Zimmer continues open forum series

By Chris Ross

A small gathering of students participated in a casual discussion with President Zimmer on Thursday evening as part of a series of open forums sponsored by Student Government (SG). SG President-Elect Matthew Kennedy and SG President Scott Duncombe moderated the conversation, and Vice President and Dean of Students Kimberly Goff-Crews helped field questions from the audience.

The student presence was diverse, with attending representatives from the ACLUofC, the campus Hillel group, the Graduate School of Business (GSB), the student consulting group Blue Chips, and the U of C First Responder Corps.

Zimmer began the meeting with a brief statement on the organization of the University. “This is really quite a complex operation,” he said, stressing the roles of vice presidents, deans, and directors in handling issues relevant to their particular field.

Such a system, according to Zimmer, allows for many voices in the community to be heard, and creates an appropriate delegation of duties. When pointedly asked his opinion about gender-neutral housing, which administrators are widely expected to approve by the end of the year, Zimmer responded, “My opinion is that that issue should go through the process of decision, and I’ll support that decision.”

Many of the student questions referenced the comprehensive “Update on University Initiatives” e-mail sent to the University community in late March, and Zimmer and Goff-Crews repeatedly cited the letter in their responses. “That letter represents an enormous amount of work from people at many levels,” Zimmer said.

The tone of the meeting, which lasted about an hour and a half, was informal.

One student expressed his feeling that people of faith were disenfranchised on campus. In response, Zimmer said that the U of C strives to foster as open and accepting an atmosphere as possible.

“But inevitably it is something that requires attention—it’s not natural to be open. It requires constant work to maintain itself. But that doesn’t mean we should be complacent,” he said.

Housing, both on- and off-campus, was also a topic of interest among attending students.

“I don’t anticipate a move to a situation where all students live on campus all the time. But it is important to be able to house more students on campus more of the time—that students have that option,” Zimmer said.

Goff-Crews cited housing studies from the past two decades that sought to determine the right balance of on- and off-campus living. “We decided 70 percent was the right number,” Goff-Crews said in reference to administrators’ goal for the proportion of undergraduate students they would like to see in campus housing. “But we do realize that housing is changing. Students might be priced out of housing.”

Zimmer also discussed financial aid and the Odyssey Scholarship challenge at relative length.

“Statistically, there is a lot more concern about loans with lower-income families than with middle-income families,” he said about the specific focus of the Odyssey program, which assists students who would typically be unable to afford a U of C education. “Almost half, 47 percent of undergraduates, receive some form of financial aid. Many are in the Odyssey range, many aren’t.”

When queried about the U of C’s potential shift toward branding itself as an Ivy League rather than a purely intellectual institution, Zimmer steered the conversation toward the particular U of C culture.

“It’s not a matter of abstract prestige; it’s a matter of letting people know the value of what we do here,” said Zimmer.

Attracting professors to U of C is usually not a matter of personal issues or salaries, but because “this is simply an extraordinary place to be a scholar,” Zimmer said.

As the meeting came to a close, students appeared to more or less appreciative of the opportunity to converse with the University’s leader.

“It gives a direct opening to be the president for students—at least there is a channel,” said Ali Baqri, a student in the GSB and a member of the Graduate Business Council. “I’ve been at other schools where I only saw my director at a distance of 20 feet, let alone the president.”