From the editor


On Robert Hutchins, John Boyer, and “an imagined noble past.”

Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93 (@carriegolus)

“All alumni are dangerous,” Robert Maynard Hutchins told Oberlin’s graduating class in 1934. “They see their alma mater through a rosy haze that gets thicker with the years. ... They want to imagine that it is like what they think it was like in their time. Therefore they oppose all change.”

Hutchins, president and later chancellor of the University of Chicago (1929–51), wasn’t just speaking as a frustrated administrator. “I am the alumnus, and the sentimental alumnus, par excellence,” he said. “For me the class of 1919 never went to war and never graduated. This static, beautiful Oberlin wherein my friends and I are forever young and forever friends deprives me of the powers of reason.”

In The University of Chicago: A History, College dean John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, explains that he wrote the book—which began as a series of 17 monographs, published from 1996 to 2013—to dispel such hazy thinking. During the furor over the College curriculum in the mid-1990s, opponents sometimes “invoked an imagined noble past to justify a pleasing status quo,” Boyer writes. “Random (and often misunderstood) tidbits of Chicago’s history shaped these conversations, even when most observers acknowledged that they lacked knowledge of the institutional history.”

“History is written by the victors,” Winston Churchill once said—or Walter Benjamin or Alex Haley or Napoleon or Hitler, depending on which internet source you believe. (Perhaps they all said it in unison.) It’s true here, except that Boyer began writing the history when “victory” was still in doubt, and his history played a decisive role in the outcome.


Left: Robert Maynard Hutchins. (Illustration by Maude Phelps McVeigh Hutchins, courtesy University of Chicago Photographic Archives, apf1-05161, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

Below: The cover of The University of Chicago: A History. (Artwork courtesy University of Chicago Press)