Evoking FDR, Boyer gives a “fireside chat”

Boyer spoke about the history of the Core and the College’s admission standards Tuesday evening.

By Jon Catlin

Students who find Chicago too cold, classes too hard, Hyde Park too sleepy, and Jimmy’s too sticky, might have missed their chance for a little perspective on Tuesday evening, courtesy of Dean of the College John Boyer.

In the first of a series of “Faculty Fireside Chats,” Boyer recounted the University’s checkered history and its sometimes conflicting visions, delving into the darker days when the Core lasted four years and the College recruited 15-year-olds.

Boyer said much of the original framework for the College came from Yale College, alma mater of founding President and one-time Yale professor William Rainey Harper, who intended for the University to be a rigorous and competitive research institution.

“For years, the first classes were admitted on the basis of special entrance exams in addition to the high school transcript. Harper wanted to make Chicago more selective for undergraduates than Harvard or Yale,” he said.

Nonetheless, despite the College’s prominent role within the University’s infrastructure today, there were calls in the 1930s by senior faculty to reaffirm the University as a strictly research university.

However, the fate of the College curriculum was salvaged by Robert Maynard Hutchins, “a brilliant young man who took up the position of President of the University at a mere 29-years-old” and put a halt to the plan, Boyer said.

The College flourished under Hutchins’s “New Plan,” which introduced what Boyer considers “the most innovative and successful college curriculum in history”: the Common Core.

Despite his success, Hutchins expanded the Core too far, from a two-year curriculum to a four-year program that comprised a student’s entire degree, Boyer said.

Students today might also be gratified to know that, according to Boyer, campus life became so miserable in the 1950s that undergraduate enrollment plummeted to crisis levels, even though the College had begun to recruit high school students at the age of 15.

Boyer joined the faculty two decades later, in 1975, the same year he earned his Ph.D. from the University. He became Dean of the College in 1992. Now in his fourth term as the longest-serving dean in the University, Boyer is working on a series of monographs on the history of the University.

Eventually, the College’s alienation from nearby high schools–and its own students–forced the University to recruit elsewhere. “It was at this point that the College grew from a regional institution to a national one,” Boyer said.

The rest, as they say, is history.