Book review: The University of Chicago – A History


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One of the most influential institutions of higher learning in the world, the University of Chicago has a powerful and distinct identity, and its name is synonymous with intellectual rigor. On this book, John W. Boyer, Dean of the College since 1992, presents a deeply researched history of the university. The result is a fascinating narrative of a legendary academic community.

While there are plenty of interesting facts and information about the University of Chicago presented in this book, below are forty quotes and takeaways I highlighted out of it:

  1. A university’s history can be most accurately and fairly discovered by addressing questions to sources that can be authenticated and compared to other, similar sources.
  2. The history of the University of Chicago has been marked by extraordinary continuities of normative values and educational practices, despite stormy ruptures and discontinuities… This book discusses various facets of the University’s commitment to educational innovation and its capacity to sustain its core values while sponsoring (or enduring) significant change.
  3. Founded with revolutionary ambitions in the nineteenth century, Chicago aimed to become a model university for the city, the region and the nation. Now, when the public understanding of universities’ core mission is less clear than ever before and when universities and their faculties face competing challenges on many fronts, it is useful to recount the odyssey of one institution from its inception, focusing not only on its academic values and practices but also on the efforts to sustain welfare, intellectual and otherwise. Such an understanding is needed to answer the critics, some friendly, others not so, who challenge the operational assumptions of American research universities like Chicago.
  4. … long after 1960 the University of Chicago tried to sustain a system that had general education at its core and, equally important, to create a campus culture of learning, egalitarian merit, and academic rigor that challenged all highly motivated and talented students, whatever their ultimate professional career goals.
  5. No other university ever began like Chicago. Its founders quite literally knew what they were doing. Other universities grew from small colleges, but Chicago started as a university.
  6.  The academic year was divided into three terms, a fall term of fifteen weeks, followed by winter and spring terms of thirteen and twelve weeks, respectively – a structural innovation that offered a strong precedent for Harper’s decision to create a quarter system in 1892.
  7. In June 1881 Anderson reported to the board, “We have only $600 of endowment and the few dollars of income from that are applied to the extinguishment of an old debt…”
  8. … A Chicago Tribune editorial had strongly criticized back in 1874, arguing, “that the University is not a financial success, and, as consequence, not an educational success, is due to a radical defect which requires a practical remedy. It is a sectarian institution. This may be denied, but the fact remains unchanged, and, wherever it is known at all, it is known as a Baptist university. The day of denominational schools and colleges has gone by.
  9. Harper headed off to Yale University, where he became a full professor of Semitic languages at an annual salary of $4,000 in the fall of 1886.
  10. John D. Rockefeller wrote to Harper in early August 1890, urging him to accept the job: “I agree with the Board of Trustees of the Chicago University that you are the man for president and if you will take it I shall expect great results. I cannot conceive of a position where you can do the world more good; and I confidently expect that we will add funds, from time to time, to those already pledged, to place it upon the most favored basis financially”. Harper was touched by this assurance, but made it clear he would not leave a university for a liberal arts college: “The denomination and indeed the whole country are expecting the University of Chicago to be from the very beginning an institution of the highest rank and character… It seems a great pity to wait for growth when we might be born full fledged.”
  11. Harper insisted that the University must aspire to professional and graduate education… Rockefeller viewed himself as a manager of men, not money, and he put great stock in managers whose character and professional expertise he could trust.
  12. Among the founders of the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper stands out, both for his capacious vision and for his relentless engagement with all aspects of the University, visible and invisible. Harper was responsible for shaping the University’s basic structure and culture, and his successes derived from a mixture of scholarly genius, civic courage, and obliviousness to risk… But Harper’s principled leadership and willingness to invest enormous effort in the realization of his ideals are well worth remembering.
  13. “I have a plan”, Harper wrote to Rockefeller, “which is at the same time unique and comprehensive, which I am persuaded will revolutionize university study in this country; nor is this only my opinion. It is very simple, but thorough-going.”
  14. Professor Lewis Stuart’s reaction to Harper’s plan was typical: “…In a word, you set for the ideal ‘University’ in the old and in the new meaning of that much abused word, ‘all knowledge for all men.’… I wish you most sincerely glorious success you deserve and for myself to see arise out of the ashes of the old U. of C. the greatest university in the world.”
  15. In addition to the University proper, the University extension would offer evening courses for adults in various locations around Chicago; correspondence courses for students “residing in parts of the country whose circumstances doing not permit them to reside at an institution of learning during all of the year…”
  16. Each part was assumed to be an integral part of a larger whole, encompassing high schools, undergraduate colleges, professional and graduate schools, extension programs, and a publication system to disseminate the scholarly research of the faculty across the nation and around the world. The vision was breathtaking, especially since the new University was to be created all at once, in a fully unified format, with its parts reinforcing or at least relating one to another.
  17. Many of Harper’s imagined advantages had to do with an almost fanatical desire to help students and faculty maximize time and achieve efficiency, discipline, and economy. For Harper, in the ideal world every minute was accounted for, and no day properly concluded without a bounty of productive work.
  18. The plan privileged flexibility for both students and faculty and a serious expansion of the range of instructional opportunities. Students could enter and leave the University with more flexibility than under a standard two-semester paradigm.
  19. By 1902, the press had published nearly two hundred books and pamphlets and also issued ten journals, most of them scholarly but others more popular or for professional practitioners.
  20. Harper viewed his extension programs as vehicles to infuse higher levels of quality in the nation’s educational system. “The work of diffusing scientific knowledge and creating a desire for a higher and better intellectual and aesthetic life is no less important than the advance of scientific knowledge itself by original investigation and discovery,” Harper wrote.
  21. Many scholars came to Chicago to head their departments; Harper’s system of departmental governance was a hazy adaption of the German custom of having “heads” of university institutes (Institutsvorstande).
  22. Harper never failed to emphasize that Chicago was a university, not a college, and that students should profit from an entirely different experience than if they attended a hermetic collegiate program.
  23. MA degrees were often viewed as a kind of junior PhD, and most had a thesis requirement attached to them. For many students, the MA was thus a legitimate terminal degree that would prove valuable in their professional aspirations.
  24. By 1910, Chicago had produced more doctorates than most universities in the United States; 573 PhDs were granted between 1892 and 1910, with an average of 30 annually.
  25. Two most active and influential trustees in the first two decades of the University’s history were Martin A. Ryerson and Charles L. Hutchinson… Its difficult to imagine the success of Harper’s daring without he patient leadership and careful meditation of the late nineteenth-century civic elite represented on the board of trustees.
  26. Of the 189 members of the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1896-97, 76 had taken degrees or advanced training at a European university, and 65 of those had studied at one or more German universities.
  27. …If Harper felt under tremendous stress throughout his presidency, it was because of his compulsion to function as a teacher, scholar, and editor in addition to fund-raiser, administrator, urban reformer, national patriot, and general visionary.
  28. Edward Levi once argued that “no one knows this institution – not even the students. In a more genuine way it possesses all of us.” But Harper’s case was instructive about the dependence that this particular university has always had on strong, visionary presidents who were willing to take enormous risks.
  29. Rockefeller, Ryerson, Field, and other capitalists endowed the University with bonds, real state, and cash, but Harper gave Chicago clarity of mission.
  30. Typical of Chicago, with its emphasis on merit, no fuss was made over the first full-term appointment of a female president at a major research university in the United States… Hanna Gray assumed the presidency in the summer of 1978.
  31. In April 1992, after nearly fifteen years of service, Hanna Gray announced that she would leave the presidency of the University in mid-1993.
  32. Don Michael Randel served as the University of Chicago president until July 2006, after providing thoughtful, highly effective leadership of the University in a time of substantial institutional change.
  33. Randel was succeeded in mid-2006 by Robert J. Zimmer, a distinguished mathematician who had first joined the faculty of Chicago as Dickson Instructor of Mathematics in 1977. He had served as associate provost for education and research from 1995 to 1998, as deputy provost for research from 1998 to 2000, and vice president for research and for the Argonne National Laboratory from 2000 to 2002, when he left to become provost of Brown University. Zimmer’s return to Chicago brought a leader of prodigious energy, vision, and visceral impatience with status quo thinking.
  34. … A larger undergraduate student body would provide the means to move forward in a number of areas, including long-overdue reforms in the financing of doctoral education… Michael Behnke was appointed Vice President for College enrollment at Chicago in 1997… Behnke increased applications from 5,522 to 12,397 and reduced the admissions rate from 61 percent to 28 percent. Yield rates increased from 30 percent to 38 percent. Upon Benhke’s retirement in 2009, James Nondorf dramatically revitalized admissions by deploying a series of imaginative communications strategies, and by the half of 2012 Chicago experienced a huge increase in interest from academically qualified students across the nation. The results were not only a stunning uptick in inquiries and applications, with more than 30,000 applications in 2013, but a pronounced increase in the yield rate for admitted students (60 percent in 2014) and a substantial increase in the academic quality of the matriculation pool as measured by SAT scores (see figures on pages 423 and 424).
  35. The University created a Center for Teaching and Learning in the late 1990s that, with a modest budget and a dedicated small staff, created some helpful mentoring and training programs.
  36. … Identities and traditions do not endure forever, not without constant regeneration. Two cases that arose in the 1950s and 1960s raised questions about the intellectual mission and identity of the University and resolved them in ways that had a lasting effect in the history of the institution. One involved the Kalven report (the Report of the Committee on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action), a classic statement of the University’s disinterestedness in the face of political or ideological advocacy.
  37. In the 1950s, Robert Redfield and Milton Singer had created new analytical approaches to the comparative study of world cultures, with substantial support from the Ford Foundation… On campus, the central activity of the project was the now-famous Redfield-Singer seminar. The Redfield-Singer initiative underscored the importance of linking fundamental research with innovative teaching as a central feature of Chicago’s best self. The comparative cultures project was a classic example of the fortuitousness of original scholarship for the development of new teaching strategies and intellectual agendas.
  38. Moreover, the Kalven report and Redfield-Singer initiative shared a powerful, if unspoken, link. The report presumed the right of diverse individuals to assert their views, however radical, within a university community that would collectively remain steadfastly neutral. The initiative defended the right of diverse civilizations to be fairly and equitably scrutinized, deeming each world culture authentic and equally deserving as an object of study.
  39. As Gerhard Casper has observed, what makes the university “irreplaceable” is “the link between teaching and research in  the laboratory and the classroom, the working environment for professors and students that requires a particular brand of camaraderie that both assumes and makes possible this environment.” But Casper’s dictum is plausible only if universities recognize that supporting distinguished teaching and fashioning coherent curricula for their students must be among their highest priorities, as opposed to allowing their faculties to become agents of fragmentation in the name of ‘research excellence’ – which, while appealing in itself, weakens the fundamental mission of teaching and thus of a great university.
  40. The grandeur of the University, that which shines forth to each person who visits Chicago even for a short time, that which graces all who have had the privilege of joining its community as permanent members, is that it is a courageous and fearless place, a place of strong liberty and vibrant convictions, and out of all those convictions, out of all the generations of free and open debate that they have sponsored and protected, has arisen an institution truly worthy of the meaning and the promise of the higher learning.
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