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November 23, 2010

Zimmer talks openness, Beijing at meetings

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President Robert Zimmer took questions from community members on issues ranging from academic freedom to the University’s growing international role at a campus open forum yesterday and a talk Thursday at the Gleacher Center.

At the Student Government–sponsored forum, Zimmer said a commitment to open discourse is the central principle of how his administration shapes University policy.

The University of Chicago weighs the free and open discourse of faculty and students above all other issues, he said. “Every university talks about open discourse and free inquiry, but in reality, there are other interests that can be legitimate competing issues,” Zimmer said.

That commitment to academic freedom means controversies will arise over the institution’s priorities, Zimmer said, such as inviting a potentially offensive speaker to campus. “It’s one thing to prevent people [from speaking] in a formal and regulatory sense,” Zimmer said, “it’s another to have a culture in which people are willingly open and quality is not being judged by political content.”

In October 2009, Zimmer wrote a letter to the community emphasizing much the same thing after an audience consistently and vehemently interrupted the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was speaking at Mandel Hall.

But Zimmer emphasized that a university that values scholarship should always ensure that its culture promotes the reasonable expression of opinion. “One should be very concerned about preserving an open tone.” He juxtaposed that tone with “environments in which the discussion is chilled,” where people are unwilling to express differing opinions.

Zimmer, who participated in a talk about academic freedom at the Law School this spring, sees the need for further discussions to examine the issue more fully. “These questions are not completely intuitive. It’d be good if we did more. There’s a lot to talk about,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer also spoke Thursday in Gleacher Center’s Great Conversations series on the importance of liberal arts and the University’s response to increased globalization.

With the University’s new center in Beijing opening this summer, Zimmer said different cultures are playing a role in academic globalization and the position of international students. “The value set to education in the United States is simply not that high” as compared to other countries, he said.

The University decided to establish the center in Beijing in part because of global interest in Asia, though he said the move was not simply for its growing economic strength. “People see a kind of gold rush. They see basically two billion people in Asia pulling themselves out of poverty,” Zimmer said. “That’s not what we’re doing.”

Another goal for the China Center is to increase the U of C’s appeal, Zimmer said. “The other motivation is actually understanding that faculty and students will appreciate being at a university that is global.”

Other questions ranged from the future of the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore to the continued tradition of the Kalven report.

Though past speakers have focused on the history of the University and higher education, Zimmer spent most of his time focused on the future. “Where people may have thought he was going to be looking back, he was actually looking forward,” said Director of the M.L.A. program at the Graham School of General Studies Raymond Ciacci, who interviewed Zimmer throughout the talk.

At yesterday’s open forum, Zimmer acknowledged that, despite overseeing all the day-to-day operations of the University, he can’t see every side of every issue. “A university is a big, complex place, and everyone sees only a piece of it. So when I talk about what I think needs to happen, it is not the full perspective,” Zimmer said.

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