September 18, 2004

An e-epistolary interview with President Randel

Dear President Randel,

Sorry for taking so long to get back to you—I've been busy traveling. I think it would be a nice addition to the orientation issue if there were an interview with you, so if at all possible, let's try to make it happen. Hopefully you can take a few minutes to answer the following questions via email, and we'll run that as the interview. Thanks in advance for your time, and I hope your summer also has been restorative and invigorating!

How has your summer been? What have you done to relax from the academic year stresses?

The summer has been busy, with somewhat more University travel than I had expected. But I managed to spend some time in Upstate New York, where there was time to read, listen to music, make some music, play with my telescope, play with grandchildren, and stare off into space.

What advice would you give returning students to relax before the academic year starts? Do you think formal, highfalutin internships are better than taking a lazy summer, such as scooping ice cream?

I hope that everyone's summer was both restorative and stimulating. Presumably the life of the mind is a 12-month activity. But that doesn't necessarily mean doing precisely the same things in summer as one does during the academic year or doing things with the same intensity.

What changes will we see around campus this year?

Major changes will include the openings of the building for the Graduate School of Business and of the Comer Children's Hospital. We may not see any major new construction projects started this year, but planning for new projects will be intense. Otherwise, we will be doing lots of the same kinds of things that we do every year and that make this the greatest university in this or any neighboring galaxy. Of course, the first-years will be smarter than ever.

How much progress has been made on the CHICAGO Initiative? (From the University's website, it appears that donations have spiked over the summer months—why is this, and will this continue through the year?)

Progress has been good, though there is still much to be done. We must continue to work especially hard at achieving our goals for student financial aid, both for undergraduates and graduate students, and for endowed faculty positions. In most years there is something of a spike just before the end of the University's fiscal year on June 30 and just before the end of the calendar year (i.e., the tax year).

Are recent graduates of the College donating on a comparable level with those from other top Universities? If not, what can be done on-campus to improve the giving rate of future graduates?

Our participation rates in giving have in general been lower than those of some institutions with which we compete. But recent classes have been doing steadily better, and the Senior Class Gift efforts of recent years, thanks in part to challenge grants from alumni Peter May and Bob Halperin, have been quite successful. It is certainly important to help current students understand that tuition pays for only a part of the education that the University provides and that the education of all students, especially those who receive financial aid, is made possible by the generosity of others.

This week the US News and World Report came out with its new College rankings. As you've probably heard, we came in 14th (in a three-way tie with Cornell and Johns Hopkins). Any comment?

The polls never fail to be exasperating in some degree, though less so when we rise in them, of course. The fact is that they are primarily intended to help sell magazines, and you can't sell magazines if the polls say more or less the same thing from one year to the next. Colleges and universities don't really change that much from one year to the next. Hence, the formula for making the calculation needs to be changed a bit every year. And the views of the academic community on strictly academic quality never count for more than about 25-30 percent or the total. In any case, no single institution could be said to be the No. 1 best for all students or the 14th best. A few years ago, Cal Tech was No. 1. A great institution, no doubt. But of what real relevance was that to the overwhelming majority of undergraduates, who do not concentrate in the sciences or engineering? And even the undergraduate interested in the sciences might think about the benefits to be derived from studying science in a university that also has some of the nation's leading social science and humanities departments. For the right student, Chicago is the best place there is, but it is not the right place for very many others, no matter what the polls say. Nobody should feel bad about that.

The autumn buzz of selecting and applying to college has recently begun. What message would you send to bibliophiles considering (or perhaps not considering) the College?

Think hard about what might be the best college for you yourself, and never mind most of the buzz. If you believe that the heart of an education ought to be a challenging commitment to developing your mind in the company of others who share that commitment, then Chicago is your kind of place. There are hardly any other places where that spirit is so manifest. This is an education that lasts a lifetime because it is about the power of ideas. It also incorporates the best kind of fun there is.

How does the University's aggressive real estate and construction campaign— dubbed the Master Plan and including the creation of a large undergraduate dorm south of the midway—fit into your vision for the future of the University?

It is important that the University be a supportive community for all of its students and that it attend to the many aspects of learning and growing that do not take place exclusively inside the curriculum. For that reason I and many others believe that it would be desirable to house a somewhat larger fraction of the undergraduates on campus. Simultaneously, we must support our commitment to the highest quality academic programs by providing them with facilities of appropriate quality. This means libraries, laboratories, classrooms, faculty offices, spaces for the arts, and a good deal else, such as steam and chilled water, about which we do not often speak.

The UCPD has often been criticized as being racially insensitive, and there was an especially visible case last year of a black student claiming he had been abused by the UCPD. Has there been a sweeping inquiry into the possibility of racism in the University's Police Department (UCPD)? What, if anything, can be done to improve the image of the UCPD?

I do not for a minute believe that the UCPD is racially insensitive and that "a sweeping inquiry" is called for. What is called for is a thorough investigation of any allegation of wrongdoing by the UCPD or any other office of the University. More than that, what is called for is for every member of the University community to be deeply sensitive to issues of race and to act accordingly, for racism in all of its forms, both large and small, continues to be a scourge worldwide.

Did you see Obama speak at the Democratic National Convention? What were your thoughts when you saw him on stage or read about his speech?

I watched Mr. Obama's speech with great interest and pleasure, and I thought it the best at either convention. He will be a distinguished addition to the U.S. Senate.

Any other thoughts of the upcoming election?

Vote. This is very serious business.