April 4, 2016

Uncommon Interview: New Provost Daniel Diermeier

Daniel Diermeier, the Emmett Dedmon Professor and the dean of the Harris School of Public Policy, was named as the university's next provost on March 31, 2016.

Daniel Diermeier, the Emmett Dedmon Professor and the dean of the Harris School of Public Policy, was named as the university's next provost on March 31, 2016.

Courtesy of Robert Kozloff

The University announced last Thursday that Daniel Diermeier, currently dean of the Harris School of Public Policy, will replace Eric D. Isaacs as Provost as of July 1. The Maroon spoke with Diermeier about his background and University policy last Friday.

Chicago Maroon (CM): I noticed that you have a master’s and doctorate in philosophy. Can you tell me more about the value of a liberal arts education, particularly for undergraduates, as well as the highlights of your own undergraduate experience?

Daniel Diermeier (DD): I started getting interested in philosophy in high school...and I’m German by origin, so I started getting engaged with that in my last two…three high school years, and really got excited and interested in it, and then decided to do this as my undergraduate major at University of Munich, and actually went to graduate school for one year at the University of Southern California in the Ph.D. program. [I was] very passionate about it, loved it, started out studying classical philosophy….I shouldn’t say that… classical German philosophy. So, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger and so forth, and then got interested in analytical philosophy a little bit later, and that was really the reason for me to go to the United States.

So, I think that a liberal arts education is a wonderful, extremely valuable pursuit, because what it does is it forces you to think rigorously, and it forces you to really engage with difficult, challenging problems in a genuine way. Where there are no shortcuts and where you have to invest the time and the effort to get to the bottom of things, and, you know, in the philosophical discourse that sometimes only means that you’re going to clarify the problems that you thought you had understood, and get a new layer of understanding. But I think the discipline, and the ability to not take the shortcuts… to do the hard work, is something that a liberal arts education really can engender, and I find this as a formative experience—has served me extremely well, throughout the rest of my career.

CM: From the beginning, the U of C aimed to combine the American college with the German research university. Can you tell me more about whether you think that intended combination remains true today, as well as more about any German-specific theories of education that you subscribe to?

DD: I’m glad that you bring this up. The University of Chicago is one of the only universities, maybe the university in the United States, that has been most influenced by the German model, going back to [Wilhelm von] Humboldt’s original concept of what a university should be: it’s really a community of scholars and students engaging in intellectual discourse and conversation and learning, and I think that is one thing that has certainly influenced the founding principles of the University of Chicago deeply. So, I would say that these principles are still very much alive. I think one of the things that’s particularly prominent when you think about the culture of the University of Chicago is that it’s really the place where ideas matter… and where you are expected to engage in intellectual debate, whether you are studying music or are studying philosophy or are studying astrophysics, and your status doesn’t matter much, your experience doesn’t matter much, your age doesn’t matter much. What matters is whether you have a deeper insight, and whether you can push the conversation forward—where we challenge each other in the pursuit of knowledge, and of understanding. That is a unique feature of the University of Chicago, it is distinctive from other universities, and when you look at the reality, unfortunately in many German universities now, that particular culture has often atrophied, and has been difficult to sustain, in large part because of the expenses of the universities. They’re much bigger now, they’ve had structural reforms and so forth, there’s a whole set of reasons for that, but in practice, it has been very challenging for German universities to maintain that culture and maintain that idea. So, ironically, you’ll see a lot more of these values of rigorous inquiry being present at the University of Chicago right now than you would find it at most German universities.

CM: But it seems as though the liberal arts education, as well as the institutions that continue to provide it, are increasingly under attack. Since 1980, several books about the state of American higher education at the U of C and other “elite” institutions, such as William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep and Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, argue that we are becoming more diverse on a surface level, i.e. admitting more women and persons of color, but becoming a bland morass of pre-professional 18 through 22-year-olds. How do you respond to such a charge?

DD: I think that there is an interesting question, and I think that fundamentally, it’s an empirical question, of whether this is the case… that the increased diversity of the student body goes hand-in-hand with increased homogeneity, in terms of the underlying approaches, or ways of thinking about it. So, I’m not sure that we have a lot of evidence for that that goes beyond observation at this point. I think that the role for us at the University is to create an environment where we encourage diverse opinions to be expressed freely, to engage in intellectual debate, and our responsibility as a university is to create structures and a platform for where undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and so forth can engage, and exchange ideas, and engage in this type of intellectual debate, where respect that there are diverse opinions, and we value that because it drives the intellectual engagement forward. So I think that it’s important for us as universities to be very careful and deliberate about creating these types of environments, these types of structure, that the diversity of points of views can become real, and we don’t get unintended homogeneity that these and other critics are talking about.

CM: On that note, I am interested in your thoughts on the recent Report of the Committee of Free Expression, as its authors explicitly and intentionally left out a definition of “ideas.” A few weeks ago, a protest group interrupted an event at the Institute of Politics (IOP), and Director Axelrod condemned the interruption as an impediment to free expression. Some students, however, argued that the interruption was a political act that falls under the umbrella of free expression. More broadly, what are your thoughts on of what constitutes an “idea” in intellectual debate?

DD: You’re going through the philosopher in me again. I think that’s exactly what we should debate, you know, we should have these debates, we should have these discussions about concepts like that—what constitutes an idea, how do we think about creating the structures for that… that encourage free discourse, and I think the types of conversations that are going on on-campus around those types of issues—that’s exactly what should happen. These are tough issues, they’re not easy, they’re difficult...and the fundamental principles that we are committed to is to providing the platform for free ideas can be expressed, people can have different views for what that entails, where the boundaries are drawn, but our job as a university is to maintain those values and to make sure that they are part of the educational and scholarly reality that happens on campus every day.

CM: Moving more towards administrative policy, I noticed that Provost Isaacs has initiated several new programs with respect to the University’s adjudication of sexual assault, which is a big topic in campus activism here, as well as in national conversations about higher education. His initiatives included the UMatter website and reporting form, as well as mandatory training for all members of the U of C community on this subject, effective July 1. Can you talk a bit more about your plans regarding the U’s sexual assault policy, as well as what directives regarding sexual assault policy, if any, should come from the federal government?

DD: I think that, you know, the University, we have commitment, and it’s a crucial commitment, to creating an atmosphere and an environment of diversity and inclusion that allows our students in particular to engage in their pursuits in a way that is not threatening, and allows them to engage it in an inclusive environment.

Now what the specifics are on that… my job over the next three months is really to learn a lot, to talk a lot to faculty, to hear from the students, to look at what the reports are, to understand these policies, to think about the broader context. I have the great fortune that we have a transition period here of three months, which allows me to familiarize myself with all the details of University policies and positioning and precedents and so forth in great detail, and my job over the next three months is really to learn as much as I can about that, so, then, when on July 1 I’ll officially take over the position as Provost, I can do this with a deep understanding on the culture, the different points of views, and the various policy debates that are ongoing on campus, so we can make progress in creating [an] as inclusive and open environment as we can.

CM: Can you also tell me more about your responsibilities at the Harris School in the next few months? I know that there are a lot of recent initiatives and fundraising campaigns there.

DD: The way it works now is that there are, fundamentally, kind of three phases here. What will happen in the next three months is that Provost Isaacs will continue serving as Provost of the University, and I will continue to serve as the Dean of the Harris School. In the meantime, I will also spend a significant amount of time, as I mentioned before, talking to faculty, talking to students, familiarizing myself with some of the broader administrative issues that are pertinent to the role, and that I didn’t have to deal with as Dean so far. Then, the second phase is that we will select an interim dean, that will guide the [Harris] School for the next academic year, and during that time we will engage in an international search for the next dean. Obviously, that will be something that I will be heavily involved with. So, basically, the goal for the next three months is to continue to execute our strategic plan. As you correctly point out, there were a lot of initiatives that were started in the last two years. These initiatives are in great shape. You mentioned the fundraising, you mentioned the new building—the Keller Center [now New Graduate Residence Hall], the intended new home for the Harris School—there’s various curricular activities, there’s activities in terms of student life, there are faculty that we want to bring onboard… there’s a whole variety of different things.

But my sense is that most of them are well-defined, they are in good shape, there’s a momentum...and so the goal for the next three months, and certainly for the year, when we have an interim dean, is to make sure that we continue to execute and implement these strategic initiatives. I’m confident that we can do this, we have a great team here—great team of administrators, great team of faculty, a line behind common vision—so our goal will be to maintain the momentum. I will be helpful first in my role as dean, and then in my role as Provost to make sure that this continues.

CM: Can you just clarify what you meant with respect to the interim dean search? I didn’t hear if you said “internal” or “international.”

DD: No, no, sorry. The interim dean will be a search that takes place within the University, and we will be starting a search for the next permanent dean, and that will start in the Spring Quarter, but will take place mostly in the next academic year. And that will be an international, so… all we mean by that is that we’re going to look globally at what the appropriate next permanent dean for the Harris School is. Does that clarify it? So, there’s three steps, so to speak. First, I’m continuing for three months, then we’re putting an interim dean in, and then there will be a permanent dean that will start, hopefully taking office starting the academic year 2017.

CM: It still seems as though there was quite a lot going on at Harris when the University announced Provost Isaacs’ promotion, and you accepted the Provost post. Can you tell me a bit more about the milieu in which the University contacted you about the position?

DD: Provost Isaacs is moving into a new role—this is an executive vice president role, overseeing the national labs, the research infrastructure, and so forth. This is a role that was elevated from a vice presidential role. He will take this over by July 1, and at that point, that meant that there was a vacancy in the Provost position, and President Zimmer then engaged in discussions internally about filling the role—the usual process that would take place when there is a vacancy. I met some of the University officers, and then I was selected, and then now I’ve had quite an intense 36 hours.

CM: Going back to international themes: something that I’ve noticed as a trend in U of C enrollment is the increasing share of international students, particularly from mainland China. Recently, I was talking with International Communications director Sarah Nolan, and she said that the University aims to draw more students from certain countries in Africa, although she didn’t specify which ones. Do you have goals for international enrollment as Provost?

DD: That’s another thing that I will spend some time on in the next three months, is to try to understand from a student point of view, from an admissions point of view, what are the plans that are in place, how are the various different divisions, how is the college [and] the schools thinking about this, because global reach and connection with various countries is a very important part of us. Global engagement is something that the University has pursued over the last years with the centers in Delhi and Beijing, for example. But what the specifics are—the specifics will be something that we will discuss over the next three months, so we can think about what the right priorities are for the University moving forward.

CM: Can you tell me a bit more about your plans for fundraising goals and strategies, and, again thinking more broadly, the point at which the endowment would be valuable enough so that fundraising would no longer be necessary?

DD: That’s a great question. That’s another philosophical question, right? I think what we have to do is, we always have to think about what our ambitions are as a University, what are the goals that we want to accomplish, and then how do we think about providing the financial resources for that. So, what that means… I don’t think there’s a concrete number or something, what that means. But thinking about what the long-term strategies are with respect to fundraising… these are good questions to have, and it’s been my pleasure now to think not just from the point of view of the Harris School, but to think about it from the [perspective of the] whole University is something I very much look forward to.

CM: I think undergrads would be interested in reading like a Provost. Which periodicals do you read or subscribe to?

DD: You want to read like a Provost? OK, so...newspapers: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, every day. I also read The New Yorker regularly, and I also like The Economist. And then I also read some German papers from time to time.

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