Building for a Long Future: The University of Chicago and Its Donors, 1889-1930

In his 1916 history of the University of Chicago's first quarter century, longtime Secretary of the Board of Trustees Thomas Wakefield Goodspeed accorded an esteemed status to its early donors. They resolutely stood by the institution, he wrote, as it "passed through periods of extraordinary difficulty and no small peril." While the University's shortcomings "tried [their] patience and tested [their] loyalty," he wrote, they still "carried it triumphantly through all its difficulties." The University's benefactors "became in very many instances its fast friends and were always ready when the need arose to repeat their gifts," often more than once. Generous donors almost single-handedly brought the University of Chicago, as he put it, "out 'into a wide place,' with its future assured." Goodspeed's chronicle, like most other institutional histories, lacks a truly critical perspective and occasionally rises to hyperbole. Not all donors to the University were so stalwart that they remained forever loyal to the cause. The institution had its reluctant patrons, its offended benefactors, and its soured contributors. But Goodspeed was correct in arguing that it enjoyed many extremely generous champions. By 1930, a growing number of Chicagoans, as well as alumni and other contributors from outside the city, had given the University millions of dollars to create a beautiful campus and support distinguished research and teaching programs. In a very real sense, these individuals created, funded, and maintained the University of Chicago.

These founding donors did not, however, invent the idea of a university in Chicago. As early as the middle of the nineteenth century, Chicago had been the site for another institution of higher education named for the city, one that was profoundly different from the university that eventually succeeded it in name and mission. The first discussions about a university in Chicago were responses to an announcement by Senator Stephen A Douglas in 1856 that he would donate a section of land on the city's near South Side to the religious denomination that would build a college on it. The Presbyterians considered Douglas's offer but chose to decline. So a group of local Baptists, led by First Baptist Church pastor John C. Burroughs, mobilized themselves and secured title to the land. The organizers then selected a board of trustees, including Senator Douglas as its president, and in January 1857, by act of the state legislature, the college was incorporated as the University of Chicago. A Baptist institution from the start, the Old University of Chicago (as it was later legally renamed) relied heavily on local congregations for support. A few wealthy Baptist benefactors put up some of the money needed for initial building construction and other needs, but subscription drives among interested Baptist congregations provided most of the cash for operating costs. This method kept the college solvent in the short term, but in order to remain afloat the Trustees decided to borrow money using the University property and building as collateral. Over time, the college began to plunge into greater debt, each liability slowly squeezing more life from it, until the insurance company holding the mortgage foreclosed on the loan. In 1886, the first University of Chicago was finally forced to close its doors. Yet within two years, members of the newly formed American Baptist Education Society (ABES) and several leading citizens of Chicago started thinking about rebuilding. Although most members of the Chicago civic and economic elite in the 1860s and 1870s had provided little support to the first university, the decade of the 1880s saw the emergence of a younger generation with great private wealth. Baptist and non-Baptist civic leaders alike were persuaded that Chicago vitally needed its own major institution of higher learning. Forming a diverse coalition of religious and business leaders, and energized by a pledge from Baptist oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, these Chicagoans joined a campaign to create a new University of Chicago and thereby to establish the city of Chicago as a proud home of one of the great universities in the world.

Accompanied by his fellow Baptist clergyman Frederick T. Gates of the ABES, Rev. Thomas Goodspeed undertook hundreds of personal solicitations during 1889 and 1890, meeting with many of the city's social and economic leaders and seeking the $400,000 necessary to match the initial pledge of $600,000 made by Rockefeller in May 1889. Such work was time consuming and often very frustrating. But persistence and perspicacity paid off, and Goodspeed and Gates were able to recruit a body of willing benefactors for the new University. The new institution opened its doors on Saturday, October 1, 1892, when students, faculty, and administrators crowded into Cobb Hall's first-floor chapel room to launch their first academic year with hymns and prayers.

Given the lofty scholarly ambitions of the new University and President William Rainey Harper's willingness to reach out to members of all religious groups, the institution quickly demonstrated a wider appeal than its predecessor and attracted the support of a broader circle of donors. True, devout Baptists had initiated and led the university effort, and it was owing to their sponsorship that Chicago received Rockefeller's initial support in the first place. But the idea of Baptist predominance, while still paramount for some of the faithful, did not inspire most of the major donors who supported the second University. New contributors from among the city's non-Baptist civic leaders were less interested in advancing any confessional cause than they were taken with the idea of raising their city's cultural prestige. While a majority of the University's Trustees were required to be Baptists, most of the institution's major donors came from much more diverse (often non-Protestant) religious traditions. Staunch and lapsed Baptists joined Catholics, freethinkers, members of the Jewish community, and religious independents in responding to the University's needs.

In fact, it is difficult to define a typical donor to the new University of Chicago. Few contributors possessed all of the qualities that late nineteenth-century American philanthropists are often supposed to represent: white, male, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, while also occupying elite social positions and holding politically conservative ideological views. Many donors were sufficiently wealthy to have their names attached to buildings on campus (such as Blaine,

Walker, Cobb, and Swift), but numerous financial contributions were made by less influential or less wealthy Chicagoans. Likewise, and of possibly greater significance, the generosity of male donors was easily and quickly matched by a series of munificent gifts by women. Without the generosity of Chicago's women philanthropists, many University residence halls, scientific laboratories, and educational training programs would never have been established.

What actually motivated people to give to the University? Many scholars have suggested that the University's patrons, like major contributors to other Chicago cultural institutions, thought of their philanthropy as a way to lift the lower middle and middle classes to greater cultural sophistication and social stability. Also, if Chicago was to be the major metropolis and capital of the American West, it surely needed first-rate museums, libraries, and universities. And a surprising number of wealthy Chicagoans felt themselves responsible for building and maintaining these institutions. For many of these wealthy philanthropists, a rich (and prosperous) urban cultural life promised social peace and a virtuous, middle-class citizenry. Initially missing from such formulations, however, was a desire to address the educational needs of larger, working-class audiences. Some scholars claim that it was not until after the turn of the century, with the Progressive emphasis on the rationalization of public life, that the benefactors of Chicago's cultural institutions actually came to address these issues.

A close look at the donors included in this exhibit bears out these conclusions about Chicago philanthropy. Early contributors to the University had numerous motivations for their philanthropy. Some gave in order to memorialize associates or loved ones. Others gave because of their pride in their city. Some may have given to advance political and religious causes. And once Progressive ideas about the need to improve public life were expresed in the patterns of philanthropy of wealthy Chicagoans, donors to the University of Chicago also began to target their contributions toward easing the inequities of class and gender, both on campus and in the city at large. Such an extraordinary diversity of motives is itself central to the fascinating early history of the University of Chicago.

In his eulogy for University Trustee Charles H. Hutchinson, who played so critical a role in the founding of the University, President Ernest DeWitt Burton observed in 1924 that "through personal association with him in this work, I learned how accurate was his judgment, how inexhaustible his patience. He had a keen sense of the influence of architecture on the formation of taste, and a strong desire, happily shared by many of his associates, that what the University built should be so built that it would stand and be worthy to last. He built for a long future."

The same could be said for all of the women and men who are represented in this exhibition. The University of Chicago's remarkable and distinctive success in the world of higher education over the past century cannot be understood without recognizing the daring and vision of an extraordinary group of resolute donors whose generosity continues to sustain the University they made possible.

Exhibit Publications & Documents

Online Exhibit Catalog
Catalogue 60p. (perfect bound), $14
Ordering Information

Exhibit Text