Change agent | The University of Chicago Magazine

After stepping down as 11th president of the University of Chicago in June 2000, Hugo Sonnenschein was invited by this publication to reflect on his tenure. In characteristic style, he did not mince his words: “The most difficult situations are those where there is no easy agreement,” he replied, “where it may be necessary to do something that may not be popular. And you are the one who has to say, “Do it. “

Sonnenschein, Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Economics, died on July 15 at the age of 80. He is remembered for a decisive approach to governance during his seven years as President, a period in the 1990s when the University struggled with addressing financial challenges while preserving its intellectual identity.

It was the “practical challenge” he faced, says Geoffrey R. Pierre, JD’71, Professor of Law Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service, who served as Dean during Sonnenschein’s presidency. “Hugo was truly quite remarkable in his demand to know the facts, to understand the facts and to do what was necessary to preserve the excellence of the University.”

An economist who came to Chicago after being rector at Princeton University, Sonnenschein laid out the facts as he saw them in a famous letter to professors dated April 30, 1996. to the University and less dollars for the endowment He wrote. “A structure in which tuition fees do not cover salaries and in which the endowment does not grow at a robust rate is not sustainable over the long term.”

Sonnenschein proposed an aggressive plan to expand the Undergraduate College by 1,000 students over a 10-year period. In 1998, the University Senate Council accepted the expansion while making recommendations to avoid any loss of pedagogical rigor. Later that year, Sonnenschein approved reducing the number of compulsory courses in the College’s legendary core curriculum to allow more choice and study abroad opportunities.

Both measures were seen by some as watering down academic standards – and the school’s niche identity – in an attempt to attract more applicants. The change of program, in particular, struck a chord. A firestorm erupted among students, alumni and faculty. Critics feared that by restructuring the University, its founding identity as a graduate-oriented institution – a true research university – would be in jeopardy.

John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, Dean of the College since 1992 and historian of the University (and of the empires), assimilates the period to a kind of “revolution”. The process of changing the Core from 21 to 15 credits, plus a foreign language requirement – “very difficult but still very effective,” says Boyer – took four years and endless meetings. “Hundreds of meetings. Big meetings, small meetings, proposals and counter-proposals, ”he recalls. “It was like marking major legislation, like passing the Affordable Care Act through Congress.”

Through it all, Sonnenschein – described by those who knew him as soft-spoken and unfazed – stayed the course. Stone says, “Basically Hugo felt I had to do the right thing for the University, it’s my responsibility. If this creates any criticism for me, I will take care of it.

As the conflict turned, Sonnenschein closed a $ 676 million fundraising campaign, the largest in University history at the time, and instituted the first major campus planning process in 30 years. He has invested heavily in improving undergraduate student life, from career support to dance studios, and more than doubled the University’s endowment.

Over the past two decades, Sonnenschein’s main changes have been adopted and extended by successive administrations. Changes always have their critics, Stone acknowledges. “I think you would find faculty members who would say it’s not the same university,” he says. “In a way they’re right, but we couldn’t have kept that – that was the problem. The College, which now has around 7,000 students (almost double what it was in 1996), is highly sought after by top high school students and has an acceptance rate that jumped from 77% when Sonnenschein took his graduation. functions at just over 6% today.

Hugo Freund Sonnenschein was born on November 14, 1940 in Brooklyn. His mother died when he was very young and he was raised by his aunt, who, he later recalls, “cared about what would become of me and valued education.” In 1961, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Rochester, where he met his future wife, Elizabeth Gunn. The two married in 1962 and had three daughters: Leah, Amy and Rachel.

In Rochester, Sonnenschein discovered an article about “social choice” and the work of Kenneth Arrow, which ignited his love for the economy. He exploded through his graduate studies. By the age of 23, he had completed his doctorate in economics at Purdue University.

His talent was apparent from the start, says Sonnenschein’s colleague and former doctoral student. Philippe J. Reny, Professor Emeritus Hugo F. Sonnenschein in Economics and College. “Hugo’s approach to consumer choice theory has since become a standard in the field,” and the effects of his most amazing and important result – the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu theorem – “reverberate on economic theory to date “.

Sonnenschein taught economics at several universities, including Northwestern and Princeton. In 1988 he became dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania before returning to Princeton as provost in 1991. Reny, his doctoral student at Princeton in the 1980s, remembers a gifted mentor. and sociable whose “office hours” often took the form of a walk across campus to get ice cream.

Sonnenschein was an equally talented speaker. In a particularly memorable presentation, he performed a sort of dance to demonstrate the intricacies of consumer preference relationships. Crouching in the corner of the conference room, he used elegant sweeping movements of his hands and arms to trace the surfaces of two indifference cards as he stood up and walked towards the center of the room. . “The distinction was immediately clear to me,” Reny recalls.

This gift for connecting with students continued during Sonnenschein’s presidency. “One day he and I were talking about how to involve undergraduates in a more natural way, instead of ceremonial dormitory visits,” Boyer recalls. Sonnenschein, a cyclist, suggested a bike ride.

Fifty students showed up and cycled with the president of the university and the dean of the college seven miles by the lake. “Hugo didn’t look so presidential in his helmet and his cycling gloves,” Boyer recalls, “and we were like, ‘we’re not sure William Rainey Harper would have done that.'” the tone of the President’s casual and informal style.

After Sonnenschein’s presidency and a sabbatical year, he resumed his teaching and research in the economics department. Shortly after, the department chairman resigned. When the volunteers for the post did not come forward, Sonnenschein raised his hand.

“I don’t know if a lot of people could go from university president to department head,” Reny says. Sonnenschein was not only happy to perform this “selfless act,” he recalls, but “did it with such grace, purpose, and a genuine spirit to help others.”


Mary Abowd is a writer and editor based in Columbus, Ohio, and previously worked in the University of Chicago press office.

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