• Hugo Sonnenschein, 11th president of the University of Chicago, 1940-2021

    Man (Hugo Sonnenschein) smiling in front of chalk board

    University administrator and economist remembered for overseeing change during tenure

    Hugo Sonnenschein, a renowned economist and longtime university administrator who led the University of Chicago through a transformational period as its 11th president, died July 15. He was 80 years old.

    A member of the University community for nearly three decades, Sonnenschein most recently served as the Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics. He was a beloved mentor and scholar who continued to teach undergraduate and graduate courses, having made original contributions on questions of multimarket demand and supply functions in economics. His research helped establish the modern theory of aggregate demand.

    Man smiling in front of UChicago office windowAs UChicago president from 1993 to 2000, Sonnenschein strengthened the recruitment of outstanding students and faculty, developed a strategic plan to expand the undergraduate College, and devoted greater resources to the construction of new facilities and to improving the quality of campus life.

    “Hugo’s tireless work led to substantial improvements during his time as president, and set the stage for many of the advances the University has made in the decades since,” wrote President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Ka Yee C. Lee in a message to the University community. “He was a leader of foresight whose achievements will be remembered with deep respect.”

    Sonnenschein became UChicago president on July 1, 1993, after having served as provost of Princeton University. In his inaugural address on campus that fall, Sonnenschein warned of “the intellectual, economic and social thickets” that the University would face in the future. “Let us come together bravely, willing to question and challenge all that we do,” he said.

    Sonnenschein raised expectations for fundraising from the University’s alumni and friends; during his tenure, the University completed a $676 million capital campaign—the most in its history at the time. Sonnenschein also instituted the first campus master-planning process in 30 years, which led to the eventual construction of the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center, a new campus for the Graduate School of Business (now Chicago Booth) and two new residence halls for undergraduate students.

    “Hugo’s tireless work led to substantial improvements during his time as president, and set the stage for many of the advances the University has made in the decades since.”

    —President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Ka Yee C. Lee in a message to the University community

    While maintaining the strength of the University’s renowned graduate programs, Sonnenschein initiated a program to improve the College’s appeal to undergraduate students. At the same time, curricular developments, including the faculty revision of the renowned Core curriculum, led to greater student opportunities for studying abroad and learning foreign languages.

    In spring 1996, Sonnenschein announced a plan to enlarge the size of the undergraduate College by 1,000 students over the course of a decade, while reducing the number of required courses in the Core—proposals that led to spirited debate among UChicago faculty members, students and alumni. John W. Boyer, who has served as dean of the College for 29 years, including Sonnenschein’s tenure as president, said Sonnenschein’s vision has stood the test of time.

    “Hugo Sonnenschein was a remarkably strategic leader who made an enormous contribution to the welfare and future success of the University,” said Boyer. “He was a man of decisiveness and courage who helped set in motion patterns of deep structural renewal and transformation for the University that have endured into our times. His passing is an extraordinary loss for the spirit of the University. His foresight and leadership through a time of great challenge and controversy made possible many dynamic features of the University that we enjoy today.”

      Two men sitting and speaking into microphones (Hugo Sonnenschein and John W. Boyer)  

    In a 2017 interview with the University of Rochester, his alma mater, Sonnenschein reflected upon the change he tried to initiate during his UChicago tenure.

    “A primary purpose of academic leadership is to guide a university to appreciate its strengths, to examine what it can do better, and to help it to serve society,” Sonnenschein told the Rochester Review. “We are expected to lead the cheers, but we must also hold up a mirror. Great universities need to be challenged.”

    When Sonnenschein announced his plans to expand the College in 1996, more than 3,600 students were enrolled in the College. That number has nearly doubled; in fall 2020, UChicago welcomed around 7,000 undergraduates. The University has continued to expand access and financial aid to students of all backgrounds, while remaining one of the nation’s most highly selective institutions.

    “Like other transformative presidents, Sonnenschein thought in imaginative yet clear-eyed ways about the connections between undergraduate education in the College and the strength of research and scholarship in the Divisions and the Professional Schools,” Boyer said. “Several decades after his famous letter of April 1996 urging an increase in the size of the College and more investments in the experience of undergraduates, his advocacy of the idea of a College that would become a compelling destination for the most talented of students still looms large in the history of the University.”

    “Hugo Sonnenschein was a remarkably strategic leader who made an enormous contribution to the welfare and future success of the University.’’

    —John W. Boyer, dean of the College

    Renowned scholar and beloved mentor

    After he retired as president in 2000, Sonnenschein returned to the UChicago economics faculty. He remained active in research and taught an undergraduate course in game theory and a graduate course in microeconomic theory.

    As an economic theorist, Sonnenschein was a beloved mentor and scholar who made significant contributions to the field. His first paper in Econometrica in 1965 grappled with important questions on the consistency of consumer choices. Sonnenschein showed that a consumer’s overall consistency could be boiled down to their consistency over items between which they are indifferent. His approach to consumer choice theory has since become the standard in the field.

    Sonnenschein’s early work on consumer choice led to questions concerning market interactions between many consumers. The now-famous Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu theorem states that how the economy as a whole reacts to price changes—in contrast to how individuals react—is essentially impossible to predict without placing unrealistic assumptions on the distribution of income and preferences across the economy itself. The effects ripple through economic theory to this day.

    In 2009, the BBVA Foundation honored Sonnenschein with the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Economics, Finance and Management, shared with economist Andreu Mas-Colell. The award jury cited Sonnenschein and Mas-Colell for “extending the reach and applicability of general equilibrium theory and for establishing the modern theory of aggregate demand. Their work revealed the robustness of general equilibrium analysis and its wide applicability even when economic agents are not fully rational.”

    “It’s clear that he’s both been an exemplary scholar and an exemplary teacher,” said Stanford University economist and Nobel laureate Alvin Roth in 2015, during a UChicago conference honoring Sonnenschein.

    Some of Sonnenschein’s most recent research focused on the difficult problem of designing efficient bargaining mechanisms in dynamic settings that involve incomplete information about preferences. 

    He cared deeply about progress in economic theory, and he was always devoted to helping younger scholars advance and contribute to the field. He collaborated with many students, and was a generous adviser across several decades. In the seven years when he served as editor of Econometrica, his active encouragement and guidance of new research helped to make those years a transformative period for economics.

      Three people smiling and embracing  

     

    “Hugo was always an inspiring presence in the department. His wisdom and experience in faculty meetings and around the seminar and lunch tables improved our collective decision-making,” said Prof. Robert Shimer, chair of the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics. “His grace and equanimity made work more pleasant and productive. He was always kind, supportive, and optimistic. His advice was invaluable to me as a researcher and more recently as department chair.”

    Prof. Philip J. Reny, who studied under Sonnenschein at Princeton University before becoming a colleague on the UChicago faculty, described his mentor as “a giant” in the fields of general equilibrium and economic theory. As a graduate student at Princeton, Reny remembered a student skit night in which a student portrayed Sonnenschein as Fred Rogers of the PBS show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”—a testament to a teaching style that was “elegant, gentle and encouraging.”

    “Aside from his brilliance, which was immense, his great asset was his ability to the see value in his students’ ideas which he nurtured better than anyone I know,” said Reny, now the Hugo F. Sonnenschein Distinguished Service Professor in the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics. “He would never miss an opportunity to tell us that what we were doing was important work, which had a tremendous impact on us. He was one of the great scholars and mentors of his generation and will deeply missed by all whom he touched.”

    Stanford University’s Matthew O. Jackson, another former student, said Sonnenschein was a “legendary” mentor who supported groundbreaking research in economic theory for many decades. “It is not just that Hugo had an uncanny ability to ask the right questions and excelled at teaching others to do the same, but also that his advice and friendship were lifelong gifts,” Jackson said. “He loved people—getting to know them and being part of their lives. Despite the abundance of people for whom Hugo had a deep and sustained influence, he always treated you as family.”

    “Aside from his brilliance, which was immense, his great asset was his ability to the see value in his students’ ideas which he nurtured better than anyone I know.”

    —Prof. Philip J. Reny

    Born Nov. 14, 1940, Sonnenschein grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He attended the University of Rochester, where his interest in mathematics led him to study economist Kenneth Arrow’s research on social choice. He received an bachelor’s in mathematics from the University of Rochester in 1961, and the following year, married Elizabeth Gunn, whom he had met during his first year at Rochester.

    Sonnenschein received a Ph.D. in economics from Purdue University in 1964. Later that year, was named an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, where he served on the faculty until 1970. He then served as professor at the University of Massachusetts from 1970 to 1973; professor at Northwestern University from 1973 to 1976; professor at Princeton University from 1976 to 1988; a faculty member and dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania from 1988 to 1991; and provost of Princeton University from 1991 to 1993.

    Sonnenschein was an honorary trustee of the University of Chicago and a member of the Board of Trustees of the University of Rochester. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the American Philosophical Society and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association. He was also a fellow in the Econometric Society (1972) and president of the Econometric Society (1988 to 1989, 1991).

    He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Gunn Sonnenschein, a retired cancer epidemiologist who served on the faculty of the University of Illinois at Chicago and New York University; their three daughters, Leah, Amy and Rachel; and five grandchildren.

    To donate to the Elizabeth and Hugo Sonnenschein Scholarship Fund at the University of Chicago, click here.

    Photos by: J.T. Miller, courtesy of the Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center; Matthew Gilson, courtesy of the Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center; Photo courtesy of the Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center; Photo by Robert Kozloff

    This story was originally published as a UChicago News article. The original article can be found at news.uchicago.edu

     

  • UChicago mourns loss of former President Hugo Sonnenschein

    Man (Hugo Sonnenschein) delivering speech at podium

    Editor’s note: The following message was sent July 15 to members of the University of Chicago community from President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Ka Yee C. Lee.

    With great sadness, we are writing to inform the University community of the death of former University of Chicago President Hugo Sonnenschein at the age of 80.

    Hugo’s profound impact on the University went well beyond his service as its 11th president from 1993 to 2000. A member of the University community for nearly three decades, he most recently served as the Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics. He was a beloved mentor and scholar who continued to teach undergraduate and graduate courses, having made original contributions on questions of multimarket demand and supply functions in economics.

    As president, Hugo provided visionary leadership during a transformational period for the University. He helped strengthen the recruitment of faculty and students and made tremendous strides in fundraising.  Very importantly, he initiated a vital expansion of the College.  This was controversial at the time, but has proven to be a critical component of the evolution of the College and its capacity to reinforce and expand upon the enduring values and approach to education of the College and University. He devoted substantial energy to much-needed improvements in the quality of campus life, working closely with Dean of the College John W. Boyer. Hugo’s tireless work led to substantial improvements during his time as president, and set the stage for many of the advances the University has made in the decades since. He was a leader of foresight whose achievements will be remembered with deep respect.

    During Hugo’s tenure, the University completed an important capital campaign—the largest in its history at the time. He also instituted the first campus master-planning process in 30 years, which led to the eventual construction of the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center, the Harper Center of what is now the Booth School of Business, and the Max Palevsky Residential Commons for College students. Some of Hugo’s proposals led to spirited debate on campus, including plans to enlarge the size of the College, expand study abroad opportunities, and update the Core curriculum while retaining its vital place in undergraduate life. Hugo knew that some of these initiatives could be challenging for the University community, but time has proven that they greatly benefitted the University over the long term.

    HugoMan (Hugo Sonnenschein) standing in front of a chalkboard in a classroom received a Ph.D. in economics from Purdue University in 1964, and served in the economics faculties of the University of Minnesota, the University of Massachusetts, Northwestern University, and Princeton University. He was a faculty member and dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania from 1988 to 1991, and provost of Princeton from 1991 to 1993. He was an honorary trustee of the University of Chicago and a member of the Board of Trustees of the University of Rochester. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the American Philosophical Society, and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association.

    Hugo is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Gunn Sonnenschein, their three daughters, and five grandchildren.

    We will share further information in the near future on a memorial service and other plans to celebrate Hugo’s life. Please join us in sharing our sympathy for his family, and for his many colleagues and friends at the University of Chicago and around the world.

    Photos by Joel Wintermantle, and J.T. Miller, courtesy of the Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center.

    This story was originally published as a UChicago News article. The original article can be found at news.uchicago.edu

  • The risk and rewards of scaling studies into policies

    A panel from the University of Chicago and Brookings Institution explored what goes wrong — and what can go right — when researchers and policymakers undertake the science of scaling

    By Sarah Steimer

    When evidence-based programs and policies show positive results for a small sample size, there’s a strong desire to scale so that many more may see the benefits. Citizens and lawmakers can enthusiastically latch onto the adoption of such interventions on a larger scale — but expansions don’t always deliver the anticipated societal benefits. The result can instead be a waste of resources, a missed opportunity on improving lives and a loss of public trust in the role of science in policymaking.

    To explore the scalability in policymaking, a June 17 panel co-hosted by Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and the University of Chicago’s TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health and Griffin Applied Economics Incubator brought together researchers, practitioners, and government innovation experts.

    The discussion led off with an acknowledgement that scaling programs or policies means involving far more stakeholders than initially necessary in the study. Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program and director of the Center for Effective Public Management at Brookings, pointed to the myriad variables outside the research to be considered. She argued for viewing policymaking as a battlefield: Look not just at the idea and whether it’s good, but assess the inside players and outside players. Then consider the public and whether there will be a public reaction, strategy, tactic, and conflicts.

    “We are only at the beginning of the process when we're looking at good, solid research that maybe should be scaled,” Kamarck said. “Then we get into a very murky world, particularly when we're talking about government.”

    The panel — moderated by Omar Woodard, vice president of solutions at Results for America — explored the roadblocks to scaling programs and policies, along with some ways to overcome barriers to success.

    Man smilingObstacles to scaling

    Woodard pointed to four sources of challenges around scaling evidence-based programs, as identified by University of Chicago researchers, including panelists John List and Dana Suskind, both founders and co-director of the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health.

    The first challenge is representation: Individuals studied in the research setting often aren't representative of the population at large, making the results difficult to replicate. Second, the specifics of the program may not be representative of how it’s actually delivered in a broader, real-world context. Third, the initial promising results are interpreted incorrectly, meaning there's not enough sufficient evidence to actually support scaling in the first place. Fourth, there are often spillover effects in the initial study that weren't accounted for, so the effects of the program may be stronger than the initial research. Because the research really didn't measure those effects, there’s not a clear sense of the benefits or harms.

    List added a fifth challenge: diseconomies of scale. If you expand a program or policy, does it just cost a lot of money? And will keeping it within a budget mean downgrading to lower-quality inputs?

    “If they don't satisfy these five threats to scalability, they'll fail,” List said, “regardless of how ingenious the people who are carrying them out are.”

    When programs don’t scale, both science and policymakers take a hit to their credibility. Kamarck said policymakers have a difficult time knowing when evidence is actionable, because it requires them to predict the future. “There are people who may admit to the science, but who are skeptical that if you look down the street and around the corner, that the science will not hold,” she said.

    Woman smilingPolicy-based evidence and momentum

    List described what he calls three links of knowledge creation. The first link he calls the philanthropy of science, or how to generate dollars to fund science The second link is related to overcoming scalability concerns among policymakers.

    “We always talk about evidence-based policy, we need to be thinking about policy-based evidence,” List said. “What are the incentives in the system right now that researchers, policymakers, and individuals are doing the right thing to put forward actionable evidence that will really work?”

    From here, he points to prescriptions such as including the research’s original scientists on the program implementation team. These experts would spell out all negotiables and non-negotiables in their original research design.

    The third link in the chain is political will. And policymakers will feel more driven to enact research-based policies at a broader scale if researchers can provide greater certainty to what’s down the street and around the corner.

    Speaking from the policymaker perspective, Michael Nutter, the former mayor of Philadelphia, emphasized the benefits of scaling up gradually with a pilot project, for example. “That's the government's level of risk-taking: We're willing to do this little thing,” he said. “It may or may not work, but it’s not so big that it’ll cause the place to collapse if it doesn't work. The challenge, like most other things, is quality control.”

    Nutter also underscored the need for momentum, as scaling a project may take time. To this, Kamarck recommended making the bureaucracy the audience for scaling programs. At the federal level, she said, bureaucrats can stay for 20 or 30 years, versus an elected official who may only hold office for one term.

    Don’t just read data, tell stories

    Even when there’s certainty around the scalability of a program or policy, people need to believe in the possibilities. As Nutter explains it, you need to bring people down the street with you through storytelling.

    What moves academic studies and research forward is press coverage, Kamarck argues. “Press coverage requires stories, it requires anecdotes, it requires something that makes the data come alive,” she said. “If you can get press coverage, and if you can get stories, you can get a politician to talk about it. And politicians are experts at turning complicated things into kitchen table language.”

    Stories are so powerful that they can even create false positives. List references the D.A.R.E. program, which had only one set of results from Honolulu — which could be neither scaled nor replicated. But the narrative was so powerful that the program was rolled out nationally.

    To convince a policymaker to adopt a research story to tell their audience, the study itself must be believably scalable. Kamarck said this is where researchers need to put themselves in the shoes of policymakers and practitioners and understand what barriers to adoption could exist. “You do no good by developing programs that are the Cadillac of all programs that are unattainable and incredibly expensive,” she said.

    The importance of equity in scaling

    Scaling studies into evidence-based policies and programs must include a conversation about equity, List said.

    “There needs to be evidence both based on how big the pie is, but also on how that pie is divided,” he said. He urged researchers to consider multi-site trials or how — over space and time — the pieces of the pie may go. “That's what we should be doing as researchers in the very beginning in the petri dish, figuring out: Does this work? And who does it work for? Is that the value proposition we want society to take?”

    Kamarck echoed List, saying researchers need to build equity into the data collection. Oversample to ensure your study shows how a policy could affect a wide range of people.

    List also noted the importance of rolling out policies and programs in a way that continues to track the data. That way, reviewers can take continuous measurement to ensure the program delivers on the research’s original promises on equity.

    It can be done

    The barriers and solutions of scaling research may seem onerous, but the panelists emphasized the benefits of the work.

    “The science of science and understanding scaling is, without a doubt, one of the most critical issues that we face in having a fiscally responsible government and truly giving our population a better quality of life,” Suskind said.

    And while scaling research into larger policies and programs can make an outsize difference in many lives, smaller-scale studies that also enact positive change shouldn’t be discounted. Some of a study’s ingredients, such as humans, can’t scale. List likens it to a successful restaurant: If the chef is the magic ingredient, you can’t reproduce them for other locations — but it also doesn’t take away from the positive experience that restaurant produces.

    “I don't want people walking away from this conversation thinking big change can only happen at scale,” List said. “And that a program has to be large-scale to matter. That’s not true.”

     

    For more information and to read the original article, visit socialsciences.uchicago.edu.

                

     

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