Email from President Robert J. Zimmer (Mar. 18, 2020)

From: Robert J. Zimmer, President
Subject: Letter regarding the COVID-19 challenge

Dear Members of the University Community,

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting global public health challenge have had a major impact on the world, individual nations, our state and city, and the University. Because of the nature of the health challenge, responsive actions not just by individuals but by communities have been required at many levels. The University, informed by the epidemiology expertise at the Pritzker School of Medicine and the Medical Center, and in coordination with federal, state, and city agencies responsible for public health guidance such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has taken a number of steps to contribute to the safety of our community and that of the citizens of South Side and Chicago more broadly, and to participate responsibly in the effort to address this serious global public health challenge.

The expertise, commitment, leadership, and extraordinarily difficult and hard work of those at the Pritzker School of Medicine and the Medical Center, involving both epidemiological issues and medical care, are playing a critical role, not only in informing our own actions, but in the response of the city and state to this expanding health challenge. This is something our entire community can be proud of.

Several of the actions the University has taken have not been easy for the University community as a whole or for individual faculty, students, and staff who have been significantly affected in a variety of ways. The situation highlights classic questions about the relationship of individuals and community. In this context, I would like to offer some reflections on the University of Chicago community and our relationship to both the individuals it comprises and the larger communities of which we are a part. 

Since its inception in 1890, the University has been defined by an enduring commitment to rigorous inquiry, intellectual challenge, constant questioning, free and uninhibited discourse, argumentation, seriousness of intellectual purpose, and the importance of diverse perspectives and backgrounds. This enduring commitment is one of great power – providing students the education, intellectual skills, and habits of mind that will most enable them to successfully confront the complex challenges they will face in their futures; giving faculty the intellectually free and challenging environment for fostering their most original and insightful research; and having an impact on understanding the world and enriching the quality of human life. It provides guiding principles for all our actions. On campus each day, at the University and the Medical Center, the participation and effort of each faculty member, student, and staff member contribute to fulfilling these enduring commitments and to the University’s distinctive meaning, values, and approach to understanding, education, and impact. This has been and remains at the essence of the University of Chicago campus community.

The University of Chicago community extends well beyond those on campus. Our alumni and friends who believe in the meaning and values of the University and reflect this through their advocacy, engagement, and commitment, our patients and their families and friends who trust us with providing the best health care available, and the parents of our students who trust us with the education of their children are likewise part of our community. So too are the scientists and staff at Argonne, Fermilab, and the Marine Biological Laboratory. Moreover, we have partners – local organizations on the South Side, agencies within the city and state, and foundation partners – enabling important and impactful work that we can only accomplish together. Without the work every day of our faculty, students, and staff at the University and Medical Center, national laboratories, centers and campuses abroad, and the commitment, advocacy, engagement, and trust of this broader community and our partners, the University would not be able to live up to our highest aspirations. It is indeed this full community, in its complexity but also in its clarity of commitment and belief in the enduring values and meaning of the University, that enables us to fulfill our highest aspirations in every endeavor we undertake, supports our faculty and students in their research and education at the most rigorous level, and enables the long-term understanding and impact that this rigor of thought catalyzes.

I want to express my thanks to every member of this community for the commitment they have shown to the University, its values, its meaning, and our community.

While our community always confronts challenges, often serious ones, the challenge that the COVID-19 pandemic creates has a quality that is discordant with many aspects of how our community functions. The key aspect of a pandemic is, of course, that every individual is very directly part of a system of potential transmission of disease. One may be healthy, one may be infected and not be aware of it, one may be on the way to being ill, or one may be ill – independent of one’s current state of health, each of us is part of a system of public health with the capacity to transmit disease. It is for this evident reason (together with the simple arithmetic of exponential growth), that social distancing and other standard health practices become the critical methods for slowing the transmission of disease, particularly when no vaccine is available. The stakes are high. For each of us, the potential for contributing to transmission of the disease to others in our University community, and very importantly to the broader communities of the South Side, Chicago, and beyond, is a serious responsibility. And it is likewise the responsibility of the University to ensure that the environment we are providing at this time comports with the imperative of social distancing, both to protect our own community’s health, and to act responsibly with respect to the public health challenges of the broader communities of which we are a part.

One reason this challenge is so discordant with the University’s culture is that our culture of rigorous investigation and education is built on engagement. The discourse and questioning in the classrooms, laboratories, libraries, arts venues, residence halls, hospitals, offices, and common rooms that are at the heart of our intellectual endeavor take place in an environment of interaction. So too does the work of our staff, who interact and work together, often as teams, in the fulfillment of their critical responsibilities. This is so central to our culture, for good reason, that the necessity of social distancing is challenging not only for personal reasons, but for the nature of our University community. 

Each of us is already experiencing a sense of questioning and potentially a sense of loss. Faculty and students will be working together to understand remote education. Students have been asked to vacate residence halls.  Faculty need to consider the operation of laboratories and research programs. Long-planned conferences, visits, workshops, and seminars have been postponed.  Important travel has been canceled. Many staff have been asked to work from home, and therefore need to develop new modes of functioning together with the teams of which they are a part. Meetings in which administrative decisions are being discussed are taking place remotely. At every turn, the University’s modes of function are being affected in a way that feels discordant with our long-standing defining culture. We all need to recognize this, and at the same time need to recognize the necessity of these actions because of our responsibility to each other and to the broader communities of which we are a part.

On the other hand, there is often something of value to learn from a new situation, and I am confident this will be the case here as well. Our challenge, whether for faculty, students, or staff, is to maintain the values and the meaning of the University throughout this period (which will end, even if that date is uncertain) in which we need to operate differently. This is a task for us as individuals, and a task for us as a community. None of us would have chosen to be in this situation. But given the imagination, creativity, resourcefulness, commitment, energy, and hard work that is so characteristic of our community, I am confident in our collective ability to accomplish this task. In doing so, we may well learn new approaches that can be of value in other circumstances.

While we are all understandably and rightly focused on this major challenge of the moment, it is important to reflect upon the many challenges the University community has faced over its 130-year history. Each challenge needs to be addressed on its own terms. The commitment to the values and meaning of the University has enabled those in the past to overcome the challenges of their time. The COVID-19 pandemic is not our only challenge, but it is certainly one of the salient challenges of our time. It is up to us as a community to address it. I am deeply confident that we shall, and I want to acknowledge the sacrifice this sometimes entails, and express my profound thanks, appreciation, and admiration for your work and commitment to the University, its community, and the many larger communities of which we are a part and to which we have a responsibility.

Robert J. Zimmer
President, University of Chicago