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O-Issue 2011: University history

Don’t know much about history? Here’s an accelerated class on 120 years of bomb making and Core creating.

Photo: UChicago Archives
The Early Years

255 years younger than Harvard (that school) and 190 years younger than Yale (that other school), the University of Chicago has worked tirelessly throughout its relatively short history to put itself in the same league (practically, not nominally–although we have plenty of ivy) with the stalwarts of American education. Founded about 100 years before you were born, the U of C has already left an unmistakable mark on a multitude of academic fields and commands a special reverence in the intellectual and cultural world. It is home to Milton Friedman and freshwater economics, improv comedy, the Core, Carl Sagan, the nuclear bomb (sort of), Kurt Vonnegut, Millikan and his oil-drop experiment, Agent Orange (of Vietnam fame), and Barack Obama.

Needless to say, the University of Chicago has a rich but certainly controversial history. It rose from the ashes of the “Old” University of Chicago (note the phoenix mascot – possibly a coincidence), a failed attempt by Stephen A. Douglas and a group of wealthy Chicagoans to create a Baptist institution of higher education in the Midwest. This early attempt was plagued by difficulties from its very conception: Douglas’ politics scared off many would-be investors (think Kansas-Nebraska Act), debt mounted rapidly, the City of Chicago had the audacity to burn down and precipitate a financial panic, etc. After 30 tumultuous years, the school closed its doors in 1886.

But as circumstance would have it, you all are currently attending the University of Chicago. The Baptists persisted after the first U of C met hellfire until they happened upon a Mr. John D. Rockefeller (Standard Oil magnate and philanthropist extraordinaire) and his money (see again: Standard Oil) to support the new effort. Together they attracted the University’s first president, the educational visionary and Hebrew professor William Rainey Harper (the “Harper Memorial Library” Harper), who in turn attracted even more money from Rockefeller. Soon thereafter, the University of Chicago you know and love (or will come to love, maybe) was up and running.

Hutchins Era

The new U of C was founded primarily as a higher level research institution with a very small undergraduate population cast in more of a supporting role, i.e. as a breeding ground for more graduate students (for more on breeding, see the “Dating” article on page 20). Since then the relative population sizes of the College and graduate schools have been the focus of an ongoing debate.

Enter Robert Maynard Hutchins. Only 30 years old at the time, Hutchins ascended to the presidency in 1929, a year marked by philosophical uncertainty regarding the University’s future course. An adamant supporter of a strong undergraduate program, he took steps to build ours into one of the best in the nation. First, amidst a comprehensive restructuring effort, Hutchins created an official administrative division for the College. He also oversaw curricula reforms that laid the groundwork for what is today the subject of a love-hate relationship in every undergraduate’s heart: the Core (see page 32). Incidentally, we also have Hutchins to blame – or praise – for shutting down the U of C’s Big Ten football program (see page 38). He once famously pronounced: “Whenever I feel the urge to exercise, I lie down until it passes,” a prevailing sentiment in Hyde Park.

Yet he undertook another controversial endeavor which, though intended to increase the talent of the undergraduate population, is today largely held responsible for its decline over the next several decades. He created a program which allowed rising high-school juniors to begin their B.A. program at the U of C, essentially intending to poach the best and brightest from around the Midwest. It backfired. Hutchins discovered a fundamental problem: high school juniors are not usually ready for college. He also managed to alienate most college counselors, who stopped sending their students to the U of C. It was also around this time that the University developed a reputation for having a watered-down undergraduate curriculum because students only had to take Core classes. After that debacle, undergraduate admissions plummeted.

Writing On The Walls

It is possible with a little imagination to trace the U of C’s history, from its very beginning, through its architecture. The main quad, chiefly built when the University was founded, reflects its lofty aspirations: a “German institution with an English campus”. The Neo-Gothic buildings across campus scream “ACADEMIA!” but are also remarkably beautiful and inviting (Cobb, Bond Chapel, Ryerson). In 1931, under Hutchins’ pro-undergraduate reign, we get Burton-Judson – another impressive but welcoming structure, this time specifically intended to house undergraduate students; it says, “Come to the U of C – pretend you’re Goethe or C.S. Lewis!” There was originally a plan to create a whole complex of B-J look-alikes south of the Midway, but that was nixed as too strong an endorsement of undergraduates.

Now fast forward about 40 years; undergraduate enrollment goes down and the Brutalist Joseph Regenstein Library goes up. Though perhaps your reluctant best friend during weeks 3-10, the Reg is decidedly undergraduate unfriendly. This is also around the same time we get the venerable Henry Hinds Laboratory (that Kafkaesque beehive on Ellis), built primarily for the purpose of trapping unwary undergraduates in its Anarctitorium (sic).

Modern Living

But in the early ’90s a biking bandit (alias: John W. Boyer) burst on to the scene brandishing a beacon of redevelopment for the undergraduate body (see page 9). Boyer’s tenure as Dean of the College has seen more than just the construction of the (disturbingly colorful) Max Palevsky and (yet-to-be-named) South Campus dormitories. He has also revamped the study abroad program and greatly expanded the Metcalf Fellowship program – all with an eye towards insulating the undergraduate population in the warm embrace of academic paternalism.

And so this is where you enter the tale of the University of Chicago, in the midst of an undergraduate explosion aided largely by the efforts of Dean Boyer, James Nondorf (the University’s new admissions/marketing guru, but you probably know that by now), and the Common Application. You’ve probably already defended your acceptance here with the stats on admissions rates and number of applicants – both record breaking harbingers of the new era for the College. Yet you will certainly come across arguments that this is a double-edged sword; that the undergraduate population is growing at the expense of its “character.” Take heed. If the “Uncommon Era” at the U of C is endangered, the Class of 2015 may likely serve as the fulcrum of revolution.

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