University History

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 accrued vast debt 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.

They turned to William Rainey Harper, a noted Hebrew professor at Yale. The old trustees believed that Harper had the vision to create the first-rate undergraduate college they felt the Midwestern Baptist population needed.

The trustees also attracted the attention of John D. Rockefeller, then the nation’s richest man. With Rockefeller’s support, they convinced Harper to lead their project; Harper’s zeal in turn secured more money from Rockefeller then he had originally planned on giving the school.

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. Thus, in 1891, the modern U of C was born.

Hutchins makes his mark

Over the next 15 years, the University established itself as a top-flight school. After Harper’s death in 1906, however, tensions began to brew over 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. 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, Hutchins found it highly inefficient once he took office. He established divisions for the Physical, Natural, and Social Sciences and the Humanities, creating more intermediate control points. He also created another division, the College, for undergraduate courses. This basic framework remains the same, more or less, today, allowing individual departments control over their curricula.

Hutchins also oversaw the New Plan, the precursor to today’s Core. The Plan involved a series of year-long survey classes in various disciplines, some bearing 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 program. 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 bachelor's degree, followed by two years of graduate classes for a master's degree. Hutchins believed 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, and it earned the school the reputation of having a watered-down bachelor’s program, since the B.A. was awarded solely for general education classes. This program, coupled with rising crime rates in Hyde Park, caused the undergraduate population to plummet in the 1950s, and the U of C became known primarily for its graduate schools; the College remained, but the perception that the University is focused on graduate-level education sticks to this day. The faculty soon repealed Hutchins’s B.A. plan, but the damage was done.

Cutting the Core, catering to students

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 large 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 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 anger at the administration, and 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 turned around more significantly.

In 1993, Dean John Boyer reexamined the Core and began 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 their fourth-year. His suggestion several years later that the Core be shortened 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 changed to pander to high school seniors apprehensive about taking so many required classes. The final change—moving from 18 to 15 Core classes—was fairly minimal, but when coupled with a reinvigorated advertising campaign by the admissions office, it led to a boost in morale and admissions statistics.


The University has several plans in varying stages of completion to combat some of its lingering troubles. Because of its improved reputation and a more savvy approach to the U.S. News and World Report rankings, the University is much more selective than it has been in decades, accepting only 18 percent of applicants for the Class of 2014. The South Campus Residence Hall opened last year across the Midway in an effort to provide better undergraduate housing, and the school raised over $2.38 billion in the past 10 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.