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The University and the City
A Centennial View of the
University of Chicago
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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.

Railroad yards

Railroad yards south of the loop.

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.

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