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A Lost Opportunity in American Education? The Proposal to Merge the University of Chicago and Northwestern University

Sarah V. Barnes
American Journal of Education
Vol. 107, No. 4 (Aug., 1999), pp. 289-320
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1085711
Page Count: 32
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A Lost Opportunity in American Education? The Proposal to Merge the University of Chicago and Northwestern University
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Abstract

In 1933, Robert Maynard Hutchins, the charismatic and controversial president of the University of Chicago, proposed a merger between his institution and its neighbor to the north, Northwestern University, whose president, Walter Dill Scott, enthusiastically embraced the plan. While the merger itself never became a reality, the educational and institutional issues exposed in the course of the debate surrounding the proposal have proven to be more intransient. On the educational side, these included questions about the structure, content, and purpose of undergraduate education; the relationship between undergraduate, graduate, and professional study; the relationship between teaching and research; and the philosophy behind university-based professional training, in terms of an emphasis on theory versus practice. On the institutional side, issues raised by the merger included the role of students, faculty, and alumni in determining institutional policy and mission; the characteristics of effective administrative leadership; the function of physical location in creating and sustaining institutional identity; the nature of the urban university's relationship to the city; and finally, the consequences of institutional competition at both the local and national level. During the interwar period, a critical phase in the history of American higher education, these issues were among those at the core of an ongoing attempt to define the modern university. As the article demonstrates, the two universities and their presidents embodied very different philosophies of higher education, a contrast vividly revealed by the attempt to combine them. In retrospect, the circumstances surrounding the failed merger reveal a great deal about the range of possibilities open to universities during a particularly significant period in the history of higher education in the United States, when the competing demands of practical service to a democratic society versus the essentially elitist pursuit of truth appeared particularly compelling. The tensions certainly have yet to be resolved; indeed, they may be essentially irreconcilable, suggesting that the tensions themselves are fundamental to the modern idea of a university in America.

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