Railroad yards south of the loop
Railroad yards south of the loop

When the University of Chicago opened in 1892, American cities were in the midst of a period of remarkable growth and change. As new industries expanded, trade and services diversified, and the tide of recently arrived immigrants swelled into the millions, cities acquired an unprecedented size and density that shifted the focus of American society from rural farms and towns to the urban street.

William Rainey Harper and other university leaders recognized that the growing force of urbanization had profound implications for the future of American higher education. Speaking at Nicholas Murray Butler's inauguration as president of Columbia University in 1902, Harper saw the potential for nothing less than a complete institutional transformation. "A university which will adapt itself to urban influence," said Harper," which will undertake to serve as an expression of urban civilization, and which is compelled to meet the demands of an urban environment will in the end become something essentially different from a university located in a village or small city....It will gradually take on new characteristics both outward and inward, and it will ultimately form a new type of university."

For Harper, the model of the new urban American university was the University of Chicago, the comprehensive research institution he had outlined in his first Official Bulletin of 1890 and continued to shape over the next fifteen years as president. In its combination of graduate and undergraduate studies, diversity of curricular offerings and degree programs, and efficient four-quarter academic calendar, the University reflected the enlarged scale and quickened tempo of twentieth-century urban life.

More than this, in Harper's imagination the University was to be the focal point of a network of academies, schools, and colleges, each of them feeding promising students to the University and serving as part of a larger, integrated educational system. In the realm of higher education, the University would thus parallel the role and influence of the city of Chicago, which through its banks, commodities markets, industries, and railroads dominated commerce in the Middle West and claimed a central role in directing the economic growth of the nation. Harper's ambition for the systematic coordination of every form of education and its integration with the life of the city extended to those who were not able to become full-time students on the University campus. An extension division offered academic instruction by mail, and with the needs of those who lived in the city particularly in mind, public lectures were offered in a variety of neighborhood locations along with a full complement of evening and weekend courses for degree credit.

Harper's visionary program found ready acceptance in Chicago, in part because the city was enjoying the prosperity of an era of expansion and welcomed the exhilaration of big ideas. In the decades around the turn of the century, sprawling plants manufacturing McCormick farm machinery, Pullman sleeper cars, and thousands of other products were making Chicago brand names known across the nation. The meat packing firms of Armour and Swift were building fortunes on the millions of head of cattle and swine moving through the pens of the Chicago stockyards The grand State Street department stores of Marshall Field and Carson Pirie Scott and the thriving mail-order enterprises of Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward were setting new standards for effective and innovative retailing. The imposing terminal stations and switching yards surrounding the Loop testified to the might of Chicago-owned railroads as they extended their tracks south and west across the prairie. Less conspicuously, but just as significantly, the grain traders, bankers, real estate brokers, shippers, lawyers, and agents who channeled and invested the city's wealth were profiting from a commerce that they felt was destined inevitably to grow despite the destruction of urban fires, periodic natural catastrophes, and the persistent cycle of financial boom and panic.

The city of Chicago also welcomed the University because higher education filled an important position in the array of cultural institutions that civic leaders were intent upon building. Older institutions such as the Chicago Historical Society and the Chicago Academy of Sciences were part of this ambitious effort, as was the Art Institute of Chicago. So too were the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Public Library, and the two great privately endowed research collections, the Newberry Library and John Crerar Library. The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 was the most spectacular and most ephemeral of these cultural endeavors, its image of classical refinement gone after a single summer. Yet it vividly expressed the ideals and expectations of the city's social elite and left its own permanent legacy with the establishment of the Field Columbian Museum, which was housed in what had been the fair's Palace of Fine Arts in Jackson Park.

If the city of Chicago was quick to see the benefits a new academic institution would bring, members of the University faculty were equally alert to the advantages of working in a metropolis. Obviously, a large city offered the University a substantial pool of prospective students and the promise of more generous financial support from its patrons. But there were other lures as well. Political economists sought to understand the operation of large industrial concerns. Sociologists were drawn to the problems of immigration, ethnicity, delinquency, and social order. Educators saw an opportunity to test new theories of learning. Social workers wanted to address inequities in employment, child care, and public health. Political scientists were concerned about the corruption of municipal government, the power of party machines, and the future of the democratic system. For scholars in all of these fields and others, the city of Chicago offered an ideal laboratory for investigation, experimentation, and discovery.

In pursuing their urban research, professors from the University soon learned that the city was home to an important array of liberal intellectuals and cultural critics. Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, an eloquent spokesman for reform Judaism in Chicago, held a University professorship of rabbinic literature and philosophy. Frank W. Gunsaulus, the pastor of Chicago's popular Central Church and founding president of the Armour Institute of Technology, taught on the Divinity School faculty. Francis W. Parker, the noted educational reformer who headed the Cook Country Normal School and the Chicago Institute, joined the University's School of Education in 1901. Many in the University community came to know Chicago settlement leaders such as Jane Addams, Julia Lathrop, Florence Kelley, Mary McDowell, and Graham Taylor and worked with them on research projects and reform campaigns. Writers from the University shared friendships and journal pages with literary figures from Hamlin Garland and Sherwood Anderson to Carl Sandberg and Harriet Monroe. Faculty associations with Chicago reformers in the arts reformers led to commissioned works from architects such as Tallmadge & Watson, Robert Spencer, Dwight Perkins, the Pond brothers, and Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed a Montana vacation retreat for several University professors.

Important connections were also made with progressive Chicago philanthropists who were prepared to support the research of individual faculty members. Anita McCormick Blaine helped underwrite John Dewey's educational experiments, while Julius Rosenwald encouraged Sophonisba Breckinridge in the creation of the University's school of social work. Helen Culver, who gave Hull House to Jane Addams and whose generosity made possible the Hull Biological Laboratories on the University campus, also funded sociologist W. I. Thomas's pioneering research into the Polish immigrant experience. In these and other ways, the University faculty came to appreciate the level of personal support that members of the Chicago community were prepared to give.

This pattern of relations was maintained through World War I and the years immediately thereafter, but with the onset of the depression, change began to affect both the city and the University. The South side of the city, where the University was located, felt the cumulative effects of ethnic mobility and shifting patterns of residence. Older buildings in Hyde Park began to show their years, and larger houses and apartments were subdivided for a poorer and less residentially stable population.

The academic image of the University as it had been developed within the city was also affected. A new University president, Robert M. Hutchins, became known for his brilliant educational iconoclasm and, especially after the elimination of varsity football on campus, his opposition to traditional American collegiate values. Charles Walgreen, head of a Chicago chain of drug stores, leveled charges that University professors were importing leftist ideologies and imposing them on naive students. The co-founder of the Chicago-based Benton and Bowles advertising agency, William Benton, was recruited to evaluate the University's public image and recommend effective ways to strengthen and maintain strong relations with the Chicago community. There were conspicuous successes in this effort, particularly with Charles Walgreen, who withdrew his accusations and established a distinguished University lecture series on American institutions and values.

This period of University-city relations culminated with the secret work of the Manhattan Project during World War II. Operating on and near the University campus, scientists created the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction and provided additional research support for the development of the atomic bomb. The close cooperation of the scientific community and the federal government resulted in the post-war creation of the University's Research Institutes. It led directly as well to the University's involvement in the development of the Argonne National Laboratory in Du Page County, the beginning of the scientific and technical research and development corridor in the western Chicago suburbs.

In the years after the war, attention shifted to the Hyde Park neighborhood, where city, state, federal, community, and University leaders created one of the nation's earliest comprehensive redevelopment programs. Controversial though it was, urban renewal in Hyde Park successfully determined the character of the community for decades to come and ensured that the University itself would remain a Chicago institution.

Consultation between the University and city officials also encouraged interactions between scholarship and public policy. As technology and social forces transformed the character of the city, the University's scholarship and teaching continued to explore the emerging pattern of the urban community. Faculty members at the University are currently providing expertise on a wide range of local issues including legal aid, gang violence, aging, poverty, tax policy, job training, housing, demography, education, and medical care.

In exploring the theme of the University and the city, this exhibition can only begin to suggest the variety and strength of the ties that have bound the institution and its urban home. Over the past century, the nature of the relationship has changed as both University and city have developed and matured. In many respects, the city has outgrown its early regional ambitions and assumed an international perspective closer to the academic cosmopolitanism that Harper's University adopted from the beginning. The University's perspective on the city has also changed as scholarly disciplines have shifted and coalesced and sources of financial support have become more diffuse. For both the city and the University, however, the bonds and commitments of the 1890s have proved remarkably resilient. The vision of William R. Harper, Charles L. Hutchinson, Thomas W. Goodspeed, Martin Ryerson, and the other Chicago founders of the University was largely realized, even if in ways they could not have anticipated. As the University marks its Centennial, Chicago -- the University and the city -- will measure the significance of the anniversary on the scale of their achievement.