Chicago’s brutal winter may be setting new records – last week the mercury fell to -29°C – but the city’s notorious climate has not dulled the desire to work or study at its flagship university.
The University of Chicago’s latest undergraduate acceptance rate was a record low 7.2 per cent, while research quality remains exceptionally high: only Harvard and Princeton universities have won more Nobel prizes this century than Chicago, whose alumni and staff have taken more than 90 awards.
But the ability of Chicago, and US universities more generally, to attract top academic talent is not being helped by the messages on immigration from the current US government, said Robert Zimmer, Chicago’s president since 2006.
“Immigration has been a huge competitive advantage for our country – our scientific output is only what it is because we are a country where people want to work and do so very successfully,” said Professor Zimmer in an interview with Times Higher Education.
“But this [advantage] is under strain – there are a lot more questions about whether we are communicating this message and researchers are asking ‘should I go to Canada, the UK or Australia instead?’” he added.
Professor Zimmer proposed that the US should send a powerful message that it was open to research talent by granting automatic permanent residency to anyone who completed a PhD at a US university.
“We attract enormously talented individuals and spend years training them within our research systems, but often make it very difficult for them to stay,” he explained. “Why would we not want to welcome them?”
Chicago’s growing numbers of international scholars and academics born to those from outside the US – one of whom, for 12 years until 2004, included a law lecturer named Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan visiting scholar and Kansas-born mother – have been an important factor in the university’s continued success in recent years, Professor Zimmer continued.
“When we have faculty dinners, I often look around the table and the majority of staff are either born outside the US or their parents were,” he said.
The 44th US president visits his old workplace “only periodically”, admitted Professor Zimmer, but he was nonetheless excited about the $500 million (£383 million) Barack Obama Presidential Center, due to open near Chicago’s main campus next year.
That centre will be “completely independent” of the university, but Professor Zimmer said that he foresaw some exciting collaborations with Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.
Indeed, some wonder whether this tie-up could give Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government a run for its money. “We’re interested in bringing a cadre of young, but highly accomplished leaders to the Harris School,” said Professor Zimmer, but he added that Chicago, with its “different angles and slants” on public policy, would always “aspire to do its own things”, rather than emulate a prestigious peer.
Another point of differentiation from the top-tier US research universities is Chicago’s substantial international presence, with its Booth School of Business established in Beijing, Hong Kong, Paris and London. Having a global network of wealthy alumni will also help Chicago to meet its $5 billion fundraising target next year, with one Booth alumnus being Microsoft’s Indian-born chief executive Satya Nadella, who shared a platform with Professor Zimmer at a Davos event last month.
Chicago’s fierce commitment to free speech has also been a reason that wealthy donors have backed the institution. When hedge fund boss Ken Griffin gave $125 million to the university in November 2017, it was reported that he made the donation in part because Chicago had “been outspoken in its resistance to safe spaces and trigger warnings, eschewing policies on other campuses [seen as] threatening free speech”.
Professor Zimmer has been lauded for his commitment to ensuring that controversial speakers are not disinvited or discouraged, with dozens of institutions subsequently signing up to the “Chicago principles” laid down in 2014 and reaffirmed in 2016. A year ago, he faced a backlash among some faculty for defending an invitation to campus for Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist who has been accused of promoting right-wing nationalist policies.
Would having the former Breitbart news chief, who has yet to take up his invitation, at Chicago’s business school really further academic enquiry there? Do his well-known and unwavering views add much to proceedings? “I get this argument, but our rules are clear – if students or faculty want to invite someone who will add value, it is up to them who is invited,” said Professor Zimmer, pointing out that his predecessor in the 1930s was supportive of communists’ right to speak on campus.
“This isn’t something we’ve just thought about – I spoke about it for six months before it gained any traction,” he said. “It’s an issue that has been at the core of the university for 120 years.”