Academia's gray lady gets modern makeover

The University of Chicago is what you might call the dowdy old dame of American education. But for most people here, that's just fine.

They're proud of the gray Gothic buildings and the pasty faces of hard-working students. They're proud of the school's historic disdain for sports - and of U. of C. President Robert Maynard Hutchins, who once remarked, "Whenever I feel the urge to exercise, I lie down until it goes away."

After all, by devoting itself to "the life of the mind," Chicago has attracted or produced 70 Nobel Prize- winners and pumped out 34 Rhodes scholars, including three this year.

Now, however, the administration is adding a splash of color. But its plans have some alumni, faculty, and even students utterly red-faced.

Administrators plan to add a $35 million athletic facility, with an Olympic-size pool. They've started study-abroad programs and are presiding over a downsizing of the tough core curriculum. Yet the changes here are merely a sign of the higher-education times. In today's consumer-is-king culture, students expect amenities: dorms wired for the Internet, gourmet food, spa-like gyms, and a place to party - all while getting a top-notch degree.

"Everyone's focusing on the quality of the undergraduate experience," affirms Margaret Miller, president of the American Association for Higher Education in Washington. "That's fine as long as kids are still learning as much as they can."

Efforts to buck this trend are sometimes ridiculed: At Duke University in Durham, N.C., moves to curb partying and boost academics have spawned student rebellion. T-shirts proclaim, "You can lead me to college, but you can't force me to think."

Here in Chicago, another force driving the change is, not surprisingly, money.

The university has an endowment of $2.3 billion. But administrators say the need for long-term stability demands change.

One way to boost the bottom line is to bring in undergraduates, who tend to be more profitable than graduate students - and who swell the ranks of donating alumni down the road. So the school plans to increase undergrad numbers from about 3,800 to 4,500 students over 10 years.

"Fundamentally, it is about having enough robustness in our economy to provide the researchers' salaries and build labs that we need to compete with Harvard, Yale, and the others," says Provost Geoffrey Stone, who, together with President Hugo Sonnenschein, has led many of the changes.

But critics say the administration's "Ivy envy" is fueling talk of financial instability, and that the school should stick to things that make it unique - like its famously tiny undergraduate classes, which are often taught by full professors, not graduate assistants, as at many other schools.

"The whole point of a Chicago education is to have a professor who, when he talks about Shakespeare, can discuss the philosophical, sociological, and other aspects of the text," says Robert Stone, an alum who's started a campaign against the changes.

He worries that as more undergrads arrive, class size will jump and the quality of teaching will drop. The school says it plans to hire more faculty. But so far, hundreds of alumni have joined Mr. Stone in protest - and pledged $106,000 to a fund that won't be given until the "crisis" passes.

Recent faculty-approved changes have cut the core curriculum - a set of required classes in which students mostly read original texts - from 21 to 18 courses. That still means almost two years of required classes.

Most students seem to like the changes, which they say preserve the school's identity. "Walking around campus, you know everyone you pass has read Hegel, Marx, and Aristotle," says Michael Freeman, a political science graduate student who also attended as an undergrad. "That's something unique about Chicago."

There are also hints the administration is encouraging students to have more balance - and more fun. There's the coming athletic facility. There are the new student clubs. There's the renovated student center.

But most here think learning is fun - that's why they came.

"There's a different kind of fun here," says Elizabeth Horin, a second-year student focusing on Russian civilization and psychology. "Our idea of fun is an intellectual conversation at 3 in the morning."

OTHERS see a need for more varied activities - if only to improve their academic endurance. "Balance is better," says Mr. Freeman. "I know my energy levels go up when I actually get out and play basketball or something."

(Yes, the school does have two gyms, although the main library, symbolically, stands where the old football stadium used to. It was underneath that stadium, in the squash courts, that Enrico Fermi built the world's first nuclear reactor.)

Finally, there's the new marketing strategy - one that positions the school as a more hip place to be. Critics point to a new brochure, which beckons with student quotes such as: "A person should learn to think because there's money in it." Where is the dignity in pitches like these, they ask.

But Provost Stone also points to the "warning" posted on the front of the brochure. It's evidence, he says, that Chicago is - and always will be - centered on "the life of the mind."

"Study at this university," the mock warning reads, "is known to cause thinking, occasionally deep thinking. Typical side effects include mild temporary anxiety followed by long-term satisfaction."

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