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University of Chicago

Early Years, Early Twentieth Century, Future Directions

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 universities–especially 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 61–0 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 president–the 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.


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.




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