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Session Five: A CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT ZIMMER

Bari Weiss:                          00:00                     And I am absolutely thrilled to be here with uh, Robert Zimmer. Robert Zimmer is the 13th president of the University of Chicago. He’s also a mathematician and specializes in subjects and has written books that I’m not even going to pretend to understand. I don’t even understand the titles.

Bari Weiss:                          00:16                     He was previously provost of Brown University and came to Chicago to take over as president in 2006. Long known as the university where fun goes to die, under President Zimmer’s leadership the school has become a by-word more than ever for free speech and free thinking, which is why the school was awarded the inaugural Open Mind Award last night. Please join me in welcoming President Zimmer.

Bari Weiss:                          00:43                     So, because we’re at the Times, I feel like I have to start with the news. And it happens to be that the three schools that are dominating the news cycle right now are school that you’re inti- intimately connected with. Stuyvesant High School here in New York, where you graduated, Harvard, where you got your PhD, and Chicago of course, which you run. So I’d like to take them in reverse order, starting with Chicago.

Bari Weiss:                          01:06                     So this week, the school announced to sort of headline news that it’s dropping its SAT and ACT requirement. The school is saying that this is going to level the playing field, especially for first generation and low income students. Can you talk to us a little bit about that choice and sort of the decision making that lead to it?

Robert Zimmer:                01:26                     Uh, yeah. So first of all, the uh, importance of access is, I think, something that one really needs to focus on and I think can’t be denied. Uh, the issue of whether uh, an institution that offers the quality of education, the intensity of educational experience and what we believe is the empowering education that we do, needs to be available to those who may not necessarily think of applying to Chicago, may think that they don’t have the financial resources to be there. Uh, who may not have the social context to imagine this type of education, but there are very many highly talented individuals in uh, from these backgrounds who need to be able to uh, be in this environment.

Robert Zimmer:                02:16                     Now originally when one thought about these standardized tests, they were uh, in a way, meant to be a way where you could compare in an equal way people’s uh, backgrounds, because everybody was taking the same test. Uh, of course what’s happened now is that everybody from certain schools spends uh, what I would say is an enormous amount of time studying, preparing, having tutors for these test and people from other schools do not. So the function that these tests were meant to serve in the first place, uh, gets called into question.

Robert Zimmer:                02:52                     Now this may … doesn’t say uh, everybody should do this, but for us we felt it was giving us uh, not enough information, in fact, that we could make decisions perfectly well about the students who would most benefit from and contribute to the intellectual environment at the University of Chicago, uh, without these uh, these uh, tests. And it was penalizing some students who did not have this kind of entire preparatory environment.

Bari Weiss:                          03:25                     So Harvard right now is facing this lawsuit that we all know about and the news just broke in the Times that, that Asian American students were being rated very low in terms of their personality traits. Things like likeability and popularity. And it rings a lot to some of us like what happened 50 or 60 years ago with Jews being barred from elite college campuses.

Robert Zimmer:                03:48                     Right.

Bari Weiss:                          03:49                     I’m wondering if you can comment on that.

Robert Zimmer:                03:51                     Well, you know … I, I don’t want to comment on what’s actually happening in Harvard, because I don’t know. Um … but-

Bari Weiss:                          03:58                     But really the balance between diversity and-

Robert Zimmer:                04:00                     Yeah, yeah. So I, but there is a real point that, that I do want to comment on and that is that these character issues and the definition of character as a piece of what an admissions policy should be was put in place to keep Jews out of Ivy League institutions. Uh, now that’s, that’s changed. Um, but one constantly needs to ask the question, uh, “Are the types of characteristics that we say we’re looking for in an admissions environment, is this being prejudicial, even if not done with the intent that it was done before?” So I think that’s a fair question to ask, but I have absolutely, as you know, I don’t know enough about the, uh, the Harvard situation and uh, I learned a long time ago not to comment about an ongoing legal uh …

Bari Weiss:                          04:58                     So-

Robert Zimmer:                04:58                     … about ongoing litigation.

Bari Weiss:                          05:00                     So are you also going to punt on my Stuyvesant question or do you have thoughts about that?

Robert Zimmer:                05:04                     Yeah.

Bari Weiss:                          05:05                     So, for those of you who don’t know, uh, Stuyvesant, uh, like all elite, uh, public high schools in New York, it’s one of them. Some say it’s the best, others will take issue with that. Right now admission to the school is just based simply on one single test that’s open to all middle school students in the city. This has made Stuyvesant, I think Stuyvesant’s right now 75% Asian with a very low number of black and latino students. Mayor DeBlasio has proposed a change of policy that would downgrade the test or maybe eliminate it entirely to make the school more racially diverse.

Robert Zimmer:                05:39                     Uh, yeah. So, uh, let me just say, I didn’t feel like I punted on the other question.

Bari Weiss:                          05:44                     (laughs) I’m kidding.

Robert Zimmer:                05:45                     (laughs)

Bari Weiss:                          05:46                     We want to make news. We’re the Times.

Robert Zimmer:                05:48                     I, I, I, I feel like I answered the heart of the question uh. Um, yeah, I don’t know. It’s … I don’t … I may punt on this one though.

Bari Weiss:                          06:00                     ( laughs)

Robert Zimmer:                06:00                     But, but the um … you know, Stuyvesant’s served what I would say is an ongoing sequence of immigrant communities over, over time. I went to Stuyvesant when I was there it was roughly the same proportion of uh, of Jewish students as there are Asian American students now because that was a, uh, demographic uh, situation in New York City at the time. Um, you know, I think it, it would be uh, very unfortunate for the quality of the education Stuyvesant to deteriorate. Uh, it is not easy, and you just have to look around the country, to actually have a high quality high school. This is hard work and difficult to do and part of the reason that uh, Stuyvesant has been so good and successful over the years is the quality of the students.

Robert Zimmer:                07:03                     Now one can fairly ask uh, the same kind of question of can one maintain the same quality of the students via a different type of, of methodology and I think arguments can be made about that. But I, I think what would be uh, very unfortunate is to see uh, kind of a degradation of what’s been an outstanding school for so long.

Bari Weiss:                          07:34                     Okay, so going back to Chicago-

Robert Zimmer:                07:35                     Yeah.

Bari Weiss:                          07:36                     When you sent out … uh, you didn’t send it out, but when the school sent out the letter in 2016 that was referenced in the video, you know, it made a lot of news and people were like, you know, “Wow, it’s such a big deal. They’re coming out against trigger warnings.” To many of us in this room it seemed like such a common-sensical letter. Why did you feel the need to send that out to incoming students?

Robert Zimmer:                07:56                     Yeah, well let me go back a-

Bari Weiss:                          07:58                     Sure.

Robert Zimmer:                07:58                     A year and a half before that letter went out, which is that what we saw at that time, so I think this was around 2014, was that people were being dis-invited from speaking at institutions and this was something that was total antithetical to the culture of the University of, of Chicago, that as you heard from a number of my predecessors on that video and one could have also added Edward Levy to um, to that as, as a um, as a similar type of voice. Um, but when I actually looked around and said, “Well where, where is the statement that makes this clear?” I mean, it’s deeply embedded in the culture, but yet if there’s an incident you actually need some clarity of principles on which to stand, uh, because otherwise it seems like you’re making it up as you’re going along and you don’t want to be in that position. So that’s why um, we appointed this committee uh, that led, chaired by Jeff Stone, that led to the creation of what’s been since then called the uh, Chicago Principles.

Robert Zimmer:                09:12                     So, that was uh, what I would say was an attention at that moment to taking what had always been the culture of the University of Chicago and clearly writing it down in a straightforward, simple way. So, to me, the following letter was a carry on uh, to that. Now there were certain people who objected to features of the letter and so on, but uh, it was basically, uh, a, uh, a similar type of statement.

Robert Zimmer:                09:43                     Now, I have to say that in, in that and in all the things that uh, people paid some degree of attention to me about saying that I completely agree with you. It’s kind of shocking that one actually needs to make the point. It should be evident that this is what’s necessary for education. Uh, it should be evident that this is uh, fundamental to delivering a high quality education that makes people learn how uh, to think and develop intellectual skills and habits of mind that are going to last them their whole life, but uh, as we know, it uh, what, what should have been evident became a particular position of note because it had ceased being evident to people.

Bari Weiss:                          10:32                     Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, Chicago is really standing out, especially when you look at other schools in the country. And I had occasion recently to go back and read The Closing of the American Mind, which I read in college and there was this amazing line that um, Allan Bloom is writing about the sixties but it seemed really relevant today. He writes, “A few students discovered that pompous teachers who catechized them about academic freedom, could, with a little shove, be made into dancing bears.”

Bari Weiss:                          11:01                     I’m wondering if you can comment on, without naming names, of course, are a lot of other schools sort of being increasingly populated by dancing bears on the part of administrators and professors?

Robert Zimmer:                11:13                     Uh. (laughs)

Bari Weiss:                          11:18                     That’s what it seems like to me.

Robert Zimmer:                11:19                     That’s perhaps not the choice of language I would use.

Bari Weiss:                          11:22                     That’s my language. You don’t have to use it.

Robert Zimmer:                11:24                     Yeah. Um, I, look, I think a lot of um, a lot of institutions are grappling with this. They feel under tremendous pressure. Uh, from uh, from groups who want to constrain discourse and I think the most important thing is to get clarity about what is the actual nature of what you’re trying to do. What is your mission? And if your mission is to deliver a high quality education, to create a research environment that fosters and supports uh, original thought that other people may find uh, find objectionable, but still is extremely valuable, then you need a certain type of intellectual environment. And if you haven’t adequately thought this through, and if you haven’t adequately articulated it, you’re going to be a bit unmoored when faced with this kind of wave.

Robert Zimmer:                12:28                     So, I, I think the main issue is that uh, a lot of places, from my point of view, need to be clear to the- first of all, to themselves, and then in a, in a public way about what is it they’re trying to do. Now it’s … not everybody needs to come to the same conclusion. I mean, why does everybody have to be like the University of Chicago? Well, maybe they decide they don’t want to be like the University of Chicago. But a degree of, of um, of clarity about what they are trying to be and why and how does this comport with the nature of an education I think would be very useful for everybody. It would very informing and it would give a clarity of basis on which people know that institutions are going to act. I would hope that once … one peo- more, um, places do that, that there would be more who articulated a view, as a number have, that the Chicago Principles, they don’t have to endorse that, they can write their own. But that something along those lines in fact reflects something intrinsic to what it is they are actually trying to do and I would hope that would be the case.

Bari Weiss:                          13:44                     Do you think the problem is that a lot of schools are thinking of students increasingly as customers more than students?

Robert Zimmer:                13:51                     Um, I think that’s true in certain cases that have sort of extreme financial difficulties and can’t fill their class, but I don’t actually think that’s, that’s the main uh, the main issue. I think people are, are grappling with uh, with social forces, they’re grappling with cultural forces and that there is an imperative to say where you stand in the midst of all of that. What is it that needs to endure and how is it going to endure?

Bari Weiss:                          14:28                     So, a lot of conservatives talk about how there’s a free speech crisis on college campuses, but many on the left are insisting that this is sort of a made up crisis where you bring in an intensely provocative speaker like a Milo, a Richard Spencer, knowing that you’re going to get this reaction from the far left. So I’m wondering, given your um, experience, you know, someone as a professor and an administrator-

Robert Zimmer:                14:51                     Yeah.

Bari Weiss:                          14:51                     Who’s been in universities for a long time, do you think it’s fair to describe what’s going on as a crisis on campus and how have things changed in the decades that you’ve sort of been in the university?

Robert Zimmer:                15:00                     Yeah. So, these inflammatory words like crisis get everybody all agitated. I would prefer to say, yes, I believe this is actually quite a serious situation on most campuses because I think the extent to which it takes root and has sway degrades the quality of the education that people are getting and degrades the environment for uh, for serious though and serious uh, discourse. Uh, so I do think it’s a very serious problem.

Robert Zimmer:                15:34                     Uh, I would say that one needs to look at this in a uh, more apolitical way than sometimes is articulated right now. If you just look back over time you see kind of one group after another feeling this uh, type of either political imperative or great sense of morality. Uh, it can be left, right, up or down, but there are, there’s just an endless supply of groups and people who want to arrogate to themselves the right to speak and prevent other people from speaking. This embracing of free expression is not a natural human quality. And so I think its very important to depoliticize this by saying, “Look, this time it may be people who are characterized as being on the left. We heard some examples on the film of people who are characterized as being on the right, it’s simply a fundamental problem that people are very often uncomfortable with hearing different sorts of ideas that challenge their assumption and challenge their world view.”

Robert Zimmer:                16:51                     But that’s what a great university, a great college needs to do. It needs to make people recognize their assumptions and if you can’t challenge people and you don’t have people who are going to be challenging, how are they going to have their assumptions challenged. And without being able to recognize your own assumptions, your capacity for, for inventive thought, or thought of almost any kind is really diminished.

Bari Weiss:                          17:17                     So you’ve noted before that as a private university, Chicago is not really bound by the First Amendment. You can set limits on what counts as tolerated speech. Is there a sort of boundary you have in mind when you say that and how does one, you know, for the other administrators in this room, what’s the test?

Robert Zimmer:                17:36                     Yeah. So um, the reason I bring that up is uh, is a slightly different reason. It’s not to set different sort of boundaries than the First Amendment. It’s to say, “Why are we doing this?”

Robert Zimmer:                17:50                     So if you’re a public institution, you have two sorts of issues. You’re a public institution, so you’ve got the First Amendment, that you, uh, grapple with. You’re also running an educational institution, so you have to decide what, what’s involved in running a great educational institution. So when I said, “We’re not bound by the First Amendment,” …

Bari Weiss:                          18:10                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert Zimmer:                18:11                     … what I, the reason I bring that up is to say, “Why are we focused on free expression?” And the answer is not the First Amendment, the answer is because we believe it’s central to delivering the most powerful, rigorous, and intense education and central to uh, the environment for research. In other words, it’s our actual mission, not the First Amendment, that is what defines for us the imperative of free expression and open discourse.

Bari Weiss:                          18:42                     You said just before that it’s sort of, that free speech, and this was spoken about a lot last night, that what happens on college campuses, not just in the classroom, but also living with people that you vehemently disagree with, is unnatural. That it’s natural for us to sort of be in our tribe with people we agree with. What can we be doing for students before they get to college, sort of developmentally, to prepare them for that sort of environment so it’s not a shock when they get there?

Robert Zimmer:                19:09                     Yeah, so, um, well I can tell you what I do as a parent.

Bari Weiss:                          19:13                     Yeah, tell us.

Robert Zimmer:                19:13                     Which, which was uh, Whenever my kids were around the table and we were talking about something I always asked, “What’s the other side? What would the other, what somebody who disagreed with you say?” Uh, maybe that’s why I have two lawyers as children.

Bari Weiss:                          19:33                     (laughs)

Robert Zimmer:                19:33                     (Laughs)

Robert Zimmer:                19:34                     Uh, but um, but a little bit more seriously, I’ve been having uh, a number of discussions with high school uh, leaders, raising the following question which is, high schools purposefully prepare students for taking calculus or advanced calculus. They purposefully prepare students for being able to write a history paper at least somewhat.

Bari Weiss:                          20:04                     (laughs)

Robert Zimmer:                20:06                     But, but the question is, and I’ve discussed this with high school leaders, are you purposefully preparing students for being in an educational environment of open discourse and intellectual challenge and challenge of assumptions? And when I say this to them it is not from the point of view of saying, “High school should be just like college,” because you know, there are developmental issues and I don’t pretend to be an expert on what kids who are 14 years should be doing.

Robert Zimmer:                20:40                     But I think it should be, um, a, a serious question for, uh, for high schools to be saying, how do we do that? And, are we doing it? Are we doing it well? How do we do it and how does the high school system in the country actually evolve in such a way that that’s also one of the things we do, not just teach people, not prepare people to write, just prepare people to write, not just prepare people for mathematics, but prepare people so when they get to college they are ready for that type of, of environment.

Bari Weiss:                          21:16                     Are there schools you see that are doing that well?

Robert Zimmer:                21:18                     I think a lot of schools, uh, uh, that I’ve talked to are cognizant about this. They have some programs. I’m not sure anybody thinks that they’ve kind of solved the problem.

Bari Weiss:                          21:18                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert Zimmer:                21:30                     And I think I’ve had very thoughtful conversations with a number of high school leaders here in uh, in New York, and in Chicago and I’ll be doing some more of uh, these dinners in um, uh, Cleveland, Connecticut and, and New England uh, in the coming months. And I, and I think it would be great to the extent to which there was some sense uh, among high school leadership that this is something that needs to be figured out in a, in a substantive and almost collective way.

Bari Weiss:                          22:03                     So we talk a lot about academic freedom, but sort of the way I think about the other side of a coin of that is academic responsibility. I wonder if you could speak a little bit about the responsibility of university administrators to ensure that what’s going on in the classroom is teaching and not just professors using the classroom as a bully pulpit. You know, professors, especially once they have tenure, have the prerogative to do that and I’m wondering how, how you see that sort of tension. This was something I encountered a lot as a student at Columbia.

Robert Zimmer:                22:34                     Yeah. Well, um, yeah, this, this can be a, this can be a problem. Uh, I think a lot of it has to do with uh, again, what is the nature of the culture and what is it that’s tolerated by, by faculty in a department. If you have a department and you have a faculty member who’s actually not doing their job, it reflects badly on the department and the quality of their offerings. Now, are people actually willing to uh, do something about that? I mean, it’s, it’s difficult. Uh, and the other, the other issue is one um, does want to evaluate how serious a problem is this really because many times when you try solving a problem you create a worse problem in some other direction.

Robert Zimmer:                23:28                     So if you are really in an environment and culture in which this is a huge problem, you know, you have to figure out what, what to do about it. Uh, if you’ve got um, 1200 or 1500 faculty in your university and yeah, there’re a few people who are not so well doing their job as you would like, the dean should be figuring out how to manage that without creating some sort of process which is going to create a worse problem.

Bari Weiss:                          24:01                     One last question before we open it up to the room.

Robert Zimmer:                24:04                     Yeah, yeah.

Bari Weiss:                          24:04                     I was really struck a few years ago. Um, there was one wee in which, I think it’s called the Institute for Politics, had both Dan Savage, the amazing sex columnist based in Seattle and Rick Santorum in the same week. And, yeah, it was kind of amazing. And what struck me thought was that students loudly protested Dan Savage and had not protest for Rick Santorum, a man who’s compared gayness to bestiality.

Bari Weiss:                          24:32                     I’m wondering if you can explain that phenomenon. It seems to be often that student activists are focusing on people maybe one degree separate, one degree to the right of them politically or I’m sorry, whatever.

Robert Zimmer:                24:45                     Yeah, I understand what you’re saying.

Bari Weiss:                          24:45                     Like, why, what’s, what’s going on there?

Robert Zimmer:                24:45                     I actually don’t know.

Bari Weiss:                          24:45                     Okay.

Robert Zimmer:                24:48                     (laughs) And, and uh, I’m not ducking the question. I actually don’t know.

Bari Weiss:                          24:56                     Um, let’s open it up and microphone will come to you if you just raise your hand.

Phillip Ellsion:                     25:11                     Hi Dr. Zimmer. Uh, Phillip Ellison.

Phillip Ellsion:                     25:13                     Um, I applaud your challenging the uh, primacy of the uh, standardized, standardized tests. Um, I’m curious though, short of deep dive interviews with applicants and lots of time consuming contact, or on the other hand, artificial intelligence, how, how will these candidates strut their stuff, their intellectual capabilities, uh, as opposed to just getting a bunch of endorsements for their social skills from their peer group?

Robert Zimmer:                25:43                     Yeah, well, I mean this is really a question one should ask our uh, Dean of Admissions, Jim Nondorf, uh, but uh, be- because I’m not going to do this. What I was uh, I obviously, I talked to him about this and uh, he was totally convinced that he, that this was not adding information uh, for him, in terms of the depth of information that they collect and uh, and evaluate. So he, he has no concerns about that now we have some missing piece of information. But if you want a fuller explanation, you’ll have to talk to him.

Bari Weiss:                          26:32                     I mean, is it part of it also that Chic- students that apply to Chicago are so self selected to begin with that you can do something like this?

Robert Zimmer:                26:40                     Well, um … you know, we have a lot of applicants, so uh, this, this year we took about 7% of the students uh, who applied and um, and our yield rate was close to 80%. So just from point of view of being able to-

Bari Weiss:                          26:59                     Mm- hmm (affirmative).

Robert Zimmer:                27:00                     … attract great students, we are in a good position. So there’s a very large number of high, of high quality, high quality applicants. So the real question is, is this going to lead us into some mistakes or something like that and uh, I think Jim Nondorf’s very convinced that the answer is no.

Bari Weiss:                          27:22                     Yes.

Speaker 4:                           27:22                     Hi. Thank you very much. Um, so when it comes to hiring, so studies show that people hire people who are like themselves. Do you think that creates or perpetuates the problem of bias and hiring people who only think or who have produced studies, as, as particularly in the liberal, liberal arts, as opposed to maybe the harder sciences? And corollary to that, do you think in especially the public universities that maybe the public, the taxpayers, should have some say uh, when looking at what’s being funded in terms of the academic studies that are completely devoid from reality or attached to any sort of, you know, useful um, by product of what they’re doing?

Robert Zimmer:                27:59                     Yeah. So that’s a really interesting question and I think that um, that is a kind of danger in, in hiring that almost all departments have to deal with in some way and it can go all the way from uh, a kind of um, sort of rejection of people unfairly to just saying, “Well, you know, I like this work and this person’s really good, so let’s get another person who does work on the same sort I do.”

Robert Zimmer:                28:41                     So I think a lot of this again, depends on the culture that develops over time and it is, is example and I’m referring to departments here because most uh, universities, the department really is the locus of, of hiring. It has to be approved by the Dean, the Dean has to give the money to hire somebody, but the intellectual and academic uh, fundamental recommendations come out of, out of departments.

Robert Zimmer:                29:10                     Uh, and I think the extent … it’s an indication of why having department chairs who are very good uh, is important, because they need to uh, shine light on any time there’s these types of developments and they can be of a very broad sort. And of course it becomes easier um, the more the ambient culture rejects that and embraces an environment in which diversity in all its senses is embraced because that sort of pushes against this sense of well, we need somebody just like me.

Robert Zimmer:                29:49                     Um, but I, so I think it is something that uh, institutions need to be self conscious about and they need to be purposeful about ensuring that uh, that these negative um, what can be negative tendencies, are eliminated or at least minimized.

Robert Zimmer:                30:09                     Now the question of getting people who are um, what I would say, outside a um, an academic environment in a public university making judgements about who should be hired is a direct route to degrading the quality of the institution.

Speaker 4:                           30:33                     [inaudible 00:30:33]

Robert Zimmer:                30:33                     Sorry?

Speaker 4:                           30:36                     [inaudible 00:30:36]

Robert Zimmer:                30:36                     I’m sorry I can’t hear you.

Bari Weiss:                          30:38                     She said that the type of research?

Robert Zimmer:                30:40                     The type of research. Uh, again, I think it’s uh, it’s a, it’s a similar issue. Now I mean the people who dec- the type of research, that can be a … depends exactly what you mean. You can have situation where deans or provosts, some of them, depending on the nature of the institution, even presidents will uh, kind of lead uh, initiatives in wanting to move in some direction, develop some new types of programs. And uh, you know, that is not making concrete academic decisions about individual people. That’s an institutional level uh, type of uh, type of decision and once you get away from passing judgment on specifically what’s good research and what isn’t, you know, then there are different types of arguments.

Bari Weiss:                          31:42                     Unfortunately we are not functioning on Jewish time and I’m being told that we have to wrap this up. So thank you all and, and thank you so much.

Robert Zimmer:                31:50                     Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much.

Bari Weiss:                          31:50                     This way? Yeah. We go this way.

Speaker 5:                           32:18                     Ladies and Gentlemen, please take your seats. This session will begin momentarily.

 

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