To the Editor: 

Your article on the death of former University of Chicago president Hugo Sonnenschein (page 4) touched on a number of his accomplishments, often achieved in the face of intense opposition from faculty and students. One action that went unmentioned had a profound impact on my own life.

Hugo, as he was known to most of us, was a strong and steady supporter of the creation of the North Kenwood Oakland Charter School, the University’s first charter school, for which I served as the Founding Director. Linking the University’s name to a school serving Black students on Chicago’s South Side was a risky business, hardly a slam dunk success.

Hugo invited me and Tony Bryk, the director of the Urban Education Institute, which was to oversee the school, to a meeting of the University’s trustees to present plans for the school. His critics were primed to use this meeting to attack what seemed like an unwise decision. When Tony finished displaying his slides on the overhead projector — these were the pre-power point days — the first trustee jumped right in to ask two related questions: Why is the University doing this, and what is our exit strategy?

I’ve told this story many times in different settings, but what follows still stirs deep feelings in me. Hugo launched into what sounded like it was going to be a safe and evasive response that began something like this: “The University of Chicago is a great research university, and the school will allow us to engage in valuable research …” And then he stopped in mid-sentence to pivot in a completely different direction. “Besides, it’s the right thing to do, and there is no exit strategy. We are totally committed to making the school a success and a valuable asset to the community.”

Hugo had shed his bureaucratic lab coat and traded it for a simple cloak of humanity, a rare exchange for a man in his position. He remained true to his word through his entire tenure as president. This act of courage is what I would like to remember and thank him for.

Marvin Hoffman

Founding Director

University of Chicago Charter Schools - North Kenwood Oakland Campus

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