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The Presidents of
the University of Chicago

A Centennial View
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Plate from the door of the President's Office

Brass plate from the door of the President's Office, Harper Memorial Library, ca. 1912.


At the University of Chicago, these issues were made all the more acute by the high purpose of the original Board of Trustees and the sweeping academic plan of the first president. The University's articles of incorporation committed the trustees to support an institution of higher learning encompassing all levels of education from academies and preparatory training to professional and technical schools, and to provide such "opportunities for all departments of higher education to persons of both sexes on equal terms." This broad mandate was made still more demanding by Harper's elaboration of programs and policies in his series of Official Bulletins. The University would provide both undergraduate and graduate education; it would appoint faculty in twelve hierarchical ranks; it would offer conventional courses and seminars as well as extension instruction in classes, travelling lectures, and correspondence courses; it would support its own publishing house and issue scholarly journals; and it would conduct its work on a year-round basis without benefit of a summer hiatus.

For both the Board of Trustees and the president, the University's ambitious, nearly omnibus, definition of purpose raised educational expectations to an unusually high level while dramatically increasing the danger of public criticism and potential failure. Led by Martin A. Ryerson and Charles L. Hutchinson, the trustees accepted the risks because they were self-confident and largely self-made businessmen and because one of the age's legendary successes, John D. Rockefeller, had already made an early commitment of funds. But neither Rockefeller nor any of the key trustees would have joined the enterprise had not William Rainey Harper agreed to accept the presidency. None of the hazards of an ambitious program could be endured nor could hopes for a great new institution in the West be sustained without the assurance of an uncommonly gifted chief executive. At the beginning of the University's history, the future of the institution was seen to rest in the powers and character of the president himself.

William Rainey Harper's success in recruiting a distinguished faculty, cultivating donors, and developing a comprehensive academic program exceeded any of the expectations his supporters may have held. Yet his administration left a legacy of unresolved questions that continued to confront the Board of Trustees and Harper's successors as president in the decades that followed his death in 1906.

The most important question was asked first: was the University overextended? The Board of Trustees shared the Rockefellers' concern that the budget deficits of the Harper years could not be sustained. President Harry Pratt Judson produced a budget surplus and held the University to a stringent fiscal policy during the seventeen years of his administration. While taking these steps, however, Judson initiated what was to become one of the University's costliest efforts, the establishment of a medical school and the creation of a complex of hospitals and clinics adjacent to the University campus. An extensive public development campaign in the 1920s, the first since the founding, propelled the University's physical expansion and served as the core for further growth in the decades after World War II. Despite Judson's expectation that a deficit would not recur, budgetary restraint itself was not always an adequate prescription for success. University presidents continued to be pulled by the competing values of fiscal integrity, programmatic growth, and academic distinction.

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