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Presidents

Each helped to shape the academic and fiscal vision of the U of C

Burton and Judson are more than just the names affixed to one of the U of C’s quirkier dorms, and Harper isn’t just that library with the pretty windows. These men and women were presidents of the University, each helping to shape its academic and fiscal vision and contributing to its successes and failures. Below is a run down of all of the presidents of the University of Chicago.

William Rainey Harper, 1891-1906

It all began when John D. Rockefeller asked Harper to become the first president of the University of Chicago. Harper’s belief in lifelong learning is closely tied to the U of C tradition of liberal education and support of graduate research. Also, his selectivity in faculty and students—and offers of high salaries for professors—laid the foundations for the University’s academic strength.

Harry Pratt Judson, 1906-1923

Judson’s administrative work turned the vision of Harper and Rockefeller into a living, breathing university. Along the way, he helped to organize the University’s academic program, pressed for the acceptance of fraternities, and more than tripled the University’s student body, balancing the budget that Harper’s spending had let fall into a deficit.

Ernest DeWitt Burton, 1923-1925

Burton was president for only two years, but he oversaw record fundraising that led to enormous growth in the University’s endowment. This new capital let him build new buildings across campus, including a new medical school and hospital.

Max Mason, 1925-1928

Like Burton, Mason’s career at Chicago was short but effective, as he oversaw the completion of the Divinity School, a marked increase in professorships, and a new football stadium.

Robert Maynard Hutchins, 1929-1951

Hutchins came to Chicago to “start a big argument about higher education and keep it alive,” and he remains the most discussed and debated of the University presidents. As the youngest University president, Hutchins was impassioned by his belief that the purpose of a university was “to procure a moral, intellectual, and spiritual revolution throughout the world,” and he gave many public speeches and radio addresses on his educational theories.

Hutchins’s dedication to a thorough undergraduate education led to the creation of several general education classes, which laid the foundation for the modern Common Core. The University’s “Life of the Mind” focus is part of Hutchins’s legacy. Hutchins razed the football stadium to the ground and eliminated the struggling varsity football program.

Because Hutchins was so focused on his ideas about transforming undergraduate education, however, he neglected some of the more practical aspects of the job: Donations and enrollments fell, and the problems facing Hyde Park as a neighborhood grew. Some of Hutchins’s more radical changes, in particular his decision to raze the football stadium and to award students a B.A. degree after two years of study, were seen as excessive and were later overturned.

Lawrence A. Kimpton, 1951-1960

Kimpton cleaned up some of the administrative mess left behind by Hutchins. Where Hutchins had focused on the problem of educational quality and neglected some of the more practical issues of running the University, Kimpton dealt with the drying-up endowment and deteriorating relations with the neighborhood. He is largely responsible for keeping the University fully rooted in Hyde Park despite rising crime rates and racial tensions. Determined to avoid turning the University into a “commuting campus,” he brought in money and support for ambitious community development programs.

George W. Beadle, 1961-1968

Beadle’s tenure was marked by student unrest as well as the continuation of the Hyde Park development plans that Kimpton had initiated, some led by Beadle’s wife, Muriel. While some colleges across the country became players on the political stage, Beadle was committed to keeping the U of C focused on education above all else. Two of Beadle’s enduring legacies are the institutionalized use of government money to fund science programs and a renewed effort to beautify the main campus.

Edward H. Levi, 1968-1975

Levi was one of the greatest legal thinkers of the 20th century, and he reorganized the University’s undergraduate education into the five divisions that exist today. An ardent detractor of “the educational-industrial” complex that he saw taking hold in other universities, he said the U of C “does not exist to increase the earning power of its students…. Its greatest service is in its commitment to reason, in its search for basic knowledge, in its mission to preserve and to give continuity to the values of mankind’s many cultures.”

John T. Wilson, 1975-1978

Wilson’s short tenure was characterized by belt-tightening as difficult economic conditions affected the University. He also sought to find a delicate balance between appropriate and excessive reliance on government funding for higher education.

Hanna Holborn Gray, 1978-1993

Gray’s appointment marked the first time a woman in the U.S. led a major research institution. After balancing the budget, Gray started a new building plan that included the Crerar science quad, the Harris School of Public Policy and the Law School’s library. She also reorganized graduate study at Chicago, reaffirmed the University’s priority on scholarship, and arguably did more than any other president to turn the University of Chicago Hospitals into a world-class institution for treatment and research.

Huge F. Sonnenschein, 1993-2000

Sonnenschein, an economist by profession, doubled the University’s endowment and strengthened the quality of its faculty and admitted students. Such tremendous fundraising made the Ratner Athletic Center, the Max Palevsky dormitories, and the new Harper Center of the Graduate School of Business possible. However, the reforms to the Core made under his watch—decreasing the number of courses and adding several options for required sequences—were seen as a betrayal of the University’s history of unique and interdisciplinary education.

Don Michael Randel, 2000-2006

Randel focused on strengthening the humanities and the arts on campus, and he oversaw major improvements to existing University facilities as well as the completion of buildings started during Sonnenschein’s tenure. He also tried to create an ongoing dialogue about diversity on campus.

Robert J. Zimmer, 2006-present

President Zimmer’s first two academic years gave us a glimpse of the sort of challenges he will face in his tenure.

The construction of the new dormitory behind Burton-Judson is on the forefront of the campus’s southward expansion and will have major effects on the relationship between the University and the surrounding community. Zimmer’s decision-making skills were tested following the Amadou Cisse shooting, and he promptly responded with an upgraded security plan. However, his refusal to divest from companies with ties to Sudan may be a harbinger of more ideologically fueled—and unpopular—decisions in the future.

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