Faculty and administration relations from Hutchins to Zimmer

Lincoln believes relations have improved since the days of the Grossman, Friedman, and Confucius Institutes

By Hannah Edgar and Wendy Lee | Produced by Forrest Sill | June 2, 2015

University of Chicago Photographic Archive

The year after his retirement in 1951, former University President Robert Maynard Hutchins stood before a select committee from the United States House of Representatives to declare that, “Education is a kind of continuing dialogue, and a dialogue assumes, in the nature of the case, different points of view.”

Though Hutchins was talking about the difference in opinion that often rears its head in the seminar room, his words could just as accurately summarize the continuing—and at times heated—dialogue between a university’s administration and its faculty. At the University of Chicago, it was Hutchins’s presidency that would see greater faculty representation through the establishment of governing bodies like the Council of the University Senate and the Committee of the Council.

But the story of faculty representation has not been that simple. Rather, since these bodies’ inception during Hutchins’ presidency, the debate over faculty’s exact powers and limitations has only intensified.

To examine the powers of faculty, it is first necessary to understand the powers of the two other major governing powers at the University: the Board of Trustees and the administration. Divinity School Professor Bruce Lincoln said that the president’s role has always been to reconcile the interests of both the faculty and the Board of Trustees. “The Board of Trustees has responsibility for all financial matters at the University and the faculty have all responsibility for academic matters at the University,” Lincoln said. “It’s implicit that sometimes these two bodies will see things differently, and it’s the Office of the President that is supposed to resolve those matters.”

For this reason, most American university presidents have held a large amount of power out of necessity. “You need a strong president to set an agenda,” said Dean of the College John W. Boyer, “to persuade the public, to defend our interests, to explain to people what a university is and what it’s not.”

When he was appointed president in 1929, Hutchins seemed to fit all of these criteria. Charismatic and dynamic, he was more than just a university president; he was an ideologue who wanted the University of Chicago to be at the forefront of educational innovation. But his idealistic educational theories were radical, and many of Hutchins’s most dramatic reforms were made without consulting the Board of Trustees and faculty. Most undesirably, Hutchins abolished majors at the University of Chicago, instead pushing a four-year general “Core” education curriculum that was open to qualified students of any age, including those still in high school.

Hutchins’s far-reaching reforms were unlike any previously seen in undergraduate education, and faculty members—many of whose Ph.D. programs were threatened—railed against them. “What Hutchins was doing was tampering with basic pedagogical structures,” Boyer said. “Telling a department you can’t have a major, telling a department your Ph.D. students aren’t going to write doctoral dissertations—these are very deep, probing interventions.”

They were also interventions that, in the end, largely failed. Contrary to his expectations, Hutchins’s radical changes didn’t catch on at other elite universities, and his decision to eliminate majors repelled students in droves. “Our bachelor’s degree had become degraded,” Boyer explained. “Students graduating from the College couldn’t get jobs. When they’d apply to medical school and law school, [those schools] would make them go for another couple of years at another college to get more training.”

In the mid 1940s, when most of these changes were being implemented despite popular outcry, the only vehicle for faculty governance was the University Senate, which had almost no direct representative power and was composed of only full-time professors. Hutchins’s rash flurry of autocratic decisions prompted the Board of Trustees and faculty to change this, and in 1945, they established both the Council of the University Senate and the Committee of the Council. The Council of the Senate would act as a further representative body made up of elected members of the Senate, and the Committee of the Council, in turn, would be an even smaller group elected by the Council that would work directly with the President. Under the new organization of powers, enfranchisement in the University Senate was extended beyond those with full professorship to include associate and assistant professors.

Structurally, these governmental bodies have essentially remained the same since their inception. In the end, it was Hutchins’s extreme reforms that lacked staying power: The faculty all but unanimously agreed to overturn his general education curriculum after he left the University in 1951.

For Boyer, the Hutchins crisis was, in many ways, similar to a conflict that he experienced firsthand as dean of the College in the late 1990s. During this period, then-President Hugo Sonnenschein called for a dramatic expansion of the undergraduate population, which had never entirely recovered from the shock of the Hutchins era.

“They used to tell the students at the opening ceremony, ‘Look to the right, look to the left of you: By the time you graduate, one or both of the people next to you won’t be here anymore,’” Boyer recalls.

Not only was the College small, its retention rates were also dishearteningly poor. “They used to tell the students at the opening ceremony, ‘Look to the right, look to the left of you: By the time you graduate, one or both of the people next to you won’t be here anymore,’” Boyer recalled. “[Trying] to run a college on those terms was, in my view, a moral disaster.”

Presidents before Sonnenschein had increased the size of the College incrementally, but Sonnenschein’s call to accept as many as 1,000 more undergraduates met with considerable backlash. Many faculty members felt as though the selectivity, and thus the intellectual integrity, of the College would be compromised.

Professor Emeritus of Mathematics Mel Rothenberg, who retired in 1999, agrees that there were parallels between the Hutchins conflict and Sonnenschein’s expansion plan. Whereas in the 1940s professors clashed with Hutchins on his total upheaval of traditional Ph.D. programs, under Sonnenschein the underlying fear was that faculty would be forced to teach more undergraduate courses, detracting from time otherwise spent mentoring graduate students or conducting independent research. In both cases, faculty felt as though the University’s reputation as a premier graduate and research-oriented institution was being compromised. “When you start putting emphasis on the undergraduate program, it calls up memories of those days when there was this intense battle between researchers and the Hutchins–College crowd,” he explained. “There was a strong institutional memory [of that].”

As dean of the College at this time, Boyer found himself caught between two strongly divided camps: the anti-expansion position, pushed by a faculty contingent, and the pro-expansion position, advanced by Sonnenschein and a number of faculty leaders. To reach a decision, Boyer did what any historian would do: plenty of research.

Boyer kept returning to Hutchins’s story as a litmus test. “It actually turns out to be the only way you can operate a major university is to have a large, thriving college. Nobody planned it this way; Hutchins thought that his new general education college would be a big college, but [the students] didn’t come…I decided that Sonnenschein was right, and so I decided that I would publicly support him.”

“It’s the undergraduates who go to business school and go out into the world who get rich and bring a lot of money to the University.”

But Rothenberg believes that there was a “grubbier objective” for the College’s expansion, namely that it was representative of the University’s trend toward greater corporatization. “People that go to graduate school to become professors don’t become really rich. It’s the undergraduates who go to business school and go out into the world who get rich and bring a lot of money to the University.”

Corporatization has continued to be a point of tension for faculty and the administration, particularly when it comes to the establishment of new academic institutions on campus. Recently, the establishment of the Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics—now the Becker Friedman Institute—and the Grossman Institute for Quantitative Biology and Human Behavior polarized faculty and stirred intense debates within the governing bodies.

“It struck me that in both instances, the administration was launching major initiatives without adequate consultation of the faculty at large and its representative institutions, the Council in specific,” Lincoln said.

“The battles were fought, and they were unpleasant.”

The problem for Rothenberg, Lincoln, and many faculty members was that the institutes threatened the well-being and integrity of the University, either politically or intellectually. Rothenberg viewed the Friedman Institute as an effort by conservative alumni to pass down the ideas of Milton Friedman to students at the University. “It was ‘one of those institutes,’” said Rothenberg. “They functioned as lobby groups for certain economic and financial interests.”

The Grossman Institute faced similar backlash. Economist and University Trustee Sanford Grossman aspired to further the study of “quantitative biometrics,” in which researchers determine whether there are hardwired biological factors that correlate with certain kinds of personality structure and action decisions. While Grossman had originally envisioned building a neuroscience research center, he was later influenced to instead focus on the study of economic decision making.

Many faculty found these studies’ potential to be not only pseudoscientific, but morally offensive. "The neuroscientists [at the University] were unhappy and thought the proposal dubious. In Council, the discussion was sharply critical of the proposal."

Though years of negotiation led to the gradual reconstruction of the institute in 2011 to what the neuroscientists had wanted in the first place, Lincoln states that the Council should have been able to intervene earlier without administrative interference. “In the face of strong opposition, the administration was prepared to railroad a proposal that they thought was financially advantageous.”

The faculty divide over the Friedman Institute further spurred debate on the true powers and limitations of the statutes. As debate intensified, there was a call among faculty members to defer to the statutes and bylaws that outlined the powers of the governing bodies on campus. All those involved knew that the statutes very clearly indicated that faculty approval is necessary for the establishment of new departments and schools, but the question was if this jurisdiction extended to the establishment of new research institutes. Because no powers were explicitly granted by the statutes, the Council appointed a committee of faculty to analyze and interpret these documents.

The committee ended up splitting into two factions with completely different findings. “There was a majority [committee] that said the faculty really had serious powers here, and the other [committee] said, ‘No, the faculty really only has power to give advice and the decisions rest with the administration,’” Lincoln said.

Before the committee’s findings were announced, the president appointed his own committee to analyze the statutes, who interpreted them as solely granting jurisdictional power to the administration. Though one of the faculty-appointed groups had reached this conclusion independently, many members of the Council were baffled and disheartened by the administration’s brusque overruling of their own findings. “By my perception, [the faculty’s] argument was superior to the one posed by the administration, and structurally, they were given much less voice in the decisions that got made, and ultimately, less voice than the statutes mandated they should have had,” Lincoln said.

The critical faculty response, combined with the financial crash of 2008, reined in the scale of the Friedman Institute. “Eventually, we made a fuss about it, and there was enough bad publicity and conflict on campus that what they did was combine it with the Becker Institute,” Rothenberg said. “It became a much smaller-scale operation, which I regard as kind of a victory.”

But for those vested in the issue, the actions of the administration left some lingering distrust, and it was in the wake of this that the University’s Confucius Institute was announced.

Like the Friedman Institute, some faculty members were concerned with the political implications of the University’s affiliation with the Confucius Institute, which is funded by the Chinese government and has been accused of academic censorship. “All of my instincts of the past came into play,” Lincoln recalled. “I thought, ‘Here we go again—this is a terrible thing for the integrity of the University.’ We were permitting the classroom to become a vehicle for state propaganda, and [the administration] was willing to turn a blind eye to that.”

Though Rothenberg had been retired for about a decade when the Confucius Institute was announced, he believed the principle of the issue should stand regardless of which country is funding the institute. “[The Confucius Institute] is not uniquely evil by any means,” he explained, “[but] … its interests are political power and maintaining it.”

After a staff petition and a rash of bad publicity, the University decided not to renew its five-year contract with the Confucius Institute in September 2014. Many members of the faculty acknowledged the dissociation as a victory, though other factors more publicly contributed to the decision: As reported by The Maroon that month, University officials were particularly dismayed by comments made by the Confucius Institute Headquarters’s chief executive on its relationship with the University in a Chinese publication.

But in retrospect, Lincoln believes that relations between faculty and the administration have improved since the days of the Grossman Institute, Friedman Institute, and Confucius Institute. “The battles were fought, and they were unpleasant. People pounded the table, people got angry, and there were hurt feelings and there were accusations made back and forth [that] were probably overstated. But in the wake of it, I think the administration is less determined to have its way,” Lincoln said. “The Confucius Institute resolved very nicely…. There was a serious discussion, and objections got heard. Ultimately, the institution made a decision that wasn’t just based on finances. I think things are better than they were at the time of the Friedman Institute and the Grossman Institute, in part because of those struggles.”

While Lincoln has certainly seen an advance in the way in which the administration now handles controversial matters, he still believes that there is plenty of room for improvement with administration and faculty relations. In particular, he envisions a future in which the faculty and the Board of Trustees are two spheres of influence with mutual respect for one another.

“In recent decades, Boards of Trustees have been more activist than they’ve used to be. They’ve wanted to play a bigger role in shaping the institution,” said Lincoln. “My opinion is that the Trustees should make sure there is enough money for what the faculty want to do. That’s how a university ought to run. The Trustees run their corporations, and if they’re interested in academic matters, they should trust academics to tell them what’s important and what’s worth doing. We’re not a production line. We’re not a corporate entity. Knowledge doesn’t work the way products do.”

That’s a point with which former President Hutchins would almost certainly agree. Though the battle for greater faculty representation began with his contentious, controlling presidency, there’s no question that Hutchins had the best academic interests of the University in mind throughout. “I remember 20 years ago when I just started [as dean of the College], I was talking to older faculty—who were young faculty in the ’30s and ’40s—and what they remember is the vibrancy of the place,” Boyer said of the Hutchins era. “[They had] a president who gave speeches on higher education, who believed in ideas, who was constantly talking about the ideas associated with the University, and when he resigned, they missed him, even though at the time some of them hated his guts.”

So it has been with all presidents since: In juggling the interests of both the faculty and the Board of Trustees, the Office of the President is certainly indebted to both bodies, but at the end of the day, decisions must be made for what is best for the University, and futures must be considered.

“Do I think presidents sometimes force things through? Yeah, sometimes,” said Boyer. “They should have a lot of prerogative, a lot of opportunities to influence the shaping of the university. But the best ones understand that they have to cooperate with at least a significant share of the faculty.”