February 13, 2007

Zimmer pressed by campus input

As part of a campaign to improve communication with students, President Robert Zimmer held an open forum on Thursday in the McCormick Tribune Lounge.

Speaking to an overflowing audience, Zimmer addressed the notable changes that have already occurred during his tenure, and he pledged to do a better job incorporating students in planning for major initiatives. Effective communication was one of the top-10 issues that Zimmer included in his vision for the University.

“Communication is exceedingly important in general. When I came I talked to all sorts of groups to make sure that we were adequately communicating with every constituency of the University,” Zimmer said. “All of these communications are very important. They should be active, they should be engaged, and they should be transparent. That’s the general approach we want to take, but to be honest, we were looking for the right vehicles to do it.”

Until now, communication has been a significant challenge for the administration, and Zimmer appears to be trying to talk to students and improve the image of his presidency. Still, dissatisfaction lingers over the perceived lack of student input in major changes announced this year, and students shot rapid-fire questions at Zimmer regarding the switch to the Common Application for College admissions, the decision not to divest University assets from Sudan, and the creation of a $50 million aid package for graduate students.

Anne Harrington, the graduate student liaison to the Board of Trustees, called the aid package “very admirable,” though she faulted the decision making process.

“I’m concerned about how it came about, who you talked to in making this decision,” Harrington said. “I was concerned because I was under the impression that this decision was being made without student input.”

Harrington, who has been working to gain health insurance for graduate students since last spring, said she was repeatedly “stonewalled and given the slippery slope argument.”

Gary Lee, a representative of the PanAsian Solidarity Coalition, expressed similar concerns about a disconnect between the student body and the administration in addressing issues of diversity.

One student attempted to sum up his feelings about Zimmer’s address in a single sentence.

“I’m afraid what you’ve told us is that you don’t have any answers to our questions,” he said.

Student comments at the open forum and in interviews show that the Zimmer administration has been perceived as standoffish and disconnected in its first few months.

The revelation of the switch to the Common Application early in fall quarter came as a surprise, and many students felt left out of the process.

Zimmer said the character of the Uncommon Application would be maintained in the new format and that applicants to the College would still be challenged by the U of C’s quirky questions. Administrators did not communicate this point effectively when the switch was revealed, causing confusion among students, Zimmer said.

“There was a whole lot of misunderstanding around it,” he said. “The communication was a mistake, not the decision.”

Additionally, members of Students Take Action Now: Darfur (STAND) have repeatedly complained about a lack of involvement in the controversial divestment decision. Before announcing that the U of C would not divest from companies doing business in Sudan, the administration repeatedly extended decision deadlines. Administrators have said that a firm deadline could not be set because of the infrequency of meetings of the Board of Trustees, the group that ultimately made the divestment decision.

Meeting with the Maroon last week, Zimmer said the administration struggled to communicate information to the student body during his transition to the presidency.

In recent weeks, however, Zimmer has become a more prominent presence on campus. He addressed STAND activists outside the administration building, spoke at a lunch for student leaders interested in Teach for America, held the open forum, and delivered a lecture entitled “Thinking About the University” in Max Palevsky Residential Commons last night.

The open forum was widely publicized, with an e-mail notification sent to every student in the University and a full-page advertisement taken out in the Maroon.