Last week, President Zimmer met with editors of The Maroon for a quarterly hour-long meeting. He answered questions on issues from College Council’s (CC) divestment vote to construction-related financial borrowing to development in Washington Park.
Vice President for Campus Life Karen Coleman and Vice President for Communications John Longbrake also attended.
We learned Zimmer has a “pet” theater project, Dean Boyer wasn’t offended by The Maroon calling his presentation to CC last week “anticlimactic,” and Longbrake frequents Yik Yak.
Zimmer reacted briefly to College Council’s call for the University to partially divest from ten major corporations active in Israel, which U of C Divest says are complicit in human rights abuses against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
“I think we have to just be clear, clear about that, that this has absolutely nothing to do with the University’s position, which has been quite clear over time,” Zimmer said. “I don’t think it’s a mystery as to what it is,” he added.
Prior to the divestment debate and vote at the CC meeting, Dean of the College John Boyer and Dean of Students in the University Michele Rasmussen gave updates on College Housing, sexual violence prevention, study abroad, and the Core Curriculum. The Maroon called the presentation prior to the vote “anticlimactic” relative to the subsequent proceedings in an article last week.
“Both Michelle and John saw The Maroon article that called their portion of the presentation ‘anticlimactic,’ and neither of them took it personally,” Coleman said.
“I saw Dean Boyer this afternoon, you know, because he presented before the resolution, and he said ‘I showed up and I thought, ‘Wow, these kids.’ You know he was like, ‘I went to college in the ‘60s, this was pretty impressive.’ And he said ‘it was even better that they weren’t protesting my presentation,’” she said.
Fraternities at UChicago have gone through a tumultuous several months: an alleged sexual assault was reported at Delta Upsilon in October, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) said in March that it was investigating two allegations of sexual assault against members of Psi Upsilon, Buzzfeed publicized racist emails between members of AEPi in February, and Phi Delta Theta’s national governing board voted to suspend its UChicago chapter after “risk management policy violations.”
The Center for Leadership and Involvement (CLI) recently launched a new fund to support non-RSO student initiatives and organizations, including fraternities and sororities. The Student Engagement Fund is meant to level the playing field between Greek Life and non-Greek student groups that are not Recognized Student Organizations (RSOs). The University will allow funded groups to book University spaces 10 times per quarter for meetings and three times per quarter for events.
“Our relationship with Greeks is not unlike any relationship with students in general. Every student has access to resources that are available through the [CLI] and that’s the basis of our relationship with students who affiliate with Greek chapters. So while the University itself doesn’t have any formal affiliation with Greek chapters at large and with their nationals, we support students and their programs and initiatives as they come to us and come to meet with advisors at the [CLI] like we would with any student,” Coleman said.
With respect to discipline, Coleman said that Greek affiliations are “irrelevant” because the University can engage in discipline with any student regardless of whether they are with a Greek chapter.
The University does not officially recognize Greek organizations, however, so while it has the ability to discipline individual students, only “nationals” can discipline entire chapters. Asked whether the University has considered recognizing Greek organizations, Coleman answered: “It hasn’t.”
“The question for us has been can we respond to student behavior whether it takes place within the context of a Greek chapter or anywhere else. And I think we feel that we can. Likewise, can we be engaged with students when it comes to programs and initiatives and outreach and training in the same way with Greeks? … Do we feel like we’ve got the ability to do that? And I think we feel that we do. If we felt otherwise, I think perhaps the conversation might be different. … The vast majority of Greek organizations, we’ve got very strong relationships. But I think if we were to find that we didn’t have those inroads, we’d be in more of a tough spot,” Coleman said.
In early February, The New York Times reported that former molecular biology professor Jason Lieb resigned in late January after engaging in sexual activity with a graduate student on a retreat who was “incapacitated due to alcohol and therefore could not consent.”
In the wake of the article, the University responded with a statement saying that it was working to increase training on “related issues” to faculty members, graduate students, undergraduates, and staff members.
“It was clear what action we took in that particular case. I think the University acted decisively but with all good due process,” Zimmer said on Wednesday. “I think the whole matter is a serious matter and needs to continually be addressed. Ultimately I think there’s a kind of cultural awareness and attention to what’s acceptable behavior and what isn’t acceptable behavior. There are certain things that have to be clear is unacceptable behavior. I think getting all that articulated, clarified, in the air, the question of open discourse about that is an important part of what it is we’re trying to do.”
Prior to coming to UChicago, Lieb worked at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was accused of sexual harassment.
Asked whether there are gaps in faculty hiring background checks, Zimmer only wished to speak in general terms.
“A bit of transparency in these things is useful and important,” he said. “On the other hand, I would say that I think that generally our processes are actually pretty good, and that doesn’t mean they are going to work well 100 percent of the time, but it’s not as if they are not attentive to such matters.”
Coleman said the University is focusing on training and education, the handling of individual cases when they are reported, transparency, staffing, and resources.
Zimmer said that the University is working to increase financial aid in order to expand educational opportunities to more students, especially those who historically have not had access to higher education. In his words, it’s all about helping “talent express itself.”
“If you look at the change in the amount of financial aid that we are providing compared to what it was a decade ago, it’s simply massive. It has been a very deep part of our priorities and will continue to be for exactly the reason I said before which is that there’s a lot of talent that needs opportunity for expression, and it should not be dependent on the fact that your parents have more money than or less money than this person’s parents,” he said. “What kind of criteria if you are an institution like we are should that be for who’s here with an opportunity to develop and express their talent?”
The administration is also looking for ways to create more summer internship opportunities.
“Look not only to [financial aid], but to the type of internship opportunities and so on, which are important for everybody but become more important for people whose families do not have a large network where people are able to somehow plug into a network to have a summer position that advances their opportunities for the future. So we want to be able to do that for students independent of income also.”
Obama Presidential Library
In September 2014, the Barack Obama foundation named UChicago as one of four finalists to potentially house the Obama presidential library. In January 2015, the University proposed Washington Park and Jackson Park as possible sites for the library. In May 2015, the Obama Foundation announced that the library will be built on the South Side of Chicago. In February 2016, adviser to the Obama Foundation Paul Goldberger said in an interview with website Common Edge that the proposed Washington Park site is in the lead.
We asked Zimmer whether he has a preference for either Washington Park or Jackson Park: “No, I had a very distinct preference that it be done on the South Side of Chicago. That was my big preference. Once that got done I said ‘OK, great.’ They’re gonna decide, we don’t even have to think about it, because they’re gonna decide. And after that we’ll be able to think about what to do. I am curious though.”
Garfield Arts Corridor
The University plans to invest in an “arts and culture corridor” on East Garfield Boulevard in Washington Park between South Martin Luther King Drive and South Prairie Avenue, according to the University’s most recent Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the City, which was released in January. The University currently backs the Washington Park Arts Incubator on Garfield.
Zimmer expressed enthusiasm for the incubator, which is directed by Theaster Gates, the director of arts program development at the University. Zimmer said that he would like to see more philanthropy in order to further develop the corridor.
“The goal is ultimately to go through the whole block, and take everything there, redo it,” he said. “I think ultimately the plan is to be able to raise money to be able to do some more things along the block and build as vibrant an arts block there as we can … I think the fact that we’ve actually done something and [Gates] has done it and demonstrated the value makes it easier to raise money for it.”
He added that he would like to see community theater companies find a permanent home in the Garfield Arts corridor.
“I’ll tell you my own pet project which I’ve been wanting to see for a long, long time is that there are a lot of theater companies, a lot of African American based theater companies — but others as well — that cannot afford permanent space.…So the question of how we can create a space that provides an opportunity for multiple places who don’t have their own space…has been something I’ve been very eager to see us do for a long time. So that’s one of the kinds of things we’re thinking about.”
In the wake of the recession of 2008, many universities postponed or cancelled large-scale construction projects. UChicago took the opposite approach. As interest rates on loans dropped, the University capitalized on the historically cheap cost of capital to build at a lower cost, Zimmer said.
Over the past several years, UChicago has demolished, built and renovated at a rapid rate: Campus North Residential Commons, the William Eckhardt Research Center, the Logan Arts Center, Campus South Athletic Field and the renovation of Saieh Hall. To pay for all of it, the University has had to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars, and its credit rating has fallen.
In February, Standard & Poor’s (S&P) downgraded the University’s rating to AA- citing higher debt and operating deficits. Moody’s and Fitch, which are also financial rating services, affirmed the University’s Aa2 and AA+ bond ratings, respectively. All three ratings, however, are classified as “stable.”
The University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) is also working on its share of construction—the Level-I Adult Trauma Center, a new cancer center, a new emergency room —and it, too, has had to take out loans. Moody’s raised the outlook of UCMC’s credit rating from negative to stable, although it flagged long-term debt as an area of possible concern.
“The cost of capital in recent years has been extremely low, and [Board of Trustees’s] view was that if we have to build buildings over the next 10 years, build ’em now. Because you’ll never be able to borrow money as inexpensively as you can now. The actual cost of getting a credit downgrade is right now really quite de minimis. And if you look at just the buildings we’ve done over the last period, since the financial crisis—if you look at the nominal savings on the interest rate for borrowed money against historic averages, it’s about $750 million saved,” he said.
Zimmer added that recent construction has helped the University attract strong candidates for faculty positions.
The new 15-floor residence building, Campus North, which is expected to house 800 students, will open in the fall. The University will also open a third dining hall at the East 55th Street and South University Avenue location.
During his CC presentation last Tuesday, Dean Boyer said that he would like to see 70 percent of undergraduate students in College Housing. On Wednesday, we asked Zimmer for his thoughts.
“The formal goal that we’ve had, which frankly was a bit arbitrary…was to get to 70 percent. I don’t know that there’s anything magic about it, or you know that at 70 percent something happens that doesn’t happen at 69, and nothing new happens at 73. But it was kind of a target and you know we certainly want to get there,” he said.
We asked whether getting to 70 percent would require a change to the college housing plan—perhaps new requirements mandating that students live in college housing for a set number of years.
“I don’t think we know enough yet, because at this point we’re opening North in the fall. We’ll have 800 more beds, and as you know we are closing some of our oldest buildings, so we still come out ahead. But we’ll need to revisit that.” Coleman said. “Right now as we’ve done focus groups with students, what we have learned is that...if we provide housing that is attractive and appealing and wasn’t like, you know, a double with a roommate and a shared bathroom that they would actually stay on campus longer.”
“I think we’ve heard from enough students who’ve said ‘I’d prefer to move on campus and not be dealing with a private landlord, but in order to do that I need, you know, an apartment where I can opt in a lottery to actually live with my friends, and we can have, you know, a bathroom and, you know, three apartments, so that’s how we’re responding.’ And actually Campus North has a percentage of the rooms that are designed for first-years, sort of more double rooms. And it’s designed so that a student could stay there all four years if they wanted to, because by the time they are a fourth-year they would have the ability to move into a very attractive sort of apartment with unbelievably fabulous views once you get in that building.… I mean it’s crazy — I think you want to just sit in that reading room on the 15th floor and just look at the entire view,” she said.
“Hopefully, you look at your book too,” Zimmer joked.