BFI NewsOct 21, 2015

Celebrating Sonnenschein with a Celebration of Theory

Students, colleagues honor his impact with a conference stacked with current theoretical work
Hugo Sonnenschein wasn’t all that interested in a conference about Hugo Sonnenschein. The former University of Chicago president, longtime member of the economics faculty, and accomplished teacher and scholar asked colleagues wishing to honor him to focus not on him, but instead on the newest work from exciting economic theorists.
“He wanted this conference to be a celebration of theory,” explains Phil Reny, the Hugo F. Sonnenschein Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and the College and former student of Sonnenschein’s. Reny and Vijay Krishna of Penn State University set out to organize a program that might satisfy Hugo’s enthusiasm to revel in economic theory by hearing the ideas of others. “That’s just part of his personality—what’s going on now, not looking back on what theory has done, but looking ahead.”
The resulting two-day event celebrating Sonnenschein’s new emeritus status features the latest work in game theory, market design, limited-information bargaining, and more.
Sonnenschein’s desire to gather a broad spectrum of scholars from the world of economic theory likely comes from a scholarly career marked by connecting and unifying theoretical strands within the discipline in an effort to simplify our understanding of big questions. “He gets at the heart of the matter, and winnows results down to their essence to help us understand what’s really going on,” says Reny.
Sonnenschein began his research career developing general equilibrium models, and today has shifted to study bargaining with incomplete information–in fact, some of his own work will be presented by coauthor Yiqing Xingduring the conference. “It’s absolutely on the frontier—he’s not holding back,” says Reny.
As a professor and adviser, Hugo employed an amiable and inviting style perfect for nurturing what would become a generation of today’s preeminent game theorists—despite not being a game theorist himself. Even with students whose interests differed from his, Sonnenschein knew to nurture young talent with equal measures kindness and rigor. “He always made you feel that you were great, your work was great, and he would ask great questions [to] make sure that was true,” says Reny.
“Unlike many other advisers, he never suggested to me any topic that was promising or ‘hot,’” says Ryan Fang, PhD’14. “He just encouraged me to study what interested me, even if my own interests may not be shared by many others in the profession. Hugo knows too well that good research is done with passion, not with practicality.”
“I specifically remember a meeting that I had with him and Lars Peter Hansen about my thesis research, [which] at that point in a dead end,” says Jose Lara Resende, PhD’15.  “He told me I should not worry, that was a thing that everyone goes through, and that he and Lars Hansen had passed through the same thing in their lives. I was very honored that he put my dead ends, even in a indirect way, in a similar league to theirs.”
Reny says that organizing the conference is a small act of kindness repaid to Hugo for all the encouraging words Hugo gave him as PhD student at Princeton. The experience shaped Reny’s style with his own students, perhaps slightly, but deeply. “I can’t come close to Hugo when it comes to advising, but to the extent that I can, I believe in the idea of really letting your students know that you care deeply not only about what they’re doing, but about them—about how things are going in their lives, what they’re doing.”
Sonnenschein served as president of the University of Chicago from 1993 to 2000, and held former posts as provost of Princeton University and dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. Both as an administrator, advisor and friend, he left a lasting imprint in every encounter.
“When you’re talking to Hugo, he has the ability to make you feel like the most important person in the room, no matter how big the room, no matter where you are, whatever the event,” says Reny.
Lars Peter Hansen, institute director and colleague of Sonnenschein during much of his tenure at the University of Chicago, lauds his impact on the university culture. “Hugo is to be commended for his dedication to the intellectual fabric of the University of Chicago and, more broadly, his significant contributions to economic theory,” says Hansen. “The institute is pleased to bring a diverse group of scholars together to honor his accomplishments.”
More than being an accomplished scholar and academic leader, Hugo Sonnenschein holds an esteemed place in the constellation of figures in the economics profession, inspiring the next wave of theorists to ply their trade with humility, kindness, and rigorous detail. “His academic influence will be everlasting. Look around: every department has a researcher who’s either Hugo’s student or Hugo’s student’s student,” says Hanzhe Zang, PhD’15. “I hope that I, as a part of the younger generation of theorists, brought him optimism for the future.”