February 14, 2012

Storied beginnings and strong foundations

“The first University of Chicago was not a large institution. It had a troubled history. But it produced a profound conviction that Chicago was the predestined seat of a great institution of learning,” writes Dr. Thomas Goodspeed, a celebrated historian and former secretary of the Board of Trustees at the U of C, in his book A History of the University of Chicago. The founding of the U of C, the successor of this first Chicago University, would qualify that last sentence. The beginnings of the modern, top-ranked University of Chicago present a provocative insight into the efforts of the men who made an uncommon idea into reality.

It’s common lore that the University American Baptist Education Society, with the generous support of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, founded the University of Chicago in 1890 with the first classes being held in 1892. However, the process started in 1888 with Dr. Goodspeed and Frederick Gates. As an American Baptist clergyman and philanthropic adviser to Rockefeller, Gates stated that “the first great educational need of Baptists was to found a powerful institution of learning, not in New York nor in Washington, but in the city of Chicago, and not in a suburb outside the city, but within the city itself and as near its center as might be conveniently possible.”

Although the Chicago initiative was hotly contested, since there were already plans to establish Columbian University at Washington as a national university for Baptists, Chicago gained support and Columbian University was eventually dropped.

The Best Investment

At first, Rockefeller was hesitant to donate the $1,000,000 requested to create the University, but after some persuasion he agreed to pledge $600,000, with the remaining $400,000 donated from local Chicagoans and other interested groups. Rockefeller would later deem the gift as “the best investment I ever made” (his total contributions to the University would amount to around $35 million). As Gates recalls, the $600,000 pledge was significant and “that nothing less than $600,000 from him to $400,000 from the denomination gave any promise of success. For success, we should have to go before the people of Chicago and the West with the thing more than half done at the start.”

With the assured support of Rockefeller and the leadership of Dr. William Rainey Harper and Goodspeed, the Executive Board of the American Baptist Education Society on December 3, 1888 finally set the plan to create a college in Chicago. The Board’s actions were decisive and resulted in the founding of the U of C 18 months later. The location and land problems were solved when Marshall Field, owner of the Marshall Field Company department store chain, graciously donated the space needed for the University. However, there remained the issue of securing the teachers and creating the academic environment that would become the legacy of the institution.

Harper’s Court

Harper, a young Biblical scholar from Yale and a close associate of Rockefeller, was brought in to lead the new educational institution in the Midwest. Assuming the post of president in 1891, Harper continued to secure funds from Rockefeller while seeking world-class educators to man the new university’s departments. He was said to have ruthlessly raided other colleges to find the best minds in the various academic fields, and believed that having a high-quality faculty was an important aspect of an institution of higher learning.

Just less than two years after the University of Chicago was founded, Harper managed to bring together 120 faculty members, which included eight former presidents of other colleges and universities, and build the school into a 10-building campus. To entice the teachers to a contract, Harper offered a number of benefits such as reduced teaching loads and excellent salaries that were revolutionary for that time. However, more than the good wages, the exceptional faculty also had the intention of making the fledgling university great.

Harry Pratt Judson, who served as president of the University of Chicago from 1907 until 1923 (and after whom the Burton-Judson Courts are named), writes in A History of the University of Chicago that “the original Faculty who began so hopefully in 1892 owed a large part of their enthusiasm doubtless to the fact that they were looking into the future; they were less concerned with what was then with what might be and with what they could help create.” The faculty assembled on Opening Day, October 1, 1892 to hold the first classes at the College, which then had an enrollment of 594 students.

Harper wanted to create a university that was “bran splinter new, yet as solid as the ancient hills.” In his opinion, the ultimate goal of higher education was to create academic scholar-researchers. His new model saw the first two years of college as a preparatory period devoted to general education; this “core” would later serve as the foundation for learning in specialized areas during the third and fourth years. Harper even went beyond expectations and conventions to promote a commitment to gender equality in both undergraduate and graduate education, despite the original intention to found an institution based on Baptist ideals.

The timeless quality of Harper’s ideas is also reflected in the architecture of the buildings that now adorn the campus grounds. The first buildings were constructed in the English Gothic style of architecture, sporting towers, spires, and gargoyles. Planned by two University of Chicago trustees and designed by Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb, the buildings of the main quadrangles were a mixture of the Victorian Gothic and Collegiate Gothic styles, mostly modeled on the colleges of the University of Oxford. In particular, Oxford’s Magdalen Tower (see: Hogwarts’s Dining Hall) was the inspiration for the Mitchell Tower and Hutchinson Commons. It should be noted that while the University was being built, the Chicago World’s Fair was being celebrated to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. The exposition is remembered and alluded to in the University’s alma mater.

By the early 1900s, the University had adopted a coat of arms that featured 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”). Indeed, to draw from the words of Mr. Frederick Gates, “no one at that time, unless it be Mr. Rockefeller himself, was gifted with prophetic dreams of what the infant institution was so soon to become.”