Zimmer optimistic at open forum

Zimmer said the recently announced faculty expansion is only possible because the University made budget cutbacks last year.

By Al Gaspari

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President Robert Zimmer updated students on the University’s finances in a Student Government–sponsored forum Thursday, in a discussion that touched on faculty expansion, Harper Court development, and the University’s endowment.

Zimmer said the cuts were successful, in part due to the wide range of administrators who weighed in.

“We’re a big and complex University. We’ve got literally hundreds of people who are making important decisions, because you want the people to make the decision who are the best at making them,” he said.

The University considered trimming every budget except for financial aid packages. “Offering financial aid is something that reflects the highest values for the University,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer said the recently announced faculty expansion was only possible because the cutbacks ensured the University’s budget would not decrease in the foreseeable future.

He added that the economic standing of the University makes it a good time to begin a faculty expansion, which will be the first in over 40 years. Many peer institutions have instituted hiring freezes or cut back on hiring, putting the University at an advantage for hiring.

“The current situation makes it a good time to be looking for people. And people who are getting their Ph.D.s are looking at the job market, and it is very competitive. And we are in a position to hire these people,” Zimmer said.

The same administrators who determined the cuts will decide where to expand the departments, Zimmer said, and the University will focus on hiring mostly lower-level faculty positions in many departments.

Other projects will also move forward, like Harper Court, despite some developers’ financial difficulties.

“One of the issues around Hyde Park is that the commercial amenities are not outstanding. There’s been a lot of interest from students, from community members to see a better commercial development in Hyde Park,” Zimmer said. Plans for Harper Court include a movie theater, gym, and hotel, as well as a 24-hour diner.

He added that projects like Harper Court and the Logan Arts Center show the University’s commitment to the community as a whole, not just to students. “Our goal is to work with the city to make the area an enjoyable urban environment for the community,” Zimmer said.

If Chicago had won its bid for the 2016 Olympics, the University would have benefited, along with the South Side, from infrastructural improvements, Zimmer said.

“If Chicago got the Olympics, it would offer an opportunity to improve the infrastructure on the South Side, public transportation, roads, further investments in economic opportunities and jobs. With that not happening, there were a number of issues that got brought up of things that could be improved. We’ll see if we can get some of them done.”

Labor activists raised concerns about the University’s relationships with Aramark, which provides service at the dining halls, and HEI Hotels, in which the University owns stock. Zimmer said the University will not be changing its relationship with either any time soon.

Students also asked about the expansion of the study abroad programs, which Zimmer credited to better programs and higher student demand.

“Just a number of years ago, there weren’t that many active study abroad programs. There was a little bit of fear that these programs would undermine the rigor of the university. I think that the Civ programs were a great opportunity to do study abroad, but in a Chicago way,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer also clarified his interpretation of the University’s policy regarding academic freedom. He recently wrote an e-mail to the University community, admonishing protesters who disrupted former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert’s speech in the Reynold’s Club last month.

“It is not necessarily the freedom to speak but the freedom to listen. If you are preventing someone from speaking, you are really preventing others from listening,” he said.

Zimmer will address specific concerns about Ehud Olmert’s visit to campus at a private forum.