The Higher Learning

Harper's Academic Vision

President William Rainey Harper believed that the University of Chicago should be neither a college nor a graduate institution, but a complete university that offered students an education that was both broad and specialized, suited to individual interests and skills yet consistent with the common goals of the University. Although Harper, the former Yale divinity school professor, placed a priority on the graduate school, he devoted careful planning to the structure of the college. Harper divided the college curriculum into two parts.

In the first part, students enrolled in the Academic (or Junior) College to develop a shared background in literature, history, languages, science, and math. The two-year program, Harper believed, would provide important instruction and minimize the disparities between students from vastly different secondary schools. After a student's academic skills were refined, he or she would proceed to the University (or Senior) College to specialize in a particular field. Harper hoped that students would enter the University of Chicago with a specialization in mind to focus the Academic College years and maximize the benefits of the University College experience. Harper, who received his bachelor's degree at the age of fourteen, encouraged students to proceed at an accelerated pace if they wished and to graduate as soon as possible.

Harper wanted to be certain that by the time University of Chicago undergraduates received their AB, SB, or PhB, they had received a comprehensive education. "Each individual student," the president explained, "should be treated separately and when his course of studies is completed, he should be given his diploma .... The student will receive his diploma not because a certain number of years has passed and a certain day in June has arrived, but because his work is finished." Convocations, the University's degree-granting ceremonies, were thus held four times a year at the conclusion of each academic quarter.

The summer quarter was one of Harper's many educational innovations. The additional academic quarter allowed students to earn their degree at a faster rate, utilized otherwise dormant educational facilities, attracted high school and college teachers who were free to study only in the summer, and allowed University of Chicago graduate students to work on their degrees for the entire year. Students were also welcome to complete the academic year in any sequence. They could take a break in the quarter of their choice, or they could study all year.

Harper Library reading room, 1932-33

Photograph by Capes

William R. Harper, The Colleges of the University, Official Bulletin, no. 2, April 1891

President Harper's earliest outline for the University's undergraduate program was characteristically complex. While hopes for a College of Practical Arts were not realized, training in "business life" was later offered in the College of Commerce and Administration organized in 1901.