John Boyer, dean of the College, continued Rockefeller Chapel’s “What Matters to Me and Why” series on Thursday afternoon in the Reynolds club about his favorite subject: history.
“I think inside every good historian is a good investigative reporter,” Boyer, himself a professor in history, said. It is this sense of reporting, he reflected, that has sustained his early, childhood passion for history through his undergraduate and graduate careers and for 30 years as a writer and historian at the University.
Recalling his first history classes, Boyer described them as lackluster and said that they did little to capture the subject’s excitement. Boyer explained that he was fortunate to have a few good teachers in high school and credited them with helping him hold and develop his interest in history. “I began thinking about how one presents history,” he said.
Boyer, a specialist in Central European history, said that he went on to study American history as an undergraduate at Loyola University, but switched his focus in graduate school at the University because he felt that it was more engaging to study and write another’s history. Boyer drew a parallel between the cosmopolitan Austrian Empire and the University of Chicago, his other great interest. He noted that both institutions are diverse in ethnicity, culture, and religion, and share a sense of a higher good and the rhetoric of mission.
Boyer began his initial studies of the University’s history because he was fascinated by the University’s “coming of age” and how it became “so good so quickly.” Boyer discussed the various aspects of the University he has studied, including the history of fundraising, undergraduate and graduate relationships, and the college curriculum.
Boyer began his discussion on the University’s history by dismissing the popular opinion that alumni donation is low because of the high proportion of alumni in academics and research. The University’s history of poor alumni relations, Boyer suggested, can be explained because the University initially had no need to develop and strengthen its relationships with alumni due to the tremendous amounts of endowment it received from John D. Rockefeller, the founder of the University.
“The University started with different souls in it,” Boyer said, moving to a discussion on the history of undergraduate and graduate relationships. He noted that the University was founded in the age of “modern research schools,” and that William Harper, the first president of the University, was primarily interested in promoting scholarship and research. At the same time, Boyer pointed out, the University began with and retained its collegiate division, which often found itself at odds with the greater agenda of the University. Boyer said that it was Robert Hutchins, the University’s fifth president, selected for his perceived commitment to a graduate-oriented agenda, who was responsible for strengthening the College, drawing national fame for his innovations in curriculum.
Boyer also discussed the college curriculum and its changes, the focus of a fierce debate between the University administration, faculty, and alumni several years ago. He maintained a commitment to preserving the foundations of the College, such as one faculty teaching both undergraduates and graduates, while distinguishing other elements of the curriculum that were less stalwart and open to innovation. “You can learn German in Cobb Hall,” he said, “but you can also learn German in Berlin or Vienna. In fact, you’ll probably learn more.”
The University’s move to increase the undergraduate population, a particularly contentious issue, is a historically good idea, Boyer explained. He passed out a graph of the College’s size over the years, which revealed a high level of undergraduates in the 1930s, nearly 4,000, and a sharp drop in the College after the 1960s, which Boyer said the University has never recovered from. He suggested that the increase in undergraduates is an attempt to return to this peak. He was pleased with the state of the College, suggesting that it is “well poised to take all” but that it still needs “to keep at it.”