One month before the close of the University of Chicago’s 1999-2000 school year, Michael Behnke prepared to brief the faculty’s governing body on the credentials of the incoming freshman class. Behnke, hired away from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to become Chicago’s vice-president and dean of college enrollment in 1997, had made only one such presentation before, but he was not nervous.
After all, he had good news to deliver. Applications had jumped 25 percent over the year before, the largest increase ever. Applicants’ test scores were up, as were their high school class rankings. In all, the school had been far choosier in accepting students. Behnke spoke for 15 minutes, after which Janet Rowley, a professor in the medical school, rose and spoke glowingly of the current crop of undergraduate freshmen. Her comments prompted a reaction that shocked Behnke. The audience in Rosenwald Hall applauded. “I’ve never heard applause at a faculty meeting before, let alone for me or for admissions,” Behnke says.
Just a few years earlier, many of those cheering professors had blasted the author of the policy that later spurred the jump in applications. President Hugo Sonnenschein was leading the charge on two polarizing initiatives-adding 1,000 undergraduates to the College and shrinking the core curriculum from 21 required courses to 18. He said he needed the paying students to put the budget back in the black. But he concluded that to lure them, the U. of C. had to shed its reputation as the place where fun goes to die. (The reputation was apparently well deserved-a 1996 McKinsey & Company study of campus social life at 357 schools had ranked Chicago dead last.)
Sonnenschein’s blueprint ignited an extraordinarily fierce reaction from many in the devoted U. of C. family-faculty, alumni, and students. They insisted that their president, a former Princeton professor, was subverting the unique character of the school and diluting the quality of the student body. Sonnenschein’s messy tenure ended with a resignation in 1999, and his name still elicits bitter words around the campus.*
But Sonnenschein’s resignation is far from the end of the story. Two years ago, Don Randel, the former provost of Cornell University, stepped in as U. of C. president, and so far students and faculty give him high marks for job performance. And yet Randel, also with Princeton connections, has done little to turn back, or even slow, Sonnenschein’s big changes. Randel’s personal style may be more polished than his predecessor’s, but his educational initiatives are nearly identical. Since Randel took over, “there’s been no discernible change in policy . . . in terms of education or research mission or goals or priorities at all,” says Geoffrey Stone, the school’s former provost, who returned to teaching in the law school last year.
Meanwhile, as measured by applications, college rankings, SAT scores, and donations, the University of Chicago is on an upswing. Sonnenschein’s prophecy that bigger could mean better appears to have been borne out, and the cheer from faculty leaders in the spring of 2000 was one of the first public acknowledgments that the policy-if not the man-was right. “It’s a much better college than it was ten years ago,” says Michael Jones, the associate dean of the College, which is composed of the university’s undergraduates. “It’s better for social life; it’s better for academic life. There’s a different energy on campus.”
The recent turnaround at the University of Chicago makes a good case study on the powers of persuasion. Even in a place that prides itself on its intellectual rigor, a little sweet-talking and coddling seem to have made all the difference in the world.* * *
The acrimony of the Sonnenschein era accelerated on the morning of December 28, 1998, with a cold delivery boy tossing blue plastic bags onto Hyde Park doorsteps. Inside, The New York Times carried a front-page story by Ethan Bronner with an unsettling headline: “Winds of Aca-demic Change Rustle the University of Chicago.” Al Chambers, head of the university’s public relations office, had cultivated the story at a meeting in the Manhattan offices of the Times, talking up the school’s new effort to recruit better rounded students (read: fewer eggheads) and to enhance their opportunities to escape the library. In the Times story, Bronner acknowledged Sonnenschein’s undertaking, but the article was tough, giving plenty of space to Sonnenschein’s detractors and candidly describing the school’s problems as a “painful identity crisis” that had come about through Chicago’s “high-mindedness.” Bronner quoted Behnke as saying, “I don’t know how many students we can attract if we go after those who only seek the life of the mind.” (“I took some grief,” Behnke says today. “[Sonnenschein] wasn’t too thrilled about that quote.”)
Still, Sonnenschein and Chambers were pleased that they had been able to make their case as to why Chicago could not complacently sit on its past glories. Chambers sent the story around to the university’s trustees and Sonnenschein sent an appreciative note to Bronner. “I was impressed by the direction and the balance of your story,” the president wrote.
What Sonnenschein and Chambers didn’t realize, however, was that the Times article had set off a flood of opposition. Here at last, Sonnenschein’s critics said, was proof that the Easterner secretly hoped to wrap the inimitable University of Chicago in a bright Ivy League bow. “The feeling was ‘Thank goodness he’s been exposed-let’s go get him,'” recalls Bronner.
The percolating opposition to Sonnenschein and his plan looked as if it might boil over. At a derisive “fun-in,” 1,400 students ridiculed the new, softer side of Chicago by chanting sixties-style protest songs and performing sketches mocking the new intellectually lite atmosphere-“The Great Books in One Minute” was a favorite.
An alumni group calling itself Concerned Friends of the University of Chicago sprang up, underwritten by Robert Stone, a wealthy alumnus (law ’82). Stone hired a Web expert and moved him into the second floor of Stone’s three-story Hyde Park house. From there, the expert built a Web site that posted documents about the conflict and allowed students and alumni to voice opinions. At its peak the site captured 10,000 hits a month from places as far away as Africa and Asia. The novelist Saul Bellow (who taught at Chicago from 1962 to 1993) and the Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon (undergraduate ’59, law ’61, master’s in comparative law ’63) accused the university of diluting its academic standards. “Making academic decisions on the basis of marketing is itself a crime against the mind,” they wrote in a letter that ran in the Chicago Sun-Times.
That June, a group of faculty members-loyal sons and daughters mostly from the humanities and the social sciences-held a panel called “The University in Crisis,” which became a forum for bashing Sonnenschein and his plans.
Behind the scenes, the board of trustees watched the tone of the discussion turn sour. One trustee, Arthur Rasmussen Jr., from Walton, New York (master’s in international relations ’43), actively opposed Sonnenschein’s plan to cut the core. An admirer of the Great Books curriculum that had defined the university for some 70 years, Rasmussen says he saw the university slipping into specialized academic fields and professors who were concerned more with their research than with teaching undergraduates. “Sonnenschein and the newer faculty had no sense of the culture,” he says.
Sonnenschein had made it tougher on himself by giving the appearance to some faculty members of being rather highhanded. He had plugged his plan at a series of early-morning breakfasts with professors in the presidential manor at 5855 South University Avenue. The lobbying was regarded as a minor disaster. Sonnenschein did most of the talking, giving his guests plenty of time to enjoy the spread of fresh juice, croissants, and eggs, but little time to ask questions. “There was very little real engagement,” says Wendy Doniger, a professor in the divinity school.
Two months after the Times article appeared, Chambers resigned his PR post. Asked recently if he had left by choice or been forced out, he responded, “Somewhere in the middle.” Sonnenschein held on for three more months in the face of the widespread opposition. Then, the day before the trustees’ spring 1999 meeting, he announced his intention to return to teaching economics. Today, he says there wasn’t a single moment when he decided to leave. “I made the decision over time,” he says. He left behind a university in need of a healer as much as a leader.* * *
Don Randel was serving as provost at Cornell when the search committee recommended him as the top choice to become the University of Chicago’s 12th president. The day was December 9, 1999, and Randel celebrated by turning 59. The selection seemed like an ideal salve for a university tired of fighting. Randel arrived as an accomplished scholar in Renaissance and medieval music-“right up there in the big leagues when it comes to obscurity of scholarly specialty,” he told the University of Chicago Magazine-and as the son of parents who had bought Mortimer Adler’s Great Books series for the family dining room. Whereas Sonnenschein seemed stubborn and overbearing, Randel is effortless and unassuming. As a humanist and a musician from Edinburg, Texas, he is the alter-Hugo. “Sonnenschein came across as a man who was relatively insensitive,” says Andrew Abbott, a sociology professor, “-someone who studies all the facts on his own, comes up with an answer, and then appoints faculty committees to come up with that same answer for him. I think Don Randel is a better listener. He has a better ear for hearing what people are upset about.” Debra Pickett of the Chicago Sun-Times, after spending an afternoon with Randel, wrote, “He’s working on the old boy’s trick of never appearing to try very hard.” But John Boyer, the dean of the College, says the new president “thinks very long and hard before he talks. He chooses his words very carefully.”
In any case, the combination of Sonnenschein’s agenda and Randel’s personality has been, for the most part, warmly welcomed. “The battle with Hugo was so traumatic,” says Robert Pippin, a philosophy professor and a member of the presidential search committee. “People felt, whether it was true or not, that they had a president who didn’t appreciate them. They wanted a president who could show he loved them and their institution and who didn’t come in to screw it up. They didn’t want somebody with 50 new ideas. We went through all that.”
Randel hung back and boosted morale. He lunched with the faculty and played jazz piano under the high ceilings of the Quadrangle Club. He sat on the stage at Symphony Center with the Chicago Symphony’s music director, Daniel Barenboim, discussing Gustav Mahler’s music and the price of orchestra tickets. He bought the books written by U. of C. professors and tapped them on the shoulder to say he enjoyed the read. “He talks about me, with me,” gushes Doniger. “Hugo was very nice, but it was clear he hadn’t read my work.”
With Randel’s careful encouragement, the mood in Hyde Park perked up dramatically. “There was a feeling of depression when I came on this campus,” says Adam Kissel, a self-proclaimed campus revolutionary who, as a graduate student in the Committee on Social Thought, emerged as one of Sonnenschein’s toughest foes. “Now there’s a feeling of release. I’ve heard people say, ‘This is my university again.'”* * *
The University of Chicago president’s office is a spacious rectangle on the fifth floor of the Administration Building, one of the few bordering the main quadrangle that are not accented with spires, battlements, and ribbed domes. With his salt-and-pepper hair and mild handshake, Randel does not cut an imposing figure. Rather, he carries himself with the unconscious formality of a man who believes real movies are in black and white and who says he can listen to the Beatles “up to a point.” Randel has positioned himself as the quintessential outsider-a faculty member-thrust into an insider’s role as an administrator. “The only reason I’ve gotten into these jobs is because if there have to be deans and provosts and presidents, I want them to have my values, which are essentially the values of a faculty member,” he says. (Randel also reveals his faculty roots when he says that one of his responsibilities as president of the university is “to believe in those who are a part of it. Talented people need to be encouraged and supported in their work.”)
Faculty values aside, Randel’s aspirations for Chicago aren’t much different from Sonnenschein’s. While he has replaced all of Sonnenschein’s lieutenants with his own, the growth of the College continues on schedule: 4,100 undergraduates matriculated in 2001-up from 3,631 in 1996, when Sonnenschein first announced his desire to expand the College. More than 4,150 are expected to enter this fall. The backbone of Chicago’s proud general liberal arts education, the core curriculum, remains at 18 courses, Sonnenschein’s reduced size (or 15, depending on incoming students’ proficiency in languages). More rigid than the distribution requirements at most universities today, the core, founded in 1931 by Chauncey Boucher, then dean of the College, places an emphasis on the classical texts, like those of Aristotle and Thucydides.
Adam Kissel says that a year after the curriculum reforms were passed in 1998, he was told the changes would be reviewed in 2002. Randel was not inspired to lead such a rally. “I’m not likely to try and bring about some striking change in the direction of the core,” he says. Instead, the heart of the core’s civilization requirement-Western Civilization-will likely die when the history professor Karl Weintraub and his wife, lecturer Katy O’Brien Weintraub, decide to retire. Students wishing to cover the same ground would have to enroll in both Ancient Mediterranean Civilization and History of European Civilization-in other words, a total of five quarters for what used to take three.
At a protest this past April, students handed out flyers in support of Western Civ, but Sara Butler, the protest group’s chair, says there is less student distress this time around. “The student body doesn’t care as much about general education anymore,” says the junior from New York. “The administration doesn’t seem committed to keeping our tradition alive.” Saul Bellow, now 87 and living in Boston, wasn’t ready to abandon the fight. “By replacing the traditional three-quarter course . . . with narrower and briefer history courses, the university is succumbing to the mindless narrowing and specialization that has characterized other universities for decades,” the Nobel laureate told the Chicago Sun-Times, echoing an argument almost identical to the one he voiced when Sonnenschein proposed shrinking the core. Randel, in a response printed in the June issue of the alumni magazine, assured the suspicious, “[T]his change . . . does not mean we have sunk into a pit of utter relativism.”
The jewel in Randel’s presidential crown will be a $2-billion capital campaign, the biggest in the school’s history by some $1.3 billion. When he unveiled the campaign with an afternoon announcement at the Oriental Institute last April, Randel told several hundred trustees, professors, and alumni that his top priorities included securing more generous financial aid packages and building a larger endowment. Later that evening at a lavish kickoff dinner in Bartlett Hall, everyone celebrated over thick slabs of filet mignon. (The event was so tightly scripted that at the dress rehearsal for the dinner, an organizer made sure to remind the student body president, Ben Aderson, to instruct the audience to blow out the candles on the tables, as the flames and paper confetti would create a fire hazard.) By the time the confetti fell, Randel’s two years of cross-country fundraising had already raked in $702 million.* * *
Two billion dollars can be spent in many ways. Randel has a vision for a campus arts center with space for performance and scholarship. But a large chunk of the new money will go toward the construction of buildings drawn up on Sonnenschein’s watch. “The plans are set,” says James Redfield, a classics professor. “I don’t think he has another option.”
Sonnenschein’s grandest project is a $180-million Interdivisional Research Building that will run along the south side of 57th Street from Ellis Avenue to Drexel Avenue and replace the Visual Sciences Center, Whitman Laboratory, and Phemister Hall. Ribbon cutting is set for September 2005. The $130-million Comer Children’s Hospital is expected to open in 2004 on the east side of Maryland Avenue from 57th to 58th Street. The 242,000-square-foot facility is named for Gary Comer, the founder of Lands’ End, who gave $21 million. In the fall of 2003, students who have been working out in the same gym used 63 years ago by the last U. of C. football team to play in the Big Ten will be able to swim laps and sweat off their stress in the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center on the southwest corner of Ellis Avenue and 55th Street.
Perhaps the most immediate impact on the campus, though, comes from the expanded student body. “I was brought in to increase the size of the applicant pool so that they could increase the size of the College without sacrificing quality,” says Behnke. A serious concern was visibility. Chicago was a powerhouse within the academic world, but it was rarely mentioned in high school counselors’ offices. Fewer than 5,500 students applied in 1996. With a budget increase of 40 percent, Behnke spent a year conducting focus groups of faculty and enrolled students, who emphasized that Chicago’s best chance was to sell brains-literally. During these informal interviews, “The Life of the Mind” emerged as a theme.
Still, the mind responds to bright, catchy brochures. The first step in re-invigorating the admissions process was to throw out the old materials, which Behnke called “generic and unexciting.” “They made us look like every other school,” he says. In the spring of 1998, his staff unveiled an eye-catching guidebook with a cover photo featuring gargoyles perched atop the William Rainey Harper Memorial Library and the sentence: “Warning: Study in this university is known to cause thinking, occasionally deep thinking.” Applications for this fall’s freshman class topped 8,000-a school record. Average SAT scores have risen, from 1,230-1,410 in 1996 to 1,330-1,480 in 2001.
Behnke says the improvements are a combination of a strong product and better marketing. Chicago now offers nearly four times as many college visiting days for prospective students as it once did. The percentage of applicants admitted has dropped from 62 percent in 1997 to 44 percent last year. One figure with room for improvement, however, is the yield-students who are accepted and then choose to enroll. Since 1997, the yield has risen just three percentage points to 33.2 (a figure that suggests that Chicago is still not the first choice of many elite students). By comparison, Harvard’s yield is above 80 percent.
At the private Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., college counselor Diane Scattergood has seen a change. Beginning with the class of 1999, applications to Chicago have been climbing by 5 percent each year. She credits the outreach efforts with speaking directly to high school seniors. “Kids are coming back from school visits actually excited about the place,” Scattergood says.
While Randel gives little credence to college rankings in “the popular press,” as he calls it, the U. of C.’s place in U.S. News and World Report‘s annual survey has risen from a low of number 14 in 1998 to number nine in 2001. That jump occurred in part because the university retained more of its freshmen and boosted its overall graduation rate. Together, these factors amount to 20 percent of a school’s final ranking, says Robert Morse, who is in charge of developing the rankings formula at U.S. News. “Whether or not they made changes for the rankings or because they thought it would be a good idea, that can be debated,” he says.
Some of Sonnenschein’s detractors continue to worry that the larger student body and modified classes will change the university’s character. One former professor gave his dark analysis: “The last remaining distinction about the University of Chicago is the idea that it’s different.” But in general, most people seem to be giving the benefit of the doubt to the new captain. “I’d be less confident with these policies in place if Hugo was still president,” says Andrew Abbott, the sociology professor.* * *
After stepping down as president, Sonnenschein spent his first weekend with his family on a beach in St. Joseph, Michigan, watching Fourth of July fireworks to a live performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. He spent a year “out of residence” from the Hyde Park campus, a respite that he needed as much as his critics. He retreated to Princeton in September 2000 to teach microeconomics. He skied in Vancouver, biked in Vermont, and read Crime and Punishment for the first time. When he returned to Chicago’s economics department in 2001, he placed his new office computer on an old wooden desk once used by Robert Hutchins, the legendary U. of C. president.
In conversations last winter, Sonnenschein was reluctant to reflect on the volatile end of his presidency. He emphasized that his policies were the work of many besides himself-Dean Boyer and Provost Stone, to name two-and as president he had to take responsibility for them. “I was quite persuaded the changes that we were making were, on balance, good, useful changes,” he says.
But in an April e-mail, he graciously acknowledged that his salesmanship had suffered from flaws. “I have little doubt that what I had to say could have been said in better ways (among these by making it clearer that I more fully appreciated the risks),” he wrote, “and I have every belief that it is being said in better ways now.” He added that he had been fully aware of the bumps and irritations he created. “Were these absolutely held to a minimum?” he wrote. “Doubtful. Would I have preferred to have done it better? Of course!”
Still, Sonnenschein is pleased that many of his predictions have come true and that the university community has warmed to them. And for all his public modesty, privately he is proud of his time at the helm. That emotion shone through in the e-mail: “The satisfaction is in the fact that we are really getting there and that I had a role in moving it along.”
As for the claims that Sonnenschein’s vision would abandon intellectual rigor in exchange for happier students and a few extra parties, the school is fighting back with an amended message: Good times can be had in Chicago’s old ways. “We try to make it clear that the experience here is rooted in the intellectual experience,” says Randel, “and the fun you can have as a part of that.”