In the summer of 1996 John W. Boyer, AM'69, PhD'75, dean of the College, began what he thought would be a small summer research project, never imagining that his efforts would span nearly two decades and result in a history of the University of Chicago. He spent the summer investigating the university’s archives, piecing together the story of the College, its evolving size and demographics, and its ties to the wider university. Boyer presented his findings to the faculty that autumn—and even those who opposed the growth of the College were grateful for the context the report provided.

It was never intended as anything more than a one-time endeavor. But the following year, with the start of a conversation about revising the College's Core curriculum, Boyer returned to the archives. In the years that followed, he released seventeen monographs on the institution's history. These monographs were, he explains, an exercise in "pragmatic history, an attempt to shed some light on the history of this fascinating place, from a scholar's perspective."

Boyer's research revealed the ebb and flow of recurring themes in the university’s history: debates around student life and the rigor of the undergraduate experience, the challenges of maintaining financial stability, and efforts to engage with the surrounding community and the city. His book also explores presidential leadership. Among the university's leaders one figure stands out: "If you were to ask me who is the most fascinating character in the book, it's clearly [Robert Maynard] Hutchins," Boyer says.

In his twenty-year tenure as dean, Boyer has developed an intimate perspective on the history he wrote. Despite his personal stake in the issues, "one has to be as objective as possible," Boyer explains. "To write the history, one has to stand on the outside." Yet Boyer also believes his closeness to the subject affords certain advantages. "I think the best history is a history that's passionate."

By Susie Allen (excerpt). Read the full story with more videos.