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The Presidents of
the University of Chicago

A Centennial View
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William Rainey Harper birthplace, New Concord, Ohio, 1919.

William Rainey Harper birthplace, New Concord, Ohio, 1919. Muskingum College acquired the log cabin on the main street of New Concord where Harper was born and in 1919 turned it into a museum to honor their illustrious alumnus. Photograph by Cox.


Harper's successors also confronted the question of the proper balance of undergraduate and graduate programs. Harper had made clear that the principal work of the University was to be faculty research and graduate training, and Judson did little to shift this balance. By the 1920s, however, the uncoordinated state of the undergraduate curriculum and the marginal situation of college students on the campus were attracting growing faculty concern. Ernest DeWitt Burton, Judson's successor, encouraged the comprehensive reevaluation of undergraduate programs, an effort that continued with the support of Max Mason and reached its apogee during the administration of Robert M. Hutchins. Substantially altered under Lawrence A. Kimpton and revitalized under George W. Beadle and Edward H. Levi, the role of the College remains a vital matter of debate on the Quadrangles.

The increasing secularization of higher education at the end of the nineteenth century and the University's drift away from denominational ties prompted increasing questions about the University's obligations to its historic base in the liberal Baptist tradition. The articles of incorporation required that two-thirds of the Board of Trustees and the president should be members of "regular Baptist churches." While Harper and Judson were both Baptist laymen, Burton was an ordained Baptist minister, the only one to serve as president. By the time of Burton's administration, however, the sharp limitation that the Baptist requirement placed on the selection of a president had become clearly apparent. With the approval of the Northern Baptist Convention, the church membership requirement for the president was removed in 1923, and requirements for trustees were progressively reduced until by 1944 only one member of the Board of Trustees was required to represent the Baptist Theological Union, a provision which remains in effect. Max Mason, the first president selected under the revised rubrics, was also the first president not drawn from the original faculty of the University. While denominational obligations were reduced, University presidents continued to come from strongly religious backgrounds: four of the ten presidents have been the sons of Protestant ministers, and a fifth the son and grandson of rabbis.

Other questions directed at the nature of the University's mission arose as well: what was to be the University's position in its urban setting, within the midcontinental region, and among its peer institutions elsewhere? Harper had projected a network of affiliated institutions at the geographical heart of the nation with the University at its center. This formidable scheme foundered on political and financial realities and the competitive growth of Midwestern state universities. Nationally, the University's academic departments frequently appeared at the top of comparative rankings, but such eminence came at steadily higher cost with the rising competition among research universities for the most promising scholars. It was the responsibility of Harper's successors to maintain both the University's distinction and its distinctiveness in the face of a constantly changing academic environment.

Developments in higher education and in American society over the past half century continue to pose difficult issues for the University's presidents: the role of the federal government, the demands of the political arena, the character of graduate education, and the viability of private research universities, among many others. In confronting these and earlier issues, the University's ten chief executives, for all their diversity of background and training, have shared a common perception of the academic enterprise. No political appointee, furloughed general, or retired statesman has occupied the president's office. The presidents have responded as scholars, and in the continuity of their response the University has maintained its commitment to the ideals of its founding chief executive.

A final word of explanation is in order. The first four heads of the University all bore the title of president. In the course of an administrative reorganization in 1945, the title of the head of the University was changed to chancellor. This form was retained until 1961, when the title reverted to president. Despite the change in title, the chancellor was as fully the head of the institution as were the presidents before and since. The three individuals who held the title of chancellor are therefore included in this exhibition on "The Presidents of the University of Chicago."

Daniel Meyer

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