Fall Winter 08

The Core


The Ambassadors

They've Got Game

Meteoric Metcalfs


Editor's Note

Vox Populi

Secret History

It's A Small World

Remembering One of the Greats

Full Circle

Photo Finish

Ugandan Diaries

Go Ask Alumni

Eye on the Quads

Secret History

Dean Boyer delves into the College’s past to shed light on its future.

In spring 1996, President Hugo Sonnenschein announced the controversial decision to add 1,000 students to the College over the next ten years. To John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, then finishing his first term as dean of the College and preparing to begin a second, the level of anxiety and disenchantment with which many alumni, students, and faculty members received the news was a bit staggering. They feared that expanding the College would mean compromising its identity and perhaps its educational standards.

Boyer sympathized but, he says, “I remember thinking, is this the first time the University’s ever tried to add students to the College?” His historian’s instincts kicked in and he found himself in the archives learning the mostly forgotten history of fluctuating enrollments in the College. Larger than Yale, Princeton, and Stanford in the 1930s—in 1939, 3,144 students were enrolled—the College contracted sharply in the 1950s. By autumn 1954, only 1,338 undergraduates were registered.

Although it was widely taken for granted by the 1990s, the relatively small size of the College, Boyer found, was a historical accident that University administrators had tried since the 1950s to counteract. The 1996 plan was not an unprecedented innovation but something “a number of other past presidents had tried to do: namely, to build the College up to the level of prosperity and security it did enjoy before World War II.”

Boyer wrote up his research and delivered it that fall as a report to the College faculty, “Continuity & Change: The College as a Member of the Wider University.” Now, 12 years later, the College has grown to just over 5,000 students, applications are up to record levels, and attrition is down. Boyer, who began his fourth term as dean this July, has written 12 more annual reports—one each summer—on aspects of the history of the College and University, from the Core curriculum to philanthropy. In 1999 the College began publishing his essays as part of its Occasional Papers on Higher Education series.

Boyer’s 13th annual report, “‘The Kind of University That We Desire to Become’: Student Housing and the Educational Mission of the University of Chicago,” was delivered to the faculty this autumn—one year before the University opens a new undergraduate residence hall south of the Midway, near Burton-Judson. The timing is no historical accident. Boyer wants the College eventually to be able to house 70 percent of undergraduate students—up from the current 56 percent—in comfortable, University-run residence halls within a 20-minute walk from the quadrangles. Reaching the target rate would bring the College in line with its peers and, most important, says the dean, strengthen community, student life, and ultimately a College education itself.

Boyer’s summer research revealed that, for the same reasons, housing more undergraduates on and near campus has been an ambition of University leaders of every generation. Plans to make it happen have abounded—but foundered. As far back as William Rainey Harper’s presidency, residential systems like Oxford’s and Yale’s were looked to as models for Chicago by figures like future president Ernest Dewitt Burton, one of the namesakes of Burton-Judson Hall. Burton envisioned a separate College campus integrating classrooms and residence space.

Several passionate advocates of a larger, stronger residential system followed in Burton’s path. There was Vice President and Dean of Faculties Frederic C. Woodward, who in 1927 bemoaned the fact that “[t]oo many of our students, when they leave the classroom, the library, or the laboratory, leave the real atmosphere of the University.” And sociology professor William C. Bradbury, who in 1951 declared, “It is fruitless to hope to foster an effective student community without creating its ‘material’ [as well as its ideal] preconditions.” Fourteen years later, law professor Walter J. Blum, AB’39, JD’41, serving as chair of a faculty committee appointed by the provost to advise on the future of student housing, again echoed the sentiment: “The University…must create the supportive facilities and the atmosphere in which a wide variety of students can feel comfortable, develop sustaining associations, and ‘settle down’ while undertaking their studies.”

Over the years, committees were formed, plans were drawn, aging properties were purchased and converted into aging dormitories—but little new housing was built near the quadrangles until Palevsky Residential Commons opened in 2001, conveniently next to the Regenstein Library and the renewed Bartlett Commons. Boyer’s report concludes with a call to invest in more high-quality dorms like Palevsky and the new building soon to open south of Burton-Judson. When that new residence hall opens its doors in a little less than a year, the College will have a new hub of student life on the south campus comparable to the one that has flourished around Palevsky since its opening and also be closer to realizing the ambitions of figures from Burton to Boyer for the quality and location of the housing it offers students. But it will take another thousand beds close to the heart of campus, Boyer believes—probably two more large residence halls—to fully attain the “truly capacious, culturally effective” residential community his predecessors dreamed of.—L.D.