Nietzsche’s Niche: Kirp on the University of Chicago

I was just reading Christopher Newfield’s interesting 2003 book review on university-industry relations when I noticed that he mentioned a chapter by Kirp on the University of Chicago. The following rather florid (occasionally insulting) prose is interesting — at least to me — because it proceeds from remarking that the university is a bastion of self-congratulatory self-reflexive discourse to commenting on a major contradiction in the university’s labor relations. In other words, it points out the conundrum of a university that bills itself as deeply devoted to rigorous education while also having faculty who are primarily hired for research and who teach as little as possible. This means, as Graduate Students United knows well, that there are a lot of underpaid grad student and adjuncts who depend on teaching while being written out of the institutional self-image.

But I’m getting ahead of the textual excerpt I wanted to present. Although it doesn’t always manage to be an accurate description of the university, it compensates by being entertaining and at times outrageous. (Outrageousness being nothing to sneeze at when it comes to desanctifying institutional self-images.)

The University of Chicago is more self-absorbed—more precisely, self-obsessed—than any other institution of higher learning in America. Its animating myth was manufactured by Robert Maynard Hutchins, the institution’s pivotal president and promoter non pareil. “It’s not a very good university,” Hutchins declared, “it’s only the best there is.” Never mind Oxford or Berkeley. Harvard and Yale may fill the corridors of power, loyalists say; in the domain of ideas, Chicago rules. Nowhere else is the “Ivy League” a term of derision—the land of academic “Jay Leno-ism,” it is called, a reference to its veneration of big-name professors derided at Chicago as “dying elephants.” A passing remark made long ago by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead is recycled as if it were gospel: “I think the one place where I have been that is most like ancient Athens is the University of Chicago.”

Three-quarters of the faculty live within a mile of the campus in the enclave of Hyde Park, a hothouse of learned chatter and salacious gossip set apart, by design, from the bombed-out inner-city landscape, peopled mainly by dirt-poor blacks, which surrounds it. The fact of isolation, it is said half-jokingly, is why the university’s athletic teams are known as the Maroons. The Chicago tribe takes pleasure in furious disputations about everything from monetarism to metaphysics. While Harvard preens, Chicago navel-gazes, turning out bookshelves’-worth of histories and biographies, faculty committee reports, student newspapers, broadsheets, and websites devoted to itself. There are several hundred listings in the “introductory” bibliography of the university’s history that the campus librarians have prepared.

Seemingly everyone is an amateur historian, mining the past for ammunition that can be used in the present. “No episode was more important in shaping the outlook and expectations [of higher education in the decade following the Civil War] than the founding of the University of Chicago,” writes Frederick Rudolph in his benchmark history of American higher education. It is “one of those events in American history that brought into focus the spirit of an age.” When John D. Rockefeller launched the university with a gift of $2.3 million, he expressed the hope that an institution situated far from the tradition-bound East Coast would “strike out upon lines in full sympathy with the spirit of the age.” Although Chicago is a great school, in this respect Rockefeller would be disappointed. The dominant trope, observes Dennis Hutchinson, professors of law and longtime dean of the undergraduate college, is that “at Chicago we’ve always done ‘X,'” meaning whatever is being advocated at the moment.

There is another, less frequently acknowledged tradition in Hyde Park, a willingness on the part of the university’s leaders, including Hutchins and William Rainey Harper, the founding president, to do whatever has been necessary to raise money for a chronically cash-starved school. Among its past ventures are a junior college and the nation’s biggest correspondence school; in 1998 it attached itself to, a for-profit business school.


…Only senior professors should teach the core couses, Andrew Abbott asserted, because only a widely published academic can stand as a “central authority figure who can model for the students the discipline of rethinking ideas.” What a marvelous notion: Kant or Mill interpreted by Mortimer Adler or Allan Bloom, transcendent texts in the hands of master interpreters. But you would have to go elsewhere to find it. At Chicago, the ideal of a college where intellectually obsessive undergraduates are instructed in small classes by full professors, Socrates among the genius set, collides with a shabbier reality. Science courses are delivered lecture-style, as in most universities, and few sections are led by faculty members. Even in the humanities and social sciences, points out Richard Saller, the university’s provost since 2001, nearly two-thirds of classes are taught by graduate students and non-tenure track faculty.

At Chicago, faculty devotion to the core isn’t bred in the bone. It’s a historical accident resulting from the university’s peculiar division into two separate faculties. Until the 1960s, the graduate faculty, based in the disciplines, taught Ph.D. candidates, while the college faculty, hired separately, instructed undergraduates. Although the intention was to build a university that rewarded teaching as well as research, the result was a rancorous split between the discipline-based professors, who regarded themselves as the “real faculty,” and the “have-not” college instructors, dismissed as glorified high school teachers. “There were people teaching economics who didn’t know Milton Friedman was a professor here,” Saller says, shaking his head at the oddity of it all.

This division of labor was abolished in the 1960s. Since those who have subsequently been hired, like faculty everywhere, have more specialized interests, when the college instructors retired there was no one to fill the classroom void. At the same time, in order to compete with leading universities, Chicago has cut the teaching load from six to four quarter courses, and many professors teach only one undergraduate course.

These fact on the ground make for decidedly odd bedfellows. Donald Levine, a sociology professor and the former dean of the college, for whom the common core is a passion, found himself in rare agreement with anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, whose enthusiasm for a substantial diet of required courses was premised on his fear that if undergraduate had more opportunities to take electives, people like himself would have to teach them. “I’m not a college type,” Sahlins says. That’s an understatement, since he refers to himself as a member of the graduate department of anthropology and rarely sees undergraduates.

“What we’re doing has intellectual integrity!” was the rallying cry of the traditionalists. But “you can only go so far,” observes one professor, “before you have to point at the faculty and ask, ‘Why aren’t you teaching?'”

“The contradiction we’re trying to resolve,” says Richard Saller, “is that we don’t want to be Harvard or Yale, and use the large lecture format. We want to do as much as possible in small classes—but we can’t do this with tenured faculty.” The irony is palpable. At a university where devotion to general education is the watchword, until a few years ago professors were not expected to teach any undergraduates.


The Kirp chapter centers on the tale of 1990s conflicts with then-President Sonnenschein, which had everything to do with money, professorial labor, and the university’s self-image. It’s somewhat amazing if you read that link (to the official website) how thoroughly the nationally-publicized conflicts during Sonnenschein’s watch have been effaced from his official biography.

3 thoughts on “Nietzsche’s Niche: Kirp on the University of Chicago

  1. Ha! This was a fun read… I think that writing like this serves some of the same good purposes as requiring the disclosure of more standardized information… informing students, faculty, and the public about the true nature of an institution will help discipline it when it is bad, and reward it when it is good.

    1. Thanks, Mike! By the way, I wrote to Greenwood to ask for clarification about output controls. I think we will probably hear some more details from him before too long, so perhaps there will be a more empirical basis for continuing our earlier discussion about american university neoliberalism…

  2. I’m kinda fascinated by the thought of Riesman, such an apologist for a deeply conservative mode of theorizing academic labor in an earlier moment of academic crisis, now having to take up arms to defend the university against neoliberalism, as if the postwar university was entirely divorced from fiduciary concerns. Kirp’s tone is definitely insulting, and I know it’s a general-audiences pop-scholarship text, or whatever, but I feel like the way he deploys the idea of an “academic commons” is so ahistorical and underinterrogated that it winds up being a bit reactionary. I’ll admit to only having read a few chapters from the book, though.

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