Hugh Sonnenschein, controversial former University of Chicago president, dead at 80

He drew criticism from students and scholars including Saul Bellow for a university push to expand enrollment and cut the number of required courses to let students take more electives.

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Hugo Sonnenschein, who was president of the University of Chicago from 1993 to 2000.

Hugo Sonnenschein, who was president of the University of Chicago from 1993 to 2000.

Sun Times file

Hugo Sonnenschein, former president of the University of Chicago, died Thursday at 80 at the University of Chicago Medical Center, according to the school.

An economist, Mr. Sonnenschein was the 11th of 13 presidents at the 131-year-old institution, holding that post from 1993 to 2000.

When he announced he was stepping down in 1999, he said, “It is time for another president, one who is less a symbol of change, to carry the momentum forward.”

He’d drawn criticism for pushing to reduce the number of required courses to allow students to take more electives and for expanding enrollment — a move regarded as a way to generate tuition dollars and a robust network of alumni and benefactors.

His efforts drew pushback from some students, alumni and prominent university scholars — among them writer Saul Bellow — who argued the changes diluted academic standards. The school has had 94 Nobel laureates among its faculty, students, researchers and alumni.

Back then, Mr. Sonnenschein said the university still “puts the life of the mind and intellectual seriousness first, but there are other activities in which intellectually serious people are engaged. And we want an academic community that is attractive to this broader type of individual.”

His vision was “controversial at the time, but has proven to be a critical component of the evolution of the college,” Robert J. Zimmer, the current U. of C. president, and provost Ka Yee C. Lee said in a written statement Thursday.

They said Mr. Sonnenschein’s tenure brought an expanded capital campaign to pay for projects including construction of the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center, the Charles M. Harper Center that’s the Booth School of Business’ main building and “Max P,” new dorms formally known as the Max Palevsky Residential Commons.

A cyclist, hiker and windsurfer, Mr. Sonnenschein had a gregarious, approachable style, often chatting with students on campus.

He previously was provost of Princeton University, where he taught for 12 years. He was a dean in the school of arts and sciences at the University of Pennsylvania and had a doctorate in economics from Purdue University. In the 1970s, he taught at Northwestern University. He also was an instructor at the Universities of Minnesota and Massachusetts at Amherst.

Mr. Sonnenschein is survived by his wife Elizabeth Gunn Sonnenschein, his daughters Leah, Amy, and Rachel, and five grandchildren.

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