Hugo Sonnenschein, who as the 11th president of the University of Chicago led a construction wave of the Hyde Park campus, boosted undergraduate enrollment and controversially reduced the size of the school's famous Core curriculum, died on July 15 in Chicago. He was 80.
He was born in New York City on Nov. 14, 1940, received a bachelor's degree from the University of Rochester in 1961 and earned a master's degree and doctorate in economics from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, in 1962 and 1964, respectively.
He taught at the universities of Minnesota and Massachusetts as well as Northwestern and Princeton, publishing research on a wide variety of economic topics, before becoming dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1988.
Sonnenschein then returned to Princeton, in New Jersey, to become provost in 1991. He returned to Chicagoland two years later to assume the U. of C. presidency, taking office after the 15-year administration of Hannah H. Gray. After retiring from that role, he became a distinguished service professor before taking emeritus status and becoming an honorary trustee. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
When Sonnenschein took office, on Oct. 20, 1993, the U. of C. had not had a new master plan in around three decades. Under his leadership, the school broke ground on the Cesar Pelli-designed Gerald Ratner Athletics Center, 5530 S. Ellis Ave., the Rafael Viñoly-designed Charles M. Harper Center of the then-named Graduate School of Business, 5807 S. Woodlawn Ave., and the Ricardo Legorreta-designed Max Palevsky Residential Commons for undergraduates, 1101 E. 56th St.
Reform of College education became the hallmark of Sonnenschein’s presidency. He accelerated the enrollment trend from Gray's administration, which saw around 800 more undergraduates join over her 15-year presidency. In his seven years, the College grew by 561 students, and the rate of increase has stayed the same since then. As of last fall, enrollment at the College stood at 7,011 undergraduates.
More contentious was Sonnenschein’s reform of the U. of C. College Core curriculum for first- and second-year students: a liberal arts program of humanities, natural and social science material alongside an interdisciplinary component.
As The New York Times reported near the end of Sonnenschein's term in 1998, "after a bruising debate" the number of required courses declined from roughly half of students' undergraduate classes — their first two years had largely been predetermined, the newspaper reported — to a third. The U. of C. also began encouraging students to study abroad for the first time; today, a little under half do.
The U. of C. faculty and student body, nearly a half century after leaving the Big 10 conference and largely inured to a much-less-vibrant Hyde Park at the time, had a mixed reaction to the changes, The Times and the Tribune reported.
In 1999, 1,700 people attended an ironically named "fun-in" to protest the Sonnenschein administration's attempts to brighten the U. of C.'s dour image, such as a glossy marketing campaign for undergraduate admissions.
Nevertheless, the school did become more selective. In 1998, more than 60% of applicants were accepted, far more than Harvard University’s 13% that year. This year, 3.43% of Harvard applicants got in, and 8.73% of U. of C. applicants did.
In 1998, only 5% of U. of C. alumni's children matriculated at the College — far below, The Times noted, the 10-20% of alumni children who matriculated at top Ivy League colleges, which surveys showed reflected a concern among U. of C. alumni that their children would not be happy at the university.
Howard Krane, who chaired the U. of C. Board of Trustees from 1992 to 1999, said Sonnenschein never took a compliment personally, always giving credit to those with whom he worked. He credited him with increasing capital both by fundraising and by increasing the number of undergraduates. He added that Sonnenschein made the university substantially less of a place where fun goes to die.
With more students, the university has become a much livelier place, Krane said, and Sonnenschein made substantial contributions to student life by way of facilities and campus activities.
"We made the College experience so much more than it had been in the past," said Krane. "I think he was a transformative president, and I think much of what has happened since is due to his planning."
Indeed, the U. of C. has continued expansion, particularly south of the Midway Plaisance and in the medical campus, in the early decades of the 21st century, after the short presidency of Sonnenschein's successor, Don Michael Randel, into incumbent Robert Zimmer’s administration. (Zimmer took office in 2006 and plans to retire this year.)
The university reports that Sonnenschein is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Gunn Sonnenschein, three daughters and five grandchildren.
"Hugo once said to me, 'I would be happy when I hear the trustees are sending their children and grandchildren to the University of Chicago College,’" Krane said. "I have had two grandkids who have graduated from there."