History

A meeting of minds

The original board of trustees laid the groundwork for what would become today’s University of Chicago on July 9, 1890, when the group gathered to hold the University’s inaugural board meeting and drafted the University’s articles of incorporation. This guiding document outlined elements the founders believed would build an enduring legacy for the University: a commitment to offering a rigorous academic program and an ambition to provide “opportunities for all departments of higher education to persons of both sexes on equal terms.” On September 10, 1890, the State of Illinois issued the University’s official certificate of incorporation, marking the formal beginning of the University’s life.

An initial pledge of $600,000 (roughly $16 million in today’s currency) from oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, along with contributions by the American Baptist Education Society, helped to found the University. The University’s land was donated by Marshall Field, owner of the historic Chicago department store that bore his name.

‘Bran splinter new’

William Rainey Harper, the University’s first president, envisioned a university that was “‘bran splinter new,’ yet as solid as the ancient hills”—a modern research university, combining an English-style undergraduate college and a German-style graduate research institute. The University of Chicago fulfilled Harper’s dream, quickly becoming a national leader in higher education and research: an institution of scholars unafraid to cross boundaries, share ideas, and ask difficult questions.

“If the first faculty had met in a tent, this still would have been a great university,” remarked Robert Maynard Hutchins, the University’s fifth president, in his 1929 inaugural address. The faculty who first assembled on Opening Day in 1892 were indeed an impressive bunch: Lured from colleges across the country, they had been drawn to the University of Chicago by the idea of a community of great scholars. As Charles O. Whitman, who left Clark University to head the biology department at the new institution, enthusiastically put it, “The time has now come when we must recognize and live up to the necessity for greater organic unity among kindred sciences.”

Equal opportunity

Harper, a young biblical scholar from Yale, incorporated into the University of Chicago’s early charter a commitment to gender equality in both undergraduate and graduate education and to an atmosphere of nonsectarianism, despite the initial intention to found a Baptist institution.

From the time of the University’s opening, the registrar annually reported the enrollment of students from Japan, China, the Philippines, Korea, India, and South Africa, as well as Canada, the nations of Western Europe, and dozens of other countries. The University’s open admission policy also attracted American minorities, particularly Jewish and African American students who found their educational paths blocked by policies or quotas at many other institutions.

In 1968, Edward H. Levi, LAB’28, AB’32, JD’35, was inaugurated as the University’s president, becoming the first Jewish president of a leading university in the United States. A decade later, in 1978, historian Hanna Holborn Gray became the first woman to serve as president of a major research university. This commitment to an accepting environment and equal opportunity distinguished the University in its early years and holds firm today.

A legacy of rigorous inquiry

The University of Chicago’s enduring commitment to open inquiry and interdisciplinary research has developed scholarship in fields spanning urban sociology to the arts, medicine to astrophysics. The University’s research has had an impact around the globe, leading to such breakthroughs as discovering the link between cancer and genetics, establishing revolutionary theories of economics, and developing tools to produce reliably excellent urban schooling.

The University of Chicago’s first Nobel laureate was Albert A. Michelson. The first American to win the Nobel Prize in any of the sciences, Michelson was recognized in 1907 for his advancements in measuring the speed of light. Since then, University faculty and scholars have been recognized with some of the highest international honors in their fields. The modern nuclear age began when Nobelist Enrico Fermi and his colleagues conducted the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction on December 2, 1942, on the University’s campus. Eugene F. Fama and Lars Peter Hansen won the 2013 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel “for their empirical analysis of asset prices.”

In 2010, Ngô Bao Châu received the Fields Medal, the highest professional honor for mathematicians, for his proof of the fundamental lemma of the Langlands Program. Astronomer Wendy Freedman won the American Philosophical Society’s Magellanic Prize in 2002, as well as the Gruber Cosmology Prize—astronomy’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize—in 2009. And in 2015, Theaster Gates received the Artes Mundi prize, one of the world’s largest honors for contemporary artists.

In sum, faculty, researchers, and alumni of the University of Chicago have earned nearly 90 Nobel Prizes and nearly 50 MacArthur “genius grants,” along with numerous national medals and fellowships. 

Tradition and transformation

The University of Chicago’s first buildings were modeled after the English Gothic style of architecture used at Oxford, complete with towers, spires, cloisters, and grotesques. 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 grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched”).

In 1894, maroon became the University’s official color, and “the Maroons” its nickname. Until then, goldenrod (yellow) had been the school’s official color, selected by the board of trustees before the University held its first classes, on October 1, 1892. UChicago’s first athletics director and football coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, advocated for the change: “The yellow ran, soiled easily, and had a regrettable symbolism which our opponents might not be above commenting upon.”

First in athletics

The University of Chicago was a founding member of the Big Ten Conference, and Stagg was the first tenured coach in the nation. In 1935, senior Jay Berwanger was awarded the first Heisman Trophy—displayed today in the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center on campus. Four years later, President Hutchins abolished the football team, citing the need to focus on academics. Varsity football was not reinstated until 1969.

From the beginning, the athletics program at the University has been committed to producing scholar-athletes whose primary focus is on academic achievements. The athletics program has counted numerous distinguished scholar-athletes among its ranks, including 1910 Rhodes Scholar Edwin Hubble, a basketball player who later became a distinguished scientist and namesake of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Today, UChicago sponsors 19 intercollegiate sports, with more than 500 participants and 330 competitions taking place each year. University of Chicago athletes’ commitment to academic achievement has endured—UChicago scholar-athletes have included four Rhodes Scholars since 1996 and 265 UAA All-Academic Recognition Award recipients in 2013–14.

Partners in revitalization

In the 1940s and early 1950s, the Hyde Park and Kenwood neighborhoods experienced a shortage of viable housing options, corrupt rental practices that led to physical deterioration, and an increase in crime. In response, the University of Chicago joined local community organizations and coalitions to launch an urban renewal effort that restructured the neighborhoods’ architecture and street plans. Although the final Urban Renewal Plan was met with mixed reactions, the massive effort was the product of a unique collaboration between profoundly diverse groups of residents, University faculty, religious leaders, and local community organizers. 

In 2007, the University partnered with the local community and the City of Chicago to help revitalize the Hyde Park neighborhood’s 53rd Street corridor, creating a vibrant, mixed-use main street that serves the needs of both Hyde Park and surrounding neighborhoods. In addition to providing new entertainment, dining, and retail options for the community, the project has spurred the development of more than two dozen new businesses and created more than 1,100 jobs.

In 2013, the Arts Incubator in Washington Park was launched as a space for artist residencies, arts education, community-based arts projects, and exhibitions, performances, and talks. Envisioned by Visual Arts Professor Theaster Gates, it is housed in a renovated building on Garfield Boulevard in the Washington Park community and is part of the University’s Arts + Public Life initiative.

The University was also instrumental in a community effort to bring the Obama Presidential Center to Chicago’s South Side. In May 2015, The Barack Obama Foundation announced that the Presidential Center—which will include a library, a museum, and the Obama Foundation headquarters—will be located in either Washington Park or Jackson Park adjacent to the University’s campus.

In addition to structural revitalization, the University invests in the economic future of local residents and businesses. Through UChicago Local, launched in 2014, the University partners with organizations throughout Chicago to connect businesses and job seekers in mid–South Side neighborhoods to opportunities at the University, the University of Chicago Medicine, and their vendor networks.

Freedom of expression

In his address marking the University’s 1902 decennial, President William Rainey Harper declared that “the principle of complete freedom of speech on all subjects has from the beginning been regarded as fundamental in the University of Chicago” and that “this principle can neither now nor at any future time be called in question.”

As times and issues have changed, the University of Chicago has reaffirmed its pledge to foster open discourse. In 2015, the special Committee on Freedom of Expression appointed by President Robert J. Zimmer produced a powerful statement “articulating the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.”

Creating space for impact

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the University of Chicago 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 Frank Lloyd Wright’s historic 1909 Robie House. By 1970, the Regenstein Library (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill)—at seven stories and almost a full city block, the largest building on campus by far—occupied the site of Old Stagg Field.

In 1994, a downtown Chicago center was completed, later named the Gleacher Center. It serves as a downtown campus for the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and houses course offerings of the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies.

Today, under the leadership of Robert J. Zimmer, the University’s 13th president, the University of Chicago continues to evolve and expand. Gothic architecture coexists with modern additions like the technological innovation of the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, the renovated interiors of the Saieh Hall for Economics, the six-story glass atrium of the Charles M. Harper Center, home to Chicago Booth, and the soaring, 11-story tower of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts.

Spaces like the Gordon Center for Integrative Science are designed to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration: the Gordon Center alone has room for the interaction of up to 800 scientists, researchers, and students in the physical and biological sciences.

The University has also broadened its physical boundaries through overseas campuses and centers. Spanning eight international locations on three continents, these venues enhance opportunities for collaboration with universities, research institutes, and cultural organizations abroad; meet the needs of a growing number of faculty and students for research support and other opportunities; and engage alumni throughout each region.

Continuing the tradition

Today, the University of Chicago’s interdisciplinary approach to world-changing research and insatiable commitment to rigorous inquiry remain core values. The University’s management of Argonne and Fermi national laboratories and affiliation with the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, help lead the country in scientific and technological innovation. The Institute for Molecular Engineering explores the intersection of science and engineering to address important societal problems. The University of Chicago Medicine combines leading medical research and compassionate patient care to face the world’s most pressing medical challenges. And the University’s tradition of accomplishment in economics research, dedication to community growth and civic partnership, and many achievements by faculty, researchers, and students continue to break new intellectual ground that transforms the way we understand the world.  

The University is also sparking change that will impact the future of cities and communities for generations to come. Working in partnership with policymakers and practitioners worldwide, the Urban Labs initiative helps cities around the world evaluate and implement the most effective urban policies and solutions, bringing improvements to people’s lives in real time.

The No Barriers program is a comprehensive plan to increase access to college, support students as they receive an empowering education, and prepare them for lifelong professional success. Through No Barriers, students with financial need have the opportunity to attend the College without incurring any debt. They also gain access to resources that help them complete internships and obtain invaluable professional development.

A singular focus

President Harper articulated his hope and vision for the University of Chicago at the first faculty meeting in 1892: “The question before us is how to become one in spirit, not necessarily in opinion.”

The University’s commitment to answering that question—and many others—continues to guide it today.

As President Zimmer said in his inaugural address, “If we take ourselves back to the University in its early years, we would find many major differences from what we observe today. . . . And yet, many of us connected to the University feel that we might just as easily have been there—that going back to the University in its early days, or in fact at any time since its inception, we would know unmistakably that we were at the University of Chicago.

“Why is this? The University of Chicago, from its very inception, has been driven by a singular focus on inquiry—with a firm belief in the value of open, rigorous, and intense inquiry and a common understanding that this must be the defining feature of this university. Everything about the University of Chicago that we recognize as distinctive flows from this commitment.”