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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 faculty’s decision, after robust debate, to revise the undergraduate curriculum it had instituted in 1984.

However, the media reports conflated the College’s curricular decision with the start of construction of the new Gerald Ratner Athletics Center and with the plan to expand the size of the College—reported 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 University’s 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, Chicago’s endowment, at $43.5 million ($414.6 million in real value), ranks No. 2 in the U.S.—after Harvard.

Under the New Plan—adopted three years after it was first proposed—the 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 aren’t graded for course work but rather must pass comprehensive field exams—with or without taking the survey courses.

Chicago’s endowment reaches $65.9 million (real value, $761.4 million).

After long and bitter debate, the College faculty decides to award two types of degrees. The New Plan’s 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 general-education program.

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).

Chicago’s endowment hits $91.3 million (real value, $617.5 million).

The University’s annual budget is $11.3 million. That year’s deficit is $1.2 million—or more than 10 percent.

The College’s 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 students—or half of the total University enrollment—by 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.”

Chicago’s 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 student’s 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, PhB’32, JD’35, tells the University’s trustees that the College hopes to almost double in size by 1975—from 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 year.

The College’s enrollment reaches 2,600 students—a number not seen since the 1940s. The University’s 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, $735.8 million).

The “Common Core” enters the lexicon. Under this plan, 21 of a student’s 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 University’s endowment reaches $897.8 million (real value, $1.2 billion).

Reporting on the University’s financial outlook, Chief Financial Officer Lawrence Furnstahl, AB’83, 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 University’s deans and officers launch both short- and long-term financial initiatives.

Dean of the College John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, 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 billion—less than one-third the average endowment of Harvard, Stanford, and Yale—and ranking No. 16 in the nation.

The entering class numbers 1,011 undergraduates, for a total College enrollment of 3,852—compared 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 University’s plans will affect them and the University. In part as a reaction to the Times story and the resulting local publicity, the niversity’s 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, AM’69, PhD’75.

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 aid—with a panel composed of Vice President and Associate Dean for Enrollment Michael Behnke; Dean of College Admissions Ted O’Neill, AM’70; 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, they’ll 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 College’s 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 Chicago’s operating funds come from endowment, fund-raising, research grants, and tuition. Unlike other major private universities, however, Chicago’s 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 curriculum—which goes into effect in fall 1999—change Chicago’s 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 student’s 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 faculty’s commitment to research and teaching, the periodic redefinition of the curriculum is another way in which the faculty challenge assumptions and practices—in this case their own—about “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, what’s left over after our students complete the faculty’s 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 University’s 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 graduate—a number that has not changed—is 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 consultants?

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 Chicago’s. The advice and insights of the consultants were helpful in addressing these issues.

Is it true that the College will soon be larger?

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 decade—if 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 O’Neill, AM’70 (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 1500–1600 are up by 25 percent.
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 College’s acceptance rate—60 percent or more—has been significantly higher than that of many of the University’s 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 differently—to 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 year’s 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 (PhB’35, JD’37) Athletics Center will open in 2002- the University’s first new athletic facility and swimming pool in 60 years. Introduced during the 1997–98 academic year, regular express University buses to downtown Chicago now make it easier for students to take advantage of the city’s cultural and entertainment offerings. And a major renovation of the Reynolds Club has created a new center of student life—including 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 faculty’s 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 faculty—these are highly competitive, three-year appointments that emphasize teaching—and 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 University’s graduate programs and research?

The additional resources resulting from a larger College will increase support for the College and Chicago’s 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 April’s Board of Trustees meeting, “…what makes this University so extraordinary is our community of scholars—faculty and graduate students—a 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 Chicago’s 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 system?

No. In the autumn quarter of 1996, a faculty committee began its study of the University’s 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 committee’s 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.

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