February 20, 2007

Zimmer: Who is he, and what does he want for the University? Zimmer's "reforms" are misguided

Several issues ago, the Maroon reported that President Zimmer was planning to make the University of Chicago more competitive with its “East Coast competitors” through several “major reforms” (“Zimmer Projects Major Reforms at Faculty Meeting,” 1/23/07). Zimmer lamented, “The life of a student in the College is not so excellent,” and that something like the Uncommon Application was discouraging prospective students because it established the University of Chicago as a “work-intensive environment.” Most notably, he declared, “We must ask ourselves whether we want to be a significant player or a boutique institution.” While Zimmer doubtless believes that such policies will improve the University, I believe that his goals and opinions run contrary to the prevailing opinion of the College, and what he advocates would actually undermine what makes Chicago such an elite university.

What is wrong with the perception of our University as a work-intensive environment? I grant that many students here, including myself, routinely complain about the College’s burdensome workload. However, I also feel it is not only completely necessary, but also extremely beneficial. Is it really better for college students to be given an easy, grade-inflated break, as many students at our “East Coast competitors” are given? Or is it much more important that a college education challenge students’ academic and intellectual capacities? Post-secondary education creates human capital because graduating students have been equipped with indispensable skills and a diverse base of knowledge. A less intense workload will only reduce the capital students leave the U of C with.

Why is Zimmer lamenting that Chicago has “half the number of applicants as some of our east coast competitors”? It may be true that we are alienating perfectly qualified students with the Uncommon Application, but that also means all the students who still apply here do so because they are committed to the University enough to bother filling out the Uncommon App. It’s not like past Chicago applicants could just check a box on an online form at commonapp.org. Such ease of application is almost certainly responsible for the huge number of applications our peer institutions boast.

While Zimmer believes we can preserve the spirit of the Uncommon App in a supplement to the Common App, another important aspect of the Uncommon Application is that it forces prospective students to be sure that the University of Chicago is right for them. Because Chicago students are self-selecting, the culture at the University is quite unified. By sharing the same workload and an interest in the learning process itself rather than as a means to an end, the student body at the University of Chicago is not infected with the kind of cutthroat, grade-grabbing nonsense that affects the classes at some of our “East Coast competitors.”

Zimmer threatens that we have the potential to degrade to a “boutique institution.” Is that necessarily a bad thing? “Boutique” implies a certain degree of specialty and exclusivity; the University of Chicago specializes in delivering a liberal arts education, and it is exclusively available to those who feel they would benefit from such an education. While Zimmer seems to feel the eccentric character of the University is holding us back, though Chicago has historically been ahead of the curve. When Chicago decided to abandon the football team because the administration judged that it was affecting the quality of the University’s education, the University was ridiculed. Now debate on college admissions can hardly escape talk of how athletic recruiting and “financial aid” are being abused. Economic policy today is largely built upon the policies Chicago professors once advocated in isolation. Why should Chicago be changing itself to be more like the rest when it has always been most influential as a maverick?

But where does Zimmer come from when he says that life here is not excellent? Is the public face of the University actually giving credence to the stereotype of Chicago as a place “where fun comes to die”? One’s college experience is much more dependent on what one makes of it rather than the school one attends, and if a student does want to do more than just study here, the University of Chicago offers more than enough opportunities to become involved. These activities, more so than my coursework, are the reasons why I sometimes feel overburdened or overstressed, but such a tendency to get over-involved is endemic at every university, not just Chicago. If what qualifies as an “excellent” college life is a cakewalk, then I would not be at the University of Chicago, and neither would many of my peers who want to be challenged.

Some of Zimmer’s goals are laudable. Synergy between various graduate departments is definitely desirable, and maybe an engineering school would improve the quality of research and education here. However, I believe that Zimmer is misperceiving the problems the University is having, and his prescriptions, as I understand them, will undermine rather than improve the University of Chicago.