NEWS

  /  

October 3, 2003

Don Randel, the Maroon, the interview

It's 8a.m. sharp, and Don Randel is waiting for me. He's already had a briefing with his secretary, and, while most members of the University community are sitting at their kitchen tables in bathrobes, pouring milk over breakfast cereal, the president of the University is ready for another day on the job.

Randel is dressed sharply, in a dark suit and blue tie, and he stands to welcome me into his spacious, Ikea-esque office overlooking the main quads.

He became the 12th president of the University on July 1, 2000, according to the plastic cups distributed by the University.

Through most of our discussion Randel seemed at ease, speaking freely and confidently about the state of the University. He offered advice about classes and college life - but without sermonizing. He gave full attention, continuing conversation unflinchingly through several different phone rings. But despite his grace and personal attention, there is no doubt that Don Michael Randel is a very busy man.

---

Isaac Wolf: You've made me get up quite early, and you're forcing me to look good. I normally just wear jeans and a polo.

Don Randel: You're certainly welcome to come dressed more casually, but won't get your degree of wearing a necktie here!

IW: What did you do this summer?

DR: A lot of the same sorts of things I do during the year. It doesn't slow up when the students leave. I'm working on things associated with the campaign, traveling around, speaking with people on behalf of the University.

I'm also working on the budget not for this year but next year. But I did take a little bit of vacation here and there.

IW: Is the face of the University changing? From your perspective, do you get the sense that there is a concerted effort to change the flavor of the University, in terms of both students and fundraisers?

DR: What I would say both with respect to the students and the faculty and fundraising is that there's no effort to change the spirit of the University. I don't think we are looking for a different kind of student but we are trying to make it clear that we are steadily creating the facilities for the student.

I'm a passionate believer that no prospective student should have any doubt about what kind of place this is. A student who can't tell the difference between Brown, Princeton and the University of Chicago shouldn't come here. And nobody should feel bad about that. It's not a matter of telling a different story, but rather of how can we tell our story more effectively.

IW: You're gung-ho on having students study whatever they are interested in. Comment on the idea that many students are pressured into studying a particular field. Has there been any top-down effort to popularize more diverse subjects?

DR: There hasn't really been, no. What I've often said is that the undergraduate time is for taking broad views and to educate one-self broadly. The second thing is that when it comes to a concentration you should choose something you have a passion about intellectually and not because you think it might help you get your next job or because you think it will help a career.

We have such a powerful economics department that I'm not surprised that so many students are thinking of being economics [concentrators], but some students and their families think that there is a clear path to a successful career by studying this, but in reality it's more complicated than that.

IW: Which leads right into my next question, about getting into the job world. Some graduates say that they come out of here knowing a lot about philosophy, sociology - the liberal arts. But they feel short on practical skills, the things you would learn at a state school. With the bad market, how do you juxtapose the idea of studying whatever you want with this need to find a job after graduation?

DR: I would say first of all that students shouldn't leave here without serious exposure to math and science as well as the humanities. We certainly want everyone to have strong quantitative skills. And in modern life one can't get by without a real education in the sciences.

But being well versed in these things is quite different than studying accounting or some more practical kind of skill. I would say that everybody should take an economics class, so that you can read the newspaper more effectively. One ought to have some acquaintance with these technical sorts of things.

About getting your first job, a lot of employers will tell you that they don't want you do study your profession in college. They want to teach you when you get there. They generally just want you to have good quantitative, thinking skills, be a good writer.

I absolutely believe that a liberal arts education is the best for life in the longer term. You have to bear in mind that the best jobs are rarely ever advertised in the newspaper; Reading the want ads probably won't get you too far. You've gotta get out there and make it for yourself.

IW: From your perspective as president, how do you see the University community, sitting up in your high chair. Literally, your office is up here perched right over the quads. When you look out onto the University, what do you see? When you put on a top hat and glasses and snoop around, what do you hear?

DR: Well looking out from my windows I see a lot of roofs. And many of those need repairing.

The most wonderful thing about the University of Chicago is that with the students and faculty alike, there is this passionate commitment to ideas and to debating ideas People are as bright as they are here and they have a good sense of humor, so there's really good wit here. That's the essential thing - the underlying spirit.

IW: Tell me about the recent scholarships that the university awarded in conjunction with the Chicago public school system, and how it applies to the University's commitment to diversity and affirmative action.

DR: It has to deal with trying to increase the diversity of the student body and it also has to do with recognizing the quality of the Chicago Public School system. Even though they are faced with serious problems, there are very talented and bright people who have flourished in that environment.

So part of the new scholarship program is to show our confidence in the Chicago public school system. And part is that we want to send a message to students from urban environments - that they should think more about aspiring to come here, or a place like here. It's not about affirmative action, but about diversity.

IW: So tell me about your view of affirmative action.

DR: We have never had a system of points like at Michigan. We have always been able to look carefully at individual students and think carefully about what kind of a community we are trying to create here.

There are lots of people that get turned down in the admissions process who could almost certainly do the work, but we're in the business of trying to create an interesting community, one where you will learn from your fellow students.

It's important that the campus have as many newspapers as students are willing to put out, theaters to attend. A variety of student-run activities is a very valuable experience. The fact that we live in a community means that it's not only about who can get the good out of Chicago, it's about what are you going to contribute to the community.

IW: So you're coming from the perspective that it's justifiable to trade-off higher test scores for diversity of upbringing?

DR: The mistake about the way in which affirmative action is framed by many people is that we assume that it would be possible to make a list of ten thousand prospective students and order them in some criteria.

Test scores are certainly not the way to do that. You hear the argument that institutions turn down "more qualified" students. But "more qualified" based on what criteria? Using test scores or grades is a very narrow view to take. Test scores correlate very well to family income, so should we just take a list of family incomes to the admissions office? We certainly don't want to do that.

IW: Speaking about rich kids, there have been two very notable national figures who studied at the university of Chicago - Attorney General John Ashcroft and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. With this and the other political issues, such as affirmative action and the war with Iraq, that the University faces, how much does the University get involved in politics?

DR: The University has a longstanding position that it doesn't take political positions as an institution, because what we pride above all else is a free and open debate. So a university that takes a position on a political or international issue would in some way inhibit campus debate.

However, we will take a position on something that directly affects our interest. So in the time of senator Joe McCarthy, we stood up for people whose rights were violated.

In the affirmative action issue, we had been the subject of a complaint¬ówe did not have a lawsuit against us, but it was of a similar nature to the Michigan case. If the institution's interests are directly at stake, we'll take a stance.

We will not take an official stance on an issue like the war with Iraq, but I expect that if Mr. Ashcroft or Mr. Wolfowitz came to campus, we'd have a lively debate.

However, if the PATRIOT Act begins to be enforced in ways that many people fear, then we might take a position. We wouldn't break the law, but advocate to change it. If the day comes when people show up and want to know what books you are reading, then we'll take a stance.

IW: What piece of advice do you wish you had going through college, and is it the same piece of advice you give to students now?

DR: It's no different then and now. When I was in school, I had trouble deciding what to concentrate in right until the last minute of my sophomore year, and that was the best of my experience - having exposure to a wide range of ideas.

You should relish that. I sometimes think that one of the main things we teach at the University is regret. You'll leave here regretting that you could have done more, read more, learned more, had more stimulation in your everyday life. You'll never have this kind of environment again to explore.