Excerpted from a University of Chicago Magazine article by Jason Kelly
Photo by Robert Kozloff

For a historian who studies the arc of change and progress, to have gotten where we are now is more than gratifying to me.”
—John W. Boyer
Dean of the College

Grace Chapin, AB’11, doesn’t have a dollar for every time John W. Boyer has mentioned the Habsburg Empire in a speech—then she wouldn’t need her admissions office job—but she’s collected a few bucks from the uninitiated.

“I bet my mom once,” she says, recalling an awards ceremony that seemed an unlikely place for the subject to come up.

“How is it possible that he’s going to integrate—?”

“Just trust me, it’s going to happen,” she assured her dubious mother, who took her up on the wager.

Chapin doesn’t remember exactly how Boyer worked it in, just that he did. “Got my dollar,” she says with a satisfied smile.

To Chapin, the game she and her friends devised captures the essence of Boyer’s very UChicago charm. “He’s almost like Bill Nye the Science Guy, but instead of science, it’s history,” she says. “There’s no situation in which it is not relevant to talk about the history of modern Europe. Which is awesome.”

A scholar of the Habsburgs—and of what might be called the Harper-Hutchins Empire—Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, has become a historic figure in his own right. Last spring he was appointed to an unprecedented fifth term as dean of the College. In that position since 1992, Boyer has overseen a multifaceted transformation, increasing enrollment, expanding study-abroad opportunities, instituting career-services programs, and generally redefining what it means to be a UChicago undergrad.

“For a historian who studies the arc of change and progress, to have gotten where we are now is more than gratifying to me,” Boyer said. “It affirms the vision of the University leaders who started trying to make some of these same changes many years ago.”

A passion for enhancing the student experience

Ann Stern Berzin, AB’74, JD’77, the chair of the College visiting committee, had a much different experience from the one she sees Boyer instituting today. “Undergrad students were fairly far down on the food pyramid. There wasn’t a lot done around quality of life for students,” she says. “We all had this fantastic educational experience, but beyond that, pfft.”

In Boyer’s mind, the quality of life improvements—new residence halls, dining facilities, cultural opportunities in the city—complement the academic character, creating an environment that attracts more, and more accomplished, students. And he loves the students the College attracts. Talking about them animates Boyer most.

Berzin noticed Boyer’s enthusiasm during their first meeting more than a decade ago, when he invited her to join the College visiting committee, one of 15 University oversight boards. His demeanor was at first so modest and professorial that he didn’t seem like the dynamic administrator of his reputation. “When he started to talk to me about the students, and what he wanted to accomplish for the students, and the direction in which the College was moving for the students, then I could say, ‘Oh, now I get it,’ why this guy was the dean.”

Ever since, she has seen a similar change come over him at visiting committee meetings. Amid the routine business, there are occasional student speakers. When they address the group, Berzin says, “If you look at John Boyer, he is lit up.”

‘The students are so good now, they’re so talented’

His affinity spills into speeches as much as the Habsburgs do. Speaking at the Class of 1967’s Alumni Weekend dinner at the Logan Center for the Arts, Boyer characterized the new facility as a product of philanthropy worthy of the undergraduates who will use it, not the other way around: “If you’ve met any of our current students, they’re vibrant, they’re humorous, they’re extremely bright, they’re very hardworking.”

That same evening, thanking the Class of 1962 at its reunion gathering for a $650,000 gift, he waxed on: “The students are so good now, they’re so talented, they’re so creative, and they’re so hardworking, that they deserve the kind of support that you, the alumni, have bestowed on them.”

Moments later, unfurling a banner that honored the class for its alumni-gift participation, he added, “I’m a historian of the Habsburg Empire, so I understand titles and awards very well …”

Although Boyer says he did not know much about the University’s history when he first became dean, over the last 21 years he became an expert on the subject. He has published 17 monographs on University history, about one each year.

That scholarly work is also practical for his job as dean. Boyer’s priorities, such as strengthening residential life (a cause of President Ernest DeWitt Burton’s in the 1920s) and establishing study-abroad programs (as Hutchins-era College Dean F. Champion Ward wanted to do), have evolved in part from his research. Knowing that his predecessors pursued similar objectives gives Boyer rhetorical ammunition in debates about whether a new initiative suits UChicago.

“There’s a tremendous amount of mythology that surrounds the University,” says College visiting committee member Ken Kaufman, X’69, MBA’76, and Boyer knows precisely where myth and reality diverge. “There’s nobody who can compete with him on that.”

If Boyer’s priorities come in part from engaging with the University’s past, he may be unusually suited to lead that conversation into the future. He recalls fondly a lunch conversation from the early years of his deanship with legendary UChicago figure Edward Levi—former Law School dean, provost, acting dean of the College, University president, and U.S. Attorney General. Boyer says Levi beamed as Boyer described how Levi and others influenced his vision for the College.

“He told me,” Boyer says, “‘I’m so glad you remember what I was trying to do.’”

Read full story here.