September 16, 2021


2:23 p.m.

Remembering Hugo Sonnenschein, the Man Who Reimagined UChicago

Hugo Sonnenschein speaking at the University's 523rd Convocation on June 13, 2015.

Courtesy of Robert Kozloff

Standing before the crowd in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on a rainy October morning in 1993, newly inaugurated University president Hugo Sonnenschein faced the more than 1,400 scholars, dignitaries, and invited guests in attendance for his inauguration and said: “Let us come together bravely, willing to question and challenge all that we do. May the work accomplished here significantly push forward the boundaries of knowledge. May it add to the record of outstanding scholarship and learning at the University of Chicago.”

Sonnenschein, who died at 80 years old on July 15, 2021, questioned and challenged how the University functioned in his work to push it forward. During his tenure as president, which lasted from 1993 to 2000, Sonnenschein embarked on campaigns to strengthen the institution’s finances, upgrade its facilities, and make its image more appealing to undergraduates.

It was the last of those three items—the expansion of the undergraduate College and the reduction of the Core curriculum—that divided the school and its constituents, some of whom believed that the changes pioneered by Sonnenschein strayed from the University’s traditional structure of a large graduate and small undergraduate population. Regardless, his reforms have stood the test of time: The Core remains at its reduced size, and undergraduate enrollment has nearly doubled since Sonnenschein took office.

Sonnenschein is survived by his wife, retired epidemiologist Elizabeth Gunn Sonnenschein; their three daughters, Leah, Amy, and Rachel; and five grandchildren. Plans to honor Sonnenschein’s life are forthcoming, according to an email sent by President Robert Zimmer and Provost Ka Yee Lee to the University community.

“Hugo’s tireless work led to substantial improvements during his time as president, and set the stage for many of the advances the University has made in the decades since. He was a leader of foresight whose achievements will be remembered with deep respect,” Zimmer and Lee wrote.

A distinguished economist, Sonnenschein contributed to the study of multimarket supply and demand functions and helped establish the theory of aggregate demand. He is one of three namesakes of the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu theorem in general equilibrium economics. Sonnenschein was also an editor of Econometrica, an economics journal, from 1977 to 1984.

Unlike many other former University presidents, Sonnenschein had relatively little prior experience in higher education administration. His administrative roles were limited to three years as dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania and two years as provost of Princeton University.

Howard Krane (J.D. ’57) chaired the Board of Trustees from 1992 to 1999 and directed the presidential search committee created to replace Hanna Holborn Gray, the University’s president from 1978 to 1993. The committee felt that the next president should be an outsider—a person unaffiliated with the University.

“After a long presidency, which had been a very distinguished one, it was the feeling of a number of people that you are benefited by a fresh look at things,” Krane said in 1992.

Sonnenschein’s only previous experience at the University of Chicago was a summer spent taking mathematics and poetry courses in 1959, but his was the kind of outside perspective desired by the search committee. Krane said that among the more than 400 candidates nominated for the presidency, Sonnenschein quickly emerged as the favorite. He was officially announced as the University’s 11th president on December 18, 1992, with Gray calling him “the perfect president.”

Sonnenschein’s journey to the University of Chicago took him between the East Coast and the Midwest several times.

Born and raised in New York City, Sonnenschein graduated from the Oakwood Friends School in 1957. He received his undergraduate degree in mathematics from the University of Rochester in 1961. In his final year at Rochester, Sonnenschein decided he wanted to pursue economics in his postgraduate career. He eventually landed at Purdue University, where he received his M.A. in 1963 and his Ph.D. in 1964.

After receiving his Ph.D., Sonnenschein started at the University of Minnesota as a professor of economics before moving on to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Northwestern University, and Princeton University. He also taught as a visiting professor at renowned universities in Colombia, Israel, and France.

But it was his time at the University of Chicago, first as president and later as a professor, that cemented his legacy in the world of higher education.

Sonnenschein arrived at UChicago at a time when it was struggling financially. The University’s real endowment growth between 1958 and 1993 was just 32 percent, while the endowments of most comparable universities had more than doubled over the same period. The school also lagged behind in its investment in educational facilities, fundraising growth, and donations from alumni and faculty.

While previous presidents like Edward Levi and Gray had observed these trends, it was Sonnenschein who took the boldest steps to change them. During the third year of his presidency, the Campaign for the Next Century, a five-year initiative to boost the University’s finances, raised $676 million, exceeding its stated goal of $650 million and setting a new investment record for the school. The University’s $22.7 million budget deficit from the 1993–94 academic year was eliminated within three years, and the endowment grew from $1.2 billion in 1993 to $2.9 billion by the time Sonnenschein’s tenure ended in 2000.

But the large number of graduate students and the small size of undergraduate classes created another financial problem: The cost of faculty wages, about $41.6 million per year, exceeded by several million dollars the revenue generated by undergraduate tuition each year.

The best way to rectify this, Sonnenschein believed, was to attract a greater number of talented students to the University and to encourage those accepted to matriculate. In a letter delivered to the faculty on April 30, 1996, he outlined his mission to increase the size of the College from 3,550 to 4,500 students within a decade, marking a return to the enrollment figures seen in the 1930s. This also departed from the recommendations of a faculty group commissioned during Gray’s presidency that suggested that the College enroll between 3,400 and 3,600 students annually.

“I am concerned that while the University receives the same attention for faculty scholarship as the handful of most outstanding research universities, we are much less familiar to large numbers of prospective students or to the broader public. This must change,” Sonnenschein wrote in his letter.

This proposal left students and faculty conflicted and led to the formation of the Faculty Committee for the Year of Reflection. The committee produced a report analyzing the change in the context of the mission and history of the University, but it ultimately stood by Sonnenschein’s recommendation.

“I think it will allow us to provide a Chicago education to more of the very best students, and to do it in a way that preserves what makes Chicago such a unique institution,” said physics professor and committee spokesperson Melvyn Shochet.

With the University’s finances bolstered and the undergraduate population set to expand, Sonnenschein commissioned then-provost Geoffrey Stone to lead the process of drafting a new campus Master Plan, the fourth in the University’s history. It laid out the plans for constructing the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center and Max Palevsky Residential Commons, a new campus for the Booth School of Business, expanded capacity at the Library, and new facilities for physical and biological sciences research and the University Press. In 1997, the University campus was also designated a botanical garden by the American Public Gardens Association.

All of these improvements, Sonnenschein contended, would improve the experience of the University’s current constituents and make the campus more appealing to prospective students. And it seemed he was right: Applications to the College in the 1998–99 school year rose by 25 percent, and as the school expanded its undergraduate enrollment, its selectivity grew as well.

Even after this reworking of the College, it was a later initiative that Sonnenschein led that would prove to be arguably the most controversial of his tenure: a reduction of the Core curriculum from 21 courses to 18. Sonnenschein and his colleagues hoped that the change would encourage undergraduates to explore a greater variety of electives and study abroad.

The College Council approved the change with a vote of 24–8. In the fall of 1999, when the change was implemented, 95 percent of students opted to pursue their studies under the reduced Core requirements.

But the reduction of the Core curriculum drew ire from certain quarters of faculty, students, and alumni, with several groups rallying in opposition. These groups included the Concerned Friends of the University of Chicago, a group of alumni who pledged to withhold financial contributions to the University until the change was reversed; the Scholars for the University of Chicago, a group of UChicago–affiliated intellectuals who sought to block the change; and 74 faculty members who expressed their concerns directly to the Board of Trustees. A group of 1,700 students also participated in a “fun-in” on campus on April 20, 1999, satirizing Sonnenschein’s attempts to soften the University’s austere reputation.

On June 4, 1999, Sonnenschein announced that he would step down from the presidency at the end of the following academic year. The firestorm brewing around him had simply become too strong to endure.

In his resignation letter, Sonnenschein wrote, “I have come to feel that it is time for another president, one who is less a symbol of change and who has less reason to initiate change, to carry the momentum forward.”

According to The New York Times, opponents of Sonnenschein suggested that the Board urged Sonnenschein to resign, having grown tired of the complaints levied against him.

After stepping down from the presidency, Sonnenschein became the Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and the College. He received an honorary doctorate from the University in 2002 and remained a South Side resident until his death.

Ahead of his accession to the presidency, Sonnenschein recounted that several graduates had spoken with him or written letters to him, all of them lauding the institution’s educational value.

“They come charging up to me and they tell me about their love of the place—how special it is, how they got a Chicago education. They tell me it was a real education, not a pretend education.”

Some felt that Sonnenschein’s reforms diminished what made that Chicago education so real and special. In an interview published by The University of Chicago Magazine shortly before Sonnenschein left office in 2000, he acknowledged the impact those decisions had on the University community.

“Although some things I’ve done have been controversial, in the mail I get and in much of the rhetoric I hear, there’s conviction that the changes were right. There is, however, the feeling that they’ve been painful. It is painful to look at a place that represents something so special, to feel its fragility, and to say we will have to make some changes. The fear is that the changes will affect the qualities that make the place so special. I am convinced that the changes we have undertaken, rather than altering the character of our University, will help us retain our special qualities in the very long run.”