October 31, 2004

Gradual changes define the University

During his time as president of the University (1993-2000), Hugo F. Sonnenschein tried to increase the University's endowment and applicant pool to levels comparable to peer institutions.

In the process, he acquired many critics.

Sonnenschein proposed several changes. He wanted to increase the undergraduate population by 1,000 (to 4,500) over a span of seven years; reduce Core requirements—from 21 to 18—so that students could finish their general education requirements in two years; and construct a $50 million athletics center. These proposals unleashed a firestorm of criticism against President Sonnenschein.

Students organized a "fun-in," in which a crowd of 1700 mocked Sonnenschein's perceived emphasis on fun over academics. Sonnenschein resigned from his office in June 2000 after serving seven years as the president. He said then that he was resigning in favor of someone who was "less a symbol of change." Sonnenschein is now a professor in the economics department.

Despite the fact that it was the faculty who ultimately voted to lower the number of Core courses in 1998, this decision tainted Sonnenschein's legacy. During a 2002 curricular revision, the review committee cut the first quarter of Western Civilization and added a shorter two-quarter European Civilization sequence. Critics saw this move as further indication that the University was traveling on a downward, Sonnescheinian spiral. A chorus of critics argued that the University was abandoning its tradition of intellectual rigor for a more congenial—and profitable—persona.

These critics included the Chicago Sun-Times, the National Association of Scholars, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and even Nobel Laureate alumnus Saul Bellow—all of whom have publicly criticized the University.

National Association of Scholars President Stephen H. Balch bewailed the revision of the Western Civilization sequence. "It is truly depressing to observe a steady abandonment of the University of Chicago's once imposing Core curriculum, which for so long stood as the bench mark of content and rigor among American academic institutions."

Critics' concerns echoed a 1997 article in the Journal of Higher Education, which noted a shift in curricular trend in higher education from "liberal arts to professional curricula" since 1970. The author attributed this shift to enrollment concerns that "compelled many liberal arts colleges to abandon or scale back their arts and sciences curriculum in order to accommodate student preoccupation with the immediate job market."

Students, faculty, and alumni feared that the University was surrendering its comprehensive liberal curriculum to this commercializing tide in an effort to improve its endowment and admissions statistics.

Despite objections and the guidance of a new president, the University has kept on a path similar to the one Sonneschein prescribed. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the University's fall 2003 undergraduate enrollment was 4,355—well on its way to Sonnenschein's proposed 4,500. The Gerald Ratner Athletics Center, complete with an Olympic-sized pool, was finished last year at a cost topping 50 million dollars, and the number of applicants continues to rise, as do their SAT scores.

But these changes, executed since Sonnenschein's resignation, have not faced nearly the same frequency of criticism. Meanwhile, many say that the legacy of liberal education at the University of Chicago remains unscathed despite these once-controversial changes.

The Journal of Higher Education reported a 2002 survey reflecting this sentiment, in which 97 percent of Chicago first-years marked "intellectual" when asked what characteristics they associated with the College. One percent marked "partying."

"There is nothing professional about our curriculum," said Edward Cook, chair of the collegiate affairs faculty committee in the history department. "If anything, the new majors created since the late 1990s are more interdisciplinary and more liberal in focus than the standard fields that have been around for decades," he said, citing religious studies, ancient studies, and international studies as examples.

The Department of Classical Languages and Literatures, seen as central to liberal education, was home to 20 fourth-year concentrators last year, which Helma Dik, associate professor in the department says is a record for recent memory. Dik says that more than 130 undergraduates enrolled in first-year courses in Greek and Latin this year.

Cook said that the curricular reforms were a reaction to earlier revisions of the Core, which date back to 1984. "The good thing about this reform was that it created a greater uniformity and common experience," he said. "The bad thing was that there was greater rigidity in that each student was taking more courses remote from her or his particular interest."

George Khachatryan, a second-year in the College, agreed with Cook. But his ideas have evolved, like many in the University community. Last year, he posted a sympathetic message on the webpage, which was created by alumni upset by the Core curriculum changes.

"I am a math concentrator and while I enjoy the Core, I find that I barely have enough time in my schedule to fit in a reasonable dose of mathematics—absolutely essential if one is to pursue the subject in graduate school," he said.

It was precisely this kind of student concern that Cook said the faculty hoped to address in their curricular changes. "Almost inevitably, when time came for a periodic curricular revision in the mid-1990s, the pendulum swung back toward greater flexibility," he said. "This followed a long-term pattern in the College in which Core requirements have expanded and contracted."

Cook attributed the hysteria to confusion about Sonnenschein's intentions for the University's future. "The 1990s review took place at a time of controversy surrounding President Sonnenschein's proposal to increase the College to 4500 students," he said. "So people who didn't know what was happening came to wild conclusions."

Khachatryan no longer believes in what he called the "ominous prophesies of upperclassmen." Khachatryan is confident that the University's legacy will survive the changes made. "There are not more ‘mainstream types' coming in—it's just that generations change. The admissions department is committed to keeping the spirit of the school intact, and that's really the gateway to student culture."

In a similar spirit, Cook encouraged the University community to promote dynamism. "You make things exciting by trying new ideas. Change is not always a decay into excessive professionalism," he said. "In fact, it is more often the opposite, at least around here."