New President Search -- any updates or rumors?

Anyone hear anything on the new presidential search front? There’s only a couple of months left for the announcement so I’m sure they must be starting to short list candidates or start interviews…

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It will be interesting to see the list of finalists. I suspect that UChicago may want to make a “statement” with the pedigree of the new president.

Still find it interesting that neighboring Northwestern University selected the president of the #1 ranked LAC (Williams College) about a decade ago.

What sort of statement do you see them making? Usually it’s a provost from a top R1 who has spent some time at UChicago in the past. Are you thinking that will not be the case this time?

Last time they made the announcement in March: Robert J. Zimmer elected to serve as next president of the University of Chicago

If they follow the same rate then there’s about a month or so left for the announcement.

But of course there’s no trend to follow here given that these appointments are few and far between and they’d rather make sure to find the right person than follow a specific trend. Still, it can’t be more than four months or so away given that’s when Zimmer is stepping down…

The past 40 years, it’s been:

Hanna Gray, Yale Provost
Hugo Sonnenschein, Princeton Provost
Don Randel, Cornell Provost
The Zimmer, Brown Provost

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A statement befitting what some consider to be the most intellectual school in the country with respect to economics.

IMO the best candidates remain:

Dan Diermeier, Vandy Pres (one year), UChicago Provost (3.5 years)
Ka Yee Lee, UChicago Provost (one year) De Facto Acting Pres (one year)

The university can’t go wrong with either, and with Zimmer sticking around to assist with the transition Update on University Leadership | Office of the President | The University of Chicago there is little risk of any new figure - even one from the outside - messing up or taking the university in a new direction. NB: this rules out Mort Schapiro who is already well-established at another Ivy+ and has been publicly critical of “No Safe Spaces.”

Both candidates are also distinctive scholars in their own right. There are a lot of academics out there and an even greater number of higher-ed career administrators. But those at the helm of a tippy-top are usually well-recognized for their research. So one can rule out a whole lot of candidates just by looking at their CV’s and understanding which journals are respected within the field, as one way of measuring what “distinctive” means. Sheer number of publications in something or other wouldn’t be enough to hit that threshold. Recognition as a “celebrity” of some sort wouldn’t be enough to hit that threshold (and, in UChicago’s case, could possibly conflict with the identity of the university).

There are excellent candidates from “outside” the university. For instance, Debbie Prentice over at Princeton and Persis Drell at Stanford. However, both seem to be very much identified with their respective universities. Richard Locke at Brown got an MA at UChicago but has been affiliated with Brown and very much with MIT. While “outsiders” have been hired in the recent past (Sonnenschein, Randel) that was to reboot and see through massive and desperately-needed change at the College. This time is a bit different, although the fundraising remains a crucial point. Zimmer has been relatively masterful at fundraising and that’s likely a primary reason why he’s moving to the position of chancellor rather than stepping down altogether.


The last time they selected an economist he had to resign seven years later. Way too blunt :open_mouth: They kept his changes but they couldn’t keep his person (of course, Sonnenschein’s tenure home was the econ department and they were happy to have him so he just stayed on as a faculty member).

A STEM person would have a good amount of respect for theoretical Econ. Zimmer’s already sold the naming rights so that’s been taken care of. Reading between the lines a bit on a few issues over in Econ and Harris, it’s possible that Zimmer has been tinkering backstage as well as his front and center involvement with large-scale donations to the department. But he’s not stepping down from that sort of “tinkering” and can certainly advise his successor there. Frankly, I wish more departments could sell their name for $125M. SSA just received 60 cents on the dollar for theirs.

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Let’s hope the sillinesss of Lee and Drell rule them out. Would take Diermeier over them. And let Mort Schapiro stay at NW and do his damage there. What a mediocre group! After Drell’s debacle at Stanford trying to set down the university press, that should keep her off the list.

I like the surname of the writer of that piece on the intriguingly named Persis Drell. She doesn’t seem right for Chicago.

I like Lee, but Diermeier would be best for my money. He really gets what the College is about.

Would he consider it dishonorable to leave Vanderbilt, a great university, after such a short tenure? Did he make commitments to the trustees when he took the job? Has he moved on in his own mind to the challenges of a different university and left Chicago behind forever?

Or do the trustees prefer a woman and person of color in any event? Is that why he took the Vanderbilt plum in the first place - because he could read the tea leaves and didn’t want to lose face when he was passed over?

Or by taking the Presidency of Vanderbilt has he simply added to his resume? Was his long game all along to garner the crown jewel of UChicago?

It will be a shame if he gets away, but Ka Lee would also be great. She is also deep-dyed in the Chicago ethos. I think the odds have to be with her.

Don’t rule out a certain former lecturer at the law school who maintains a residence in Hyde Park and has his own personal library nearby.

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Don’t see that happening. It actually takes a lot of work to run a university - a lot goes on behind the scenes - and it’s not clear that the former law school lecturer is looking for that headache. Anyway, he had been invited to join the faculty on TT numerous times and declined. He’s just not not that into it, despite his appearance of thoughtfulness and intellectualism. Obama is an activist at heart.

Harper, I only mentioned Drell due to her tenure as provost. Several other top schools only filled their posts recently - apparently there’s been some turnover in that department! But I know nothing about her. Again, most at other places wouldn’t be a good fit at UChicago. Remember: Gray and Zimmer came from UChicago before earning their leadership creds elsewhere. And Sonnenschein and Randel were brought in to address special issues that existed at the time. The university has two fine candidates already and needn’t look hard for a third unless the trustees know something that we don’t.

I think it’s unlikely that they’ll go with either Diermeier (too soon to leave Vandy) or Lee (they’ve never done an internal hire of provost → president in recent memory, plus she literally just became provost this past year).

The provosts of Ivy+ schools seem like obvious choices – but also other people such as law school deans, who have been increasingly been recruited by various universities in recent years as university president.

A search through the biographies of the university’s presidents reveals a few facts (among others):

  • One Nobelist (Beadle)
  • One 29 year old (Hutchins)
  • One woman (Gray)
  • One who was running a university elsewhere (Gray)
  • Two former law school deans (Hutchins, Levi)
  • Two who resigned in order to run a foundation (Mason, Randel)
  • Three promoted internally from the position of provost (Judson, Levi, Wilson)
  • Four provosts from an Ivy (Gray, Sonnenschein, Randel, Zimmer)
  • Five with no prior affiliation (Mason, Hutchins, Beadle, Sonnenschein, Randel)
  • Eight with prior affiliation (Harper - Founder, Judson, Burton, Kimpton, Levi, Wilson, Gray, Zimmer)

Not sure there are any hard and fast rules that jump out here. The trustees seem to respond to the situation of the time in their choice of president. Perhaps they favor those who have a prior relationship with the university. As to experience or whether they were long enough here or there before jumping to UChicago, it’s clear from perusing these biographies that some were on a fast track and others not. It just depends on the circumstances of the time and the qualities of the available candidates.

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That’s some good analysis! I guess it goes to show that there are no clear rules – I don’t think we should be surprised if the final candidate is someone who doesn’t have previous UChicago ties, or is not a current provost of an Ivy+ institution, and so forth.

The wild card would be someone out there at another school or even within UChicago itself who impresses the heck out of the Trustees with vision, dynamism, or eminence or seems simply the perfect fit with the requirements of the school at the present time - or all of those things.

However, I do note from JB’s analysis that the edge goes (by 8 to 5) to the internal candidates. And if I look at the external ones I see that most of them (not sure about Mason) came in when the school was experiencing some form of crisis or desire to be taken in a different direction. Sonnenshein and Randel were building out the College in ways that began earlier, but they were fighting tradition all the same, and I expect the Trustees brought them in with that mandate. Beadle came in at a time (early sixties) when the decline of the neighborhood had become precipitous and faculty were deserting for the ivies. Hutchins was the boy wonder who must have sold the Trustees on his unique vision.

The odds are that there isn’t another boy wonder or visionary on hand at the present moment, and I doubt the Trustees want to depart from the policies and achievements of Zimmer. The University may have its financial issues (as a certain alumnus was always keen to tell us), but it must also be feeling its oats just at the present time. The trustees won’t be seeking a turnaround specialist or someone to take it in a different direction. There might, however, be a disposition in favor of a woman and/or person of color in a time like the present - if that person has a commitment to the policies of Zimmer (and would be ready to work with Zimmer as he sticks around as Chancellor in a fund-raising role).

I conclude that the odds are high in favor of Ka Lee.

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We can also look at what Pres. Zimmer has said about the succession and see if we can read into why he might be sticking around. From the link I provided above:

“At the conclusion of this academic year, on July 1, 2021, I will segue from the position of president to a position of Chancellor of the University. In that role I will focus on the following issues: i) continuation and evolution of strategic initiatives of the University; ii) re-enforcing the enduring values of the University and our distinctive approach to research, education, and impact; iii) continuing key relationships of the University – with trustees, friends, donors, alumni, and parents; federal, state, county, and city officials; local community leaders and partners; global partners; and leaders and supporters of our key institutional partners – University of Chicago Medical Center, Argonne, Fermilab, and the Marine Biological Laboratory; iv) high level fundraising; and v) working with my successor as president to assist them to better contribute in these directions. As Chancellor, I will also serve as a Trustee of the University. This plan is meant to address the current situation and is not reflective of a permanent change in the structure of University leadership and governance. It is a way for me to help assure an effective transition to my successor and for me to continue to serve the University while doing so.”

The university just completed the highly successful Inquiry and Impact capital campaign - a campaign that exceeded their original goals by $1.4 billion and raised more money for the University of Chicago than it had ever seen - and reached and engaged with more stakeholders, not the least of which were alumni. So it’s pretty clear, IMO, that Zimmer and the trustees wish to continue that momentum. Zimmer is sort of a Key Man here. While his successor will hopefully be able to carry forth the work that he’s set out to do, from “reaffirming our enduring values and consequent approach to research, education, and impact” to all those new partnerships with alumni, community leaders, global affiliates, etc., Zimmer himself is perhaps best identified with all of this. He never invented the message but he was able to articulate it best and was helped by the contrasting zeitgeist of political correctness and cancel culture sweeping through so many other institutions. So Zimmer and the trustees will need to A) select someone that all stakeholders are comfortable with because it signals continuity and B) stick around to ensure that continuity happens. Similar to Marlowe, I don’t see quite the same need for radical change now as existed when Sonnenschein was selected. Zimmer has managed to pull together so many parts - fundraising, outreach, global presence, local partnerships, prestige and selectivity to name just a few - and make them work in tandem that the best thing a successor can accomplish is build on them rather than take the university in some new direction at this point. Not that new directions won’t be needed at some point. The university is famous for pivoting and trying new things. That’s actually part of its identity too.

The latest emphasis on “inclusion” potentially throws a bit of a curveball when it comes to the university’s stated commitment to open speech and inquiry. To balance those principles with that of “inclusion” might be to walk a very thin tightrope in the area of public relations, at the very least! We saw that with the English Department incident and, before that, with the Provost’s invitation for conversation in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Do others from other institutions have the understanding of how these principles can work together that Zimmer et al have? Surely some do. The university will need to select someone who doesn’t confuse “no safe spaces” with being indifferent to matters of race, gender, etc. but that doesn’t mean such a person is only to be found at or previously affiliated with the University of Chicago.

Whoever is the successor, he/she will have to be thrilled with having the ex-president hanging around for a bit and even taking up space on the board. Not necessarily an environment for bold new measures (at least not yet).

Is David Axelrod a possibility? It’d force him to be less political, which might not be what he prefers.

I would highly doubt it. Axelrod hasn’t had an academic career in any sense – running the IOP makes sense because it’s largely about forming political connections, but the work that goes into running academic departments might be quite different.

Here’s something from left field:

If the only metric is fund raising prowess, Ted Snyder would be up there on the list. (also an alum, academic, a former dean at UMich, Yale, UVA and Booth.).