Ivory Towers, Trophy Cases

Shortly after Robert Maynard Hutchins became the President of the University of Chicago in 1929, at the ripe ol’ age of 30, he started to implement his ideas of what a university should be. Well, of course a university needed to be about education. In general, that’s students, classrooms, professors, lectures, labs and learning of course.

Hutchins was  a man with some pretty daring proposals that were implemented, not without initial resistance, and by the time he left his post as President, he had made a most indelible impression at the school. Most notably, he retooled the undergraduate program to follow a Great Books, Socratic dialogue pedagogical system. He eliminated fraternities and religious organizations from campus life. Most dramatically, President Hutchins eliminated the school’s football program. How was that dramatic, you say, since who follows the U of C football program anyway?  They’re a Division III school, barely a level of competition above a club sport, with a 2017 schedule that included some school named Macalester. They also faced off against St. Norbert. Uh, so, right. Who the hell follows U of C football other than those involved with its program, their family and friends, and maybe some of the general student body that isn’t too busy studying at their school, one of the most academically respected universities in the country?

Oh yeah? Well, Hutchins didn’t ditch a club sport at U of C. To understand what he did by ridding the school of its varsity football program, in today’s college football universe, it would be tantamount to whoever is today President at Notre Dame doing the same, at once causing the Fighting Irish Nation to freak, faint and then awake to spew vitriol and dissent, pitchforks and torches taken up, administrations buildings occupied, hostages taken, all the while Touchdown Jesus, as seen on the south panel of the school’s library that faces the football stadium, weeping tears for the such a cruel and callously inhumane act . Knute Rockne and Ara Parseghian would be spinning in their graves so furiously tremors would be felt for a 50 miles radius from campus in South Bend, Indiana. I wouldn’t doubt that frogs might start falling from the sky. I mean, Notre Dame is known for one thing and one friggin thing only: its football program!

Okay. Maybe it has a decent chemistry program too. Whatever.

Getting back to Hutchins and his decision to ashcan the U of C football program back in the 10930s, you need to learn a little history to appreciate how serious was the man about a university being about enriching the minds of its students, rather than testing their mettle on the gridiron. At the time, the varsity football team was a member of no less than the Big Ten football conference. You know, the one with Ohio State and Michigan, among other schools. In fact, not only were the U of C Maroons a member of a major football conference, they were pretty darn successful, winning two national titles (!) and 10 Big Ten championships. One of its players, Jay Berwanger, was the first recipient of the coveted Heisman Trophy as best player in all of college football.

That’s the football program for which Robert Maynard Hutchins felt had no practical place at the U of C. Why did he feel this way? Well, the man was quite insane, of course, owing to his reason for scrapping the scrappy team coached by Amos Alonzo Stagg (Stagg’s name still resonates at the school, the still standing football stadium bearing his name, a structure that also just happened to be the site of the first controlled nuclear reaction). Hutchins view of the attention the football team (and its successes) was that it was counterproductive to what the college should be known for, that being the aforementioned academic programs. I told you he was crazy! What? Academic successes are more important than any athletic trophy? Football was nothing more than a distraction in Hutchin’s eyes.

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so academics was more pleasing to his eye than those gleaming throphy cases with their shiny objects encased for posterity,  and the press praising them as the most pleasing aspect of what the University of Chicago stood for. All snark aside, I really admire the man from afar, historically. Not that I don’t watch college football now and then. The admiration is a function of not just how improbable any such similar scenario would be a la the Notre Dame example above, but of what has become the tail wagging the academic dog dynamic of the many so-called “factory” schools of today. Factory for sure, as in football factory or basketball factory. The leading examples of such schools would be, well, in football, first and foremost, Notre Dame, Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Oklahoma, U of Southern California, Louisiana State University, Clemson, Florida State. Seriously, do any of those schools conjur up rigorous academic institutions?  In basketball it’s Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, UCLA, North Carolina, Villanova, Michigan State, Arizona State. These schools and their athletic programs bring in the big bucks if not attract the big brains to their classrooms. Money corrupts, for true, and to emphasize how some institutions of higher learning see things much differently than Mr.Hutchins did 80 years ago, the coaches at these factory schools make anywhere from 4-9 million dollars a year. Hmm. Wonder what the head of the chemistry department makes back at Notre Dame?

At these modern-day universities where their names connote young athletes who can run, pass, kick, catch, dribble, shoot, or slam dunk so well that in both professional basketball and football, their scouts start salivating over the next pituitary case towering over his teammates at a middle school in inner-city Chicago or some crazy-legged powerhouse tearing up the Astroturf at Denton High School in Texas.

Okay, I’m sure there are actual academic scholars at all those “factory schools” who will graduate with honors and (hopefully) find a good job that rewards their intellect if not their time in the 60 yard dash. But when they do get that prestigious gig as Vice President in Charge of Looking Out the Window, at Acme Widget, and the next fresh-faced intern is at their beck and call, the VP’s Honors certificate from Alabama or Michigan or Duke won’t compel any inquiries into the rigors of the school’s School of Business. The intern will likely want to know if Mr. or Ms.VP had any classes with that BMOC, or if he/she can score any tickets to the upcoming Big Game.

Hutchins=Great Books program. Multi-million $ coaches at those factories= Great playbooks.

By the way, next Monday’s college football championship (remember, the U of C won TWO of them back in the day!) has Alabama as 4 and a half-point favorite over Clemson. Bama’s coach is highest paid in college football. Hutchins wouldn’t understand how in the world that would make any sense. No, Hutchins wasn’t crazy. But something else sure seems to be…




About jharrin4

mass communication/speech instructor at College of DuPage and Triton College in suburban Chicago. Army veteran of the Viet Nam era.
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1 Response to Ivory Towers, Trophy Cases

  1. What a beautiful tribute to the man most responsible for the distinct character of the University of Chicago, who instilled the values you so masterfully describe!


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