A phoenix risen: influential Chicago sets pace and style

October 21, 2005

The motto of the University of Chicago is Crescat scientia; vita excolatur : "Let knowledge grow from more to more, and so be human life enriched." The cerebral private university lives up to this maxim by applying its scholarly work, especially in the social sciences, to real-world issues.

Its economics department is so influential that an entire realm of economics is known as the Chicago School. In sociology, the Chicago School refers to the university's pioneering of the field of urban studies. In fact, Chicago is where the academic study of sociology began.

Despite the nagging problem of an endowment only half the size of even the smallest of its counterpart schools, the social sciences division, housed in an English gothic building, is "the finest collection of social sciences departments in the world", says John Mark Hansen, its dean.

The world is where the university's founders, including the oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, got their inspiration. Chicago, which was modelled after German-style graduate research universities, was designed partly to resemble Oxford and Cambridge universities when it was built only two decades after the devastating Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (its mascot is the phoenix).

Today, only Cambridge exceeds it in the number of Nobel prizewinners on the faculty (78). There have also been three Pulitzer prizewinners, a two-time winner of the Booker Prize, two recipients of the National Humanities Award and 13 recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship, known as the "genius grant".

Scholars and researchers who have been affiliated with the university include the sociologist Allan Bloom, economists Milton Friedman and Ronald Coase and political philosopher Leo Strauss. Its alumni include former US Attorney-General John Ashcroft, director Mike Nichols, composer Philip Glass, actor Edward Asner and novelists Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth. Only four applicants in ten are admitted.

So intellectually intense is the university that it finds itself fending off a reputation for humourlessness. It is "Where Fun Comes to Die", according to a popular T-shirt slogan - especially for the 4,500 undergraduates, who, unusually for a US university, are a minority compared with the 9,300 graduate and continuing education students. The university is trying to address this as part of a $2 billion (£1.4 billion) fundraising campaign to pay for an ambitious building plan, which includes new dormitories and an athletic facility designed by the architect Cesar Pelli.

As in economics and sociology (the university is home to the American Journal of Sociology ), Chicago is the definitive authority in American English usage. The University of Chicago Press - the largest university publisher in the US - publishes the influential Chicago Manual of Style .

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