The University of Chicago was founded in 1890 by the American Baptist Education Society and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, who later described the University of Chicago as "the best investment I ever made." The land for the new university, in the recently annexed suburb of Hyde Park, was donated by Marshall Field, owner of the Chicago department store that bears his name.
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William Rainey Harper, the first president, imagined a university that would combine an American-style undergraduate liberal arts college with a German-style graduate research university. The University of Chicago quickly fulfilled Harper's dream, becoming a national leader in higher education and research.
Frederick Rudolph, professor of history at Williams College, wrote in his 1962 study, The American College and University: A History, "No episode was more important in shaping the outlook and expectations of American higher education during those years than the founding of the University of Chicago, one of those events in American history that brought into focus the spirit of an age."
One of Harper's curricular innovations was to run classes all year round, and to allow students to graduate at whatever time of year they completed their studies. Appropriately enough, the first class was held on Saturday at 8:30 in the morning. Just as appropriately, Harper and the other faculty members had pulled a feverish all-nighter beforehand, unpacking and arranging desks, chairs and tables in the newly-constructed Cobb Hall.
Although the University was established by Baptists, it was non-denominational from the start. It also welcomed women and minority students at a time when many universities did not.
The first buildings copied the English Gothic style of architecture, complete with towers, spires, cloisters, and gargoyles. By 1910, the University had adopted more traditions, including a coat of arms that bore a phoenix emerging from the flames and a Latin motto, Crescat Scientia, Vita Excolatur ("Let knowledge increase so that life may be enriched").
In 1929, Robert Hutchins became the University's fifth president. During his tenure, Hutchins established many of the undergraduate curricular innovations that the University is known for today. These included a curriculum dedicated specifically to interdisciplinary education, comprehensive examinations instead of course grades, courses focused on the study of original documents and classic works, and an emphasis on discussion, rather than lectures. While the Core curriculum has changed substantially since Hutchins' time, original texts and small discussion sections remain a hallmark of a Chicago education.
Less well-known is that the University was a founder member of the Big Ten Conference. The University's first athletic director, Amos Alonzo Stagg, was also the first tenured coach in the nation, holding the position of Associate Professor and Director of the Department of Physical Culture and Athletics. In 1935, senior Jay Berwanger was awarded the first Heisman trophy. Just four years later, however, Hutchins famously abolished the football team, citing the need for the University to focus on academics rather than athletics. Varsity football was reinstated in 1969.
In the early 1950s, Hyde Park, once a solidly middle-class neighborhood, began to decline. In response, the University became a major sponsor of an urban renewal effort for Hyde Park, which profoundly affected both the neighborhood's architecture and street plan. As just one example, in 1952, 55th Street had 22 taverns; today, the street features extra-wide lanes for automobile traffic, the twin towers of University Park Condominiums (I. M. Pei, 1961) and one bar, the Woodlawn Tap.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the University began to add modern buildings to the formerly all-Gothic campus. These included the Laird Bell Law Quadrangle (Eero Saarinen, 1959) and the School of Social Service Administration (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1965). In 1963, the University acquired the Robie House, built by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1909. By 1970, the Regenstein Library — at seven stories, and almost a block square, the largest building on campus by far — occupied the site of Old Stagg Field.
The University experienced its share of student unrest during the 1960s, beginning in 1962, when students occupied President George Beadle's office in a protest over the University's off-campus rental policies. In 1969, more than 400 students, angry about the dismissal of a popular professor, occupied the Administration Building for two weeks.
In 1978, Hanna Gray, Professor of History, was appointed President of the University, becoming the first woman to serve as president of a major research university. During Gray's tenure, both undergraduate and graduate enrollment increased, and a new science quadrangle was completed.
In the 1990s, controversy returned to campus — but this time, the point of contention was the undergraduate curriculum. After a long discussion process that received national attention, the new curriculum was announced in 1998. While continuing the dedication to interdisciplinary general education, the new curriculum included a new emphasis on foreign language acquisition and expanded international and cross-cultural study opportunities.
The University of Chicago has had a profound impact on American higher education; curricula across the country have been influenced by the emphasis on broad humanistic and scientific undergraduate education. The University also has a well-deserved reputation as the "teacher of teachers" — teaching is the most frequent career path for alumni, luring more than one in seven.
"The question before us is how to become one in spirit, not necessarily in opinion," President Harper said at the first faculty meeting in 1892. In the intervening century, the University's programs, curricula and campus have undergone substantial changes, many of which were deeply controversial. However, as President Don Michael Randel pointed out in his inaugural speech of 2000, "A number of words and phrases recur through the eleven administrations and 108 years since that first faculty meeting."
"They speak of the primacy of research, the intimate relationship of research to teaching, and to the amelioration of the condition of humankind, a pioneering spirit, the "great conversation" among and across traditional disciplines that creates not only new knowledge but whole new fields of knowledge, the "experimental attitude" and the intellectual freedom that makes this attitude possible, the intimate and essential relationship to the city of Chicago, and, fundamental to all this, a distinguished faculty committed to this spirit," he said. "At no other university is such a spirit so deeply and widely shared among faculty, students and alumni."