University of Vienna bestows honorary degree on Professor and Dean John W. Boyer

Career journey comes full circle for historian of Austria's Habsburg Empire

Mary Abowd
News Officer for Arts & HumanitiesUniversity Communications

Dean of the College John W. Boyer has been awarded an honorary degree from the University of Vienna in recognition of his more than three decades of scholarship on the history of the Habsburg Empire.

The ceremony marked the 650th anniversary of the institution’s founding, as well as its renown as the Empire’s imperial university. But for Boyer, it also signified a career journey come full-circle.

As a young University of Chicago graduate student, Boyer first traveled to the University of Vienna in 1970 to seek advice from its history faculty as he embarked on a year of archival research funded by the Ford Foundation. “It’s wonderful, 45 years later, to show up and be honored with an honorary degree,” he said.

In the intervening years, he has produced three award-winning tomes on different aspects of Vienna during the Habsburg Empire and, as dean, created two foreign study programs at the University of Vienna—one in the history of Western civilization, the other in human rights. He also instituted an exchange program where each year 10 University of Vienna students come to the University of Chicago to study. 

Boyer’s long affiliation with the institution is made personal through his longtime friendship with Gerald Stourzh, a professor of Austrian history who first welcomed him in 1970. The two have enjoyed careers that have mirrored one another and overlapped. Boyer, based in Chicago, has made frequent forays into Austria, writing extensively about Austrian history. And Stourzh, a lifetime Viennese, studied at the University of Chicago during the 1950s and, in addition to extensive work on Austrian and modern European history, specializes in American political and constitutional history. In 1992, the University of Chicago awarded him an honorary degree.

Last month while receiving his award, Boyer spotted his friend, now 86. “It was quite lovely because at the ceremony I looked down at the audience and who was sitting there but Gerald Stourzh,” he said. “He came up to me after and said, ‘This is very fitting.’”

Boyer says he was drawn to Vienna initially because of the strong parallels between that city and Chicago. Having grown up during the reign of Mayor Richard J. Daley, he knew boss politics when he saw them. “Vienna’s political structure is very similar to Chicago’s in that it has a very strong political machine, strong mayors and a vibrant and highly controversial local political culture,” Boyer said. “When it comes to charismatically driven political machines, Chicago and Vienna are archetypes.”

Additionally, both cities are multi-ethnic, multi-religious and composed of diverse groups trying to assimilate and live together, he adds. In the late 19th century, they were in their own ways majestic urban centers—Vienna was the seat of the Habsburg Empire, and Chicago was the Gilded Age capital of the Great West.  

Those parallels still hold a fascination for Boyer that keeps him up late into the night completing yet a fourth book on the topic, Austria, 1867-1983, which will be published in the Oxford History of Modern Europe Series.

Although he sometimes longs to be closer to Vienna—for research purposes and, well, because it’s Vienna—Boyer says when it comes to scholarship, distance has in many ways been key to his success.

“I always tell my graduate students who go to Vienna to do research ‘make friends with everybody and every party but don’t get involved in their political disputes,’” he said. "'Your one advantage is that you’re neutral. You can be objective.'” Once back in Chicago writing up findings, he’s found, “'you can frame things in a way that others might not frame them because it’s too close.’”

Boyer’s forthcoming book, a history of the University of Chicago, will be released this fall.