University of Chicago

  • Education
  • 1890

For decades a faithful Baptist, oilman John Rockefeller Sr. aspired to found a distinguished Baptist university. In 1890 he made his first contribution ($600,000) to establish the University of Chicago in league with the American Baptist Education Society. The university’s land was in turn donated by Chicago department store magnate Marshall Field. Rockefeller would eventually give the new organization tens of millions of dollars, while insisting that his name not be used anywhere on campus. His collaborator William Harper, a young Biblical scholar from Yale, and UC’s first president, oversaw a combination of English-style undergraduate college and German-style graduate research institute. With Harper’s guidance and Rockefeller’s unprecedented funding, the University of Chicago quickly became a national leader in higher education. Robert Hutchins, president from 1929 to 1951, put in place many of the innovations that the university became known for, including a core curriculum focused on classic works and original documents, an emphasis on discussion rather than lectures, interdisciplinary study, and comprehensive exams to measure progress. The core curriculum survived until the late-1990s when it was substantially modified to add “diversity.” The University of Chicago was a founding member of the Big Ten Conference and the first to give its football coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, academic tenure—until the college dropped football to concentrate on academics in 1939. Rockefeller once described the University of Chicago as “the best investment I ever made.”