November 7, 2006

Zimmer looks to University's future in faculty letter

President Robert Zimmer recently wrote a letter to the faculty soliciting input on the future of the University, including potential changes in both undergraduate and graduate admissions. The five-page letter was sent October 19, less than a week before Zimmer s inauguration, and it built on faculty response to a similar letter the president wrote in July.

Zimmer addressed the University’s need to maintain a prominent role in academic research through cooperation among schools and divisions. He also suggested exploring external opportunities and exemplified the University’s roles at Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratories as assets that could “add to [the] capacity” of the U of C.

Zimmer described students, faculty, and research as “agenda-setting” and emphasized the significant changes and advancements in science that the University’s research programs must continue to address. He covered other academic fields, including the arts, and said the new art center, which is currently in the planning stage, will help incorporate the arts into the curriculum.

Throughout the letter, Zimmer posed questions to the faculty, several of which tackled the difficulties of marketing the University to the public and to prospective students. He asked how the University could better attract a “broader and deeper pool of the most appropriate students.”

Ted O’Neill, dean of Admissions in the College, said that seeking such a pool simply meant attracting a larger number of students. O’Neill said that to achieve this, “what works, basically, is more general awareness of U. Chicago.”

This will entail increased and repeated mailings to qualified potential students, more travel around the country and abroad by the admissions staff, and better advertising of the University’s new academic programs, according to O’Neill.

One of Zimmer’s suggestions for enticing the best pool of students was to increase the amount of financial aid given to graduate students in the humanities and social sciences. Zimmer acknowledged the University is not competitive with other schools in supporting its graduate students, whom he described as crucial to preserving the University’s intellectual rigor.

Benjamin Moll, a Ph.D. student in economics, agreed that the University is not competitive in terms of financial packages, saying that friends who attended other top schools like Harvard University received much more aid.

Moll received no financial aid during his first year as a graduate student and was forced to pay full tuition. Though his first-year grades earned him a full scholarship for the remainder of his Ph.D. program, he said that most of his classmates would not have come to the school without financial aid.

“I think the University loses a lot of smart potential students because of [the lack of financial aid],” said Moll, who attributes his own choice to the fact that the U of C was academically the best offer.

Alejo Costa, another Ph.D. student in economics, sacrificed a financial aid package 20 percent larger to attend the U of C. Although he describes the financial aid for individual graduate students as “decent,” Costa said that the package might leave the many students that come with families feeling “a bit too constrained.”

Zimmer ended his letter with a section titled “Continuing This Conversation,” in which he asked for suggestions from the faculty to “help identify a set of University priorities.” He emphasized the rolling nature of any potential changes and called the faculty feedback “an important first step” in naming the University s principal concerns.

Zimmer was not available to provide further comment on his letter.