When Robert Zimmer separated from his wife and disclosed to trustees that he was romantically involved with a faculty member, the University of Chicago president gave rise to a host of thorny issues. How will conflicts of interest be resolved? How long will Zimmer’s estranged wife remain in the presidential residence, where official university functions are still taking place? And, more broadly, how might Zimmer’s own credibility be affected by his decision to date a professor on the campus?
Zimmer separated from his wife, Terese Zimmer, in September, university officials said in a story published by Crain’s Chicago Business blog Friday. Citing campus sources, the blog further reported that the Chicago president is now romantically linked to Shadi Bartsch, a tenured classics professor. Steve Kloehn, a spokesman for Chicago, told Inside Higher Ed Tuesday Zimmer had disclosed his separation from his wife and his relationship with a faculty member -- Kloehn didn’t identify her -- to board members.
“I think through an abundance of caution the president and the provost have made extra provisions to ensure the president is not involved in decision making regarding any university employee with whom he has a personal relationship,” Kloehn said.
Zimmer was not made available for comment, and when reached by phone Tuesday Bartsch also declined to discuss the issue. “Actually, I would prefer not to. Thanks,” she said.
Andy Alper, chairman of Chicago’s Board of Trustees, said in a statement that he was “satisfied” that Zimmer was acting in accordance with university policies.
“President Zimmer has been forthcoming with me and the board regarding his family situation,” the statement said. “The president has gone out of his way to ensure that there is no conflict of interest, or appearance of a conflict, stemming from his personal life. I am satisfied that his actions are in accord with the policies of the University and I see this as a personal matter, not an issue of University governance. President Zimmer has my full support.”
Some longtime observers of higher education governance, however, believe the issue goes well beyond a merely personal issue or the stuff of tabloid fodder, raising serious questions of governance and policy that could hamper Zimmer's viability as a president at Chicago. Raymond D. Cotton, a Washington lawyer who specializes in compensation issues in higher education, said leaving the presidential home to Zimmer’s estranged wife -- while understandable for a certain period -- potentially raises legal issues.
“Here we have a tax exempt organization that is providing a facility to someone other than the president, and the question is why,” Cotton said. “Tax exempt organizations are not permitted to use their resources for anything other than their mission.”
Cotton says he has worked with contracts that stipulate, in the event of a university president’s death, that family members may stay in the residence for two to four months. The Zimmers separated in early September, university officials said.
“At some point and time she has to find her own place to live. I’m sorry. It strikes me as a long time, yes,” he said. “Now we’re into February, into the fifth month here. At what point in time does the university get its home back?"
"They are now providing a home to the estranged wife, the president is having to answer questions about dating a faculty member, all of this detracts from what the University of Chicago ought to be concentrating on -- its mission,” Cotton added. “At some point in time Dr. Zimmer ought to think about turning the reins over to someone else.”
A number of higher education experts, including Cotton, questioned whether entering into a relationship with a faculty member midway through a presidency is appropriate for a university chief. Such relationships are not without precedent, but boards typically know they exist before hiring a president. Indeed, Zimmer's wife is an employee of the university, as director of strategic initiatives for Chicago's university’s Urban Education Institute.
“The general rule of thumb is that it’s inappropriate and perhaps even unethical to be engaged [romantically] with people that you are in a different status with because of the perceived power dynamics and conflicts of interest,” said one higher education management consultant, who asked not to be identified discussing such a sensitive issue. “Just like faculty get in trouble if they have affairs with students and deans do if they get involved with faculty, it goes right up to the top. It does in fact raise tons of questions.”
So many questions, in fact, that it calls into question whether Zimmer can stay on as a viable president, the consultant said.
“It’s a judgment issue,” said the consultant, who has previously served as a college president. “Just being perfectly blunt with you, he doesn’t have his priorities in the right place. You do not do things to jeopardize that integrity and that public trust that has been placed in you. You just don’t do that.”
Will Policies Be Enough?
Colleges and universities have long worked to mitigate conflicts arising from campus romances, and it's probably unreasonable to assume that such relationships wouldn’t occasionally blossom -- even among employees of different rank, according to Andy Brantley, president of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.
“Many people meet their partners (and) spouses in the workplace, and so much of a president of an institution’s life -- living, breathing hours -- are dedicated to that college or university,” Brantley said. “So to say that he or she could never have any involvement with anyone on campus is a little far reaching. In a perfect world that would not occur, because he is going to have such increased scrutiny that it’s going to be a challenge for him. It will be a challenge for this president to work through these circumstances, but the key is going to be transparency in decision making.”
Asked about any Chicago policies that may apply to Zimmer, Kloehn emphasized measures that are specifically tailored to address the president-faculty relationship. The university has developed a "clear decision making path" that would leave Zimmer out of decisions related to anyone he's involved with, allowing for trustees -- if necessary -- to stand in for the president in the reporting line of a faculty member, Kloehn said.
“You could imagine various situations in which various policies would come into play, but I think in this case the most pertinent point is the active management of this particular situation to make it clear no conflicts arise," he said.
While there may be ways to mitigate concerns about his relationship with a faculty member, Zimmer has used up significant political capital by taking actions in his personal life that were sure to eventually become newsworthy, another former president told Inside Higher Ed.
“I don’t know how many times presidents can do really controversial things and have the board support them,” said the president, who requested anonymity. “The question is what happens next.
“If he has raised a lot of money, if he has a very good relationship with his board, if he gave the board leadership advance notice of this and worked out a plan they were comfortable with, then he may be able to ride it out. But if there is any trouble in those waters from any constituency then it will get much more difficult.”
The extent to which Zimmer worked out these details in advance -- and how far in advance -- hasn’t been fully disclosed, and Kloehn said he was unsure when the board was notified. What's clear, however, is that the university didn't publicly announce measures taken to address the president's relationship until after news media outlets, including Chicago's student newspaper, started asking about it.
Will the measures taken be enough? Martin Michaelson, a partner in the higher education practice of Hogan & Hartson, said it's reasonable to assume they will.
“Boards of trustees of leading universities tend to be very thoughtful about such situations, and certainly I would think a board as distinguished as the University of Chicago would be a very thoughtful board, and I would tend to have a lot of confidence,” he said.
But having strict “policies” and truly stamping out the possible influence a presidential romance can have on university decisions are two separate issues, a former college president said. Because she is already a full professor with tenure, the major decisions that might require presidential involvement have already been made in Bartsch’s case. But there are a host of other issues -- programmatic funding, merit pay, travel -- that deans and department chairs could now make that potentially affect a faculty member widely believed to be the president’s girlfriend, the president said. Can those decisions truly be made in a vacuum?
“Do those things hit the desk of the president? No,” the president said. “But is there a sense that a dean who wishes to curry favor with the president makes a decision [thinking about the relationship]? That’s where you get into the perception of the conflict of interest, not necessarily a real one.”
That’s not to say Bartsch has needed a presidential endorsement before now to move up the ladder in academe. In addition to her numerous publications, Bartsch has received awards for undergraduate and graduate teaching, and she was a Guggenheim fellow in 2007-8.