put in the context of our fundamental values and the particular role that we play within the academy.  The University is driven first and foremost by a culture of rigorous open inquiry and unrelenting analysis and questioning.  The way the University has been organized and evolved over the years, the intensity of our intellectual culture, the resulting education that is so engaging and powerful, and the nature of the contributions the University has made to scholarship and to society are all derived from this focus.  It is both a defining feature of the University and what we need to build upon as we consider our future.

The engine of our activity is our insistence on seeking the most original agenda-setting faculty and students at all levels with the capacity to benefit from and contribute to our academic environment.  Each major step we embark upon must take into consideration how it will enhance our ability to attract and retain these faculty and students and foster the culture of inquiry that distinguishes the University.

I reproduce this statement here because of the importance I attach to maintaining our focus on the truly distinctive and important role the University of Chicago plays in the academic world and beyond.

I organized the last letter I sent on this topic under four major headings:  Shifting Paradigms of Inquiry, Student Programs and Recruitment, Diversity, and Beyond Hyde Park.  These continue to be significant areas of focus, although you will see that our organizational framework has broadened somewhat.

EVOLUTION OF ACADEMIC PROGRAMS

A signature of the University of Chicago has been a faculty of extraordinary eminence, originality, and accomplishment who make discoveries of lasting impact and shape the agenda for fields of inquiry; students of great intellectual drive who become leaders in their own right; and a culture of open, rigorous, and intense inquiry in which faculty and students participate together and enhance the work of all members of the community. How do we build on that distinguished tradition and ensure a continued leadership role for the University in the decades ahead? This is a pivotal moment to pose and answer that question. Major shifts are occurring across a number of disciplines caused by the evolution of paradigms of inquiry, the blurring of disciplinary boundaries, changing global and societal contexts, the importance of computation as both a conceptual and technical tool, and the evolution of technology in scientific research. The competitive environment is also changing rapidly, with leading universities leveraging years of strong endowment returns to expand their faculties and greatly improve the infrastructure needed for leading scholarship, and with several other universities emerging from roles as regional universities to full-fledged national universities capable of competing at the highest level for faculty, students, and resources.

Below are a number of initiatives at various stages of proposal, discussion, or planning that have emerged from faculty deliberations over the last several months relating to the sciences, the Medical Center, humanistic and social science inquiry, the arts, and international programs.  Each is worthy of extensive discussion and analysis, but in this letter I only attempt to provide the broadest of overviews.

Chicago Science
A number of proposals have come forward from faculty for new or expanded programs that allow the University to maintain a leadership position in science by ensuring that we can continue to attract the world’s most original and innovative scientists and foster the development of their work. Many of these proposals have shared a common feature reflecting the evolution of science.  Namely, they can be characterized as “complex” or “systems level” science, aimed at understanding the properties of larger structures or systems via the detailed analysis of components, the relationships and interactions of components, and properties of the whole that emerge from the totality of these components and interactions.  Some of these build upon existing programs of great strength, others continue development of areas identified as of key importance, and one case would entail launching a major new initiative that faculty and outside reviewers have described as a singular opportunity for the University.

An example of a new direction of science under consideration is molecular engineering.  An internal faculty committee led by Professor Steven Sibener strongly recommended and an external review committee enthusiastically endorsed establishing a molecular engineering program to allow for investigation and educational programs at this science/engineering interface. Both the internal faculty and external committees argued that this represented a unique opportunity for the University to take advantage of shifting paradigms in engineering and the consequent relationship with science. The goal as articulated by the faculty committee would be to develop a 25 faculty member program or institute, covering three to four subfields.

There are a number of proposals under consideration to expand existing programs, including increased investments in the Institute for Genomics and Systems Biology, which embodies new approaches to fundamental biological phenomena.  Neuroscience is also an area poised for growth due to a number of new faculty appointments, the creation of the Department of Neurobiology, and the development of the inter-divisional Neuroscience Institute.  And last June, the Provost announced an applied mathematics/computation initiative that builds on the successes of the Computation Institute and positions Chicago to lead in many fields dependent on reconceptualizing questions allowed by a computational perspective and capacity.

A longstanding facility need in the physical sciences will be addressed in the next years with the construction of a facility to house the Departments of Astronomy and Astrophysics and Computer Science, the Kavli Institute, Enrico Fermi Institute, and Computation Institute. The plans call for developing a complex on Ellis Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets by building a new facility, renovating existing Research Institute space, and demolishing outdated facilities. Architect selection is currently underway.

These and other initiatives will benefit from the University’s relationships with Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, especially as future investments in the Labs are likely to be targeted in areas that complement the University’s science programs.

Medical Center
The University of Chicago is unique in this country in having basic biological sciences, the medical school, the hospitals and medical center, and clinical research together in one administrative unit.  This newly unified structure is a significant comparative advantage in the emerging biomedical world in which the connections between basic biology and the advanced treatment of complex disease are continuing to become more direct.  A key element to the Medical Center’s strategy is to target scientific growth and success in interdisciplinary fields across which powerful intellectual bridges exist, in which we have existing strength or very high potential to realize excellence, and which take advantage of our unique structure.

Among the fields targeted for growth are evolutionary biology, where the University has leading programs in ecology and evolution and paleontology; cancer biology, through the expansion of the Cancer Research Center and the establishment of the Ludwig Center for Metastasis Research; immunology, an area that integrates the basic biological sciences with the clinical sciences and has enormous impact on human health; gastrointestinal disease, supported by the Digestive Disease Research Core Center, one of only twelve in the country funded by the National Institutes of Health; and imaging technology and applications, which have impact on clinical research and practice as well as fundamental biological questions.

The Medical Center is developing a new capital plan to meet the need for modern facilities and technology that are essential for biomedical research and clinical care. The next key project is a new hospital, which is under active planning and discussion with both the University Board and its assigned designee for detailed analysis of Medical Center issues, namely the Medical Center Board.  Additional research laboratory facilities are in the early stages of planning.

In Chicago’s Tradition:  Fundamental Issues of Society and Culture
A traditional intellectual core of the University has been its distinguished programs in the social sciences, humanities, and professional schools.  In all these areas the University has been characterized by its intellectual rigor and for systematically applying the combination of theory and data to questions of fundamental importance to society and to the understanding of culture.

There are two key questions we need to address.  First, are we adequately articulating and supporting a level of programmatic ambition to ensure that we continue to play a leadership role in utilizing rigorous fundamental research to illuminate the most important issues of our times?  And second, are we providing the infrastructure and support to enable work both within and across schools and disciplines, the combination of which has been an important comparative advantage for us?

There are a number of interesting proposals that address these questions.  In January 2008, a faculty committee chaired by Professor Lars Hansen submitted a proposal to create an institute that builds on the University’s leadership position and influence in economics research and on the valuable tradition of close collaboration of faculty in the Department of Economics, Graduate School of Business, and the Law School. Faculty from the Committee on Education and the leadership of the Center for Urban School Improvement are proposing the development of the Urban Education Institute to provide a highly coordinated structure to support the University’s efforts to understand and improve K-12 education.  The Division of the Humanities is considering how to build on the successes of the Franke Institute while supporting and deriving full benefit from interdisciplinary centers.  There is planning underway in the Divinity School and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations for expanded scholarly and educational programs in Islamic Studies.  And faculty in the Graduate School of Business and the Computation Institute are developing a proposal for a center on energy policy and analysis that focuses on basic research affecting policy and funding seed grants in this area of scholarship.

There are a number of facility and research infrastructure projects that are also in the planning stages.  This includes planning for a major new library adjacent to Regenstein Library, with a high density automated storage and retrieval system.  A faculty committee has articulated the importance of this facility for our research support and environment.  A new building for the Harris School will meet the expanding research and instructional needs of the School; a research pavilion for the School of Social Service Administration is in the very early stages of planning; new space for the Department of Psychology is needed; and computing infrastructure to support social science research has been identified as an important priority.

Our planning for new facilities and improved research and teaching infrastructure will be aided by new leadership and investments in the Office of Facilities Services.  At a time when we are anticipating significant growth in our physical plant, it is essential that we pay greater attention to issues of sustainability in design and construction as well as in other areas of University support services.

International Programs and Global Activities
The University has taken very strong steps to enhance its international activities in recent years.  The GSB Centers in London and Singapore and the Paris Center which is administered by the College have facilitated research and education abroad and in addition have become highly visible representations of the University’s international reach. Planning is underway to expand the campus environment in Singapore.  The College’s civilization abroad programs, which are also expanding, are models of rigorous international programming.  And the Harris School’s executive education programs in Latin America and the growing portfolio of training programs run by the Graham School in China are further examples of our international educational programs.

The success of the Singapore, London, and Paris centers have generated active discussions about whether we should provide physical infrastructure or other means of support to enhance research, teaching, and education for our faculty and students in other areas, such as India, China, and Latin America. 

The Arts
We are moving forward with two initiatives in the arts that clarify and amplify the important role of the arts in the University’s curriculum, scholarly profile, and cultural life.  The Reva and David Logan Center for Creative and Performing Arts, facilitated by a $35 million gift from the Logan family, provides an opportunity to develop an outstanding facility for teaching and creative expression.  Additionally, the establishment of a deputy provost position in the arts provides a key institutional locus for facilitating the interplay of faculty and student work, our professional arts organizations, our arts facilities planning now and for the future, and the connectivity of our arts activities with the broader Chicago community.

SUPPORT FOR FACULTY AND STUDENTS

Over the past year, we received two gifts that transformed our ability to support faculty and students.  The establishment of the Neubauer Family Fellows Program, which will provide assistant professorships, research support, and leave time for twenty faculty members, provides the University with a competitive edge in recruiting, retaining, and supporting the most talented young scholars.  The Odyssey Program, made possible by an anonymous $100 million gift, reshaped our College financial aid program by eliminating all loans for students with a family income level below $60,000 and eliminating half of the loans for students whose family income is between $60,000 and $75,000, a program that will affect around one quarter of our College students.

There is much more that we need to do in the coming years. Below are some initial thoughts about possible areas of focus.

Expanding the Faculty to Meet Emerging Needs and Evolving Disciplines
The size of the faculty has essentially been flat for the last four decades.  It is an appropriate time to reevaluate the size of our faculty given the growth of our student body, the proliferation of new knowledge, and our aspirations for intellectual leadership in a broad portfolio of areas.  In the coming months, the provost will be working with the deans to understand how changes in the size of the faculty might meet the longer-term objectives of departments, divisions, schools, and the University as a whole.  

The College
The Dean of the College is developing plans to continue to build on the distinctiveness of our College education.  The rigorous broad-based education in the College that has been so important to the history and culture of the University must continue to be the defining experience of our College students. In recent years the College has flourished not only because of our high academic standards and distinctive educational approach but because of our investments in the development and support of our student community through our residential system, our strengthened student life programming, much improved access to the city of Chicago, and the creation of rigorous new international study programs in many foreign nations.  Future plans include the development of College courses in conjunction with the establishment of new and evolving academic programs and expanded research and internship opportunities.  Planning is underway to restore Harper Library to greatness via a new College Learning Center in the existing Stuart and Harper Libraries.  We are beginning the process of understanding the need for additional student housing beyond the current facility being built on the south campus.

Our ability to attract talented and motivated students and to allow all students, regardless of their financial circumstances, to take full advantage of their time at the University continues to be dependent on the competitiveness of our financial aid program.  We have made a great step forward with the launch of the Odyssey Scholarship Program, which goes into effect next academic year.  We anticipate further enhancements to our financial aid policies in coming years.

We are also keeping our focus on reaching a greater number of extraordinary students who would contribute to and benefit from a Chicago education.  Over recent years the quality of the applicant pool has increased significantly, and in the last two years alone the number of applications received by the College has increased from 9,538 to 12,350. The number of traditionally underrepresented minority students has increased dramatically, as has our population of international students in the College.  We must continue our support for outreach efforts in admissions.

Graduate Student Support
The highest priority for graduate student support that has been identified by the faculty for the last several years has been competitive funding for doctoral students in the humanities, social sciences, and divinity.  Over the last two years, we have made progress in being able to offer incoming students competitive aid packages.  This represents a very significant investment of University resources.  Last month the provost announced additional support for continuing doctoral students in those areas, including increased stipends, summer fellowships, and dissertation-year fellowships.

We need to continue investing in graduate students and graduate education across the University.  The debt level for students in some professional and graduate programs is simply too high.  We must also examine our housing program for graduate students (the Graduate School of Business is planning a new student residence south of the Midway) and assess more systematically the services and programs meant to facilitate students’ progress through their graduate and professional school careers.  With the appointment this year of the first deputy provost for graduate education, we are well positioned to undertake this work.

Diversity
Two years ago the provost appointed the University’s first deputy provost for research and minority issues. This year, an associate provost’s duties were also directed halftime to develop programs in support of the recruitment and retention of women faculty.  The early signs are that this increased support for faculty recruitment is having results, with fifteen percent of the tenure-track faculty hired last year coming from underrepresented minority groups.  Anticipated programs include a targeted postdoctoral program for scholars from underrepresented groups, summer research programs for underrepresented students to widen the faculty pipeline, and grant funding to support the recruitment and development of interdisciplinary women scientists.

Our strategy for recruiting diverse undergraduate classes and graduate cohorts relies on broad outreach efforts, successful pipeline programs, and competitive financial aid.  At the College, the number of African American students enrolled has grown 86% over the last ten years, and the number of Latino students has increased by 122%.  At the graduate level, the graduate aid initiative should enhance diversity efforts.  The opening last month of a new student diversity center at 5710 S. Woodlawn provides an important new student space and a more highly coordinated set of student resources.

The University has made significant strides in engaging minority and South Side business communities through procurement efforts, minority contracting, minority hiring for non-academic positions, and in our outreach efforts to the surrounding neighborhoods.   The opening of an Office of Business Diversity and the establishment of a Diversity Leadership Council, comprised of senior leadership from across the University, to develop and oversee strategies, policies, and their implementation, are productive but not sufficient steps to reach our aspirations in this arena.

 ENGAGEMENT IN HYDE PARK AND NATIONALLY

While assessing strategic opportunities in the evolution of academic programs and support for faculty and students, the University must also evaluate how best to direct resources to engage with, contribute to, and raise its visibility with its external communities, locally and nationally.  The long-term prospects for the University are intertwined with the economic health of our surrounding communities.  We have set it as a priority to stimulate commercial, workforce, and economic development in our local area, including considering options to catalyze commercial development in Hyde Park.  We are also assessing the University’s opportunities to partner with the city on infrastructure improvements related to the bid for the 2016 Olympics.

Education and health care are two areas where we have the expertise and capacity to dramatically improve the quality of life in our local community and do so in a way that comports with and enhances our fundamental missions of research and education.  The Laboratory Schools, the Charter Schools, UEI, SSA, the Medical Center, and the Urban Health Initiative – a collaborative effort with other health care providers throughout the South Side to reorganize services and optimize expertise at the Medical Center and at community hospitals and health centers – offer an unusually rich array of resources for community development.  We expect to open our fourth charter school this fall, and we are developing a plan for improving the Laboratory Schools facilities so that they remain an outstanding and accessible resource for University faculty and our community more broadly.

We are moving with due speed to open and staff a Washington, D.C. office to represent the interests of the University and our affiliated national laboratories to funding agencies and to the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. We are also working to improve our overall communications capacity to facilitate admissions, fundraising, and faculty recruitment goals.

FINANCING NEW INITIATIVES

The programmatic initiatives highlighted in this letter are only a subset of needs and opportunities identified in the College, schools, and divisions. We expect and hope that there will be many new ideas brought forward as part of ongoing planning led by the deans.

It is clear that a university with the highest aspirations must be prepared to make significant investments in its programs, faculty, students, and staff.  Our collective responsibility to enhance the University’s intellectual and cultural capital and the eminence, distinctiveness, and benefit of our research and educational programs dictate such action, as does the competitive environment. The University’s Board of Trustees, at its meeting earlier this month, endorsed the concept of strategic investments in the University’s programs along with a financial framework to make this new level of investment possible.  The financial framework is built on a number of factors, including more aggressive fundraising targets (last year’s total of $346 million raised was up from $217 million two years earlier), integrated planning with the biomedical enterprise, the strategic use of debt financing, greater financial discipline, and the establishment of a strategic initiatives fund with a higher payout from the endowment.  I am grateful to the members of the Board for their confidence in the University and their willingness to support your work at the highest levels.

This is an important moment for the University, with the decisions we take now reverberating in the decades ahead.  We encourage your deep engagement in planning for the future of your department, school, or division and the University as a whole.  I welcome your thoughts (president@uchicago.edu) on the initiatives highlighted in this letter and on other opportunities and challenges facing the University.

Sincerely,

Robert J. Zimmer