The State of the Union address is a notoriously vapid political ritual. The president boldly declares that America is doing great and that we need to continue supporting education, freedom, and sunshine. U of C president Robert Zimmer seems to have found something that he likes in this spectacle. His “Update on University Initiatives,” e-mailed to all students and staff on March 21, offers only a cursory and superficial analysis of two of the most pressing and controversial issues facing the U of C: graduate student aid and town–gown relations.
The letter is a summary of a presentation Zimmer recently gave to the Board of Trustees, and at times it does provide serious, substantive proposals. For instance, Zimmer gives compelling reasons for the creation of an innovative molecular engineering program. Plans to expand the faculty and open a lobbying office in Washington, D.C. are also encouraging.
However, the thoughtfulness and planning Zimmer brings to these topics is conspicuously absent from his discussion of graduate aid and the University’s role in Hyde Park. Given the controversies surrounding both, it is reasonable to expect Zimmer to dedicate a considerable amount of time and energy exploring them. Instead, he resorts to bromides. “We need to continue investing in graduate students,” he writes, failing throughout the e-mail to even acknowledge the ongoing row over the University’s funding for current students.
He offers more platitudes in discussing community relations, declaring that the University should promote economic development in Hyde Park, but with nary a mention of how it will apply this determination to, for example, converting the former Doctors Hospital into hotels or steering the economic development of 53rd Street.
Anyone can make vague statements about the importance of funding graduate students and promoting economic development in Hyde Park, but the real test of a president’s leadership is how he resolves divisive issues. Zimmer is expected to provide insight and critical thinking, not clichés, when approaching controversial topics. He needs to convert his broad goals into concrete discussions and proposals, not merely continue to reassure us that the University is determined to be a good neighbor and help its students.
It is admirable that Zimmer finds it important to keep students abreast of major developments throughout the University, but this is nothing more than an empty gesture until he proves willing to bring clarity and direction to the issues that divide the campus.