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The Presidents of
the University of Chicago

A Centennial View
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Robert M. Hutchins and Maude Phelps Hutchins on the steps at the President's House, 1929.

Robert M. Hutchins and Maude Phelps Hutchins on the steps at the President's House, 1929.

 

 

 

Oswald W. Knauth to Robert M. Hutchins, October 17, 1939, with handwritten reply by Hutchins.

Oswald W. Knauth to Robert M. Hutchins, October 17, 1939, with handwritten reply by Hutchins. After several seasons of embarrassing losses, the trustees approved President Hutchins's proposal to discontinue varsity football after the 1939 season.

Robert Maynard Hutchins

1899-1977

President 1929-1945
Chancellor 1945-1951

William Rainey Harper brought the University of Chicago into being, giving it form and life and mission. But it is the legacy of Robert Maynard Hutchins which is still avidly discussed and debated. Although Hutchins brought his own ideas and innovations with him, he came to embody the spirit of the University in a way no one else has since Harper. Hutchins was immediately compared with Harper-young, energetic, brilliant, charismatic. Unlike Harper, though, he was an iconoclast who ridiculed empty rhetoric, shabby reasoning, and institutions which did not fulfill their promise. He could say, with a straight face:

I do not need to tell you what the public thinks about universities. You know as well as I, and you know as well as I that the public is wrong. The fact that popular misconceptions of the nature and purpose of universities originate in the fantastic misconduct of the universities themselves is not consoling.

Late in life Hutchins mused about his years in Chicago, "Our idea there was to start a big argument about higher education and keep it alive." The son of a preacher, he portrayed himself as a prophet without honor in his own country, the lone voice of reason in a world of mediocrity. He often quoted a line from Walt Whitman, and once suggested it as a motto for the University of Chicago: "Solitary, singing in the west, I strike up for a new world." Claiming that "thinking is an arduous and painful process, and thinking about education is particularly disagreeable," Hutchins focused on the highest abstractions-morals, values, the intellect, the "University of Utopia," the "great conversation," and above all the study of metaphysics-while others, he claimed, preferred to deal with "academic housekeeping." In fact he inspired a loyal cadre of admirers and fans who spread his gospel across the land.

Hutchins was educated at Oberlin and Yale, and his speaking abilities were already recognized when he addressed the annual alumni dinner during his senior year. After teaching for a year and a half at a private school in Lake Placid, New York, Hutchins was invited by Yale president James R. Angell to return as secretary of the university. While working full-time, Hutchins completed law school, and upon receiving his degree in 1925 was appointed a lecturer.

Two years later he was made a full professor, and he soon received the additional responsibilities of acting dean. In 1928 he was appointed Dean of the Law School. While there he helped organize the Institute of Human Relations and promoted the use of modern psychological studies to evaluate rules of evidence.


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