O-Issue 2013: Alumni

Celebrities only UChicago could produce.

By Kristin Lin

Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is a game that challenges you to relate any actor to Kevin Bacon within six connections. If you were to repurpose this game as Six Degrees of UChicago, the mere decision to attend this school would connect you to the White House, the Nobel Prize, and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle—all within one or two degrees.

While this does not guarantee that you will ever cross paths with any of these people, the knowledge that you will soon carry the same diploma as them can be somewhat comforting: By coming to the University of Chicago, you have made the same life choice as, for example, Nate Silver (A.B. ’00), known most recently for correctly predicting results of the 2012 presidential election in all 50 states. He’s no psychic: The sports and politics statistician has a history of number crunching right here in Hyde Park. While at UChicago, Silver majored in economics and spent his third year abroad at the London School of Economics. After a brief stint as an economic consultant, Silver went on to develop PECOTA, a statistical system that predicts the careers of baseball players, and then to run the blog FiveThirtyEight. Before writing for The New York Times and ESPN, his writing appeared in the Maroon and what is now the South Side Weekly.

Silver isn’t the only one to have left a newspaper trail as an undergraduate: David Axelrod (A.B. ’76) wrote for the Hyde Park Herald and the Maroon during his four years as a political science major. While a student at the University, Axelrod recalls feeling “a kind of frustration” about the school’s lack of political conversation. “One of the things that frustrated me most when I came to the University of Chicago in 1972 was that we lived in one of the most interesting political environments and no one wanted to talk about it,” Axelrod told the Maroon last year. Since graduation, he has worn several hats in the political world, first as a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, and then as an advisor to Bill Clinton and one of the masterminds behind Barack Obama’s ascension to the White House. The lack of political opportunities available to Axelrod as a student inspired him to found the University’s Institute of Politics, where he currently serves as director.

Silver and Axelrod join Pulitzer Prize–winning reporters David Broder (A.B. ’47, A.M. ’51) and Studs Terkel (Ph.B. ’32, J.D. ’34), as well as New York Times columnist David Brooks (A.B. ’83) as alums that have risen to the national spotlight in journalism.

Award-winning composer Philip Glass (A.B. ’56), a Coulter House resident, arrived on campus at age 15 and attended Julliard after graduation. Afterward, he went on to lead the Philip Glass Ensemble, write operas, and compose music. He was nominated for Academy Awards for three film scores, and has had numerous documentaries made about him and his work.

Another precocious student was writer, filmmaker, and human rights activist Susan Sontag (A.B.’51), who graduated from the University at age 18. She continued her studies in English and philosophy at Harvard University before penning numerous books, essays, and short stories.

Many have found success in the entertainment industry. Tucker Max (A.B. ’98), the self-proclaimed “asshole,” wrote I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and other works of “fratire.” History major Hayden Schlossberg (A.B. ’00) co-wrote Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle with Jon Hurwitz on campus as a fourth-year. Director Kimberly Peirce (A.B. ’90) is now known for Boys Don’t Cry and Stop-Loss. Philip Kaufman (A.B. ’58) directed the science-fiction thriller Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and all three founders of The Second City, the improv theatre credited for discovering comedians like Bill Murray, Tina Fey, and Steve Carrell, attended UChicago. One of them, Bernard Sahlins (A.B. ’43), returned to the University to establish Off Off Campus.

And then there are the alumni whose contributions are more difficult to categorize. William Cottrell (A.B. ’02), loosely affiliated with the Earth Liberation Front, served a prison sentence for being associated with an act of ecoterrorism—although his conviction on arson counts was later overturned—and was released in August 2011. Though considered a “genius” by peers during his time at the University, Cottrell was also known for being the first member of the cross country team to go commando at the annual Regenstein streak.

If you feel intimidated by these alumni—not to mention the 31 Nobel laureates the University has produced—fear no longer. For all of the success that those who have earned a diploma have achieved, there are also several people who didn’t even finish their degree who went on to great things. UChicago dropouts include film critic Roger Ebert (X ’70), director Mike Nichols (X ’53), and Nobel laureate and novelist Saul Bellow (X ’37), who transferred to Northwestern, but later returned to the University to teach.

This short introduction to UChicago’s human history is meant as a token of affirmation. Take comfort in knowing that the Accomplished Adult you saw in the newspaper the other day once also drooled on the Harper tables. (Disclaimer: The University does not keep track of such matters; there is no physical record of anyone drooling in Harper, let alone important alumni. But let’s be honest: Who doesn’t nap in Harper, and who doesn’t drool?) If anything, this list of notable alumni is here to tell you one thing: No matter how many all-nighters you end up pulling—and no matter how much uncertainty you feel in the face of graduation—you can go on to do great things.