University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer stayed on message at his quarterly meeting with The Maroon last week, diplomatically skirting around or declining to answer a number of questions about contentious issues on our campus.
Zimmer directed a number of The Maroon’s questions to other administrators, often stating that he was not immediately responsible for particular decisions.
He declined to comment on whether there would be more budget cuts this year following the eight percent cuts that were imposed on humanities departments last year. Zimmer said these matters fall under the domain of Provost Daniel Diermeier.
We asked Zimmer if he was concerned about the performance of the University’s endowment (In October, the University announced that the endowment was down 1.9 percent this year). He directed these inquiries to the Vice President and Chief Investment Officer Mark Schmid, but acknowledged that the University is monitoring long-term endowment trends with more weight than yearly returns.
Zimmer was more willing, however, to field our questions about Dean John “Jay” Ellison’s letter to incoming first-years this summer condemning safe spaces and trigger warnings.
The Ellison Letter
Zimmer would not say that he signed off on Ellison’s letter before it was sent out, and he was reluctant to back its message unequivocally.
“It’s not true that we tell faculty what to do. If that’s the interpretation, it’s a factual error, because it can’t be the case because [Ellison] may say that, but it’s not University policy to tell faculty what to do,” he said. “This is Dean Ellison’s letter. This is not the University.”
Zimmer was speaking publicly about that letter for the first time, which came as news to us—he said that his August 26 op-ed “Free Speech Is the Basis of a True Education” was submitted to The Wall Street Journal prior to Ellison’s letter.
When asked who “we” in the letter refers to if not the administration or the University as a whole, Zimmer said, “You should talk to [Ellison]. It was not a letter written by me.”
Later asked what function the letter serves if not to reaffirm the University’s position, Zimmer repeated, “This is not a letter that has been authored by anyone other than the Dean.”
“Part of the issue in my mind is around what is he talking about exactly? And obviously, greater clarity would have been useful. That’s certainly clear,” he said.
Zimmer repeatedly said that he avoids the terms “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” because he thinks they are not well defined. He said he would prefer to engage in a dialogue without using those terms.
“Let’s have conversations that are specific, where you work them out, where you explore them.”
Given the specific example of a professor warning students that a class is moving into a discussion about rape or hate crimes, and asked whether that kind of warning has the potential to stifle free speech, Zimmer said it was not his business to take a position. He maintained that faculty should have plenty of latitude to do what they want in their classrooms.
After hundreds of students rallied and sat-in to “Democratize the University” last spring, we asked Zimmer to what extent he values student, staff, and community feedback. Much of the University’s decision-making ought to be left up to administrators, he said. The University does value feedback on issues that directly affect students, and he said that the University has mechanisms to collect that feedback.
“It’s certainly true that there are lots of situations in which it’s very important to have input from different sectors of the University, which includes students, it includes staff, so on. There are some decisions that need to be made in largely different ways. There are literally thousands of decisions that need to be made all the time,” he said. “There’s a whole set of [decisions], particularly ones that have an impact on students, where students need to have a significant amount of input into it and that’s certainly something we are trying to do.”
Zimmer said that aside from his meetings with The Maroon, his only formal meetings with students are with Student Government (SG) and residence halls. These meetings add up to approximately one per month, though he said that he occasionally meets with students in other capacities.
“It’s possible to do other ones and I’ve done other ones in the past,” he said.
The University recently announced that students will receive their degrees at a ceremony with people from their residential halls, which SG leaders say was made without any student feedback. Zimmer said, “You should talk to Dean [John] Boyer about it.”
Zimmer added that the Provost is taking lots of input on Shared Services—a plan to consolidate administrative services across departments. CFO Rowan Miranda, who was behind the initiative, left the University earlier this year. The Provost is now considering departmental input to decide what works and doesn’t work, Zimmer said. Zimmer added that Shared Services will be “phased-in” more gradually.
“Shared Services is moving ahead in a rather different style,” he said.
Budget Cuts and Endowment
Last year, members of the departments affected by the eight percent budget cuts attributed them to Shared Services, although the University said that the implementation of Shared Services was not directly related to the cuts.
Asked if he could speak to whether there would be more layoffs this year or the next, Zimmer said, “Not really, actually.” He said that the Provost is reorganizing the budget model structure and that deans will have more authority over the budgets of their departments. “[Deans] should have a budget target and they should meet that target. It will be up to them to figure out exactly how to do it.”
Zimmer would not put a number on those targets. “It’s still a process,” he said.
Asked if any additional cuts this year would likely be associated with Shared Services, he said, “I wouldn’t put it that way…. There are no two things that are totally independent…but it’s not as if one follows the other.”
We asked Zimmer about the University’s investment strategy and the 1.9 percent loss in this year’s endowment returns.
“Our primary goal has not been to focus on driving the size of the endowment. Our primary goal has been driving the eminence of the University and its programs and our capacity to support students independent of their financial situation,” he said.
We asked Zimmer to set aside the ideals of the Kalven report to give us his personal thoughts on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. He said he could not do that.
He explained that he believes the 1967 Kalven report—which states the University must remain neutral on political issues—applies not only to the University institutionally, but also to the University’s president as an individual. However, in his interpretation, the Kalven report does not prohibit the University from taking positions on issues that concretely affect the University, even if they have political implications.
“On some measure, I’m actually not going to answer the question because I don’t express my views about fundamentally what are political things that have nothing to do with the University per se. So I’m happy to tell you how I think about it from a University point of view, which does connect in a very strong way to the Kalven report. Now if you are asking me do I have political views on this that or the other thing like everybody else does? Of course I do. But I have consistently said my political views need to be kept out of my actions as president and that everybody’s got political views, but my job is to be responsible for the University and to do what’s best for the University…. I’ve written before about my concern for the University participating in any academic boycotts, and divestment is a particular case. I’d say—while I’m not going to express any particular political view about a particular situation—I will say that I think academic boycotts per se, depending upon what you are talking, again, are problematic, and problematic for the spirit of what the University of Chicago is about.”
Zimmer said that the Kalven report applies to the issue of fossil fuel divestment as well, and prohibits the University from adopting what he would perceive to be a political investment strategy.
Minimum Wage for Campus Workers
Fair Budget UChicago (FBU), an activist group fighting for a higher minimum wage for campus workers, recently secured a meeting with the Provost. In a statement after their meeting, FBU said that the Provost cited the Kalven report, and told them that “the University could not raise its minimum wage to $15/hr, despite comparable universities like NYU and Columbia having done so, because it would be too political.”
Zimmer said that he does not think that the Kalven report prohibits administrators from taking a stance on the campus wage.
“The question of what are the University’s policies for paying people—that’s a perfectly appropriate topic. The University needs to decide. It’s a perfectly appropriate topic for people to weigh in on. That’s not a Kalven issue,” he said.
On the question of whether there should be a higher federal or state minimum wage, Zimmer said, “I don’t think in terms of minimum wage that the University as a whole should be taking a position about what public policy should be with respect to minimum wage issues—that’s not really what we do.”
In a statement sent to The Maroon through a University spokesperson, Provost Diermeier said that there was a “misunderstanding.”
“The Kalven report is relevant in the context of the contention that the University should ‘lead by example’ on the minimum wage issue, for the purpose of influencing local and national minimum wage policies. The University does not have a position on these policies. Decisions on compensation and financial support are made for the benefit of the University, its faculty, students and staff, without regard to how such decisions affect particular political interests,” he wrote.
Diermeier did not place blame on himself or FBU for the misunderstanding.
Fair Budget member Nora Helfand, who attended the meeting, wrote in an e-mail, “I understood him to be directly responding to our ask for a campus minimum wage. The federal minimum wage was not mentioned.”
Graduate Student Unionization
Zimmer wrote a letter this summer arguing that unionization would negatively affect graduate students, and he maintained that issue is within the University’s jurisdiction.
When asked if his objection to graduate student unionization is truly that he does not think it would be good for graduate students—as he stated in his letter—rather than a matter of cost, Zimmer did not hesitate.
“It’s not a matter of cost. Cost is not going to be the issue,” he said. “It’s fundamentally about the individual graduate student relationship to faculty members, to their program, to the extent to which there are others intervening into that process and decision-making.”
Zimmer clarified that when he said it’s not a matter of cost he meant that the University is not thinking about cost, not that he does not expect there to be a cost difference for the University if graduate students were to unionize.
Politics and the University
At the end of our conversation, we turned to the election of President-elect Donald Trump. Several days after the election, Zimmer wrote a campus-wide e-mail cosigned by Diermeier that reaffirmed the University’s values of diversity, inclusion, and free speech in the wake of series of racist events on campuses since Trump was elected president. We asked what specific incidents prompted the letter.
“That was very much a response to what we’ve been seeing over the last week on various campuses—not exclusively campuses, but a general tone of a lot of very strong messages of racism, misogyny, and more. There has been certainly an increase in behavior of this, and I think it’s made a lot of people ‘uneasy’ about what that means in terms of the country,” he said. “We thought it was important to make a statement.”
Zimmer did not condemn Trump in any explicit terms, but he repeatedly used the words “uneasy” and “uncertain” to describe how people are feeling in the wake of the election. Federal funding for science is one such area of “uncertainty,” he said.
“If you step back and say, with these various caveats, ‘Has the federal government been supportive of science as a whole over the last seventy years? The answer is pretty much ‘Yes,’” he said. “There is uncertainty right now. I think the uncertainty is real. The history offers comfort to the point that you are comforted by history, but there are all sorts of reasons you might be nervous.”
The future of health care in the United States, especially with regard to the University’s medical center, was another area of “uncertainty.”
“National health care policy and the structure of health care in the United States has a huge amount of uncertainty attached to it. It’s evolving constantly…. We run a significant[ly] sized hospital. We have a lot of patients—a very high percentage of our patients compared to most other academic medical centers are government insured rather than private insured, which means that we are very much dependent on the ups and downs of this type of this kind of government policy. I think it’s a big question how that’s going to evolve.”
Zimmer said he does not think it is obvious what the health care structure in the United States will look like a decade or two into the future. “There are a lot of questions to what’s going to happen to national health care policy under President Trump, but that’s not the only moving part of the whole thing.”