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Volume 11, No. 3April 2001
WINDS OF CHANGE RUSTLE THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO read the front-page headline in The New York Times on December 28, 1998. The article's lead paragraph was a publicist's dreamappropriately enough, since the story had been nursed into being by Al Chambers, a former Ford Motor Company flack hired by the university to help make over its image. "Ever since its creation on the South Side of Chicago in 1892 with a pile of Rockefeller money and a group of top-flight scholars," the story began, "no other academic institution has exemplified intellectual seriousness quite like the University of Chicago."
But the P.R. dream quickly turned nightmarish. The rest of the Times article dissected a university in the throes of an "identity crisis": Chicago was an institution with surprisingly few applicants, a high dropout rate, an endowment too modest for its pretensions, and a dreary, faux-Gothic campus that could use renovating. Worse still, the Times intimated that the school's fabled "cloistered approach to learning" was being undermined from within. The article quoted Michael Behnke, the vice president and associate dean of the college for enrollment, who doubted the timeworn Chicago assumption that many students "only seek the life of the mind." Even the school's president, Hugo Sonnenschein, who had arrived from Princeton in 1993, spoke matter-of-factly about a new academic order that was entirely alien to the denizens of Hyde Parka world where students regarded themselves as consumers, not acolytes, and where the "commodification and marketing of higher education" weren't evils to be warded off but facts of life to be accepted.
The Times story was soon followed in other publications by other, even nastier articles about changes in the school, including a piece in the Chicago Tribune (at u. of c., the headline read, c stands for chuckles). On campus, the media coverage added fuel to an already raging fire. Two major changes advocated by the Sonnenschein administrationshrinking the undergraduate college's famously demanding core curriculum and increasing the number of its studentshad for some time been the subject of fierce debate among the faculty. On the heels of the Times story, the controversy escalated, as a public campaign was launched to preserve the school's intellectual heritage.
Ten academic ancients, icons such as Saul Bellow and David Riesman, inveighed against the administration's "dangerous" venture. "Making academic decisions on the basis of marketing," they wrote in an open letter to the trustees, "is itself a crime against the mind." In a separate letter to the trustees, seventy-four Chicago faculty members warned that "the intellectual tradition and academic organization of our university are being put at risk by its present leadership." A hastily formed alumni group decried the administration's plans for putting in "imminent danger" the "character of the entire University" and urged fellow alumni to withhold donations until the old order was restored. Chicago students, known to boast that Chicago is the school "where fun comes to die," organized a caustic "fun-in" rally to mock Sonnenschein's plans for making the university more attractive to prospective applicants. Protesters superimposed the president's face on a cardboard cutout of Darth Vader and on a T-shirt depicting a can of "University of Chicago Lite...specially brewed by the freshest consultants and coerced into its refreshing taste."
These critics believed that nothing less than the fate of the university was on the line. Chicago, they feared, would become a mere clone of PrincetonNassau Street preppiness imported to the South Sideor another Northwestern. As the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wrote: "They wanted to take the university out of University of Chicago"turning Hyde Park into South Park. Sonnenschein's opponents summoned the spirit of the venerated Robert Hutchins, a longtime president of the university, who once declaimed that "when an institution determines to do something in order to get money it must lose its soul."
The issue was no less urgent for the administration, which argued that its proposals were necessary to preserve the school's overall quality. As Sonnenschein informed the faculty: "The course I am recommending is not without risk, but the greater risk is to remain on a course that will not sustain excellence."
These strongly held positions offered no room for compromise. "Everything became 'us versus them,'" observes Aleem Hossain, a student activist during the height of the controversy"'promoting the best' versus 'killing the liberal arts.'"
Six months after the Times article, and just days before the 1999 commencement, Sonnenschein unexpectedly announced that he was resigning, effective a year later. The university, he told The Chronicle of Higher Education, needed someone who was "less a symbol of change." His antagonists were ecstatic. "Five more days," exulted sociologist Donald Levine, ex-dean of the college and perhaps its fiercest traditionalist, when I visited his cubbyhole office last summer. "Sonnenschein was the wrong president for the university," he said. "A crude misfit."
The president's numerous faculty supporters were far less vocalas they had been throughout the controversyand grudging in their praise. "He did what needed to be done," said Daniel Garber, a Chicago philosopher who served as associate provost for much of Sonnenschein's tenure. "But he didn't act elegantly. The analysis was right, but the practice was bungled."
When Sonnenschein spoke of students as consumers and education as a commodity, he recited a fact of life: In higher education, as elsewhere, this is the new Gilded Age. But at Chicago, which exalts "the life of the mind" as a monastic ideal, the administration's focus on budgets and bottom lines was a sign of unwelcome worldliness. In one form or another, this deep divide, between those whose starting point is the reality of the marketplace and those whose guiding light is the community of scholars, affects every American university. But nowhere were the stakes higher, the terms of engagement more complexand the ultimate outcome less certainthan at the University of Chicago.
WHEN HUGO Sonnenschein arrived at Chicago in 1993, expectations ran high. It was generally agreed that his predecessor, Hanna Gray, who had governed with Thatcherite imperiousness for fifteen years, had stayed on too long. Sonnenschein, an economist who had been Princeton's provost, seemed the perfect replacement. "He had standing as an academic, and he knew how to run a complex institution," recalls Howard Krane, a law school alumnus and State Street attorney who chaired the board of trustees. "Hugo eclipsed everyone in that search. When I met him I never looked back."
At the time, the university's finances were a mess. The budgeters projected a $55 million annual deficit by the end of the decade. Chicago had been in dire financial straits beforein the 1930s, the university almost had to merge with Northwestern, and as recently as the late 1950s it contemplated migrating to Palo Alto or Aspen. Once again, something had to be done to stanch the flow of red ink. Sonnenschein and his newly appointed provost, former law school dean Geoffrey Stone, imposed stringent cost-cutting measures: reducing faculty hires, increasing enrollment, cutting scholarship funds, and trimming administrative fat. Those actions won him few friends, but cut the projected deficit considerably.
Still, Chicago needed to do more than simply balance the books. Labs and libraries were outmoded, faculty salaries were not competitive, and dormitories were deteriorating badly. Its $1.5 billion endowment was smaller than those of its competitors. The verdict, says Provost Geoffrey Stone, was simple: "To be as good as we want to be, we need much more money than we have." In response, entrepreneurial deans launched lucrative new master's programs, including a course in financial mathematics for the "inside the Loop" bankers-and-brokers crowd, and certificate courses for social workers. Together with several other universities, Chicago signed up with UNext.com, a for-profit company that offers on-line business courses.
To strengthen the university financially and otherwise, the administration also hoped to recruit more and better undergraduates"moving out the demand curve," as Sonnenschein puts it. During the 1990s, the number of applicants to Chicago dropped, as did the school's standing in the influential U.S. News & World Report rankings. (It fell to fourteenth place.) Most astonishing, Chicago admitted nearly six in ten applicants for the Class of 2000. Some optimists attributed this to a self-selecting applicant pool, in which only those few who appreciated a grueling Chicago education applied. But this analysis was undermined by the facts: fewer than a third of those who were accepted in the Class of 2000 opted to enroll. Of course, Chicago was still attracting some of the nation's smartest youththere were three Marshall scholars and one Rhodes scholar in the Class of 2000but it also was an unhappy home for less academic types who had applied to Chicago as their "safety school." Equally troubling, one in six students left Chicago before graduatingby far the worst retention rate among prestigious universities.
WHAT COULD be done to improve the enrollment picture? Al Chambers, the vice president for university relations, organized focus groups to test marketing ideas for making the school more appealing. Sonnenschein brought in consultants from McKinsey & Company to study the quality of student life. They found that students were unhappy and that alumni, though enthusiastic about their own education, were reluctant to put their children through the same grind. The unkindest cut was how little known the university was: Many prospective students confused it with the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois. To the administration, the implication was plain: Chicago needed to convey a different image. It might never be "fun," but it didn't have to be 357thdead lastin a national survey of campus social life.
In April 1996, Sonnenschein sent an open letter to the faculty announcing that the university's financial woes necessitated a 25 percent increase in undergraduate enrollment. The student body would grow from thirty-six hundred students to forty-five hundred within a decade. Boosting undergraduate enrollment to balance the booksa plan Sonnenschein adopted despite the opposition of a task force he'd appointed two years earlier to consider the mattermarked the turning point in his tenure, for the move dramatically violated a long-standing Chicago credo: Small is beautiful.
To convey Chicago's ideal of intellectual intimacy, old hands lovingly tell the tale of an astrophysicist named Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. In the 1940s, Chandrasekhar drove more than a hundred miles each week to teach a seminar to just two registered graduate students. In 1983, Chandrasekhar won a Nobel Prize in physicstwenty-six years after his two seminar students had each won their own Nobel Prizes. The legend captures the belief that what matters is quality, not numbers, and that concentrating on graduate students, not undergraduates, has produced more Nobel Prize winners at Chicago than at any other university in the world.
But despite the lesson of Chandrasekhar's story, the enrollment increase that Sonnenschein proposed was nothing new for Chicago. Every Chicago president from Robert Hutchins on has wanted more undergraduates in Hyde Park, and for the same reason: They bring in money. In the late 1960s, Edward Levi famously praised the virtues of a small college nestled in a research-dominated university, but privately he urged the trustees to double the number of undergraduates. A decade earlier, President Lawrence Kimpton recommended that the college expand to five thousand students. (As one trustee observed at the time, more students means more tuition from "cash customers" and "potent alumni donors.") Under Hanna Gray, the college quietly grew from twenty-eight hundred to thirty-four hundred students. Even Robert Hutchins, best remembered for his unwavering commitment to the college, calculated the dollars-and-cents advantages of enrolling squadrons of undergraduates.
Though past presidents had hidden their expansionist ambitions, Sonnenschein and Stone made their budget projections public in the hope that transparency would elicit faculty understanding and support. "There should be some benefit in having people look at data clearly and be straight about it," Sonnenschein says. "This isn't just the president's responsibility."
But Sonnenschein had misread Chicago's culture. By the time he'd decided to increase undergraduate enrollment, his first round of cost cutting, especially the reduction in hiring, had already left scars. Faculty skeptics worried that Sonnenschein had a wholesale makeover of the university in mind. Talk of closing down the education departmentthe department associated with John Deweyonly intensified their fears. Only later did Provost Stone fully realize that "to focus on finances was to see the university as something other than a 'pure' institution whose sole value was academic excellence."
Critics also worried about the kind of students that Chicago might pursue in its quest to enlarge the student body. Sociologist Andrew Abbott trashed the McKinsey reportwhich had questioned the school's preference for scholarly workaholicsas shoddy research that implicitly treated Chicago's virtues as marketing problems. But the administration ignored Abbott's own, more rigorously designed survey, which offered a far more positive depiction of students' attitudes.
Sonnenschein's open letter to the faculty thus signaled the escalation of an epic battle of the budget. "If you put every straining dollar into maintaining an arts-and-sciences faculty that's larger than Harvard's, with half as many students," Sonnenschein pointed out, "that's a tough way to run a ship." In response, professors looked longingly, if unrealistically, to the professional schools to make up the deficit, while others denied that there was anything to worry about. "The question is not where we rank" in terms of endowment, Marshall Sahlins argued in the Free Press, a campus monthly, "but whether we have enough to meet our intellectual goals." The geophysicist Frank Richter, who recognizes that his own labs could use better funding, argued that merely adding more undergraduates wouldn't generate nearly enough revenue to solve the university's problems.
In the end, Sonnenschein's enrollment proposal was adopted over the objections of many faculty members. Three years later, when a TV interviewer asked Sonnenschein to explain his decision, he denied that money had had anything to do with it. Understandably, no one believed him.
EVEN SOME of Sonnenschein's closest allies admit that he had a tin ear for Chicago's soundtrack. The school is as self-obsessed as any institution of higher learning in America. Three quarters of the professors live within a mile of the campus in the enclave of Hyde Park, a hothouse of learned chatter and salacious gossip set apart from the bombed-out landscape that surrounds it. That isolation, it's said only half-jokingly, explains why the university's athletic teams are called the Maroons.
The Chicago tribe writes endlessly about itself, in student newspapers, in histories and biographies, in faculty committee reports, broadsheets, and Web sites. Its animating myth was manufactured seventy years ago by Robert Hutchins, the institution's promoter nonpareil. "This is not just a very good university," Hutchins proclaimed, "it is the best university in the world." Nowhere else is "the Ivy League" a term of derisionthe land of academic "Phil Donahuism," and a retirement home for "dying [professorial] elephants," as Abbott dismissed it in a 1996 essay, "Futures of the University."
In the increasingly poisonous campus climate, not even the administration's most seemingly innocuous moves escaped criticism. Critics assailed the new view-book (publicity material sent to prospective applicants) because of its slick appearance: The color photos and the attention paid to sports and drinking seemed to appeal to the unserious student. They derided improvements in the placement office as a concession to vocationalism: Silicon Valley and Wall Street recruiters were practically being invited, critics thought, to steal the best young minds. Sonnenschein's opponents even found fault with the decision to build a new swimming poolthe old pool had been used by athletes preparing for the 1908 Olympics.
Admittedly, these detractors had reason for concernreforms of the scope that Sonnenschein and Stone were initiating carry their own dangers. And many felt that Sonnenschein's brusque manner left something to be desired. According to Richard Saller, dean of social sciences, the administration failed "to convey a respect for the faculty's experience or their views." At one faculty gathering Sonnenschein casually tossed out the possibility of a grade-free freshman year to ease the pressure on studentsproof, in the eyes of some, that the president believed in coddling students. "It's controversial at Chicago," Sonnenschein says, "to say that students have to feel we're dedicated to their success."
As the fights dragged on, everything turned personal. Blunders became known as "Hugo-isms" and Sonnenschein's rhetoric as "Hugolish." Adam Kissel, a graduate student serving as the student representative to the trustees, asked: "Can we criticize these guys this hard, in public, without destroying any respect for them as human beings?" Others were less troubled by the ad hominem jabs. Abbott bemoans the fact that during the Sonnenschein years "there were no real academics on the Fifth Floor," as the administration offices are commonly calledthough his claim implicitly dismisses the intellectual bona fides of Sonnenschein, an economist who is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Stone, who is a distinguished constitutional law scholar. Certainly Sonnenschein didn't win over professors in the classic way, flattering them for their workit wasn't apparent that he'd even read any of their work. The old jibe was recycled: Sonnenschein is the economist who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
IN CHICAGO'S Spartan academic environment, the intellectual centerpieceand Hutchins's proudest legacyis the common core curriculum. Once the faculty perceived that Sonnenschein would insist on altering it, his standing rapidly eroded.
"How many core courses?" was the question at the heart of the public debate, a numbers game in which it was tacitly assumed that "more" meant "better." Interestingly, Chicago's common core has changed repeatedly in the past, expanding and contracting to fit the intellectual season. Those changes have invariably been shaped by sharp-edged political negotiations, carried out by professors with their own ideasand turfto defend. "It's the custom," says John Boyer, the dean of the college, "to have stirring fights over the curriculum."
During the donnybrook over the core, many professors, like historian George Chauncey, author of the acclaimed Gay New York, favored a smaller core; the existing requirements, Chauncey told me, didn't give students "enough freedom to explore their own interests, even to put together a good undergraduate major." Nearly a third of all undergraduates, desperate to take courses that captured their interest, were postponing some requirements until senior year, undermining the intellectual aim of the enterprise. Students already fluent in a second language resented having to sit through a year of instruction. Unhappiness with the content of the required courses was also widespread. The science courses are "in disarray," complained the former master of the biological science collegiate division. "Faculty are unsure what to teach, or why, and students are too often apathetic, if not hostile to their common core biology courses." There were easy pathways through hard science, courses like "Rocks for Jocks" and "Physics for Poets" that belied the rigor that the core was meant to represent.
The debate over general education also became hostage to the culture wars, as campus Tories assailed what they called "bizarre electives." As philosopher Daniel Garber says: "Shakespeare was out, gay studies was in, and the faculty traditionalists weren't pleased." Senior Aleem Hossain opted for his own separate peace. As he wrote in the Maroon, he had argued strenuously for maintaining the core, but its overzealous defenders had driven him away by arguing "that movies, lesbians, Cubans, and jazz had no place in a U of C education."
Those who fought against changing the curriculum refused to confront the inconvenient truth: The real threat to general education came not from the Fifth Floor but from the faculty itself, which had in practice given up on the project years earlier. Despite the rhetoric of Hyde Park exceptionalism used by the core's defenders, science courses were taught lecture style, as in most universities, with few section leaders drawn from the regular faculty; in math classes, sections were led by upperclassmen. Even in the social sciences, as Richard Saller points out, nearly two thirds of the instructors are graduate students and teachers who aren't on the tenure ladder. Chicago psychologist Bertram Cohler observes, "the traditionalists kept saying, 'What we're doing has intellectual integrity!' But you can only go so far before you have to point to the faculty and ask: 'Why aren't you teaching?'"
These unspoken realities made for decidedly odd bedfellows among defenders of the core. Donald Levine, for whom general education is a passion, found himself in rare agreement with Marshall Sahlins, who prefers teaching graduate students. "I'm not a College type," Sahlins said to mean understatement, since he identifies himself as a member of the "graduate department" of anthropology.
"The contradiction we're trying to resolve," says Richard Saller, "is that we don't want to be Harvard or Yale, and use the large-lecture format. We want to do as much as possible in small classesbut we can't do this with tenured faculty." The irony is palpable: At a university where devotion to general education is a watchword, it's increasingly hard to find professors willing to teach core classes.
An initial proposal to limit the core to a single year of courses met resistance in 1996 from the College Council. But the matter didn't end there. A group of faculty and administratorsthe so-called Friday Groupwas charged with reviewing the curriculum once again. According to a later Op-Ed by Andrew Abbott, two associate provosts told the group that the administration wanted the core reduced to a "year of less work." Abbott's charge was pointed: Responsibility for the curriculum was supposed to rest with the faculty, but the faculty was being pressured. Provost Stone vigorously denied Abbott's accusation"That was never the position of anybody in the administration, that the college had to do this."
Eventually, faculty members hammered out a compromise that trimmed but did not slash the core. Three courses out of twenty-one were cut, and the language requirement was sensibly reframed in terms of competency rather than seat time. In 1998, the College Council overwhelmingly approved the compromise. Advocates of a somewhat smaller core, the George Chaunceys, had been largely invisible during the debate, but they appeared to be more representative of faculty attitudes than vocal antagonists of change, the Donald Levines.
Peace seemed to have been restored. But it was a cold peace, and hostilities resumed in 1999, with the tsunami of media attacks in the Times, the Tribune, and elsewhere. War had broken out again, and gallons of ink were spilled over a proposal whose scope had already been significantly reduced by compromise.
SONNENSCHEIN abruptly resigned in June of 1999. The suddenness of his departure prompted rumors that he had been pushed out. The faculty missive to the trustees; the screed of Bellow, Reisman, and the rest of the pantheon; the student "fun-in"; the endless tomes generated on the campus; the threats voiced by up-in-arms alumniall these seemed to have done their job. For his part, Bertram Cohler adds: "It was believed that the trustees leaked information about President Sonnenschein's resignation before it was announced to the public." But when I talked with Howard Krane, chairman of the board of trustees, a somewhat different story emerged. "Hugo submitted his resignation and the board didn't ask him to reconsider."
Whatever version of events one accepts, Sonnenschein had clearly outrun his mandate. "When I told the trustees I was leaving, they felt it was probably time," he said when we talked this winter, shortly after he'd finished teaching an economics seminar at Princeton. "For some trustees, the amount of confrontation with the press was too much. They preferred to live in a world where you're doing what's right and it's easier."
In the fall of 2000, a new, though quintessentially Chicago, tradition was inauguratedan ongoing faculty seminar whose title, "The Idea of the University," evokes Cardinal Newman's classic defense of liberal arts education. Donald Levine kicked off the series with a jeremiad against "the tyranny of the bottom line," an unsubtle reminder that the war against Sonnenschein isn't over. Who needs money? he seemed to ask. But though the monk's life may be fine for sociologists like Levine, it doesn't meet the needs of the psychologists who, until Sonnenschein brought in funds to underwrite a new biopsychology program, had inadequate labs. This January, Hanna Gray, whose stock on campus rose dramatically during the time of troubles, served up a familiar account of the millennium-long history of higher learning. The one time the Maroon mentioned Cardinal Newman, Gray noted, it referred without apparent irony to "Carmen Newman and the Ides of the University." How far must the good cleric be from students' academic concerns?
The new president, Don Michael Randel, will present a paper to the seminar this spring. No one expects fireworks, as nothing resembling fireworks has emanated from the Fifth Floor since he became president last summer. Randel, formerly provost at Cornell University and a Renaissance music scholar, was selected in part because, in style at least, he isn't Hugo Sonnenschein. "The search committee fell in love with him," says trustee Howard Krane. "He's a plainspoken guy, and there was a desire to find someone a little different" from Sonnenschein.
Certainly Randel speaks the faculty's language and is attuned to its values. But it's unrealistic to anticipate, as some do, that Randel will repeal Sonnenschein's initiatives. As he told the Maroon, "there's not going to be a sort of violent change in direction or some big declaration that announces some radically different strategy." Marshall Sahlins's fear is quite the reversethat Sonnenschein's legacy will be solidified. "I haven't seen the president. Where is he? The guy has inherited a structure and a plan, which he is there to execute, then he can return to his house in Cornell where he has his heart and thirty years of his life."
Sahlins has a habit of baiting Chicago's presidents. In 1979, barely a year after Hanna Gray's inauguration, he assailed her, in the words of a Chicago Sun-Times reporter, as "beholden to conservative economic interests and inclined to keeping the lid on, both politically and intellectually." New president, same old song. But Sahlins is clearly right about one thing: Although Hugo Sonnenschein may have lost the personal battle, he has won the war, for all his priorities are firmly in place. Already there are five hundred more undergraduates, and by the standard metrics, SATs and class rank, they're better qualified. An energetic recruiting effort has made the university more visible, and for all the right reasons. A Newsweek reporter spent a year in the admissions office, and his cover story for the magazine was a puff piece"the best publicity since the chain reaction," one student quipped.
Sonnenschein's reforms are taking hold on both sides of the budget ledger. An aggressive fund-raising campaign and the booming stock market more than doubled the university's endowment, to $3.5 billion, during his tenure. There's no more talk of a budget "crisis"; instead, graduate fellowships are being increased so that Chicago can compete for the best Ph.D.s. Even as the faculty is shrinking slightly, edging closer to the student-faculty ratio of comparable universities, faculty salaries are rising. Meanwhile, undergraduate "discussion" classes are bigger, and in such subjects as economics, the fastest-growing major, graduate assistants and part-timers do most of the teaching.
All's quiet on the curricular front. Last year, when students could choose between the old core and the new, most opted for the new, with its fewer requirements. (Being Chicago undergraduates, and so gluttons for work, many are doing a second major rather than taking more electives.) There are more paying M.B.A. and law students, as well as a continuing spate of new profit-generating master's programs. The trustees approved a $500 million master plan, which includes money for new science buildings, dormitories, a parking garage, and a sports complex. The telltale scars of construction are already visible. Still, as Richard Saller points out, during the past decade the financial gap between Chicago and the super-rich schools like Harvard and Yale has widened. "We're at a competitive disadvantage, more than ever." In higher education, a fund-raiser's work is never done.
Sonnenschein's antagonists are hardly quiescent. Some are especially displeased with the new campus architecture. The university built "dormitories encircling and imprisoning the library," Marshall Sahlins said to me. "Instead of expanding the library. This is a Gothic campus that is differentiated, architecturally and otherwise, from what surrounds it. What matters"in more ways than one"is the integrity of the campus."
And so the debate continues in vintage Chicago fashion. David Levine appreciates that reliance on the values of the marketplace is "not an isolated phenomenon" not just a Chicago story but "a nationwide trend." But for him that provides cold comfort.
Sonnenschein, of course, sees things differently. "It's unimaginable," he told me, "that the truth won't be good, in the end." A few years from now, Sonnenschein may be hailed for having saved a great university from financial disasterand, worse, irrelevancedragging it by brute force into modern times. But the ultimate question is whether what partisans refer to as the soul of the institution, its singularity, will surviveand perhaps be made stronger because ofthis transformation. If it doesn't, the University of Chicago will become just a second-rate Ivy.
Sidebar: Revenge of the Nerds by Christopher Shea
David L. Kirp is professor of public policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley, and author of Almost Home: America's Love-Hate Relationship with Community (Princeton). He is currently writing a book on higher education in the age of money.
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