According to the 2013 U.S. News & World Report college rankings, the go-to source for determining which American universities are on top of the bragging-rights pile, the University of Chicago ties with Columbia University for fourth place among all universities in the country.
Considering that no school is likely to ever displace the perennial top three—Harvard, Yale and Princeton—it’s an impressive showing for a school outside the Ivy League.
While the U.S. News rankings are controversial for their bias toward reputation-based criteria such as alumni donations, selectivity and financial endowment, the University of Chicago certainly has plenty going for it in terms of history, research activity and academic performance.
History of the University
The University of Chicago was founded in 1890 by the American Baptist Education Society with the financial assistance of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller. Despite its affiliation with the Baptist organization, the university was always intended to be a secular institution, and it was coeducational from the very beginning.
Before the turn of the twentieth century, the University of Chicago worked in conjunction with smaller universities around the Midwest in effort to prevent the urban university from dominating the regional higher education market. During this era, students at schools including Des Moines College and Kalamazoo College could attend University of Chicago classes for free and earn a University of Chicago degree while taking classes at their home institutions. This program was terminated early in the 20th century, however, and the University Chicago decided to go it alone.
Thanks to its substantial financial resources, the university was easily able to stand on its own. The Rockefeller Foundation had poured over $35 million into the school over the course of two decades, and that enormous bankroll allowed the University of Chicago to weather the Great Depression with relative ease.
On the other side of the Depression, the university established itself as one of the most capable research institutions in the country. Among other significant accomplishments, the University of Chicago was one of the key players in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. As part of the Manhattan Project, researchers in Chicago were the first to isolate plutonium and to produce the first man-made, self-sustaining nuclear reaction.
Academics and Research
Soon after its foundation, the University of Chicago positioned itself as a center for education in fields related to business, law and politics in addition to science. Its business school was established in 1898 and its law school in 1902. The university is divided into an undergraduate College, six professional schools, four graduate divisions, and a school of continuing education.
As an undergraduate institution, the University of Chicago offers 50 majors and 28 minors in biological sciences, physical sciences, social sciences and humanities. Graduate programs are in the same broad areas enroll about 3,600 students each year. About 5,000 students enroll in the university’s professional schools, which include a business school, a law school, a medical school, a divinity school, a school of public policy studies and a school of social service administration. The university’s total enrollment is around 15,000 students.
The University of Chicago’s undergraduate academics are somewhat unique among top-tier universities. First of all, the university operates on a quarter-system academic calendar, in which the academic year is divided into four 12-week terms, three of which fall during the typical academic year and the fourth in the summer. This is in contrast to the semester system employed by the majority of American universities, in which the typical academic year is divided into two terms. Universities that use the quarter system claim that the calendar makes them more flexible by allowing them to offer more course options during the academic year.
More significantly, the University of Chicago makes an effort to devote a substantial portion of its academic resources to its undergraduate students. The university requires undergraduates to complete a core curriculum of rigorous courses distributed among the sciences, math, humanities, languages and physical education. Core courses are limited in size and are often taught by full-time faculty rather than graduate teaching assistants.
This approach is a point of pride with the university, and it is in contrast to the academic philosophies of both other elite universities, which infamously tend to value research over undergraduate education, and colleges that are not as concerned with providing students with a broad-based educational experience.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the University of Chicago isn’t a first-class research institution. It runs 12 research institutes on its own campus, and it is affiliated with both the Argonne National Laboratory and the Fermilab particle physics laboratory. University of Chicago researchers have collected dozens of Nobel Prizes, and the university spends hundreds of millions of dollars on research each year.
The University of Chicago campus lies on the city’s south side in the Hyde Park and Woodlawn neighborhoods. The campus straddles the Midway Plaisance, a linear park constructed for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893; the Midway is a mile long by 220 yards wide, and it connects Washington Park on its west side with Jackson Park on the east side.
Early campus buildings were designed in traditional Victorian and Collegiate Gothic styles, but many structures built from the beginning of the 20th century and later were designed by a who’s who of famous architects. The Laird Bell Law Quadrangle was designed by Eero Saarinen, and the School of Social Service Administration building was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, two of the most acclaimed mid-century architects. The university also acquired the nearby Robie House, a Prairie style dwelling designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for a university alumnus; the building was included on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
Its location in Hyde Park puts the university at the heart of one of Chicago’s most culturally diverse neighborhoods, but also one of its most controversial and problematic. When it grew up around the university and the remnants of the World’s Columbian Exposition, the neighborhood was a showplace marked by resort hotels and an artists’ colony. After the Depression, however, the area began to decline, setting up a cultural contrast between the university and the urban landscape that surrounded it.
By the 1950s, poverty and crime were such a problem in Hyde Park that the university began an organized program of urban renewal, a campaign dubbed “Fight Against Blight,” intended to increase property values and make the area around the university a safer and more attractive place to be. The program was largely successful; the average income of Hyde Park residents increased by 70 percent during the 1960s, and the ethnic and racial diversity of the neighborhood increased substantially.
The consequences of the renewal were not entirely positive, however. Low-income housing was replaced by more expensive residential properties, making it impossible for many long-time neighborhood residents to live there any longer, and residential development took precedence over commercial development, which made it more difficult for those low-income residents who remained to make a living near their homes.
The university’s program became a model for similar projects in other cities around the country. The process initiated by these programs, which came to be known as “gentrification,” was usually successful at reclaiming declining urban neighborhoods, but it was also widely criticized for serving the desires of the middle class at the expense of the poor.
Despite the controversy, Hyde Park has remained one of Chicago’s most important neighborhoods. President Barack Obama lived there prior to his election, and he represented the area in the Illinois state senate from 1997 to 2004.
True to its stature as one of the world’s premier universities, the University of Chicago has graduated many students who have gone on to become some the most powerful people on the planet. Former Attorneys General Robert Bork and Ramsay Clark are alumni, as are U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz.
Power brokers in the business world are well represented on the alumni lists, too. Former Goldman Sachs CEO and governor of New Jersey Jon Corzine graduated from the university. So did Credit Suisse CEO Brady Dougan, Bloomberg L.P. CEO Daniel Doctoroff and economist Milton Friedman.
Many of the journalists who report on politics and business are also alumni, including columnist David Brooks, publisher Katharine Graham, CBS correspondent Rebecca Jarvis and analyst Nate Silver.
In the field of literature, alumni include Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth, Susan Sontag and Sara Paretsky. In the sciences, notable alumni include Carl Sagan and Edwin Hubble.