University of Chicago

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UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO, which opened in 1892, was one of a number of cultural institutions established in the period of Chicago's growth, all of which were financed by a small group of entrepreneurs and visionaries in the merchandising, meatpacking, and shipping industries. Key leaders in the university's planning stages included Thomas W. Goodspeed, an alumnus of the original Baptist College (also called the University of Chicago, 1857–1886); Frederick T. Gates, secretary of the American Baptist Society; and William Rainey Harper, the university's first president. Gates persuaded John D. Rockefeller to finance the university on the condition that additional funds would be raised. Chicago's wealthy businessmen and philanthropists contributed money and land, and brought the initial funding to $1 million. Harper, young, gifted, and energetic, had been Professor of Semitic Languages at Yale's Divinity School, when the trustees appointed him in 1891. He and Gates envisioned a large research institution with a small college and a number of affiliations, where the first commitment of faculty and students would be to scholarship. Harper's ideas had been shaped in the 1870s and 1880s, with the establishment of the first graduate school at Johns Hopkins (1876) and of new research institutions, including Stanford (1891) and Clark (1889). The university opened with an academy, a college, two graduate schools, and a divinity school. In an unprecedented move, Harper hired nine women to the faculty in the 1890s. Undergraduate and graduate enrollments were coeducational; women exceeded 50 percent of the undergraduate student body by 1901. Fear of feminization prompted Harper to attempt an unsuccessful and short-lived program of separate classes for men and women. At the urging of deans Alice Freeman Palmer and Marion Talbot, Chicago also instituted a small number of graduate fellowships for women. Faculty and students became involved in Chicago's social, cultural, and political institutions, such as Jane Addams's Hull House, the Chicago public schools, the Field Museum, the Chicago Civic Federation, and the juvenile courts. The university established its own press and developed a variety of scholarly journals. Such expansion kept the university in debt for its first fifteen years, but Rockefeller continued his support. Harper's successor Harry Pratt Judson (1906–1923) placed the university on secure financial ground and expanded its faculty and graduate programs. By 1910, Rockefeller had contributed $35 million, augmented by donations from prominent Chicago families. In the 1920s, various Rockefeller Foundation units supported biomedical, social science, and other research in the university. Ernest DeWitt Burton (1923–1925) expanded student activities to enrich college life and instituted better advising and other services for undergraduates, before his untimely death. Max Mason (1925–1928) continued to build the science faculty and saw to completion a large-scale examination of undergraduate education. By the late 1920s, the university was considered one of the preeminent research universities in the United States. In 1928 the trustees appointed Robert M. Hutchins to the presidency (1929–1951). A young man known for his high intelligence and quick wit, Hutchins reorganized the university's college and graduate school into four divisions: social sciences, humanities, and natural and physical sciences; and pushed the faculty to form interdisciplinary committees and to initiate and maintain a new general education curriculum in the college, which included extensive exposure to the great books. This latter innovation occurred in the 1930s, when many colleges and universities were experimenting with curricular reforms. Chicago's program, emulated by a number of institutions, had the most lasting influence on the curricular reorganization of St. Johns' College in the late 1930s with an entirely great books curriculum. Hutchins faced much faculty opposition, but every proposal increased media coverage of the university and its reforms. Permitting the university to serve as the site of the first self-sustained nuclear reaction to release atomic energy contributed to Allied strength in World War II and enhanced the physics faculty. His staunch defense of academic freedom in the mid-1930s and again during the McCarthy era elicited faculty loyalty, but opening the college to students out of the sophomore year of high school and enabling them to finish college early stirred faculty opposition into the 1940s. During Hutchins's tenure, undergraduate enrollment declined. The curriculum was perceived as unrelated to students' future plans, and other graduate schools were not accepting the early Chicago bachelor's degree. Succeeding presidents, though quite competent, did not have the charisma or impact of Harper or Hutchins. Lawrence Kimpton (1951–1960) pulled the university out of debt, stabilized the neighborhood with rehabilitation projects, and increased undergraduate enrollment by abandoning Hutchins's early college plan.

Edward Levi (1968–1975) urged the faculty to experiment with undergraduate curriculum, connecting the reforms with the Hutchins era, which was viewed more favorably by the 1970s. Hanna H. Gray (1978–1993) encouraged reorganization of graduate programs. Hugo F. Sonnenshein (1993–2000) stabilized the university's finances and enriched undergraduate student life. Each president faced responsibility for maintaining and enhancing the university's international distinction as a first-class research institution, protecting the university's assets in the Hyde Park neighborhood, and offering undergraduate programs designed to attract some of the nation's brightest students.


Diner, Steven J. A City and Its Universities: Public Policy in Chicago, 1892. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Dzuback, Mary Ann. Robert M. Hutchins: Portrait of an Educator. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Goodspeed, Thomas W. The Story of the University of Chicago, 1890–1925. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1925.

Manuscripts and Special Collections, Joseph Regenstein Library, University of Chicago.

McNeill, William H. Hutchins' University: A Memoir of the University of Chicago, 1929–1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Storr, Richard J. Harper's University: The Beginnings; A History of the University of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

University of Chicago. One in Spirit: A Retrospective View of the University of Chicago on the Occasion of Its Centennial. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Mary AnnDzuback

See alsoEducation, Higher: Colleges and Universities .

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Identified by American industrialist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller as "the greatest investment I ever made," the University of Chicago, founded in 1891, became a standard-bearer for modern America's universities by being the first to meld the great English and German traditions of higher education by creating an institution focused on teaching and research.

Early Years

In 1891 the American Baptist Education Society united William Rainey Harper, a dynamic leader, with John D. Rockefeller, an equally magnanimous donor. The union produced the University of Chicago, which became America's shining educational city on a hill. Historian Frederick Rudolph asserted that "no episode was more important in shaping the outlook and expectations of American higher education than the founding of the University of Chicago" (p. 349).

President William Rainey Harper, the "young man in a hurry," was a Hebrew scholar lured from Yale in 1888 to create an institution that would combine the best of German and English higher educational traditions. Harper demanded that Chicago support pure research yet still provide quality instruction and moral guidance. He also revolutionized academic practices by dividing the year into quarters, encouraging year-round attendance, and by allowing students to graduate whenever they completed their degree requirements. Furthermore, Harper introduced majors and minors to the elective system and thereby provided students with both freedom and direction. Lastly, though founded by Baptists, the university was always nondenominational. Also, it welcomed both women and minority students at a time when many campuses did not.

Harper's vision required deep financial pockets and the deepest were found. John D. Rockefeller, though initially committing to a modest gift, eventually donated more than $35 million to the project. Harper used the funds to construct an English-Gothic-style campus with towers, spires, and gargoyles within Chicago's Hyde Park. This land, valued at the time at more than $8 million, was donated by Chicago department store owner Marshall Field. Harper hired 120 faculty members for opening day. Because he wanted only the best researchers and instructors, he used Rockefeller's generosity to raid the faculties of other elite colleges and universitiesespecially the strapped Clark University.

Early Twentieth Century

The University of Chicago continued to thrive despite the death of its young president in 1906. Its fifth president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, inaugurated in 1929, like Harper before him left a lasting imprint on Chicago and the nation. Hutchins reduced the dominance of applied science and commercial utility in the nation's great universities by shifting Chicago to an emphasis on perennial issues associated with the humanities. Thus began Chicago's Great Books curriculum, which focused on classics in Western civilization. The program was far more than just reading significant books, however. Rather than relying on professorial lectures for understanding, students engaged their instructors in spirited debate over the treatises. This atmosphere of intense intellectual argument became and remains the essence of the University of Chicago ethos. So popular was this approach that the Great Books were published for a wide reading audience, including discussion groups of laymen that popped up around the country in an effort to capture the Chicago spirit of intellectual discourse.

Not only did Hutchins buck the dominant trends in philosophy and instruction, he also challenged higher education's emphasis on intercollegiate football. Hutchins abolished the university's football team in 1939 because he believed students needed to focus on scholarship and Chicago should play football only if it could remain competitive with major athletic programs. This was a momentous decision as the Maroons were a founding member of the Big Ten Conference and once a national powerhouse under the famed coaching of Amos Alonzo Stagg. In fact, Stagg, who had retired from Chicago in 1933, had been the first coach in the nation to be a tenured professor, and his large athletics' budget was exempted from normal institutional review. Even as late as 1935, Chicago's Jay Berwanger became the first Heisman Trophy winner, but by 1939 Chicago's scoreboard indicated that the glory days had passed, including a 610 loss to Harvard. Therefore, despite the legacies, and partly because of them, after much debate the university dropped football.

Future Directions

Varsity football was resurrected at Chicago in 1969. Other traditions have been maintained without interruption. The University of Chicago has remained a bold innovator, demonstrated again in 1978 when Hanna Gray was appointed presidentthe first woman to serve as president of a major research university. The University of Chicago continues to adjust its curriculum, always with its emphasis on humanistic education. It proudly claims to be the "teacher of teachers," as one in seven of its alumni follows an academic career path. As such, the original vision for the university continues to stand out as a home of critical inquiry and informed discussion within the nation's higher educational landscape.

See also: Higher Education in the United States, subentry on Historical Development; Hutchins, Robert.


Lester, Robin. 1995. Stagg's University: The Rise, Decline, and Fall of Big-Time Football at Chicago. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.

Rudolph, Frederick. 1962. The American College and University: A History. New York: Random House.

Shils, Edward, ed. 1991. Remembering the University of Chicago: Teachers, Scientists, Scholars. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jason R. Edwards

Eric Moyen

John R. Thelin

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