University officials reflect on late President Sonnenschein’s reform legacy at memorial service


The University of Chicago honored former president Hugo Sonnenschein, who served in that role from 1993 to 2000, at a memorial service Saturday, April 30 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. Sonnenschein, 80, died on July 15, 2021 in Hyde Park. Sonnenschein is credited with transforming the undergraduate curriculum, campus facilities, and the reputation of the university through a series of radical policy reforms.

President Paul Alivisatos spoke first during the service. “I so regret never having had the opportunity to meet Hugo. I feel lucky to have the opportunity to know him through his important legacy: the lasting and impactful changes he brought about as a as President, his reputation as a leading economist and the generation of students, scholars and administrators he has inspired and mentored throughout his long and distinguished career.

In 1996, Sonnenschein presented a plan for the College which recommended an increase in the undergraduate population from 3,550 to 4,500 students. However, Sonnenschein also believed that an increase in demand for the College must precede an increase in class size. To this end, Sonnenschein determined that the University needed to be selected more frequently by talented students in order to raise its national ranking.

To make the College more attractive to applicants, he suggested a reduction in the number of required courses for the undergraduate core curriculum, which led to intense and at times contentious debate among faculty at the University before it was put into effect. works in 1999.

In his remarks, Board of Trustees Chairman Joseph Neubauer disclosed that the acceptance rate for the Class of 2026 was the lowest in the University’s history. “With an admission rate of 5%, an output of 80% and a university population of 7,400 students, we have achieved what [Sonnenschein] imagined for us,” Neubauer said. The College Admissions Office did not respond to Brownrequest for confirmation of these figures.

Admissions statistics have changed dramatically since the days of Sonnenschein’s presidency; in 1993, the University’s acceptance rate was 77%. In 2006, the acceptance rate was 38% and in 2010, 18%.

Sonnenschein’s reforms also increased the University’s endowment from $1.2 billion in 1993 to $2.9 billion in 2000. A stronger financial position enabled Sonnenschein to introduce its Campus Master Plan, which suggested adding additional facilities on campus, including the Gerald Ratner Athletic Center, Max Palevsky Residential Commons, more science facilities, and a campus for the Booth School of Business.

Sonnenschein’s colleagues and friends reflected on his character and how that enabled him to adopt such innovative policies. “In true UChicago fashion, [Sonnenschein] always asked the right questions. He always got to the facts and acted accordingly. Hugo fully embraced the values ​​and aspirations of our university, but understood [that] to preserve and protect these values ​​in the future, difficult decisions had to be made,” said Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law and former provost Geoffrey Stone.

University chancellor Robert Zimmer, who served as president from 2006 to 2021, believed Sonnenschein’s impact stemmed from his thoughtful approach to his role. “Hugo and I agreed on a lot of things, and also often disagreed. I respected and admired him a lot for his independence of thought and for the fact that he was always ready to discuss disagreements,” said Zimmer.

“Even though Hugo rose to the pinnacle of higher education leadership, he never ceased to be a remarkably gifted teacher. Only the nature of his class and his students changed,” said Steven Poskanzer, former chief of staff in the president’s office.”As accomplished as Hugo was, his ego was never wrapped up in being a college president. It freed him to model honesty in leadership .


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