on the Quads
A Centennial View of
the Student Experience at the
University of Chicago
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The Higher Learning
Era of Reforms
After Judson retired in 1923, Ernest DeWitt Burton, chairman of the Department of New Testament Literature and library director, was named the University's third president. During his brief two-year tenure, Burton instituted an impressive array of administrative reforms, the most important of which was naming Ernest Hatch Wilkins the first Dean of the Colleges. As dean, Wilkins hired assistant deans to advise students, inaugurated the first orientation week, and introduced the University's first general education courses, among them "The Nature of the World and of Man."
Wilkins also questioned the four-year college and credit system, stating that "there is no inherent logical necessity for the existence of the four-year college." The goal of college education he said, should not be to commit students arbitrarily to a four-year plan, but to provide a liberal education which could be verified through comprehensive exams. Before Wilkins and Burton could institute these changes, however, Burton died suddenly at the age of sixty-nine and Wilkins resigned, leaving an impressive legacy and the seeds for much future debate.
Max Mason, Burton's successor as president from 1925 to 1928, appointed a board to review the faculty's plans to organize the colleges around comprehensive exams, but the day before the committee's report was to be discussed, Mason startled everyone by announcing his resignation for a position at the Rockefeller Foundation. His departure left the University without a president but not without direction. Mason's support for curricular reforms and his belief "that opportunity and not compulsion should be the spirit in the undergraduate college" found wide acceptance among the faculty.
The arrival of Robert M. Hutchins on the Quadrangles brought to the University a young educator with a growing commitment to the ideal of general education. In 1930, Hutchins gave his approval to a reconfiguration of the University's undergraduate programs. What were then called the Colleges of Arts, Literature, and Science were merged into a single College. Like his predecessor Max Mason, Hutchins disdained the traditional grade and credit system. In its place Hutchins proposed the New Plan, which followed the proposals of the 1920s in instituting a system of comprehensive examinations. Entering students took placement exams to determine the number of courses required before they were allowed to take the "comps." After the "comps," students would complete their education by specializing in upper-level courses and two years later receive their bachelors' degrees. More experiments followed. In 1937, a Four-Year College spanning the last two years of high school and the first two years of college was created. In 1941, the entire College was reshaped into a four-year institution on the same basis, with students admitted after the second year of high school and graduated with an AB after two years of collegiate work. New comprehensive examinations were devised, and a series of comprehensive courses was developed, including the famous OII, "Observation, Interpretation, and Integration." In 1946, the College faculty itself became a separate academic body, many of its members being appointed exclusively to offer undergraduate instruction.
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