John W. Boyer appointed to sixth term as dean of the College

John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, has been appointed to a sixth term as dean of the College, continuing an unprecedented 25-year tenure that has brought historic advances for UChicago’s undergraduate program.

Boyer’s term has been characterized by extensive increases in resources for undergraduates, including a transformation of career development and internship opportunities; the development of a comprehensive study abroad program; significant gains in admissions, diversity and student achievement; and a dramatic increase in financial aid.

“The success of the College is an essential part of the entire University’s strength, and John’s tireless efforts on behalf of the College have been essential to the remarkable undergraduate program we see today,” wrote President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Daniel Diermeier in a message announcing the reappointment. “We are extremely fortunate that John will continue to provide leadership that reflects deep understanding of the College’s history and the highest ambitions for its future.”

“It is an extraordinary honor to be the dean of the College,” said Boyer, the Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of History and the College. “This is a remarkable community of highly motivated people who are extremely talented, and it is a pleasure to teach and to work with them.”

Boyer became the longest-serving dean of the College in the University’s history in 2002, when he was appointed to his third consecutive term. Among the many successes of his tenure, he is especially proud of improvements such as the construction of three major residence facilities in the last 15 years, the reinvention of the College houses and halls as central components of collegiate life, the strengthening of existing general-education courses and the creation of new programs in the Core, and the development of study abroad programs into a signature strength of the College.

Enhancements to admissions and student financial aid are among the most important developments of the last decade, Boyer said. The College has experienced extraordinary increases in its application and yield rates, and has significantly improved student retention. He has seen students benefit enormously from the Odyssey Scholarship Program, established in 2007 with a $100 million gift from an anonymous donor nicknamed “Homer,” followed by a $100 million expansion in 2016, launched with a $50 million gift and challenge from Harriet Heyman, AM’72, and her husband, Sir Michael Moritz. That has enabled a comprehensive approach to student support, which Boyer considers one of the best need-based aid structures for students from families with limited financial means.

“I myself came out of a working-class family,” Boyer said. “My father was a truck driver and an electrician, and my mother was a secretary in a steel mill. I have a significant personal commitment to helping people from modest circumstances gain access to and succeed at the University—not just to get in, but to flourish and to succeed.”

Combining liberal education and career development

Another key investment for Boyer has been in the growth of career development programs for undergraduate students, including the Jeff Metcalf Internship Program, which began in what Boyer describes as “a very modest way” in 1997. “The first year we started the Metcalf program, we had eight internships. This year we’ll have over 2,000,” Boyer said.

The College has also worked with Career Advancement to develop UChicago Careers In, a set of pre-professional training programs designed for students interested in areas such as business, education, entrepreneurship, health, journalism, arts and media, law, public policy and public service, and the STEM fields. The expansion of career opportunities complements the College’s rigorous emphasis on liberal arts, Boyer believes, creating a strong preparation for life after college.

“We now have a career office that’s more extensive and ambitious than most of our peers, and it represents a tremendously valuable investment in our students,” said Boyer.

Boyer’s fifth term, now nearing completion, has seen a number of important academic milestones for the College. It included the introduction of new undergraduate major programs in molecular engineering, computational and applied mathematics, neuroscience, and the development of a creative writing major that will begin next year—the first degree program in creative writing in the history of the University.

One of the College’s enduring strengths is the Core curriculum, which Boyer sees as central to maintaining a common intellectual vocabulary, even as upper-level students gain more academic choices in their specializations. He notes that a large proportion of the College’s science and social science majors take humanities courses beyond the Core requirements. “I think this comes back to our quality of student body—not only their academic talent, but the capaciousness of their understanding of what true learning is. So as long as the faculty is committed to designing and teaching the Core well, there will always be a Core.” 

Describing his goals for the next five years, Boyer said he will continue working to develop student life and campus housing, including trying to increase the capacity of campus housing beyond the current 55 percent of all College students. He also hopes that the faculty will give serious thought to rethinking the boundary between undergraduate and graduate study, noting that many seniors are now taking courses at the graduate level. Another priority is a greater integration of field research into more of the College’s programs to give students more exposure to “the work of the world,” citing the Public Policy Practicum and Chicago Studies program’s Calumet Quarter, which provides field experience to environmental studies students, as two examples.

An historian who has written frequently on the history of the University, Boyer completed his book, The University of Chicago: A History in 2015, to coincide with the 125th anniversary of the University’s founding. He is currently working on his new book, Austria 1867-1983, which is part of the Oxford History of Modern Europe series. Boyer, who describes himself as a political and social historian, studies people who tried both to maintain and to change institutions, and he has a particular interest in the Habsburg Empire.

“I’ve probably learned more about how to administer a complex institution from writing about the empire than I have from writing about the University,” Boyer joked. “A university is a huge community of ambitious people who often don’t agree with each other. The job of a dean or department chair, or even a president or provost, is not to modulate discontent but to make it add up to something productive, transformational and forward-looking. I have enormous respect for those Habsburg civil servants who were able to keep the place running and prosperous for centuries.”