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Curricular revisions draw national media attention

Changes in the College made news beyond campus as the new year began, starting with a front-page story in the New York Times and followed by articles and columns in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Sun-Times.

The roots of the media flurry can be traced to March of last year, when the faculty College Council voted to revise the undergraduate curriculum adopted in 1984. With three of 21 required core courses shifted to electives, the total number of required courses remains 42. Going into effect in fall 1999, the revised core—still the most extensive set of core requirements in the country—comprises 6 quarters of science and mathematics, as opposed to 8; 6 quarters of humanities, civilization, and fine arts, instead of 7; 3 quarters of social science (no change); and tested competency in a foreign language rather than 3 quarters of college-level course work. The revisions are designed to give students more opportunities for advanced study and research with faculty, the option of a double major, and greater access to the College’s new intensive foreign-language and civilizations courses.

The December 28 Times featured a page-one analysis of the “winds of academic change” rustling the U of C. Besides the revised core requirements, the changes cited were an expansion of campus recreation and service offerings, including the construction of the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center, to be completed in 2001. Also noted were plans to increase the undergraduate enrollment from the current 3,850 students to 4,500 by 2006, approaching levels last seen in the 1930s.

Times education reporter Ethan Bronner recited the forces behind these shifts: too few applicants; too few alumni children applying; a relatively high dropout rate; and an infrastructure in need of modernization. Bronner compared Chicago’s 60 percent acceptance rate to Harvard’s 13 percent; Chicago’s 5 percent application rate among children of alumni to the Ivy League’s 10 to 20 percent; and Chicago’s 83 percent graduation rate for entering first-years to the Ivy League’s 90-plus percent.

The article concluded that Chicago is “in a painful identity crisis” that “is being closely watched by educators across the country.” President Hugo Sonnenschein agreed that Chicago is a higher-ed cynosure, telling the Times that “Chicago has a special role and responsibility because it has a reputation as embodying what a great university should be.”

At the same time, he continued, “The commodification and marketing of higher education are unmistakable today and we can’t jolly dance along and not pay attention to them. One hears constantly from parents and students: ‘We are the consumer. We pay the tuition.’”

On January 8, the Journal’s “Weekend Journal” ran an opinion piece by Bret Louis Stephens, AB’95. Reacting to the Times article, Stephens, the Journal’s assistant editorial features editor, worried that Chicago may be “tacking against its own traditions and bending to the breeze of higher education in the U.S.” He warned that “if the University of Chicago is eventually to hollow out its core, we will all be a bit more arrogant, and a great deal more ignorant.”

Both pieces generated letters. Writing to the Times, Brown University professor James A. Morone provided an ironic perspective: “[T]he culture of choice championed by [Milton] Friedman [AM’33] and [Gary] Becker [AM’53, PhD’55] now vexes the university they loved.” Other writers, like Doreen Blanc Rockstrom, AB’64, MAT’69, expressed concern that the effort to attract more students would cheapen the College experience: “Watering down or substituting job-oriented courses will not teach the most important lesson: preparation for lifelong learning.”

The importance of the University’s emphasis on lifelong learning and general education also figured in letters to the Journal. In one, Provost Geoffrey R. Stone, JD’71, disputed Stephens’ belief that the University’s excellence “is in any way embodied in the specific requirements of any particular version of the University’s always-evolving and always-demanding undergraduate curriculum or in the fact that it has not constructed an athletics facility for more than six decades.”

The College story received hometown coverage on January 31, in both the Tribune (“At U. of C., C Stands for Chuckles”) and the Sun-Times (“U. of C. Keeps Image in Mind”). Describing the University’s efforts to ensure that applicants know that the College’s academic offerings are balanced by other kinds of opportunity, both stories noted some on- and off-campus fears that becoming known as a “fun school” might dilute the University’s academic rigor.

Dean of the College John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, took a long view, telling the Sun-Times, “Like our students, the College is dynamic. It comes out of a tradition, and it has to be responsive to tradition. But tradition will die if it doesn’t change.” For more on those changes, stay tuned to the Magazine.—M.R.Y.

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