Over the past three decades, the College of the University of Chicago has been transformed by almost any measure.
Annual undergraduate enrollment has doubled, the UChicago education is more accessible to a wider range of students, the distinctive Core curriculum was strengthened and opportunities to study abroad were expanded – all of which have made the College one of the most sought-after undergraduate experiences in the country.
At the center of all that change has been one constant: John W. Boyer, who has provided remarkable leadership as dean of the College for an unprecedented 31 years.
In that time, he has become a beloved figure among students and a Chicago institution. Socks, T-shirts, hats, Lego sets and banners have borne his likeness over the years. Walk around campus or its surrounding neighborhoods and you’re likely to see the man himself, gliding on two wheels through Hyde Park. He has had a pronounced impact on the College, which he knows better than anyone as a leading historian of the University.
This academic quarter is his last as dean, as Boyer will transition into a new role as senior adviser to the president this summer, ushering in a new era for the College. He leaves behind a list of achievements that has strengthened the College in every way while remaining true to the enduring values upon which the University was founded.
“The College is a common project that brings the whole of the University of Chicago together,” said University President Paul Alivisatos. “Dean Boyer fostered a spirit of experimentation and collaboration in the College, while championing and renewing our commitment to our enduring founding principles and distinctive style. Thanks to his leadership, today's graduates and those of tomorrow will extend our legacy of educating minds and thinkers that shape our world."
The College is, as it was in 1992, a place that brings together exceptionally bright students and faculty under a strong culture of learning and disciplined work.
“It is an extraordinary accomplishment to have increased enrollment in the College while investing in innovative programming and continuing our dedication to academic rigor,” said University Provost Katherine Baicker. “There are so many remarkable people coming to the University every year as a result of the doors that Dean Boyer helped open.”
Boyer was born and raised on Chicago’s South Side, the son of a secretary and an electrician. His early life in a close-knit, blue-collar family ignited a passion in him to provide opportunities for others.
He graduated from nearby Loyola University in 1968 before receiving his master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1969. Boyer stayed at the University to pursue his Ph.D., which he earned in 1975 – the same year he became a faculty member in the Department of History.
One of the world’s leading scholars of the Habsburg Empire, Boyer was named the Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of History in 1996. He was appointed dean of the College in 1992 and has served for six terms – the most of a College dean in University history.
Boyer’s profound impact on the College can be underscored through seven major initiatives that enhanced the distinction of the College over his 31 years of leadership.
A re-imagined Core curriculum
One of Boyer’s early projects as dean was to reform the College’s unique Core curriculum to meet the needs of modern undergraduate students.
First adopted in 1931, the Core was originally structured to synthesize broad fields of knowledge and offer an interdisciplinary framework of general education for first- and second-year students in the College, but underwent many changes over the decades, including the creation of an all-general-education curriculum in 1942 and, in the 1960s, curricula that varied by collegiate division. In 1984 the faculty instituted a Core requirement of 21 courses that accounted for half of the credits needed to graduate.
Under the direction of then-University President Hugo Sonnenschein in the mid-1990s, the College was tasked with improving the quality of its liberal education and student life in order to attract more applicants and grow the student body. This included a systematic review of the Core, led by Boyer.
Taking student testimonials, faculty debates, committee discussions and the history of the Core into account over years of deliberations, the College Council ratified a plan in March 1998, devised by Boyer and the Curriculum Committee, that reduced the size of the Core by several courses.