Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

New Era for Pioneering University

After 100 years, University of Chicago is still 'addicted to the life of the mind,' says president

AGAINST a backdrop of changing circumstances in American higher education, the University of Chicago is celebrating its 100th anniversary this academic year.

In 1891, William Rainey Harper, the school's first president, called for a university that was bran splinter new' and yet as solid as the ancient hills."

About these ads

After 100 years, the university's research backbone and reputation for rigorous intellectualism are rock solid. Sixty-two Nobel laureates are among the school's faculty and graduates. But even as a centenarian with impeccable credentials, the university must adapt to the challenges of a new era in American higher education. Money is tight in all quarters, and the fight is intensifying over a shrinking pool of undergraduate students.

But perhaps most important to the University of Chicago is a shifting relationship between the government and academic research. The end of the cold war and allegations of scandalous abuse of federal funds by several universities have led to a reassessment of this long-standing partnership.

"The birth of this university is more or less coincident with the birth of the research university," says Hannah Holborn Gray, a former history professor who has served as president of the University of Chicago since 1978. "That period of the late 19th century is often called the prime of the [American] university."

But, as Mrs. Gray pointed out in a Monitor interview, the University of Chicago began as a university rather than being founded as a college and later expanding to university status: "It started out with an aspiration toward emphasizing research and graduate as well as undergraduate education," she says.

Five professional schools, four graduate divisions, and a small undergraduate college now make up the university. The most dynamic part of the mix, however, is academic research. "The century has seen tremendous growth of science - especially 'big science and rapidly changing technology," Gray says. Major federal investment in scientific research began after World War II. Defense partnerships evolved between the United States government and universities, and the cold war fueled this work.

"The history of the last 50 years was the immense enlargement of the scientific research enterprise. And with the GI Bill after the war, and then the extension of much greater opportunities for access to higher education, we've also seen a greater enlargement of the population of our universities - and the diversity of that population," Gray says.

Balancing excellent undergraduate instruction with graduate opportunities and exemplary research is a perpetual challenge, Gray says. But "it is not necessary to subordinate undergraduate teaching to graduate teaching or research," she argues: "These things really have a constructive, positive effect on each other. Without undergraduates, the university doesn't quite have the soul that it should have."

About these ads

The University of Chicago has long been committed to a core curriculum, a required general program of undergraduate education. Interdisciplinary course work provides the 3,400 undergraduates with a largely common experience. Some adjustments were made to the core curriculum in the mid-1980s, but the general guidelines have remained fairly constant.

"In the end," Gray says, "what we hope we are doing for our students is not simply teaching them history, or physics, or this, or that. We hope that we're teaching them to think. We hope that we're enabling them to become more independent-minded, more capable of critical judgment, more inquiring, not taking things for granted so much, and above all, looking toward integrating apparently disparate areas of experience and ideas."

How does President Gray explain the University of Chicago's large number of Nobel Prize winners? "This university has always stressed the importance of risk-taking research and has involved faculty across different fields in what can be a very stimulating, very exciting kind of intellectual discussion," she says. "The kinds of people who like that kind of very intensive intellectual environment fit here very well. This is a university that is addicted to the life of the mind."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.