University trustee David Brooks, AB’83, interviews President Robert J. Zimmer about his vision for the University’s future.

Our distinctive culture of rigorous inquiry and ambitious vision for the future will help faculty, students, and alumni to define future inquiry and its impact on lives around the globe.

On the eve of the public launch of the University of Chicago Campaign: Inquiry and Impact, University trustee David Brooks, AB’83, interviewed President Robert J. Zimmer about his vision for the University’s future. Their conversation is edited and condensed.

DAVID BROOKS The thing I love about the University of Chicago is that it left its mark on me. I came as one sort of person and left another sort of person. What mark does the University hope to leave on its students today?

ROBERT J. ZIMMER It’s not that different from the mark that we hoped to—and happily did—leave on you. Students come in full of ambition, very energetic, very smart. What we hope to leave with them is a degree of rigor and discipline in their thinking and a capacity to understand somebody else’s perspective—and thereby to empower them for whatever they’re going to do.

DB Peer institutions probably seek to do something similar, but what is distinct about UChicago?

RJZ These values are articulated in many universities. The distinction is a matter of execution and culture. It is the emphasis and the singularity of focus and the fact that this is the highest value of the University.

One issue that is very important to reinforce is the necessity of actually listening to other people: to have your assumptions challenged and not assume that your zeal and enthusiasm is a replacement for argument. One does in fact need to temper that enthusiasm with an understanding that one needs to listen to other people in a much deeper way than might be comfortable.

DB One of my heroines is Frances Perkins, secretary of labor under Franklin Roosevelt. At Mount Holyoke, her worst subject was chemistry, so they made her major in it. The idea was that if she’s tough enough to get through a major in a subject she’s weak in, she’ll be tough enough to handle the world. Does the University think about the character and moral nature of its students? Or is that something universities no longer do?

RJZ There’s no question that forcing people to experience a broad range of issues in a way that challenges their own assumptions—which we do in terms of our education—is a process that most of our students experience as something that has an impact on the nature of who they are as a person.

It’s not just, “Now I understand X, and now I have Y skill.” The very process of going through this type of education changes them and who they are. Is that moral character building? It’s certainly a type of character building.

"Forcing people to experience a broad range of issues in a way that challenges their own assumptions... is a process that most of our students experience as something that has an impact on the nature of who they are as a person."

DB Part of the culture of the University is the unusual mixture of graduate schools and the College. The graduate schools are large relative to the College, yet the College is somehow central. How do you manage that?

RJZ One feature of our community is that we think about the College students, the graduate students, and the faculty as an integrated fabric—a community where people at different stages of their personal, intellectual, and professional evolution are engaged in some common project of inquiry and mutual challenge.

There’s a lot of interaction between College and graduate students, particularly in the advanced College years and beginning graduate student years. That adds to the challenge that College students feel, and it’s also beneficial to our graduate students because our College students are very smart and very challenging.

DB Let’s talk about the ivory tower. At the University of Chicago we spend a lot more time reading Thucydides than most people in Chicagoland. But the University is enmeshed in the city. How do you navigate the ways the University is separate from and integrated into the city?

RJZ There’s a huge opportunity for the University in being increasingly connected to the city. Many of the fundamental problems and opportunities of society are concentrated in cities. Being inside the city, with a direct connection and engagement with the city, is both an advantage for the University and a place where the University can contribute in a way that helps the city a great deal.

One very salient example is our work in pre-K through 12 education. Understanding how to take kids from an economically disadvantaged environment and a public school system, that is by and large failing them, means answering a fundamental societal question: how do we help these children get into a situation where they can fulfill to a much greater extent their potential? Society needs universities to be engaged in these issues.

DB Does that mean doing research or does that mean actual operations?

RJZ It means both in this case. We do significant research in multiple areas—Jim Heckman’s recent work on early childhood experience as a predictor for a child’s future is one of many examples. At the Urban Education Institute, we are running four charter school campuses, doing research on the Chicago Public Schools system, and informing the system itself about what’s working and what’s not working.

So this is a case where we’re deeply involved in basic research, in translational research, and in operations on the ground.

“At the Urban Education Institute, we are running four charter school campuses, doing research on the Chicago Public Schools system, and informing the system itself about what’s working and what’s not working.”

DB What about the students who come out of the Chicago Public Schools system—are there a number who have received the background that they need to do a UChicago undergrad education? Can you find those students?

RJZ Every year a number of students come into the University of Chicago from the Chicago Public Schools system. In fact, two students who graduated from our own charter school in Woodlawn this spring came to the University this fall. We also have a program to help all Chicago Public Schools students, not just to prepare to apply to the University of Chicago, but to prepare their thinking about college in general and to help their high school counselors gain more expertise and experience so that they can help the students as well.

DB Another way that universities interact with cities is as job incubators. The University, it seems, has done a little less than places like Stanford and MIT. Is there an effort to increase that role?

RJZ Stanford and MIT are two exemplars of institutions where the technology they’ve grown has had a huge impact on the region’s economic development. There is an effort to increase that role at the University. Chicago Booth’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, for example, is extremely successful. Students from that program are involved in start-up companies—two of them in fact, Braintree and GrubHub, just had approximately billion-dollar exits.

The new Chicago Innovation Exchange, which opened this fall on 53rd Street, is trying to bring the success of that program in entrepreneurship to interface with the Institute for Molecular Engineering, with the medical school, with Argonne National Laboratory, in order to increase the technology-based start-up environment at the University and on the South Side.

One effort over the past 15 years has been to have the scientific programs at the University and Argonne be much more closely interrelated, linking research and innovation. The Institute for Molecular Engineering was started jointly with Argonne and the University. Argonne’s program in batteries and energy storage will have prototyping facilities and commercialization activities in the Chicago Innovation Exchange.

DB When you visit campus it seems as if the science labs are growing and growing—there’s money, there’s momentum—and they’ll begin to overshadow the liberal arts.

RJZ The humanities and the social sciences, what one might think of as the liberal arts, have been and need to be an important part of the University. Investing in those areas—which we’ve done and will continue to do—is very important. It’s not that the sciences are growing faster than the humanities and social sciences—it’s that, by virtue of the evolution of those fields, their capital needs are so much greater. When you look around and see where the big buildings are, you’ll see that reflected—although the new Logan Center for the Arts is a pretty big building too.

DB What’s been distinctive about the University’s model of a global university—and where do you think that model will evolve? 

RJZ Our model is to provide an academic infrastructure for our faculty and our students. We have no separate programs; there are no special students or special degrees. For example, we wanted to create a facility in China that would enable our faculty and students to go to China to enhance their own work, whether research or education, and to do so in collaboration with the Chinese.

We believed that it was very important to recognize that—because of China’s economic, political, social, cultural evolution and its enormous impact on the world—faculty from across the University would be increasingly interested in understanding more about China from the point of view of their own discipline, interested in collaborating with people in
China, and our students would be interested in China as well.

We invest in these centers, just as we invest in libraries and laboratories, because it is important for the vitality of the academic enterprise.

“We wanted to create a facility in China that would enable our faculty and students to go to China to enhance their own work, whether research or education, and to do so in collaboration with the Chinese.”

DB Is the University’s interaction equally global or does it focus on China and India?

RJZ We have individual faculty and student programs all over the world. Our centers—in Paris, Beijing, Delhi, and now Hong Kong, and Chicago Booth in London—are meant to be places of particular focus, where there are particular opportunities. We’re thinking now about Latin America and how best to enhance our connectivity there. It doesn’t have to be the same thing we did in China and India.

DB As a global university, what is the University’s responsibility to the United States?

RJZ We’re in the United States; we’re supported by all sorts of features of being in the United States—the US tax code, donors, the federal government, state government, and so on. We have a special obligation to the United States.

That doesn’t mean all of our students should be from the United States. In order to fulfill that obligation, one needs to have a significant mixture of students. About 11 percent of the College is international students—we’d like between 13 and 15 percent. Of course, in certain areas, like the graduate programs in the physical sciences, it’s much higher. Overall, about 20 percent of our students are international—and we’re comfortable with that.

DB Let’s turn to technology. Different schools have different approaches to MOOCs [massive open online courses] and all the rest. Is there a distinctive University of Chicago approach?

RJZ To be honest, there is not a particularly distinctive approach right now. We’re participating. We’re experimenting with MOOCs and other online learning technologies. We don’t view ourselves as leaders; we don’t view ourselves as being out of the picture.

I hope within five years to report that we do have a distinctive view and that a big part of that grows out of the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. I would like to see the University start thinking in a much more systematic way about how to connect to nontraditional students and other people around the world, including our alumni, through content—a lot of it electronic and technology-based, but not all.

DB The structure of universities seems to be changing. Academic departments have stayed much the same, but there’s been a growth of interdisciplinary institutes. At UChicago, there’s the Institute of Politics, the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics, the Neubauer Collegiumfor Culture and Society. Is that self-conscious?

RJZ It is self-conscious. Universities need to move from the metaphorical model of siloed departments to the metaphorical model of an intellectual matrix. The disciplines are critical, well-developed modes of thought and inquiry, but they are not the only way, in isolation, of looking at fundamental problems. There’s a range of inquiry that needs to take place that cuts across these disciplines, and this is often much better done in a formal way. The institutes are a very purposeful way of creating an intellectual matrix.

DB There’s talk of an academic bubble—that the cost is too high to be sustainable, that people are graduating with too much debt, that job prospects are uncertain, and that this cannot last. Do you have that sense?

RJZ I think that it’s a mistake to generalize about higher education. On the one hand, 75 percent of first-time students are in public institutions. Support for state university systems has gone down by 30 percent in real terms over the last decade. At the same time, these institutions are not only supposed to be accessible for students, they’re also supposed to be doing research, contributing to the economic development of their states, and so on. There are huge demands and decreasing resources. Because these institutions educate such a vast percentage of the nation’s students, the result is enormous stress on accessibility to higher education. It is a real problem, and there is going to have to be a shift.

On the other hand, if you look at the 35 leading private universities and liberal arts colleges that meet the full demonstrated financial need for every undergraduate, you see exactly the opposite: they’re getting better, their support for both research and students is increasing—financial aid is going up, and student debt is going down. Unfortunately, these institutions, even though they train a disproportionate number of leaders in the United States, educate only 1.2 percent of the nation’s students. You’re looking at two worlds—one supported by the alumni, both past and present, of this small number of institutions, and one of decreasing public support for the large public institutions—and the trajectories are very different.

DB If somebody comes to you with a grant of X millions or billions of dollars, where do you think the opportunities lie for the University over the next 25 years?

RJZ There are many. To continue to get better as an institution in terms of the education of our students, the scope of our research, and the nature of our impact, means a larger financial base. A part of that base must be increased financial support for students at all levels— otherwise we’ll find ourselves in the same spot as state universities, which is not a spot where we intend to be. Financial support for our students is going to be very important.

Almost all areas can use a rethinking of what their disciplines can accomplish, how you think about them, how they evolve. Molecular engineering is an example. The University did no engineering until four or five years ago, and this spring we graduated our first PhD student in molecular engineering—the very first student ever to have “engineering” in her degree from the University of Chicago. These are major evolutions, and I expect we will see a number of them across the whole University over time.

DB What do you hope the legacy of the University of Chicago Campaign will be?

RJZ What I would hope in a large sense is that the University fully embraces its own capacity for being ambitious. Universities, particularly excellent universities, tend to be in an environment where you feel that “Boy, we’ve done so much, we’re great—we’re great now, we were great last year, so we’ll probably be great next year.” That’s not the right way to think about it. I believe we need to be in a highly ambitious state all the time—not thinking at the margin but thinking about what we can do to really leap forward.

Molecular engineering is one of those initiatives. Our investment in the arts is another. The nature of our support for our College students and the way that the position of the College has changed nationally is another. The connection to the city is another. 

Our new affiliation with the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, is another. As the sciences grow bigger and more complex, the nature of one’s partnerships can be an important advantage. Our relationships with Argonne and Fermilab have been big advantages for us, particularly in the physical sciences. We expect the Marine Biology Lab to be another such connection in the biological sciences.

"You are leveraging the University’s capacity to train people in a particular way, to transform their lives, to transform the trajectory of their families, and to empower them to do things across a huge variety of endeavors."

DB If somebody comes to you and says, “I’ve got a large—or small—donation, and I could give it to any of a number of good causes. I could get bed nets for children in Africa so that they don’t get malaria. Why should I give it to a rich institution like the University of Chicago when I could give it to bed nets?”

RJZ There are certainly good causes other than the University of Chicago. I think it depends upon what one wants to achieve. The University of Chicago has a capacity to have an impact on people’s lives: you are leveraging the University’s capacity to train people in a particular way, to transform their lives, to transform the trajectory of their families, and to empower them to do things across a huge variety of endeavors. The same is true in terms of the impact of our research.

DB So a donor is basically banking on the future generalized growth of human capital?

RJZ That’s true. There are two things the University of Chicago is producing. One is students—in other words, human capital. The other is concrete ideas involving the nature of how to think about problems. Both are important, and both are long term.