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Former University Of Chicago President Hugo Sonnenschein, Whose Leadership Drew Controversy, Dies At 80

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Former University of Chicago President Hugo Sonnenschein has died at the age of 80.

The university announced Sonnenschein's passing on Thursday. He served as the 11th president of the University of Chicago from 1993 to 2000, and was a member of the university community for nearly 30 years – most recently serving as the Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Kenneth C. Griffin School of Economics.

In announcing Sonnenschein's death, the university credited him with "visionary leadership during a transformational period for the university," noting that he helped strengthen the recruitment of students and faculty and made strides in fundraising.

But Sonnenschein's moves as university president also drew sharp controversy from students and faculty at the time – particularly an expansion of the college and changes to the common core curriculum in which college course requirements were reduced.

Critics at the time expressed concern that changes to the undergraduate program at the U of C would weaken its academic intensity and do away with smaller discussion-based classes. In one heated town-hall meeting in February 1999, students confronted Sonnenschein with often-angry questions - with some claiming U of C education was being commodified and some also worrying that the expanded college might come at the expense of graduate programs, as the Chicago Weekly News student newspaper reported at the time.

Twenty-two years later, the U of C noted that the college expansion was controversial at the time, but said it proved 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 the University."

In 2000, several months after Sonnenschein announced his plan to resign from his post, controversy erupted again over plans to close the campus International House. Administrators at the time said they could not raise the $6 million that was needed to renovate the building. The decision led to student protests, and ultimately, the university reversed course and decided to keep the I-House open and launch a new fundraising initiative.

But shortly before stepping down from his post, Sonnenschein emphasized in an interview with the Chicago Weekly News that the university's endowment had risen from $1.2 billion to $3.5 billion during his time in office. In memorializing him, the university touted the capital campaign that was completed under his tenure – saying it was the largest in history at the time.

The university also noted that Sonnenschein began the first U of C master-planning process in 30 years, which led to the construction of the Gerald Ratner Athletic Center, the Harper Center at the Booth School of Business, and the Max Palevsky Residential Commons.

"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," the university said. "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."

Sonnenschein received a Ph.D. in economics from Purdue University in 1964, and served on the economics faculties of the University of Minnesota, the University of Massachusetts, Northwestern University, and Princeton University. He a faculty member and dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania from 1998 to 1991, and the provost of Princeton University from 1991 to 1993.

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

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