Story by Susie Allen | Archive photos courtesy of Special Collections Research Center

In the summer of 1996, Dean John W. Boyer began what he thought would be a small summer research project, never imagining that his efforts would span nearly two decades and result in a new book on the history of the University of Chicago.

At the time, the UChicago community was debating an expansion of the number of students in the College. The issue provoked passionate discussion among faculty and administrators, who turned to Boyer for his opinion. As dean of the College, “there was no wiggle room,” recalls Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75. “I needed to have an answer.”

He spent the summer meticulously investigating the University’s archives, piecing together the story of the College, its evolving size and demographics, and its ties to the wider University. Boyer presented his findings to the faculty that fall—and even those who opposed the growth of the College were grateful for the context the report provided.

It was never intended as anything more than a one-time endeavor. But the following year, with the start of a conversation about revising the College’s storied Core curriculum, Boyer returned to the archives once again. In the years that followed, he released 17 monographs on topical issues in the institution’s history, including fundraising, the arts, and student housing.

Dean John W. Boyer recalls how research on a number of UChicago-centric topics led him to write a series of monographs and eventually a history of the University of Chicago. Video Link: (Video by UChicago Creative)

These monographs were, he explains, an exercise in “pragmatic history, an attempt to shed some light on the history of this fascinating place, from a scholar’s perspective.”

And at a certain point, “it became kind of fun,” Boyer admits.

Now, as the University prepares to celebrate its 125th anniversary, the University of Chicago Press is set to release Boyer’s The University of Chicago: A History, which knits together his years of research and offers new perspectives on the women and men who created and sustained the institution. Boyer chronicled UChicago’s history even while adding his own distinguished chapter to that legacy, with an unprecedented five terms as dean of the College and 23 years of service in that role so far.

Cobb Gate Cobb Gate
Football game in Stagg Field ca. 1911, with a view to Cobb Gate in the background. Today this location is the lawn in front of the Joseph Regenstein Library. (Archive photo by University Studio courtesy Special Collections Research Center; current-day photo by Robert Kozloff.)
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“The ABC of our profession,” the French historian Marc Bloch once observed, “is to avoid these large abstract terms in order to try to discover behind them the only concrete realities, which are human beings.”

Boyer’s research revealed the ebb and flow of recurring themes in the University’s history: debate around student life and the rigor of the undergraduate experience, the challenges of maintaining financial stability, and efforts to engage more deeply with the surrounding community and the city.

But his book is also a study of people and personalities, and an exploration of presidential leadership—from the University’s innovative and determined first president, William Rainey Harper, to the cautious Harry Pratt Judson to the pragmatic realist Lawrence Kimpton. 

Among the University’s leaders, one figure stands out: “If you were to ask me who is the most fascinating character in the book, it’s clearly Hutchins,” Boyer says.

Dean John W. Boyer discusses former UChicago President Robert M. Hutchins and how his decision to revise the Core curriculum in the 1940s helped shape the intellectual culture at the University of Chicago. Video Link: (Video by UChicago Creative)

Wunderkind Robert Maynard Hutchins was only 30 when he became president in 1929. He showed little patience for the slow pace of institutional change. Under more than two decades of leadership that spanned the tumultuous 1930s and ‘40s—and sometimes over the vocal opposition of the faculty—Hutchins made sweeping changes to the administrative structure of the College, creating a decentralized institution with five distinct academic divisions. He also instituted the “New Plan,” an overhaul of the undergraduate program that included five year-long general education courses.

“I sometimes get the sense that Hutchins got up in the morning and said, ‘How can I drive the faculty up the wall? What can I do today?’” Boyer says. “And a great leader has to have that quality, to push boundaries and challenge the faint of heart, to exert a kind of natural leadership—Hutchins had all of that in spades.”

To the surprise of many colleagues, Boyer chose to start The University of Chicago: A History with the story of the first University of Chicago—an institution that, in Boyer’s words “collapsed in penury and embarrassment” in 1886, less than 30 years after its founding. Harper and a small cadre of believers, including fundraiser-in-chief Thomas Goodspeed, resurrected the University in 1890 after a long, anxiety-ridden struggle to raise money and recruit faculty.

It makes for a somber beginning to the University’s story, but is, Boyer argues, an essential reminder of the contingencies of history and how easily today’s University of Chicago might never have existed at all. “I’d never realized this before working on the book, but people like Harper and Goodspeed were profoundly conscious of the fact they were starting on a second chance—that they weren’t going to get a third chance.”

Harper is often remembered for his audacity in trying to help the new University of Chicago rise from the ashes of its predecessor. Such boldness was, Boyer thinks, an essential quality under the circumstances. “He had to be bold, because they were in a very, very difficult situation, and they had to have a breakthrough moment right away. And they didn’t know whether it was going to work or not.”

Dean John W. Boyer recounts the failed University of Chicago and its founding figures’ frustrations when given a ‘second chance’ to form a great new university. Video Link: (Video by UChicago Creative)

Risk has been a hallmark of the University since its founding. “That’s what struck me,” says Boyer. “Every decade, there have been extraordinary challenges, and the leaders of this place had to take risks.”

In his tenure as dean, Boyer has developed an intimate perspective on the history, he wrote. Despite his personal stake in the issues, “one has to be as objective as possible,” Boyer explains. “To write the history, one has to stand on the outside.”

Yet Boyer also believes his very closeness to the subject affords certain advantages. “I think the best history is a history that’s passionate.”

Dean John W. Boyer discusses the public’s perception of him as the historian of the University of Chicago—and the struggles of finding ‘historical truth.’ Video Link: (Video by UChicago Creative | Photo by Robert Kozloff)

Originally published on September 14, 2015.