Convocation celebration reflects upon UChicago’s origins and 125-year history

The University’s 525th Convocation ceremony, held Dec. 11 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, afforded opportunities for reflection on the 125th anniversary of UChicago’s founding.

President Robert J. Zimmer recalled the meaning that William Rainey Harper, the University’s first president, attached to convocation, as a chance “to bind together into unity the many complex and diverging forms of activity which constitute our University’s life and work.”

As the culmination of a quarterlong 125th anniversary celebration, the convocation ceremony included a 125th anniversary address by President Emeritus Hanna Holborn Gray, the Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History; a special musical performance by the Civic Orchestra of Chicago of the commissioned composition “Twin Spaces, Intertwined,” written by Prof. Anthony Cheung; and the 525th Convocation address to graduating students, “Slowing Down Reason,” given by Judith B. Farquhar, the Max Palevsky Professor of Anthropology Emeritus and of Social Sciences in the College.

Gray noted that “all universities have their own DNA, a distinctive character and tradition, shaped by and in their foundations.” Part of the University of Chicago’s DNA, as reflected in a report that Harper produced for the 10th anniversary, is the encouragement of creative thought as well as self-criticism, she said.

“In Harper’s words, we can glimpse the distinctive combination of the commitment to tradition and the commitment to innovation that have accompanied its history,” Gray said. “And we can discern also the intensely critical spirit that has animated not only the University’s intellectual life, but its continuing impulse toward self-examination.”

Gray said UChicago’s history “has not been one of unbroken progress,” pointing to specific times of trouble, constraint and even unresolved conflict. At those times, the institution leaned on the leadership of Presidents Robert L. Hutchins and Edward H. Levi, whose steadfastness supported the University’s founding principles, knowing that they could not please everyone.

“The point of our ceremony today in reasserting the continuity of its founding principles is not to invoke a false nostalgia or foolish resistance to change,” said Gray. “It is rather to say that to be reminded of the University’s origins and history is to be reminded of the University’s underlying and enduring strengths, and the hope that future change will proceed in harmony with the essential guidance these offer.”