A story in the New York Times this winter about change at the
University of Chicago sparked considerable controversy both on and
off campus. In what may be a sign of the respect the University
of Chicago enjoys in higher education, the Times made a national
story of the College facultys decision, after robust debate,
to revise the undergraduate curriculum it had instituted in 1984.
However, the media reports conflated the Colleges curricular
decision with the start of construction of the new Gerald Ratner
Athletics Center and with the plan to expand the size of the Collegereported
in the University of Chicago Magazine a year ago (see Chicago
Journal, April/98)and implied that the University was
sacrificing intellectual rigor on the altar of fun.
In fact, the changes are without exception intended to preserve
the Universitys excellence in undergraduate, graduate, and
professional research and teaching.
Another Chapter in the Life of the College
The College: A curriculum
A faculty report calls for a radical restructuring of collegiate
education at Chicago, giving the student an opportunity,
which he will gladly seize, to assume full responsibility
for his own education
. That year, Chicagos
endowment, at $43.5 million ($414.6 million in real value),
ranks No. 2 in the U.S.after Harvard.
Under the New Planadopted three years after it was first
proposedthe first two undergraduate years feature a
mix of general-education courses and free electives. General
education consists of four year-long survey courses in each
division and a course in English composition and writing.
Students arent graded for course work but rather must
pass comprehensive field examswith or without taking
the survey courses.
Chicagos endowment reaches $65.9 million (real value,
After long and bitter debate, the College faculty decides
to award two types of degrees. The New Plans vestiges
are seen in the Ph.B., which lets high-school graduates take
both departmental electives and a prescribed number of general-education
sequences. The A.B., a four-year program for students entering
the College after just two years of high school, is a prescribed
The Ph.B. degree is eliminated, leaving only the prescribed
general-education program, which becomes known as The
Hutchins College. At its height in the early 1950s,
that curriculum includes 14 general-education comprehensive
exams, including Humanities 1, 2, 3; Social Sciences 1, 2,
3; Natural Sciences 1, 2, 3; History; Foreign Language; Mathematics;
English; and OII (Observation,
Interpretation, and Integration).
Chicagos endowment hits $91.3 million (real value, $617.5
The Universitys annual budget is $11.3 million. That
years deficit is $1.2 millionor more than 10 percent.
The Colleges entering class of 275 first-years and 39
transfers is less than half the 1933 enrollment.
Chancellor Lawrence Kimpton presents trustees with a plan
to increase the size of the College from 1,350 to 5,000 studentsor
half of the total University enrollmentby the mid-1960s.
On the basis of economics we cannot continue to have
this kind of ratio [of 1.6 undergraduates to 2.8 graduate
students] that we now have.
Chicagos endowment, at $186.4 million (real value, $1.1
billion), ranks No. 3 in the U.S., behind Harvard and Yale.
The College faculty adopts a two-plus-two paradigm: half of
a students education is to be devoted to general-education
courses, overseen by a College faculty. The remainder is divided
between a concentration and free electives (courses
outside the concentration), overseen by the appropriate division.
Undergraduate enrollment reaches 2,183 students.
Provost and Acting Dean of the College Edward H. Levi, PhB32,
JD35, tells the Universitys trustees that the
College hopes to almost double in size by 1975from 2,200
to 4,000 students.
Under a plan proposed by Provost Levi, the College is reformed
into five collegiate divisions (four corresponding to the
graduate divisions and one for general studies) with responsibility
for undergraduate education. Students share four one-year
courses in common: two taken in the first year, one in the
second year, and the remaining one in the third or fourth
The Colleges enrollment reaches 2,600 studentsa
number not seen since the 1940s. The Universitys endowment
is $323.7 million (real value, $1.5billion).
Prompted by national and campus student unrest—and by the
fact that more students required more facilities—the size
of the College’s fall 1969 entering class was reduced from
730 to 500 students, or by 31 percent.
The University’s endowment drops to $294.3 million (real value,
The Common Core enters the lexicon. Under this
plan, 21 of a students 42 courses are devoted to general
education, with Common Core requirements across all five collegiate
divisions. The core includes 7 quarters in the humanities
and civilizational studies; 6 quarters in the natural sciences;
2 quarters in mathematics; 3 quarters in the social sciences;
and 3 quarters in a foreign language.
The Universitys endowment reaches $897.8 million (real
value, $1.2 billion).
Reporting on the Universitys financial outlook, Chief
Financial Officer Lawrence Furnstahl, AB83, notes a
downward trend: From a $24 million surplus in FY91 and a $9
million surplus in FY92 to a deficit of $10 million in FY93.
To reverse the slide, the Universitys deans and officers
launch both short- and long-term financial initiatives.
Dean of the College John W. Boyer, AM69, PhD75,
initiates a faculty-led review of the undergraduate curriculum.
The College faculty revises the undergraduate curriculum to
encompass approximately one-third general-education courses,
one-third concentration courses, and one-third electives.
Chicago ends the fiscal year with a $1.9 million surplus and
an endowment with a market value of $2.4 billionless
than one-third the average endowment of Harvard, Stanford,
and Yaleand ranking No. 16 in the nation.
The entering class numbers 1,011 undergraduates, for a total
College enrollment of 3,852compared to 3,171 students
in the graduate divisions and 4,250 in the professional schools.
Students, faculty, and alumni all have been interested in the
media brouhaha, even as they sought to keep informed about how the
Universitys plans will affect them and the University. In
part as a reaction to the Times story and the resulting local publicity,
the niversitys Alumni Association assembled a Web site, Continuity
and Change at the University, with links to media coverage,
to faculty and administrative reports and correspondence, and to
University Web sites including primary documents. The Continuity
and Change site includes reports by faculty task forces on
the quality of student life and on undergraduate and graduate education,
as well as the annual reports to the College faculty by Dean of
the College John W. Boyer, AM69, PhD75.
On campus, Student Government sponsored two town meetings, the
first with President Hugo F. Sonnenschein and the second, two weeks
later, focusing on issues of undergraduate recruitment and financial
aidwith a panel composed of Vice President and Associate Dean
for Enrollment Michael Behnke; Dean of College Admissions Ted ONeill,
AM70; and Director of College Aid Alicia Reyes.
On February 16, more than 300 students crowded into Hutchinson
Commons for what became a three-hour discussion with the president,
circling back to variations on a trio of questions: Why was there
a need for curricular reform? When there are more students
in the College, will there also be more faculty? And how much are
the changes driven by financial considerations?
The curriculum is owned by the faculty and it is determined
by the faculty, Sonnenschein responded, calling such a process
the only path to an effective curriculum. If faculty build
the curriculum, theyll want to teach in it. Noting that
it is too soon to give exact numbers on how many additional faculty
will be hired in each area, he emphasized the Colleges commitment
to small, faculty-taught, discussion-oriented classes.
Regarding the question of how much the changes are driven by financial
considerations, the president said that Finances do matter
at a great university. Curricular changes, however, are made by
the faculty without consideration of money; they are made to improve
the educational experience of the students. Like all private
universities, the University of Chicagos operating funds come
from endowment, fund-raising, research grants, and tuition. Unlike
other major private universities, however, Chicagos undergraduate
tuition does not even cover the compensation of arts and sciences
faculty, nor does it provide support for new programs.
When the town meeting officially ended that night, President Sonnenschein
stayed longer, answering individual questions from students. The
event illustrated the observation with which the president opened
the evening: the University of Chicago is a place where education
elicits lasting passion.
Changing? And Other Frequently Asked Questions
How will the new undergraduate curriculumwhich
goes into effect in fall 1999change Chicagos program
in general education?
There has never been one traditional core curriculum. As one might
expect, the curriculum and especially its general education component
have been revised repeatedly over the years. The first program of
general education at Chicago, created in 1931, consisted of 15 quarter
courses, all of which had to be completed during the students
first two years. The general education program was further revised
and modified in 1942, 1946, 1953, 1959, 1966, and 1985. Through
all of the many debates surrounding these changes, the University
sustained as its main task the questioning and challenging of fundamental
assumptions and practices. Although engagement with this task is
most easily observed in the facultys commitment to research
and teaching, the periodic redefinition of the curriculum is another
way in which the faculty challenge assumptions and practicesin
this case their ownabout what knowledge is worth having.
Dean of the College John Boyer described the new curriculum in
his October 20, 1998 report to the faculty: The result of
our efforts [is] a curriculum... affording an intensive general-education
experience in the first two years in the College followed by an
array of strong concentrations, a modestly enhanced number of free
electives, and important new approaches to second-language acquisition
and international study.
.I believe that there was broad, although
certainly not unanimous consensus that it was a good thing to expand
modestly the number of free electives, and that free electives should
not be viewed merely as an afterthought, whats left over after
our students complete the facultys regime of prescription.
Rather, as our colleagues in the 1930s realized, electives are opportunities
for students to pursue the excitement of discovery, to take responsibility
for the shaping of their own education, and to build upon the common
learning of the first year in ways that create a personal intellectual
trajectory for each of them.
The general-education plan that the College faculty adopted in March
1998 at the end of a three-year process is as follows:
6 courses in natural and mathematical sciences;
6 courses in the humanities and civilizational studies (including
at least one course in art, music, or theater);
3 courses in the social sciences; and a requirement
that students demonstrate their competence in a second language
by passing an examination that tests skills equivalent to one year
(3 quarters) of college-level study.
Undergraduates are now expected to have more flexibility to participate
in one of the Universitys new civilizational studies programs
in Europe and Latin America and to pursue additional training in
a foreign language, either on campus or at one of the new intensive,
second-language acquisition programs recently organized in Pisa,
Tours, Paris, Toledo, and Cologne.
The balance of the 42 courses required to graduatea number
that has not changedis divided among the concentration and
electives. Boyer described the purpose of the change by noting:
We want to make it stronger by making it more intense.
He added that students have lately been stringing out the core requirements
into the fourth year, defeating the purpose of a common
core. Students should now find it possible to take all the required
courses during their first two years and then begin advanced study
in their third and fourth years.
What role have outside consultants played
in developing the revised curriculum?
None. The revision of the curriculum is a faculty matter. In his
remarks to the Board of Trustees this April, Philip Gossett, dean
of the Division of Humanities, said, The faculty is more involved
at the present moment in generating new ideas for core sequences
than I have ever seen it over the past 30 years. Our undergraduate
core curriculum is great not because students are required to read
this book as opposed to that book, not because they are compelled
to take service courses in calculus or the more common foreign languages,
but because the central core is an evolving expression of what the
faculty cares about most: the generation of new knowledge, the respect
for new ideas, and the prevalence of intellectual debate.
Why then do we keep hearing about outside
Recently the University has made some successful changes in its
administrative operations, in part with the help of outside consultants.
In 1994, the University hired McKinsey & Company to help assess
the undergraduate recruitment operation and to get their advice
on how to improve it. The administration was not convinced that
recruitment efforts were effectively communicating to serious students
the distinctive value of a Chicago education. Admissions officers
had also observed that some of the admitted students most attractive
to the University were instead choosing schools with lower academic
reputations than Chicagos. The advice and insights of the
consultants were helpful in addressing these issues.
Is it true that the College will soon
Yes. The current plan is to allow the College to grow gradually
from its current size of 3,850 to 4,500 students over the next decadeif
the pool of qualified applicants grows enough to permit such an
increase. The College means to reach its goal not only by more effective
recruitment of new students, but also by doing better at retaining
the students who matriculate.
Does attracting more undergraduates mean
attracting less-serious undergraduates?
No. We accept the best, and hope to get as many as we can,
said Dean of Admissions Ted ONeill, AM70 (Newsweek,
April 5. 1999). The strategies for bringing Chicago to the attention
of more of the best students have begun well. Early applications
for the Class of 2003 were 44 percent higher than the previous year;
the total number of applications to the College is up by 24 percent;
applicants with combined SAT scores of 15001600 are up by
Applicants are still asked to write essays that respond to challenging
questions, described by Newsweek as questions for which there
can be no boilerplate answers. For years, the Colleges
acceptance rate60 percent or morehas been significantly
higher than that of many of the Universitys peers, a number
of which have acceptance rates as low as 20 percent. This year,
for the first time perhaps ever, the College will admit fewer than
half its applicants.
Is there a move to market
the University of Chicago differentlyto make it more fun?
No. The University has always tried to make sure that intellectually
curious high-school students know about the University of Chicago
and what distinguishes its College: a rigorous undergraduate program
intimately connected to a great research university. Part of the
work of the Admissions Office is to recruit students who take pleasure
in using their minds: Only such students are a good match for the
education and milieu the College offers. The current College admissions
materials have a new design, but the text has the same tone as the
admissions materials of the past 50 years:
The new viewbook is called The Life of the Mind; in
1949, the booklet was headlined, If you want an education.
This years brochure for prospective students asks, How
do smart people play? The answer: Intelligently.
Fifty years ago, the question asked was, Yes, but is it?
Fun? Answer: We humans can have fun in all the ways
in which the rest of the animal kingdom can, and in one additional
way. We can think.
While fun at the University most often has an intellectual
component, the quality of undergraduate and graduate student life
outside the classroom also contributes to the overall experience
and success of students. The new Gerald Ratner (PhB35, JD37)
Athletics Center will open in 2002- the Universitys first
new athletic facility and swimming pool in 60 years. Introduced
during the 199798 academic year, regular express University
buses to downtown Chicago now make it easier for students to take
advantage of the citys cultural and entertainment offerings.
And a major renovation of the Reynolds Club has created a new center
of student lifeincluding turning an often-unused North Lounge
into a comfortable study area.
With more students in the College, will
small classes taught by the faculty become a thing of the past?
No. The Council of the Faculty Senate (the facultys governing
body), the dean of the College, the divisional deans, the president,
and the provost have affirmed their commitment to this: [B]ecause
the quality of our education depends on close interaction between
students and faculty, we will maintain the stated maximum enrollment
of 25 students in the Humanities and Social Sciences Core and many
of the Civilization sequences. The expected increase in enrollment
will be handled by taking full advantage of the teaching capacity
of current faculty, by new tenured and tenure-track faculty members,
by new Harper/Schmidt facultythese are highly competitive,
three-year appointments that emphasize teachingand by using
specially selected and trained advanced graduate students as lecturers.
Advanced graduate students already teach in the College. They now
must compete for the opportunity and receive extensive training;
this will continue. The deans noted that while it is important for
graduate students to have the opportunity to teach, it is also important
that the great majority of general education courses be taught by
regular faculty and postdoctoral faculty.
How will a larger College affect the quality
of the Universitys graduate programs and research?
The additional resources resulting from a larger College will increase
support for the College and Chicagos larger mission: the creation
and dissemination of knowledge. In approving plans to increase undergraduate
enrollment, the Council of the University Senate agreed with the
report of the Faculty Committee for a Year of Reflection, which
called for the increase to be carefully monitored, paying close
attention to how shifts in teaching responsibilities and academic
culture will affect our ability to attract and retain a first-rank
faculty (Chicago Journal, April/98).
As Philip Gossett stated at this Aprils Board of Trustees
what makes this University so extraordinary
is our community of scholarsfaculty and graduate studentsa
community primarily committed to the generation of new knowledge
in a way that is unique in American higher education. To preserve
and sustain that community and that mission requires that we never
lose sight of the centrality of graduate education to the University
of Chicago....We have a much larger percentage of graduate students
on our campus than do our peer institutions, and that will remain
true even in the presence of an expanded College.
How much do the changes in the College
have to do with the bottom line? How can money be an issue when
the University has such a large endowment?
There are financial advantages to increasing the size of the College.
Because the undergraduate population is small relative to the size
of the graduate population, Chicago is the only major university
for which the compensation of the faculty in the arts and sciences
exceeds the net undergraduate tuition. For example, in 1993 the
difference between net undergraduate tuition revenue and the compensation
of the arts and sciences faculty at Harvard, Stanford, and Yale
averaged a surplus of $35 million. At the University of Chicago
that year, the difference was negative $4 million.
Increasing the size of the College is a long-term strategy to help
fund the University of Chicagos continued success, part of
a planning process that includes a major expansion and reconfiguration
of Regenstein Library, new research laboratories for the biological
and physical sciences, new undergraduate residence halls, a new
athletics center, major investments in the neighborhood and on the
Midway, a new arts center, and needed classroom and office space
for the arts and sciences.
Is the University abandoning the quarter
No. In the autumn quarter of 1996, a faculty committee began its
study of the Universitys academic calendar. With input from
students, the committee recommended that the quarter system be retained
because both students and faculty find it academically advantageous.
The Council of the Faculty Senate accepted the committees
recommendation in early 1998.
Why have the revision of the undergraduate
curriculum and the plans to expand the size of the College received
so much national media attention?
The University of Chicago has for most of this century been the
institution that more than any other has exemplified thoughtful
analysis of issues in higher education: What should students learn?
What should faculty teach? It was to be expected that when the College
faculty once again revised the curriculum, thoughtful observers
around the country took note.
In addition, several University alumni, calling themselves Concerned
Friends of the University of Chicago, used mass e-mails to mount
a campaign condemning both recent initiatives and many of the developments
at the University of Chicago over the past 15 to 20 years. Through
their contacts in the press, they subsequently garnered newspaper
coverage for their efforts.