President and Provost: Fall Welcome

To:  Members of the University Community
From:  Robert J. Zimmer, President, and Daniel Diermeier, Provost
Subject:  Fall Welcome
Date:  October 1, 2018

As we begin the new academic year, we are happy to welcome our new and returning faculty, students, and staff.

Those of you arriving on campus for the first time have joined a distinctive intellectual community. As you will soon see, and as those who have been part of this community well know, the University was established almost 130 years ago and continues to be undergirded by a set of enduring values—rigorous inquiry, challenge of assumptions, vigorous debate and argumentation, engagement of multiple perspectives, freedom of expression, open discourse, intensity of intellectual challenge, and diversity and inclusion. These values have led to a unique culture that informs our research, our education, our external engagement, and the consequent impact those efforts have on society near and far.

An essential attribute of this culture is that it supports a research environment in which individuals are free to rethink fundamentals, question assumptions, debate with colleagues, and pursue directions that are deeply original and contrary to existing paradigms. This environment has been responsible for the University being an intellectual crucible that has shaped disciplines and defined schools of thought across the full scope of our work.

Just this past year, we were reminded of and recognized multiple examples of this exceptional capacity and ambition. In October 2017, Richard H. Thaler, the Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor at the Booth School, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his paradigm-defining work in behavioral economics, bridging the gap between economics and psychology. In December, we commemorated the 75th anniversary of the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction, an experiment led by Enrico Fermi and his colleagues at the University, which ushered in the Atomic Age. And, in August 2018, we saw NASA’s launch of the Parker Solar Probe—named after Eugene Parker, the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics—which will investigate the workings of the sun and the solar wind he boldly proposed to much doubt decades ago. These contributions are just examples of the paradigm breaking and new paradigm defining work that has taken place across the University and continues to be done today.

The work of Thaler and Parker carries important lessons about the University. In both cases, in trying to understand fundamental phenomena, they proposed radically different explanations and offered dramatically different approaches to commonly held views. Their ideas were thought to be totally wrong-headed by many people. But by the rigor of their work and their perseverance, in a University environment that was deeply receptive to controversial positions, they ultimately became recognized as leading and deeply original and impactful pioneers. It is a lesson about the type of environment we need to continue to foster and enhance. Thanks to the imagination, ambition, and openness to ideas of faculty across the entire University, we are seeing the University’s culture for research reinforced in new, powerful, and highly productive ways every day.

The same values and open approach to discourse and argument imbue and fuel the transformative experiences the University offers our undergraduate, graduate, and professional school students. Whether it be the College Core, or the graduate programs of our divisions and professional schools, the University promotes education embedded in and reflecting a culture of rigorous inquiry where diverse perspectives, individuals, and ideas inform and stimulate intellectual exchange, challenge, and engagement. This approach to education, built into the University since its inception, has proven to be the most empowering education, giving students not only great depth of understanding, but very importantly the habits of mind to effectively deal with the complex problems they will inevitably confront in their futures.

One of the great challenges for higher education in this country is access for students independent of financial status. Addressing this question at UChicago has been and will continue to be a major priority. The Odyssey program, launched in 2007 to provide significantly increased support for College students from the lowest income families, has been transformative for the University. It has since expanded several times in multiple directions, most recently this past year with the UChicago Empower initiative. Additionally, we have a dedicated College scholarship program for international students from families with lower or moderate financial capacity, though we are eager to significantly increase this type of financial support. Similarly, we have worked, and will continue to work, to improve our financial support for graduate and professional students throughout the University.

The University has long-term impact on society through the ideas of our faculty and the work of our students turned alumni, as well as our staff, across the full scope of human endeavor. Moreover, there are certain areas of research and education where our work can be brought to bear directly on some of today’s most complex societal challenges, here in our local communities, across the nation and—leveraging global centers in Beijing, Delhi, and Paris, and our new campus in Hong Kong—internationally as well. There are major research, education, and clinical efforts across the University, including myriad collaborations with community groups and other domestic and international entities, to address urban issues of crime and violence, education, poverty, health, energy and the environment. With these and other efforts to support the creation and success of for-profit and non-profit ventures, we remain deeply committed to this direct engagement and the partnerships crucial to its effectiveness.

The confluence of our research, education, and direct engagement—whether the scholarship of our faculty, the work of our students, staff, and alumni, or the partnerships with local, national, and international organizations, all built on the enduring values that have guided the University since its inception—generates undeniable and lasting impact on individual opportunity, on our understanding of the world, and on the vitality of societies around the world. For the key roles you all play in the University community’s impact and success, we are immensely grateful and wish you an exciting and productive year ahead.