April 12, 2002

Showing our initiative

The Chicago Initiative, announced to students on Wednesday afternoon, is a massive fundraising campaign with the purpose of putting the University in the same economic league as that of its academic peers. While our endowment seems substantial, given the miniscule budget the typical undergraduate lives on, other research institutions of comparative reputation have the resources to spend, on average, 2 1/2 times more from their endowment towards academic and professional programs. For non-Econ majors, it's easy to forget that the life of the mind is supported by the milk of capital, and the Initiative is a tangible reminder of this.

As a wise band once wrote, however, "money changes everything." The proposed uses of this money show that it is as much an ideological initiative as a financial one, establishing a new focus for the school in its second century. This demands a close look as the campaign begins, given that recent curriculum changes--such as the dropping of the mandatory B.A. requirement in Political Science and other divisions, and the scaling back of the Western Civ sequence—have caused students to question whether the administration is still committed to what makes the University unique among the schools with which it competes.

Looking back on Chicago's history, the Initiative can be read not as a shift to something foreign, but to traditions that are often neglected in discussions of our grounding in a strict liberal-arts tradition. While the University rightfully prides itself on remaining a bastion of academic investigation in a climate of increasingly commercial academics, an element of our school's pride can be found in research that looks as much outward as it does inward.

While the Manhattan Project makes the headlines and the T-shirts, our tradition of influential research extends beyond the bomb. The Chicago School pioneered the study of sociology, and it would not be immodest to say our accomplishments in economics are unrivaled. Randel's promise that the new science at the boundaries of traditional biology, chemistry, and physics will be the primary focus of the campaign's largesse goes a long way towards instilling confidence that the campaign will keep the University at the forefront of practical research.

The fear that an infusion of unfamiliar amounts of money will threaten Chicago's mission is a valid one, but the Chicago Initiative presents itself as a responsible combination of necessity and integrity. Its success promises to maintain the University as equal to but still distinct from other elite institutions, ensuring that it will provide for its students and the world in which they live.