Faculty Stories

A lifelong love of history and service

Dean Boyer reflects on his upbringing and experience at the University of Chicago

Many people know John W. Boyer, the 27-year dean of the University of Chicago College, for his distinctive habits, mannerisms and love of history. He is the tallest of the University’s deans, often spotted bicycling to and from campus in a flat cap and plaid scarf. And in nearly every speech he gives, he can be expected to include a reference to the Habsburg Empire.

Portrait of Dean John W. Boyer
Photo by Matt Marton

A distinguished faculty member and administrator, Dean Boyer is also a pivotal figure in the history of the University of Chicago. In his time as dean, he has played an instrumental role in improving the undergraduate experience by enhancing the College’s career advancement program, international education and residential system. Along the way, he has also pursued his passion for writing and researching history, publishing numerous white papers and four books, including a comprehensive history of the University.

Fourth-year College student Andrew Emerson sat down with Dean Boyer to learn more about the experiences and views that shape his commitment to teaching, service and the University of Chicago.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Andrew Emerson: What memories do you have from your youth?

John W. Boyer: I'm a South Side Chicago White Sox fan. I grew up in an area near Roseland, where I went to a high school run by the local Augustinian order. Afterwards, I received a scholarship to attend Loyola University Chicago, which is a Jesuit school. I still remember the day I got a letter saying that I had earned a scholarship, since I was the first person in my family to go to college. Back then, most of the people I went to high school with ended up working in the steel mills, so it was a big deal to be able to go to college.

My father was a truck driver and electrician and maintenance man – kind of a blue-collar worker. My mother was a secretary in the steel mills. So, I guess you could say that my family was part of the working classes of Chicago.

AE: Right now, you’re dean of the undergraduate College. What was your own undergraduate experience like? What did you get out of it?

JWB: It was different back then. Since it was the Vietnam era, if you didn’t go to college, you were going to take a trip across the Pacific. So, everybody who could go to college went to college.

Loyola had a core curriculum–a lot of theology, philosophy, and Latin. It was a 19th-century version of what we call “general education” at UChicago today.

The Jesuits had a very interesting philosophy of education. Their idea was that everything you do is for the glory of God, even if it’s not religious. So, if you asked them to describe the purpose of a liberal education, they’d say something about the cultivation of critical thinking skills, but they’d also say that you should deploy these skills for the good of mankind. That’s a philosophy I’ve tried to carry over to my time at the College. It’s why I’ve supported creating organizations like the Institute of Politics that involve civic engagement.

My education was excellent, but I was a commuter student and I couldn’t afford to live in a residential hall. So, my college experience was all about getting up, taking the bus, going to school, working part-time, and ROTC. That’s part of the reason why I became a very strong supporter of residential life here at the College–because I’m convinced that the kind of experience I had is not what we want for students here. Residential communities are an essential part of College life, and they shouldn’t be treated as mere add-ons. 

AE: So, what would you say is the purpose of an undergraduate education?

JWB: At the University of Chicago, our particular view has always been that a broad exposure to different fields of knowledge–the humanities, the social sciences, the physical sciences, the mathematical sciences–is a way of cultivating a set of intellectual skills. These skills are empowering for the individual and they enrich one’s life, but they’re also very useful in the professional world.

AE: You personally chose to go into academia after completing your undergraduate studies. Why did you make that decision?

JWB: My family originally wanted me to become a lawyer because they didn’t know what a professor was. Actually, my mother-in-law once asked my wife, “What does a historian do?” She didn’t mean that literally. What she was really asking was how historians earn a living. This isn’t a silly question–if you’re not inside academia, you’re not going to know where historians, sociologists and anthropologists get their paychecks.

I ended up going into the academic world because I loved reading history, and I thought I might be okay as a teacher. But what I really enjoyed was writing and researching history. If I hadn’t decided to become a historian, I probably would’ve become a journalist because I like writing so much.

AE: You were an Army Reserve officer, correct?

JWB: Yes. I was in the ROTC from 1968 to 1980. I was commissioned as a lieutenant, and I ended up being promoted to captain before I retired. It was a valuable time. I learned a lot of good skills related to small-group leadership.

AE: Regarding your career at the University, you still teach on a regular basis. What attracts you to teaching, and why undergraduates in particular?

JWB: Most of my teaching has been in the Civilization studies component of the Core curriculum. I started teaching as a grad student in 1973.

During my first quarter of teaching, I ended up having to teach Greek and Roman history to two sections of 20 students. My specialty is German history, so I had to go to the library and give myself a crash course in Greek and Roman history. I think I took maybe 200 books out of the library just to get caught up.

It was a very good experience, and I’ve been teaching ever since. I found that it broadened my horizons. I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of working on these fields of study that weren’t really relevant to my own.

I also really enjoyed working with the students. They were very smart back in the day, and I’d say they’re even smarter now. It’s always interesting to work with them because I know they’ll engage with the ideas and put forward good arguments. It wasn’t like you were making them do homework that they didn’t want to do.

AE: Besides teaching, you’ve also been the dean of the College for 26 years. How would you explain your job as dean to a first-year who doesn’t know you?

JWB: When President [Hanna] Gray originally offered me the job I, actually, asked the same question. The way she explained it was that the dean of the College is like being the president of a small liberal arts college. I’m responsible for academic affairs and for helping the faculty plan and execute the curriculum. But I also have to do many things related to fundraising, philanthropy, public communications, alumni relations, student-life, and housing. I like to say that it’s like being the mayor of a small town–you get up in the morning, and you have no idea what’s going to happen. At a place with 7,000 people, something big is going to happen every day, whether good or bad. You have no idea–but it’s always fun.

AE: Turning to a more personal question here. Could you tell us something that most people don’t know about you?

JWB: Well, this might sound kind of sentimental, but the luckiest day of my life was the day in my freshman year of college when I met a fellow student named Barbara Juskevich. We married four years later, and now we’ve been together for 51 years.

Also, if you asked me what I’m most proud of, I’d say it’s the success of my three children and nine grandchildren. I love writing books, but nothing I’ve written has ever made me feel as fulfilled as I do when I’m with my family.

AE: What’s the biggest single thing that has happened to the College in the past 20 years?

JWB: The college is now twice as big as it was 25 years ago, with an enhanced career services offering, study abroad program, residential system, and more. We’ve maintained the integrity of the Core and the rigor of the academic enterprise, but all of the metrics–admissions yield, graduation statistics, alumni support–have gone way up.

AE: What do you think makes the University of Chicago unique?

JWB:  There’s still this kind of in-your-face intellectualism. We expect people to both have ideas and be able to defend them. We say a lot about our commitment to academic freedom, but you can’t really debate ideas if you don’t have ideas to debate, so we have to recruit students who are creative thinkers and who can come up with controversial and original ideas.

The other thing that I’ve always loved about this place is the Core. It’s like a socialization process – you take people from all different kinds of backgrounds and put them together, and at the end of nine months you’ve got what one of my colleagues likes to call “UChicago people.” You don’t find them on the street on opening day in September; you have to develop them.