The University of Chicago: A History

The University of Chicago: A History

by John W. Boyer


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One of the most influential institutions of higher learning in the world, the University of Chicago has a powerful and distinct identity, and its name is synonymous with intellectual rigor. With nearly 170,000 alumni living and working in more than 150 countries, its impact is far-reaching and long-lasting.

With The University of Chicago: A History, John W. Boyer, Dean of the College since 1992, presents a deeply researched and comprehensive history of the university. Boyer has mined the archives, exploring the school’s complex and sometimes controversial past to set myth and hearsay apart from fact. The result is a fascinating narrative of a legendary academic community, one that brings to light the nature of its academic culture and curricula, the experience of its students, its engagement with Chicago’s civic community, and the conditions that have enabled the university to survive and sustain itself through decades of change.

Boyer’s extensive research shows that the University of Chicago’s identity is profoundly interwoven with its history, and that history is unique in the annals of American higher education. After a little-known false start in the mid-nineteenth century, it achieved remarkable early successes, yet in the 1950s it faced a collapse of undergraduate enrollment, which proved fiscally debilitating for decades. Throughout, the university retained its fierce commitment to a distinctive, intense academic culture marked by intellectual merit and free debate, allowing it to rise to international acclaim. Today it maintains a strong obligation to serve the larger community through its connections to alumni, to the city of Chicago, and increasingly to its global community.

Published to coincide with the 125th anniversary of the university, this must-have reference will appeal to alumni and anyone interested in the history of higher education of the United States.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226242514
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/23/2015
Pages: 704
Sales rank: 634,557
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.90(d)

About the Author

John W. Boyer is the Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor in History at the University of Chicago. In 2012, he was appointed to a fifth term as Dean of the College.  A specialist in the history of the Habsburg Empire, he has written three books on Austrian history, including, most recently, Karl Lueger (1844–1910): Christlichsoziale Politik als Beruf.

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The University of Chicago

A History

By John W. Boyer

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-38120-6


Two Universities of Chicago, 1857–1892

The anniversary of the University of Chicago's refounding 125 years ago, in 1890, invites us to consider how the University has sustained itself over the decades and how it has acquired its identity as a great research university. Founded with revolutionary ambitions in the late nineteenth century, Chicago aimed to become a model university for the city, the region, and the nation. Now, when the public understanding of universities' core mission is less clear than ever before and when universities and their faculties face competing challenges on many fronts, it is useful to recount the odyssey of one institution from its inception, focusing not only on its academic values and practices but also on the efforts to sustain its welfare, intellectual and otherwise. Such an understanding is needed to answer the critics, some friendly, others not so, who challenge the operational assumptions of American research universities like Chicago.

Fifty years ago, Christopher Jencks offered a pessimistic and perhaps familiar evaluation of the future of American undergraduate education. For Jencks, the problem was twofold: at the elite colleges and universities, most faculty cared only about teaching specialized knowledge, in the hope that they would persuade their students to embark on academic careers and become professors like themselves. Jencks argued that Harvard had essentially become a "cram school for graduate study" and that the Hutchins College experiment at the University of Chicago had been savaged by graduate departments that wanted to cannibalize its faculty. At major public colleges, in contrast, most students cared little for ideas or learning, which made their faculty despair of doing a responsible job in trying to educate them. For Jencks, students at these institutions did not take ideas seriously, and faculty had no way to force them to do so. What was missing, in Jencks's account, was general intellectual education, which would develop critical analytic skills and present students with a broad perspective without trying to make undergraduate students into mini doctoral candidates.

The past fifty years have seen a continuation of the concerns that Jencks articulated, with many new ones added. Even if many critics came to see the period from 1945 to 1975 as the golden age of American higher education, this era of optimism was soon fractured by uncertainty in many domains of intellectual and pedagogical practice. But Jencks's pessimism did not hold true at the University of Chicago, for the Chicago faculty never lost sight of the fact that students who are generally and broadly educated usually make the best young academics, just as they make the most effective young lawyers, doctors, and businesspeople. Both long before and long after 1960 the University of Chicago tried to sustain a system that had general education at its core and, equally important, to create a campus culture of learning, egalitarian merit, and academic rigor that challenged all highly motivated and talented students, whatever their ultimate professional career goals.

From the University's inception in the 1890s, its conception of higher education as a public and private good was unusual in the marketplace of American higher education. If anything, Chicago's golden age came before 1945, when the University marshaled enormous and sudden wealth and managed to combine it with extraordinary levels of intellectual seriousness and academic achievement. In this sense Chicago anticipated many features of the "academic revolution" that underwrote a profound shift in the self-understanding of the top American research universities after 1945.

But the University of Chicago did find its academic culture at risk in the decades after World War II as it struggled to sort out the social, cultural, and intellectual tensions generated by Hutchins's revolution in the College, among other crises, and to maintain financial solvency for the university at large. The fiscal and developmental underpinnings proved inadequate by the 1940s and 1950s in view of the University's outsize ambitions, and the inadequacies led to ongoing frustration in explaining itself to its own alumni and other potential supporters. As a consequence, the history of Chicago became a fascinating exercise in principled intellectual ambition constantly butting up against stubborn and unpleasant social and economic realities.

How and why was Chicago able to sustain its educational success amid such pendulating fiscal fortunes? How did it maintain its unique campus culture in the face of often self-destructive policy decisions about its future? This culture and the (often competing) curricular practices that have both informed and divided it have, in turn, depended on the dedication of generations of faculty to excellence in teaching. But those same faculty also aspired, indeed felt compelled, to be outstanding scholars for whom teaching might easily have been a useless distraction. Chicago's prolonged success in promoting teaching and research was never easy to attain, and it was subject to severe internal tangles, controversies, and debates. The stories underlying these struggles are complex and knotty.

For most who arrived after 1892, the new University of Chicago was the University of Chicago. Robert Herrick, an early recruit from Harvard, wrote a remarkable appreciation of the newness of the University in 1895, as if it had been created de novo out of ambition, openness, a penchant for risk taking, and seriousness, with Herrick taking particular pride in the "phenomenal birth and growth and the material side of the new institution." For Herrick, the new University was an almost providential act that was bound to be hugely successful, set in the dynamic West and in a burgeoning city whose hardworking people were eager for a rich intellectual and cultural life. This image of a new, hyperinnovative creation, brilliantly launched by William Rainey Harper in 1892, dominates most historical accounts of the origins of the modern American university, alongside the opening of Johns Hopkins University in 1876. Images of instantaneous creation also dominate much of the fund-raising literature that the University produced in the twentieth century. The Responsibility of Greatness, the lead publication for the capital campaign of 1955–58, proudly recounted, "No other university ever began like Chicago. Its founders quite literally knew what they were doing. Other universities grew from small colleges, but Chicago started as a university. It was founded for leadership sixty-five years ago, and in ten short years it had become a leader." Similarly, in the lavish campaign book of 1925, the authors noted, "In 1892, Mr. John D. Rockefeller, inspired by a deep impulse to advance civilization and to meet more specifically the needs for intellectual leadership of a population exceeding 50,000,000 people, founded a great university in the center of the Middle West.... [He] called it The University of Chicago."

Neither of these statements is inaccurate. Yet there was a titular predecessor, the first University of Chicago, which had been founded in 1857 and collapsed in 1886, and the historical threads connecting the two institutions were complex. The image of newness was not an accident. The men most closely associated with the reestablishment of the University in Chicago in 1888 and 1889, Frederick Gates and Thomas Goodspeed, were acutely aware of the misery and public humiliation that had accompanied the collapse of the first institution, having had considerable difficulty raising the $400,000 needed to match John D. Rockefeller's historic offer of $600,000 to re-create a first-rate Baptist college in Chicago. Much of the rhetoric they deployed was designed to negate the long, dark shadow cast by the old University. But the new University of Chicago was also deeply indebted to a group of leaders who were profoundly influenced by the old University and its educational goals and pedagogical ideals.

The Founding of the First University

The first institution to bear the name of the University of Chicago began as a modest denominational college founded by Senator Stephen A. Douglas in 1856–57. The Baptist denomination in Chicago was small — with about 5,500 members in 1872 — and the Baptist communities in the western states had long wanted an institution of higher education to educate ministers for their region. Between 1849 and 1851, Stephen Douglas purchased seventy-five acres of lakeside land between Thirty-First and Thirty-Third Streets on the South Side of the city. Douglas sold part of the land to the Illinois Central Railroad and planned to build a large mansion on the rest. Douglas's tomb at Thirty-Fifth Street and the lake is the last vestige of this estate, which Douglas called Oakenwald. Douglas was a strong advocate of the commercial and cultural development of Chicago, particularly federal investments in infrastructure. He was also a strong believer in "practical science" and was one of the prime supporters of the creation of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846, as well as of the transcontinental telegraph system. His enthusiasm for the development of Chicago led Douglas to proselytize younger men, and he helped persuade a young lawyer from frontier Illinois, Paul Cornell, to purchase three hundred acres in 1853 in what would become the core district of the township of Hyde Park. Ironically, Cornell sought to lure an institution of higher learning to his investment area, offering Presbyterians free land to build a seminary, though this gambit failed.

Douglas's awareness of "the importance of higher education in the rapidly growing west" led him to want to found a college in Chicago. Douglas's recently deceased wife, Martha Douglas, was a Baptist, and his willingness to give land to the Baptists was said to reflect his desire to honor her affiliation. But the real motivation to found a college may have come from a trip that Douglas took in 1853 to Europe, where he visited several leading universities; according to John C. Burroughs, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Chicago, who knew Douglas's motives well, "while [Douglas's] main errand abroad was political, his quick insight had not failed to discover the bearing of its universities on the social and political development of Europe, and he had returned, full of the idea of a university at Chicago, which should be for the Northwest what he had seen those of England, and Germany, and France, and Russia to be to their States. This was the real main-spring of his project."

Douglas was grateful for the support that Burroughs had given him in the mid- 1850s during the heated controversy surrounding the Kansas-Nebraska Act, of which Douglas had been the principal architect. Yet when Douglas decided to create a college in Chicago, he first opened negotiations with local Presbyterians in the spring of 1855, offering them ten acres of his South Side land if they could raise $100,000 by December 1 (which Douglas later extended to March 1, 1856). At the urging of prominent Baptists in Chicago, including Charles Walker and Daniel Cameron, Burroughs visited Douglas in November 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana, where Douglas was staying at the time, and proposed that Douglas give his land to the Baptists if the Presbyterians were unable to meet his stipulations. When the Presbyterians decided not to exercise the option, most likely because of opposition to Douglas's unresponsiveness on the slavery issue, Douglas informed Burroughs in April 1856 that he was willing to offer the Baptists a site on Thirty-Fourth Street between Cottage Grove and Rhodes Avenues. Working with Mrs. Douglas's former pastor, Dr. G. W. Samson, Burroughs fashioned a proposal that was acceptable to Douglas, including a commitment to construct a building on the land within one year at a cost of not less than $100,000. Douglas's motives in making this gift have been variously interpreted, but it seems clear that he viewed the addition of a college not only as an asset to the fledgling city, but also as a way to enhance the value of the land that he intended to develop on the South Side.

Burroughs also agreed to organize a fund-raising campaign for the construction of the new building. He was able to secure oral endorsements from many Baptist leaders and collected pledges well beyond $100,000, but when the time came to persuade donors to honor their commitments he ran into difficulties. Douglas's name and his close association with the project were controversial among antislavery factions within the Baptist denomination, especially in eastern states and in Chicago. All told, Douglas proved to be more of a hindrance than a help to the Baptists, and he certainly provided no support to the fledgling University beyond his original donation of land. In August 1857 Douglas sent a public letter to Burroughs, offering to withdraw his grant of land and instead give the University a gift of $50,000. Burroughs and his fellow trustees unanimously rejected Douglas's offer, also in a public letter, which presented an idealistic statement of the goals of the founders and argued that since the University was a nonpolitical institution, it would never engage in partisan political activity, whatever Douglas's views on any given issue:

The establishment of the University of Chicago was looked upon by the Board as a matter above and beyond all political considerations, not as a thing for the moment, but for all time, not as a thing which concerns you immediately, or any other persons, but of the youth of Chicago and of the Northwest generally, not only of the Chicago of today but of that Chicago which in the fullness of time, will become a city of which the sanguine can hardly tend for an adequate conception, to enable them to accomplish that high and literal purpose they have steadily sought and obtained subscriptions and donations from the men of all parties and of all denominations.... It would moreover be a little less than a betrayal of the sacred trust committed to their hands, accompanied by a loss of all self-respect on the part of the Board of Trustees, to yield their unanimous judgment to mere temporary, personal or political considerations.

In its charter, the new institution was not defined as exclusively Baptist, and Burroughs later insisted that Douglas had deeded the land to an individual (himself) in trust who happened to be a Baptist, but not to the denomination as a corporation, in order to avoid the appearance that the new University was overtly sectarian. But the popular press and public sentiment in Chicago viewed it as such (the Christian Times proudly announced in October 1856, "The subscription of $100,000 for the building of a Baptist university in the city has now been completed"). Although a majority of the board and the president were mandated to be Baptist, the charter opened the school to students and faculty of all faiths, setting up a tension in institutional identity and pragmatic policy that would plague the new school.

The institution was incorporated in the state of Illinois on January 30, 1857, as "The University of Chicago," and the board of trustees had its first meetings on May 21–22 of that year. The first board had thirty-six members, including little-known local Baptist ministers and also prominent business and political leaders like William B. Ogden and John H. Kinzie. Douglas agreed to serve as chairman of the board. Other prominent Chicagoans on the early board included William Jones, a hardware merchant and real estate investor; James H. Woodworth, a dry goods merchant and former mayor; Thomas Hoyne, US attorney and politician; Charles Walker, a major real estate and lumber developer; and J. Young Scammon, a prominent banker and newspaper publisher. Few on the board, however, viewed the University as their primary philanthropy. With the exception of Jones and Scammon, none gave the new University a major gift during their tenure. Upon his death in June 1861, Stephen Douglas was overwhelmed with debts, having long since disposed of most of the property he owned in Chicago, and was unable to leave the University any legacy.


Excerpted from The University of Chicago by John W. Boyer. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

1. Two Universities of Chicago, 1857-1892
2. William Rainey Harper and the Establishment of the New University, 1892-1906
3. Stabilization and Renewal, 1906-1929
4. One Man’s Revolution: Robert Maynard Hutchins, 1929-1951
5. The Age of Survival, 1951-1977
6. The Contemporary University, 1978 to the Present

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