Students from the University’s graduate and undergraduate programs voiced concerns about the University’s financial role in Hyde Park during a lunchtime discussion Monday with University Trustee Mary Lou Gorno (M.B.A. ’76).
“The role [of the Board of Trustees] is first and foremost to be faithful to the mission of the University,” Gorno said, adding that this commitment often forces the Board to reconcile the competing needs of the institution. The University wants to use its resources to attract top-notch faculty and retain them while enabling students with financial needs to attend, she said.
Gorno opened the meeting by discussing how she came to the University of Chicago and what spurred her ongoing commitment as a member of the Board of Trustees. Although her parents were second-generation Americans from a blue-collar background, Gorno said that “the defining characteristic of my family was the respect we had for education.” During her time as an undergraduate at St. Mary’s College—a women’s college in Indiana—Gorno pursued a degree in economics. She said that the weak economics program at St. Mary’s led her to take most of her classes at nearby Notre Dame, then an all-male school.
Gorno received a degree from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism following her graduation from St. Mary’s. But after graduating from Medill, Gorno said that she still felt her education incomplete. “I thought, there [was] one more opportunity I [had] as a young woman to obtain the premier educational experience as I had heard about it, and that was to attend the University of Chicago,” she said. “This was a place where I could feel comfortable and engage in conversations, ideas of the mind, and prepare myself for taking the next step.”
Gorno said her education at the Graduate School of Business prepared her for a career in advertising because “advertising is all about solving a problem.”
One of the main problems Gorno faces as a trustee of an elite research institution is how to distribute the University’s endowment resources to aid projects and initiatives.
Several students praised the $50 million that the University pledged to graduate aid in February of 2007. However, other students decried the plan for excluding students already in the graduate programs from receiving more aid.
Julia Brookins, a sixth-year history Ph.D. candidate criticized the University’s use of its endowment, suggesting that the University should contribute more to funding public projects and initiatives.
“The University’s endowment is not taxed by the federal government, so public schools are radically underfunded, but these elite universities have [a lot of] money,” she said.
Gorno said that the University must navigate many financial considerations when allocating funding to graduate aid.
“When [the Board] looks for funding, we may specifically mention grad aid and grad support…but it really is a challenge looking at the competing claims for limited resources and deciding what is the best use for them,” she said, in response to student concerns.
Fourth-year college student Bobby Zacharias echoed Brookins’s sentiments.
“It’s really important to remember that the purpose of a university can and should be to enrich the whole world and keep that as a big goal so that it does not become a wholly solipsistic enterprise,” Zacharias said. “I just think it’s so easy to become inwardly focused and competitive with our peer institutions and lose sight temporarily of this goal.”
University administrators responded by highlighting the University’s responsibilities to students and faculty—both as an institution of higher education and as a business.
“Like it or not, the University is part of a marketplace, and we need to think competitively,” said University Secretary David Fithian, who also attended the luncheon.
“None of you would want to be here as opposed to another place if we didn’t have cutting-edge facilities and the best faculty. So if you have a dollar to spend, you need to think about how you can do that for students to feel like they are having the best educational time here,” he added.
Nonetheless Gorno emphasized that the purpose of this competition is not in the spirit of one-upmanship, but rather to help the University accomplish its mission of providing higher education with a sense of global responsibility. As several students noted during the discussion, the University sponsors programs like Summer Links—which pairs undergraduate students with alumni for summer internships—and the College’s human rights internships that enable students to contribute to the national and global communities.
“The heart and the mission of the University are really about the students. So the most important thing is to have the conversations with students in rooms like this. This is the type of dialogue that we want,” Gorno said.