The life and times of the U of C

By Michael Lipkin

The history of the University of Chicago begins with a monumental failure.

In the mid-1850s, a small Baptist college called the University of Chicago opened its doors near Burnham Park and almost immediately fell into financial disarray. As the years wore on, the school encountered vast deficits and was partially destroyed by a fire. Forced to close its doors in the 1880s, its trustees immediately began searching for a new president and financial backer to revive the school.

The trustees turned their eyes towards William Rainey Harper, who at the time was a noted Hebrew professor at Yale. Harper, also a Baptist, had attracted nationwide attention with his engaging Biblical lectures and correspondence schools, as well as his tremendous intellect. The old trustees believed that Harper had just the vision they needed to create the first-class undergraduate college they felt the Baptist population of the Midwest needed.

The trustees also attracted the attention of John D. Rockefeller, the nation’s richest man—and a prominent Baptist. With Rockefeller’s support, they were able to convince Harper to lead their project, and with Harper’s zeal, they were able to secure more money from Rockefeller then he had ever planned on giving the school.

Because Harper was adamant about not leaving his academic roots behind, he insisted that the Baptist college be expanded into a high-class research institution supported by an undergraduate college, following the lead of German and English universities. Since he was also a strong critic of contemporary high school education, which he believed to be uneven, for the first two years, students took general education classes, only progressing to more specialized studies as upperclassmen. Thus, in 1891, the modern U of C was born.

Over the next quarter century the University established a name for itself as a top-rate school. One of the issues that came up again and again after Harper’s death in 1906, however, was how much support to give to the undergraduate program. Many professors believed that it should be phased out so that they could devote their full attention to their most advanced students while others thought the younger students provided a strong backbone to the graduate system. This tug-of-war eventually led to a somewhat chaotic undergraduate curriculum.

This problem was one of many attacked by Robert Maynard Hutchins, who took over in 1929 and left his touch on almost every aspect of the University. The old system of administration was highly decentralized—every department chair (math, physics, English literature, Biblical studies, etc.) reported directly to the president’s office. While this had been manageable when the University was relatively small, it became inefficient and irrational by the time Hutchins took office. He created divisions for the Physical, Natural, and Social Sciences and the Humanities, leaving more intermediate control points. He also created another division, the College, for undergraduate courses. This basic framework remains—more or less—today, allowing individual departments unique control over their curriculum.

Hutchins also picked up Harper’s advocacy for general education and oversaw The New Plan, the precursor to today’s Common Core. The Plan involved a series of year-long survey classes in various disciplines, some bearing very strong similarities to today’s Sosc and Hum classes. These classes were aimed at making sure every student had a basis of knowledge in every discipline and were initially a hit among students and faculty alike.

Perhaps the most influential decision Hutchins made was the retooling of the College’s degree process. In the 1940s, Hutchins pushed forward a policy that admitted current high school juniors into the College, where they would take four years of Core classes to earn a bachelors degree, followed by two years of graduate classes for a masters degree. Hutchins believed, somewhat like Harper, that the last two years of high school were wasted time that could be better spent at a university.

This move was highly divisive, both in the educational community and among the University’s faculty, and had far-reaching implications. High schools rebelled against the plan, not wanting to lose their brightest students to the University, and parents were uneasy about sending their young children away. This led to a collapse in the U of C’s admissions market, as well as earning the school a reputation that it had a watered-down bachelor’s program, since the B.A. was awarded solely on general education classes.

This program, coupled with rising crime rates in Hyde Park, caused the undergraduate population to plummet in the 1950s, giving the U of C a reputation for being primarily a graduate school, a reputation that had never been the case but has stuck to this day. The faculty soon repealed Hutchins’s B.A. plan, but the damage had been done.

With such a low enrollment, the University faced significant financial and morale problems in the 1960s. President George Beadle and Provost Edward Levi sought major grants from the Ford Foundation, which had begun giving large sums of money to struggling academic institutions. They presented a grand plan for the future, with more students and faculty paving the way for updated facilities, new dorms, libraries, and laboratories.

Having secured the money, the University built the Regenstein Library and other expensive buildings on campus and hired a substantial number of new faculty members. But without the new dorm that had been a part of their plan, the school couldn’t accommodate all the new enrollments that they needed to balance the budget. The problem of providing adequate dorm space for the student body has remained to this today and led the University to buy the Shoreland in the 1970s because the school didn’t have the money to build a new dorm on its own.

The crowded conditions on campus, coupled with the general unhappiness of the student body, came to a head when a popular but untenured professor was let go in 1969. This was met with an immediate swell of student ill-will toward the administration. Eventually, over 450 students occupied the administration building for five days.

The low morale stemming from the protest hurt the University’s reputation among high school seniors, forcing the admissions office to accept 75 percent of all applicants to meet its target class size and stay financially solvent. The administration began increasing the size of the College for several years, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that things began to turn around more significantly.

In 1993, Dean John Boyer reexamined the Core and began a process to overhaul the system. He believed that the courses had remained static for too long and that students were putting off the Core—which was designed to be taken by students before they began working on their majors—until fourth-year. His suggestion several years later that the Core be cut down to allow students more academic options was attacked by alumni, then-current students, and the national media. Many of those critics viewed the Core as an iconic symbol that was being altered in an effort to pander to high school seniors who were apprehensive about so many required classes. The final change—moving from 18 to 15 Core classes—was somewhat minimal but coupled with a reinvigorated advertising campaign from the admissions office led to a boost in morale and admissions statistics.

Now, the University has several plans in varying stages of completion to combat some of its perennial problems. Because of its reestablished reputation and its more savvy approach to the U.S. News and World Report rankings, the University is much more selective than it used to be, accepting about 28% of applicants last year. A new dorm is being built across the Midway in an effort to provide better undergraduate housing, and the school raised over $2.38 billion in the past nine years to fund financial aid and infrastructure improvements. Whether these plans will fall into the traps that have stymied the University since the 1950s or build on its recent successes remains to be seen.