In an effort to bolster communication between students and University administration, President Robert Zimmer met with 20 U of C students, selected by Student Government to represent different academic divisions, for a two-hour discussion Wednesday afternoon. At the event, Zimmer responded to student questions and input, while inquiring into their own roles in shaping the institution.
The students included a member of the College Council, an Off–Off Campus improv comedian, a fraternity president, an anthropology Ph.D. student, and a first-year in the law school, among others. Vice President and Dean of Students Kimberly Goff-Crews and Assistant Vice President for Student Life Bill Michel also attended.
During the Q-&-A session, students sought information about the University’s long-term plans for undergraduate housing, graduate student life, diversity, and safety.
Attendees also raised concerns about the University’s financial aid programs. The University, Zimmer said, is working to permanently endow the Odyssey Program, which replaces student loans with grant money for students from low-income families. The program currently guarantees funding for the next 15 years.
“Commitment to financial aid on the part of the University is absolute,” Zimmer said.
Participants also broached the recent debate over whether implementing a proposed molecular engineering program would endanger the University’s theoretical academic focus. Administrators are still considering the program, Zimmer said, adding that it would be distinctive for its inclusion of the College’s Great Books liberal arts curriculum.
One student pointed to the lack of communication among different academic departments and disciplines at the University, and suggested the need for more interdisciplinary programs. Another suggested offering more introductory classes for non-majors that would bridge collaborative gaps between disciplines.
Some also raised safety concerns and issues concerning community relations.
Zimmer emphasized short-term and long-term approaches that the University has initiated to improve campus safety and to improve the University’s relationship with the surrounding communities.
“The communities of Woodlawn and north of 47th have done a tremendous amount of work,” he said. “And we’ve tried to help them, recognizing that this is their community.”
Zimmer also named numerous neighborhood education, housing, healthcare, and employment programs in which the University has been involved, but he did not expand on them.
Housing was another concern that some students felt deserved further administrative consideration. One student suggested that the current housing system is “self-segregating” and that the options outside of the housing system are mediocre.
Another student suggested that the University should institute themed houses and co-ops where student can create more meaningful senses of community.
Goff-Crews said that for many students, campus student organizations and spiritual groups provide this sense of belonging.
Some students dug deeper, questioning the very nature of the University and its purpose.
Zimmer assured students of his firm belief that the University of Chicago has had a direct influence on the world, mentioning the University’s world-renowned economics department and the community involvement of the School of Social Service Administration.
“The University’s record in making very concrete and tangible contributions is very powerful,” he said.