“A fait accompli”:
How the central administration has consolidated power and deflected dissent at the University of Chicago
January 29th, 2020

During his fourteen year tenure, President Robert Zimmer and his administration have transformed the University of Chicago.

The College has grown from 4,000 to 6,500 students, and has soared in coveted U.S. News rankings—from 15th place nationally the year Zimmer took office to top-six today. Fundraising has almost tripled during his tenure, according to the Financial Times. Zimmer has overseen the opening of new residential complexes, study-abroad programs, and a school of molecular engineering. A soon-to-open conference center, the Rubenstein Forum, is expected to save the University $4 million a year—dollars previously spent renting hotel space for conferences in downtown Chicago, the President told faculty. Some say these changes are long overdue: Zimmer has brought economic efficiency worthy of the Chicago School to the notoriously shambolic U of C.

In public campaigns, Zimmer has also boosted the University’s traditional values, advertising Chicago’s academic intensity, fostering of free speech, and its faculty-led governance structure. Good presidents, Zimmer told the Financial Times, find ambitious faculty and “give them a lot of capacity and authority.”

“There is so much distributed authority, but that should not deter you from being imaginative,” he said.

Faculty see things differently. Many professors say the ‘distributed authority’ that made the school distinctive has eroded during the Zimmer years. In conversations with The Chicago Maroon, and in minutes of the faculty senate, professors express concerns ranging from the proliferation of donor-funded research institutes to the way the President and Provost have sought to reshape the humanities and social sciences.

The recent announcement that the University will dramatically shrink the size of UChicago’s Ph.D. programs—long regarded as the heart of Chicago’s scholasticism—drew especially strong backlash. To many, it seemed like the latest example of faculty being the last to know about changes in the University that are vitally relevant to their work.

Outgoing Provost Daniel Diermeier, too, has had an outsize effect on the University. Intensely interested in the University’s standing compared with peer institutions, the Provost, in meetings with the Council, has stressed the urgency of raising the University’s national profile.

Still, he is optimistic. “In terms of the ratio between eminence and resources,” Diermeier told faculty at one meeting, the University is “punching above its weight.”

This series examines the way an increasingly centralized administration responds to faculty input, shares information, and manages the challenges of governing the increasingly complex modern private university.

100+ Profs Write to President Describing Threats to Faculty Governance, Quality of UChicago Education, in Recent PhD Overhaul
Professors wrote to the President and Provost last month expressing concerns about the central administration's recent move to shrink the size of doctoral programs.
“Under-theorized and superficial,” “Opportunistic”: Faculty worried Grossman neuroscience institute was beholden to wealthy donor
Professors were troubled when the Grossman Institute was proposed as a research center aiming to link behavioral economics with biology.
Money is pouring into flashy research centers. Faculty argue this undermines their say in governance.
Professors say donor-backed institutes have proliferated without oversight, making the University more vulnerable to outside influence.
Master’s programs balloon and Ph.D. programs shrink as University eyes “ratio between eminence and resources”
The University administration went forward with plans to increase enrollment in master’s programs after a faculty committee report recommended against growth in certain departments.
Struggles over graduate student unionization undermined faculty trust in the administration—even for professors opposed to a union
Faculty members worry that the University has mismanaged its response to graduate student unionization.
Graduate Students United: A Guide to the Faculty Senate Minutes, 2017-2019
Taken together, faculty deliberations add color to GSU’s long, contentious relationship with University leaders. Here's an annotated guide.
Why can’t the faculty senate send meeting minutes to the Board of Trustees?
A faculty senate member once wrote to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, asking whether the Board would be interested in receiving transcripts of the faculty senate’s conversations. This was a major faux pas.
"Fearful of challenge and discomfort": Top administrators cut back dialogue with students
Student body presidents from the past six years have told The Maroon that their meetings with administrators are choreographed affairs with little opportunity for real dialogue.
Faculty asked Zimmer for an open forum to discuss UChicago’s free speech policy. Here’s what they got instead.
As President Zimmer traveled around the country promoting the University’s famed "Chicago Principles” on free speech, professors requested a public forum with Zimmer to discuss the Principles. They got something completely different.