Message from the President

Since its inception, the University of Chicago has been a distinctive intellectual and educational community, and the values that underpinned its establishment have been an important guide since that time. Marking the 125th anniversary of the University’s founding in the fall of 2015 will provide special opportunities for reflection on these values and how their manifestations over time have shaped the University and our vital work in education, research, and impact. 

Perhaps the most distinctive attribute of the University in its 125 years has been its deep and unwavering commitment to open discourse, free expression, and a singular focus on rigorous inquiry. The founders and first faculty members here, including President William Rainey Harper, viewed free expression as an essential basis for an institution where strength of ideas, not social standing or other considerations, would determine success in education and research. Harper said in 1902 that the principle of free expression “can neither now nor at any future time be called into question.” Very importantly, each succeeding generation has recommitted itself to this principle. It is a legacy we have all inherited and a value we must preserve. The most recent examples of this commitment are the faculty-authored Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Protest and Dissent in January 2014 and the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression in January 2015, both of which affirmed these values in powerful and succinct terms. The latter report has helped shape a fruitful national dialogue about free expression among academic leaders, faculty, and students. It is a fitting reflection of our history and our present commitments that scholars at the University of Chicago continue to play this leading role.

When the University was founded 125 years ago, it set itself apart from most comparable institutions by its commitment to the admission of persons from all backgrounds who could benefit from and contribute to the University’s intellectual life. This important value continues to be reflected through a commitment to diversity and comprehensive and increasing financial support for undergraduate and graduate students. Launched in October 2014, the No Barriers initiative is specifically aimed at both financial and other programmatic support that will enable those College students from families with modest financial means to take full advantage of a University of Chicago education. In particular, No Barriers ends the student loan requirement for students entering the College, while strengthening support in many phases of their education and career development. As an example of the impact of this program, the number of students seeking loans has already decreased by more than half for the incoming class in fall 2015. The newly formed UChicagoGRAD office is providing enhanced support for graduate students and postdocs, including training for teaching, writing and presentation skills, and preparation for careers in academia, nonprofits, government, and the corporate sector.

The early University of the 1890s and the beginning of the 20th century succeeded only through broad and deep civic support and philanthropy. In turn, Harper and his fellow leaders envisioned the University as a natural partner both for the city’s high ambitions and its need to address the well-being of the most vulnerable members of our community. Today, the University’s engagement with the city of Chicago and its communities has never been stronger, fully in keeping with the character of the institution that took shape after 1890. For example, our students and staff volunteer their service in local schools and nonprofit groups, and our faculty make deep contributions to the artistic and cultural life of the city. Additionally, the new UChicago Urban Labs develop evidence-based solutions to fundamental problems confronting cities; the Civic Leadership Academy prepares government and nonprofit leaders to be more effective in their work; and the Chicago Innovation Exchange brings together many of the faculty and students in the University interested in innovation and entrepreneurship, contributing to the innovation ecosystem of the city. All of this is possible only because of the thoughtful contributions of faculty, students, staff, civic and community leaders, and neighboring residents.

The University was founded in the first instance by the leadership of the first president, William Rainey Harper, the philanthropy of John D. Rockefeller, and the response of many to Rockefeller’s ambitious matching gift. Today, the partnership with our alumni, parents, friends, and trustees to support the University’s academic ambitions remains essential to our success. In each of the past two years, the University has set new annual fundraising records as part of our current $4.5 billion fundraising campaign. This effort supports the expansion of our faculty, financial aid and career development for students, existing programs, outstanding facilities, and new initiatives, including The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts. The Pearson Institute and annual global forum, the first devoted solely to this area of research, were established by a landmark gift from The Thomas L. Pearson and The Pearson Family Members Foundation.

Among President Harper’s many bold objectives, none was more important for the University’s academic eminence and impact than his insistence on recruiting and supporting the finest faculty in the world. This remains our standard in every field represented at the University. Our success in this area depends upon the constant commitment of faculty, department chairs, deans, and the provost, who recognize that generating ideas that enrich understanding, enhance human life, contribute to the stewardship of the world’s cultures, and create the environment for inquiry-based education form a core of the University’s inheritance and its future.

Each year we are called upon to renew and deepen the meaning of this extraordinary heritage, contributing to the shared creation of understanding in a context of free expression and open inquiry. I am grateful for the dedication that our faculty, students, staff, alumni, and friends have demonstrated in the past year to the University’s now 125-year-old project.

Robert J. Zimmer

Adapted from President Zimmer’s fall 2015 welcome and update to faculty, students, and staff.