Back to the future

With a historian’s attention to the founding ideals of the College, Dean John W. Boyer implements an ambitious vision for the decades to come.

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Grace Chapin, AB’11, doesn’t have a dollar for every time John Boyer has mentioned the Habsburg Empire in a speech—then she wouldn’t need her admissions office job—but she’s collected a few bucks from the uninitiated.

“I bet my mom once,” she says, recalling an awards ceremony that seemed an unlikely place for the subject to come up.

“How is it possible that he’s going to integrate—?”

“Just trust me, it’s going to happen,” she assured her dubious mother, who took her up on the wager.

Chapin doesn’t remember exactly how Boyer worked it in, just that he did. “Got my dollar,” she says with a satisfied smile.

To Chapin, the game she and her friends devised captures the essence of Boyer’s very UChicago charm. “He’s almost like Bill Nye the Science Guy, but instead of science, it’s history,” she says. “There’s no situation in which it is not relevant to talk about the history of modern Europe. Which is awesome.”

A scholar of the Habsburgs—and of what might be called the Harper-Hutchins Empire—Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, has become a historic figure in his own right. Last spring he was appointed to an unprecedented fifth term as dean of the College. In that position since 1992, Boyer has overseen a multifaceted transformation, increasing enrollment, expanding study-abroad opportunities, instituting career-services programs, and generally redefining what it means to be a UChicago undergrad.

Ann Stern Berzin, AB’74, JD’77, the chair of the College visiting committee, had a much different experience from the one she sees Boyer instituting today. “Undergrad students were fairly far down on the food pyramid. There wasn’t a lot done around quality of life for students,” she says. “We all had this fantastic educational experience, but beyond that, pfft.”

In Boyer’s mind, the quality of life improvements—new residence halls, dining facilities, cultural opportunities in the city—complement the academic character, creating an environment that attracts more, and more accomplished, students. And he loves the students the College attracts. Talking about them animates Boyer most.

Berzin noticed Boyer’s enthusiasm during their first meeting more than a decade ago, when he invited her to join the College visiting committee, one of 15 University oversight boards. His demeanor was at first so modest and professorial that he didn’t seem like the dynamic administrator of his reputation. “When he started to talk to me about the students, and what he wanted to accomplish for the students, and the direction in which the College was moving for the students, then I could say, ‘Oh, now I get it,’ why this guy was the dean.”

Ever since, she has seen a similar change come over him at visiting committee meetings. Amid the routine business, there are occasional student speakers. When they address the group, Berzin says, “If you look at John Boyer, he is lit up.”

His affinity spills into speeches as much as the Habsburgs do. Speaking at the Class of 1967’s Alumni Weekend dinner at the Logan Center for the Arts, Boyer characterized the new facility as a product of philanthropy worthy of the undergraduates who will use it, not the other way around: “If you’ve met any of our current students, they’re vibrant, they’re humorous, they’re extremely bright, they’re very hardworking.”

That same evening, thanking the Class of 1962 at its reunion gathering for a $650,000 gift, he waxed on: “The students are so good now, they’re so talented, they’re so creative, and they’re so hardworking, that they deserve the kind of support that you, the alumni, have bestowed on them.”

Moments later, unfurling a banner that honored the class for its alumni-gift participation, he added, “I’m a historian of the Habsburg Empire, so I understand titles and awards very well …”

 


He’s no emperor, but Boyer does exude a sense of sovereignty
, and his academic—if not ancestral—roots extend to the origins of the College that he now benevolently rules. Criticize a proposal as untrue to that heritage and he’ll have facts at hand, probably from primary documents, proving its intellectual lineage. Then he’ll work to implement it for the benefit of posterity.

Boyer’s priorities, such as strengthening residential life (a cause of President Ernest DeWitt Burton’s in the 1920s) and establishing study-abroad programs (as Hutchins-era College dean F. Champion Ward wanted to do), have evolved in part from his research. Knowing that his predecessors pursued similar objectives gives Boyer rhetorical ammunition in debates about whether a new initiative suits UChicago. “There’s a tremendous amount of mythology that surrounds the University,” says College visiting committee member Ken Kaufman, X’69, MBA’76, and Boyer knows precisely where myth and reality diverge. “There’s nobody who can compete with him on that.”

In May 1996, for example, then University president Hugo F. Sonnenschein called for an increase in College enrollment. “We were too small for the faculty that we had, so it was either enlarge the College or shrink the faculty,” Boyer says. “A decision had to be made, and it was very controversial.”

To admit more than the 3,400 undergraduates enrolled at the time, the argument against expansion went, would dilute the College’s intellectual atmosphere and taint the University’s image. Boyer states the opposition’s case bluntly: “There were a lot of faculty who had an image of the University as being a PhD factory and, for them, a larger College was threatening to their professional identity,” he says. “[They] were also certain that the next 1,000 in would be a bunch of dummies who wouldn’t be fit to teach or wouldn’t be worthy of the University of Chicago.”

Boyer believed otherwise. And he brought his historian’s chops to bear in arguing that expanding the College would not breach tradition, but instead begin to restore it, moving enrollment back toward its pre–World War II highs. “We had more undergraduates full time in our College in 1939 than Yale or Princeton or Stanford or Rochester or Carnegie Mellon,” he says.
To many alumni and faculty members, the mid-1990s size—about 3,400 undergraduates, much smaller than most of its peers—made a statement about exclusivity and the intensity of the curriculum that defined the College. So Boyer went to the archives to study the ebb and flow of enrollment over the years, ultimately publishing the first of what would become 16 (and counting) monographs about various aspects of UChicago history.

He found that “every president basically since Ernest Burton was trying to expand the College.” The restructuring of the College curriculum under President Robert Maynard Hutchins and a deteriorating and dangerous Hyde Park neighborhood sent enrollment plummeting from a prewar peak of about 4,000 to 1,500 by 1955.

If not for those circumstances, Boyer believes the College today would have 6,500–7,000 undergraduates, comparable to Harvard. “This took some explaining,” he says. “The faculty, they grasped it, they accepted it, they worked with us. The success is their success. I think everybody is very proud now of what we’ve accomplished.”

With about 5,400 students today, the College compares to Princeton and Yale, still at the smaller end of the so-called Ivy-plus group of peer institutions, but no longer an outlier. Boyer doesn’t foresee the enrollment getting much larger—in part, he says, because campus housing is inadequate even for the current number.

He believes two new residence halls, including one to replace Pierce Tower, are essential to the future of the College. He’s so strong an advocate that some considered Boyer a suspect in last winter’s Pierce plumbing problems that included water outages and exploding toilets. “I have been accused of actually going over with a monkey wrench and causing it,” he says with a smile. “I want to say: I officially deny that.”

In the late 1990s, there were suggestions that he wanted to take a monkey wrench to the Core curriculum. Proposed changes to the requirements caused a stir, sending Boyer back to the archives to examine past academic restructuring. He wrote his second monograph on the subject, arguing that the Core’s defining characteristic has always been change. “There was no one Core curriculum, there were like 17 different ones,” Boyer says. “And the faculty had many earnest and quite lively fights over them.”

The current generation of students, Boyer recognizes, also have needs beyond the classroom. Rising costs—around $60,000 in tuition and fees to attend UChicago in 2012–13—make return on investment a more important component of higher education, one that the College long ignored. Boyer led the development of the “Chicago Careers In …” series of advising and mentoring programs to address those issues.

They span nine professions, broadly defined—business, arts, health care, education, journalism, law, public and social service, entrepreneurship, and science and technology—connecting undergrads to internships, mentoring, career counseling, and other professional guidance. Kaufman remembers hearing that once, years ago, about 100 students were interested in summer jobs on Wall Street and only three were hired. “That’s impossible,” he says. “You’ve got some of the brightest kids in the world here, so it’s not what they’re doing, it must be what we’re doing.”

That disconnect prompted a call to action from Boyer to the visiting committee. The result was the Chicago Careers in Business program, which begat the eight others that now seem like a long-standing component of the College experience. Boyer insists the practical spirit underlying the programs always has been part of that experience. “In a way, these career advising programs are returning us to deep roots in our own history,” he says. “Because the people who founded this university were ardent believers in what we would call today the liberal arts, but they were also ardently pragmatic and practical people, good Midwestern Baptists, who believed that college education was preparing you for a successful career, and there’s nothing wrong with being successful in your career.”

Kaufman attributes the success of the College in general, and initiatives like the career programs in particular, to a rare executive quality he sees in Boyer: a combination of vision and execution. Many people have one or the other, says Kaufman, CEO of the health-care consulting firm Kaufman Hall, but few possess both. Boyer’s imaginative solutions and managerial acumen have led the College’s growth, all within the academic framework that defines the University. “He said, ‘We can have a College that attracts a broader spectrum of people without dumbing down,’” Kaufman says, “and he’s done that.”

More than that, under Boyer the College has become a downright fashionable undergraduate destination, attracting a record 25,307 applications for the Class of 2016, which entered this fall. Because 47 percent of the admitted applicants chose to enroll, another all-time high for the College, it’s a class of 1,525 students, a one-time increase to accommodate the interest. “We’ve become, in our own strange way,” Boyer says, “a hot college.”

A 66-year-old historian has generated that heat, in his own strange way, retrofitting the University’s founding ideals to perpetuate a College renaissance.

 


On a chilly, gray September morning, Boyer pedaled along 60th Street
, a canvas tote bag tucked into the basket on the back of his bike. Wearing a dark gray suit with his right pant leg tied up, he rode toward the Logan Center to deliver a speech about Edward Levi’s legacy as University provost and president (see “Following Levi’s Lead”).

Dean “from time immemorial,” as law professor Geoffrey R. Stone, JD’71, put it in his introduction that morning, Boyer has been a University student or faculty member since he arrived for graduate school in 1968. Born in Woodlawn, he grew up in the South Side community of Roseland and attended Chicago’s Loyola University as an undergrad.

He met his wife, Barbara, in an English class they took together. They have three children and seven grandchildren now, but Boyer’s critique of a book report she gave almost ended their romance before it began. “She said she would never have anything to do with that John Boyer again,” he says. “As these things go, we ended up dating, and then one thing led to another,” leading them to a life in Hyde Park.

An Army reserve officer who would have gone to Vietnam if not for a graduate-school deferment, Boyer enrolled at the U of C and discovered the Habsburgs. Except to do research and teach in Vienna, where he figures he has spent the equivalent of five years, Boyer has been here ever since, living four minutes from campus via Schwinn.

A $250 tall man’s bike—which he rides “into the ground” and replaces about every five years—is his daily transportation to, and weekend retreat from, the pressures of his job: “Some of my best ideas have come from riding up and down the lakeshore path in deepest November.”

On campus, he often rides by in a blur, a sight at once commonplace and iconic. A silhouette of Boyer on his bike, his trench coat billowing like a cape, would be to the College what a spread-eagled Michael Jordan is to Nike. “If Dean Boyer were trying to brand himself, he could not do it any better than he already has,” Chapin says. “He’s this nice guy, very intellectual, he’s as awkward as the rest of us.”

As playful too. Boyer’s historical perspective hardly makes him hidebound or humorless. He loved it when, as part of a 2011 Scav Hunt challenge to affix huge googly eyes to campus buildings, students also added his meticulously trimmed moustache to the Harper Memorial Library façade.

This past August, the admissions office generated some buzz with a letter to prospective students that included a takeoff on lyrics from the summer hit “Call Me Maybe.” In the Chicago Tribune, Boyer praised the idea as reflecting the UChicago culture of “disdain for dogma and conventionality, a compulsion to play with ideas, and a high admiration for the arts of self-expression.”

Student dinners at Boyer’s house reveal his own sense of self-expression. For show-and-tell, he often brings out a marionette of Emperor Franz Joseph I, a gift from a graduate student who came across it at a Vienna flea market.

And when Boyer, the Martin A. Ryerson distinguished service professor of history, teaches every other year in the Western civilization program in Vienna, he puts on another legendary lecture-cum-performance. It’s not a reenactment of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination that precipitated World War I, but in its careful reconstruction of events, it’s close. His wry delivery enlivens the story.

Boyer stands in front of the car—on display at the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum—in which Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were shot. Seven terrorists, armed with pistols and bombs, waited along Ferdinand’s motorcade route during a state visit to Sarajevo. The would-be assassins also had poison capsules, to be ingested by whoever succeeded in the killing, becoming a martyr for the cause.

Nedeljko Cabrinovic made the first attempt, lobbing what Boyer describes as a Keystone Cops bomb at the car. Ferdinand managed to deflect it—Boyer raises his arm and snaps his wrist, as if swatting a fly—but the explosion seriously injured two aides in the next car.

Cabrinovic swallowed his capsule, which turned out to be inert, then jumped into the river to discover it was just inches deep. It appeared that the assassins had failed.

After deciding to proceed with his state visit, Ferdinand went to see his aides in the hospital. On the way, the car passed a delicatessen near where one of the plotters, Gavrilo Princip, happened to be standing. “A fairly hapless and not very lucky young terrorist,” Princip found himself in what, for him, was a very fortunate position. He did not waste the opportunity. From behind the museum rope, Boyer draws his finger and thumb into a pistol and aims at the car, just as Princip did before firing twice and killing both the archduke and his wife.

The educational value of exploring the world in that way, Boyer insists, cannot be measured. Seeing the gun Princip used and Ferdinand’s bloody uniform—or the ruins outside Oaxaca, or the Forbidden City in Beijing—creates a sense of immediacy that a Cobb Hall lecture cannot.

“He’s almost the newscaster,” says Berzin, who witnessed Boyer’s live report on the assassination during a visiting committee gathering in Vienna last fall. “He’s taking you through, minute by minute, what’s happening. You get to the end and you realize there were so many opportunities for the result that happened not to happen.”

History is like that. What seems inevitable in retrospect is the product of both calculation and accident, the fate of decisions, not the decisions of fate.

At the beginning of his fifth term as dean, Boyer is making decisions beyond the scope of the next five years—at least as far into the future, in fact, as his knowledge stretches back. He wants to secure in perpetuity the programs that have sparked the College’s progress.

That means raising money to endow “Chicago Careers In …,” the Harper fellowships that support the Core faculty, and student programs in the city and overseas. He also wants to build two new residence halls. It’s an ambitious agenda with a sticker price he puts at about $500 million.

Anyone who knows Boyer’s long, productive tenure in the dean’s office believes he could achieve all those priorities. He’s not just a scholar of the University’s past, but among the most prolific architects of its future.

In the introduction to his speech about Edward Levi, Stone called Boyer “the most influential dean in the history of the College.” He’s too soft-spoken to say that about himself, deflecting credit to the “many grandfathers and grandmothers” of the contemporary success, predecessors whose contributions he recounts in detail. It’s hard to argue with that, but at the same time, you don’t have to be a historian to recognize Boyer’s influence.

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