Is University of Chicago Becoming Too `Normal'?

By Billups, Andrea | Insight on the News, June 7, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Is University of Chicago Becoming Too `Normal'?


Billups, Andrea, Insight on the News


Students, faculty and alumni are decrying what they call the `dumbing down' of a renowned institution to attract more students, make more money and become more `normal.'

The University of Chicago long has been revered as a place for serious scholarship, attracting academic whiz kids and research wunderkinds from around the globe. More students and professors from the university --70, to be exact--have received Nobel prizes than from any other school in the world.

But academic changes are under way that some fear may undermine the intellectual heart of the school's identity and its unprecedented record of success. The university, where President Clinton will speak at the June 12 commencement, is cutting its highly touted and rigorous undergraduate core curriculum. Critics call the decision a marketing strategy to increase enrollment--one that will attract a different type of student who wants more play and less study.

Though renowned for its academics, Chicago once was as famous for its football team, first coached by legend Amos Alonzo Stagg. The team was a charter member of the Big Ten and produced the first Heisman Trophy winner, Jay Berwanger, in 1935. Chicago dropped the sport after the 1939 season, resuming play 30 years later with a team of authentic amateurs.

Until now, the university's core curriculum had remained much the same. Students are required to take two full years of courses in science and math, humanities and civilization, social science and foreign language before moving into specialized classes in their majors. Under the new plan to begin in September, however, the core courses would make up one-third of a student's required classes, rather than half. The cuts have angered opponents who fear the erosion of standards.

"Changing the curriculum to attract less-intellectual students jeopardizes the moral core of a great university" wrote a group of concerned students, faculty and alumni, including Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, in a letter to university president Hugo F. Sonnenschein calling for a moratorium on the curriculum cuts. "Making academic decisions on the basis of marketing is itself a crime against the mind."

But John W. Boyer, dean of the undergraduate college, contends the curriculum changes are but a modest makeover designed to better serve the needs of students. "We're maintaining our traditions" he says. "There are no gut courses here, no courses that are not demanding or rigorous, whether they are at a core level or upper level." Boyer says the administration is striving to "improve where we need to improve."

Meanwhile, the Washington-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni is helping coordinate a petition drive, urging other academics from around the country to sign the letter in a show of support.

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