Zimmer pressed with students’ concerns

By Dasha Vinogradsky

President Robert Zimmer broke bread with a group of 25 undergraduate and graduate students last Friday night at a lively dinner hosted by Student Government (S.G.). The event was a part of ongoing attempts to foster open dialogue between the U of C student body and administration that some critics believe has been conspicuously absent since Zimmer assumed office in 2006.

Kimberly Goff-Crews, vice president and dean of students in the University, and Bill Michel, assistant vice president for student life and associate dean of the College, were also present at the dinner.

In his opening remarks, Zimmer said that the University is poised to become one of the few remaining intellectually serious schools with a rigorous research environment. One of the greatest challenges facing the University, he added, is the need to reconcile the school’s intense intellectualism with practical, real-world applications. He stressed that diversity is necessary for this reconciliation.

Zimmer’s comments were followed by a question-and-answer session in which students voiced concerns about the University’s present and future. Familiar issues dominated the conversation, spanning town–gown relations, the perceived lack of school spirit, underfunding of graduate programs, potential oversights of the University’s Career Advising and Planning Services (CAPS), and the need to incorporate more practical applications to the University’s hallmark theory-based education.

Zimmer directed the conversation particularly toward the issues of community relations and graduate funding. He said that the new Hyde Park Produce location and the upcoming Treasure Island grocery store were positive urban developments and signified Hyde Park’s shift toward retail diversity.

He added that in forming partnerships with the community, the University must remain tactful and open-minded and recognize that the community has much at stake in Hyde Park’s development.

“You can’t do anything without community involvement in Chicago,” he said. “Tensions exist in the abstract, but in reality, we need to pay attention and focus on what the community and University want, because those overlap.”

Zimmer also said that graduate-student funding was a top priority for the administration and that the administration is waiting for the provost’s report on graduate funding before it decides what actions to take. He added that the changes to graduate funding might not reach their final form for several years.

Concerning the role of the Board of Trustees in the University’s new graduate-funding policies, Zimmer said that the University respects the board’s independence and autonomy.

“This Board of Trustees, and I think very wisely, is not a representative body. So, there is no faculty representative, no staff representative, there’s no student representative,” he said.

“This group has a very particular job inside the University,” he said. “There are, as you know, graduate and undergraduate to the board. They are actively engaged in the meetings. The board is not really a legislature; it really functions a different way, in a different light. The larger issue about engagement is a very important one. We are very focused on the issue.”

Some students at the event expressed dissatisfaction with the dialogue and said they found Zimmer’s answers to questions vague and aloof.

“S.G. correctly judged the student body’s interest in better communication with the president, and this dinner was a good idea,” said first-year Andrew Wells-Qu in an e-mail interview. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Zimmer’s answers really satisfied his audience, and it doesn’t look like he took much interest in their questions.”

Wells-Qu added that while he applauds student initiative to facilitate campus dialogue, he felt that University administrators were barricading efforts to bridge the communication gap.

“Everyone had something relevant to say, but the president didn’t really satisfy with his answers. Either they were vague or they deflected to some other invisible authority who might have better information. The main problem of the discussion lay therein—Zimmer is only a president, and he only works with the broadest issues,” he said. “I doubt S.G. can accomplish much in the face of an administration that seeks to circumvent the students rather than accommodate them.”

Nevertheless, other students lauded the administration’s efforts to engage the student body.

Caroline West, a Master’s candidate at the Harris School of Public Policy, said she was impressed by the quality of the conversation.

“Overall, the discussion was very productive, and both President Zimmer and Dean of Students Goff-Crews seemed quite receptive and reflective on what the students had to say. And I must give them both credit for staying nearly an hour beyond the scheduled time,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The two overarching themes—the tension between thinking and doing, and the level of student engagement and pride in the University—were certainly thought-provoking and relevant to both undergraduate and graduate students.”

Law student Michelle Sowemimo agreed.

“The event seemed like a great way to hear a lot of the concerns current students are having, and it gave a chance for students from all different walks of the University life to get together. Topics ranged from career services to alumni donation, with the president addressing everyone’s question with detail,” she said in an e-mail interview.