John W. Boyer’s transformative legacy at UChicago

How UChicago’s longest-tenured dean strengthened the College over three decades of leadership

Over the past three decades, the College of the University of Chicago has been transformed by almost any measure.

Annual undergraduate enrollment has doubled, the UChicago education is more accessible to a wider range of students, the distinctive Core curriculum was strengthened and opportunities to study abroad were expanded – all of which have made the College one of the most sought-after undergraduate experiences in the country.

At the center of all that change has been one constant: John W. Boyer, who has provided remarkable leadership as dean of the College for an unprecedented 31 years. 

Boyer on his bike
Boyer on his bike (Photo by Jenny Fu)

In that time, he has become a beloved figure among students and a Chicago institution. Socks, t-shirts, hats, LEGO sets and banners have borne his likeness over the years. Walk around campus or its surrounding neighborhoods and you’re likely to see the man himself, gliding on two wheels through Hyde Park. He has had a pronounced impact on the College, which he knows better than anyone as a leading historian of the University.

This academic quarter is his last as dean, as Boyer will transition into a new role as senior adviser to the President this summer, ushering in a new era for the College. He leaves behind a legacy of achievement that has strengthened the College in every way while remaining true to the enduring values upon which the University was founded.

“The College is a common project that brings the whole of the University of Chicago together,” said University President Paul Alivisatos. “Dean Boyer fostered a spirit of experimentation and collaboration in the College, while championing and renewing our commitment to our enduring founding principles and distinctive style. Thanks to his leadership, today's graduates and those of tomorrow will extend our legacy of educating minds and thinkers that shape our world."

The College is, as it was in 1992, a place that brings together exceptionally bright students and faculty under a strong culture of learning and disciplined work. 

“It is an extraordinary accomplishment to have increased enrollment in the College while investing in innovative programming and continuing our dedication to academic rigor,” said University Provost Katherine Baicker. “There are so many remarkable people coming to the University every year as a result of the doors that Dean Boyer helped open.”

Boyer was born and raised on Chicago’s South Side, the son of a secretary and an electrician. His early life in a close-knit, blue-collar family ignited a passion in him to provide opportunities for others. 

He graduated from nearby Loyola University in 1968 before receiving his master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1969. Boyer stayed at the University to pursue his Ph.D., which he earned in 1975 – the same year he became a faculty member in the Department of History.

One of the world’s leading scholars of the Habsburg Empire, as well, Boyer was named the Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of History in 1996. He was appointed dean of the College in 1992 and has served for six terms – the most of a College dean in University history.

Boyer’s profound impact on the College can be underscored through seven major initiatives that enhanced the distinction of the College over his 31 years of leadership.

A re-imagined Core curriculum

One of Boyer’s early projects as dean was to reform the College’s unique Core curriculum to meet the needs of modern undergraduate students. 

First adopted in 1931, the Core was originally structured to synthesize broad fields of knowledge and offer an interdisciplinary framework of general education for first- and second-year students in the College, but underwent many changes over the decades, including the creation of an all-general-education curriculum in 1942 and, in the 1960s, curricula that varied by collegiate division. In 1984 the faculty instituted a Core requirement of 21 courses that accounted for half of the credits needed to graduate.

Under the direction of then-University President Hugo Sonnenschein in the mid-1990s, the College was tasked with improving the quality of its liberal education and student life in order to attract more applicants and grow the student body. This included a systematic review of the Core, led by Boyer.

Taking student testimonials, faculty debates, committee discussions and the history of the Core into account over years of deliberations, the College Council ratified a plan in March 1998, devised by Boyer and the Curriculum Committee, that reduced the size of the Core by several courses. 

The plan, which reflected the goals of the Core’s first iteration, allowed students to complete their Core requirements in their first two years of study, freeing them up to pursue advanced courses in departments and professional schools across the University as third- and fourth-year students, and also to participate in the College’s study abroad programs.

Making structural changes to the academic requirements of the College was no easy feat, but ultimately paved the way for the large, thriving undergraduate community that now stands at the center of UChicago’s institutional culture.

Increased access to higher education

Since its founding, the University of Chicago has striven to provide education to students from all backgrounds. William Rainey Harper, the University’s first president, famously created tuition scholarships for students from local high schools.

To further this mission and expand access to higher education for students regardless of means, Boyer helped lead a fundraising campaign in the mid-2000s that would lead to the creation of the Odyssey Scholarship Program, in partnership with an anonymous donor called Homer, whose transformational gift launched the program.

The program works to reduce barriers to higher education for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds through generous ongoing gifts from College alumni, family and friends. Odyssey scholarships provide need-blind, loan-free education to all students who come to the College with demonstrated financial need. 

“As the first of my family to attend college, I faced some of the challenges that first-generation students encounter,” Boyer said in 2022. “It is far more complicated today. Odyssey tackles the complex social and economic obstacles to achievement through a coordinated system of support, integrating college readiness, admissions, financial aid and career development initiatives.”

Boyer-led access initiatives have played a major role in the growth of the College. Enrollment in 1992 was 3,425 students, compared to 7,512 degree-seeking undergraduates today. 

To date, Odyssey Scholarships have supported more than 5,900 students – roughly 20% of students in any given class are supported by the Odyssey program. Of the Odyssey Scholars in the class of 2026, 50% are the first in their families to attend college.

“UChicago has always been committed to making higher education accessible, and the Odyssey Program is a continuation of that legacy,” said Jim Nondorf, vice president for enrollment and student advancement and dean of College admissions and financial aid. “By working to remove these traditional barriers to entry through Odyssey and other access programs, we have been able to cultivate a diverse campus where students from all backgrounds can flourish and feel at home.” 

Career Advancement and the Metcalf Program

One central theme of the discussions surrounding changes to the Core in the 1990s was the need to expand career resources for students in the College.

Responding directly to alumni feedback from the 1996 report, Boyer began laying the groundwork for a robust program dedicated to career planning and advising. Over 15 years, UChicago developed one of the most ambitious programs in the country, now known as the Office of Career Advancement, engaging with alumni across multiple industries to create professional pathways for students. 

To that end, Boyer worked with Byron D. Trott, AB’81, MBA’82 – now a University trustee – to establish a new internship program. Trott was one of several lead donors whose vision and investment created the Jeff Metcalf Internship Program. Named in honor of former Athletic Director and Chicago Booth Dean of Students Jeff Metcalf, the program honors his efforts to help UChicago students find meaningful work experiences – and today provides paid internships for more than 4,200 students each year, including guaranteed paid internships for all first-year Odyssey students.

Over the years, a system of support for career advancement programs has taken shape which draws inspiration from UChicago's unique institutional culture, history and structure. These investments have paid off – 98% of College graduates in the Class of 2022 received offers for employment, graduate school and other opportunities.

“Today, many argue that there is an inherent tension between a liberal arts education and career preparation,” said Boyer in 2022. “On the contrary, we have found that our strong career programs contribute powerfully to the academic experience of our students. In fact, the best way to demonstrate the power of the liberal arts is to have students achieve professional success using the analytical and creative skills they gain in our academic programs.”

International education

Before Boyer took over as dean, the University of Chicago sent no more than 40 students abroad annually through partner and exchange programs. 

Five years into his tenure, he established the Civilization Abroad program, engaging UChicago faculty across all departments to lead intensive programs abroad that integrate each site with the College’s rigorous academic curriculum. 

Today, students can choose from 69 study abroad programs in 30 cities in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Through these programs, students are granted special access to museums, cultural exhibits, local experts and most importantly, the opportunity to fulfill their academic requirements in unique, immersive settings. 

Sixty percent of UChicago students will study abroad at least once. Nearly 1,000 students studied abroad during the 2022-23 school year. 

To meet this increased demand, in early 2019 the University announced it would expand its global presence with the construction of a new Center in Paris. The new facility, scheduled to open in 2024, is nearly triple the size of UChicago’s current center, which opened in 2003. It will remain the University’s research and teaching hub in Europe, where students and faculty can conduct research and convene.

Honoring Boyer’s impact on UChicago’s culture of global engagement, alumni and parents of the College came together to name the new Center the University of Chicago John W. Boyer Center in Paris. 

“The expansion of the Center in Paris will benefit faculty, students, alumni and partners in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East for generations to come,” said Boyer at an event this spring, during which the Center’s name was revealed. “It will be a model for what a major American research university can contribute in Europe, becoming a prominent voice of public policy, scholarly achievement and cultural creativity in Paris and beyond.”

“Enhancing the physical capacity of the Center in Paris presents a great opportunity to deepen and enrich the University’s scholarly connections across France, Europe, and beyond,” added President Alivisatos at the naming announcement. “Throughout his tenure, Dean Boyer championed the expansion of the University’s global reach. As a tribute to the impact of his endeavors, it is only fitting that this center will now bear his name.”

Residence life 

In 1996, a faculty committee report on campus culture shared survey findings that indicated a lack of a sense of belonging among the student body. The findings underscored a need to create a more supportive, cohesive campus environment.

In response to these findings, the University invested heavily in a host of new facilities, including the student center in the Reynolds Club and the Ratner Athletic Center.

Boyer and the College set a goal of housing at least 70% of the student body in dorms closer to the core of campus, for their part. This led to the construction of Palevsky Residential Commons, Renee Granville-Grossman East and West, Campus North Residential Commons and Woodlawn Residential Commons. The four new residence halls increased on-campus capacity by 97.5%. 

These new dorms were to serve not just as additional living spaces, but as sites for the stimulating intellectual conversations that have taken place in Hyde Park since the founding of the University. Their construction has boosted engagement on campus, helped students deepen social ties and friendships, and in turn, fostered alumni affinity for the College. 

“The idea was not to change or weaken the campus culture but to surround and infuse it with a much more student-friendly set of interventions and institutions on the assumption that what would be most distinctive about Chicago graduates in the future would be their genuine intellectualism, their love of the University and its community, and their commitment to their own and their fellow students personal and professional success during and after college,” Boyer wrote in his book, “University of Chicago: A History.” 

STEM & Arts expansions

Over the last 50 years, many of the most popular degree tracks in the College have been within the social sciences, namely economics, political science and public policy. 

While that has remained the case throughout Boyer’s tenure, he has also helped lead a renewed effort to expand opportunities in the fields of natural and mathematical sciences, pairing strategic investments with the interests of students in the College.

These investments include commitments to both faculty and undergraduate research in partnership with the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, the College’s computer and data science programs and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., among others. 

Socks, LEGOs and more bear Dean Boyer’s patented bike-riding logo.
Socks, LEGOs and more bear Dean Boyer’s patented bike-riding logo. (Photo by John Zich)

Since 2000, degree options in STEM programs have grown dramatically, with 15 majors and 12 minors offered as of this school year. In terms of declared majors, the Physical and Biological Sciences Divisions now claim three of the five largest programs in the College and five of the largest 10. 

Boyer has helped facilitate the College’s growth in STEM while simultaneously working to cultivate a strong arts culture on campus. The last decade has seen a surge of arts participation among undergraduate students, fostered by investments in physical spaces and programs. 

Expanding opportunities for students to augment their liberal arts education with creative pursuits has been a vital step to Boyer’s re-imagination of the College. The Logan Center, constructed in 2012 to further elevate the arts on campus, Court Theatre and Smart Museum have all seen increased student engagement during his tenure as Dean. 

The Office of Career Advancement’s Careers in Arts, Culture and Entertainment program, established during the revamping of UChicago’s career resources, connects students to Metcalf internships and professional endeavors in the arts, as well. 

Chicago as a classroom

In 2008, the Chicago Studies program was founded under Boyer’s leadership, with the aim of educating students in both urban scholarship and citizenry and building reciprocal, respectful collaborations between the College and the city. 

Fifteen years later, it provides research mentorships, year-round outdoor excursions and events that help students learn from the city in which they live. 

One such excursion is the South Side History Bike Tour, a 25-mile ride led by Boyer and Prof. John Mark Hansen each fall and spring for over 20 years. The tour takes riders on deep dives into the stories of key figures and significant places across the South Side. The tour is free and open to students (who often show up in droves bright and early on these Saturday mornings), faculty and staff.

“Chicago is not just a host, in this context. It has become a partner in sharpening your insights about the world,” Boyer said in 2021. “But it’s also important to see that you’re giving back, producing scholarship that increases our understanding of the city. Chicago Studies offers students in the College a fundamental point of engagement so that they might form reciprocal relationships with the city.”

At the curricular level, Chicago Studies develops several Chicago-centric courses that build local engagements into their syllabi throughout the school year. The program also enrolls 20 students per year in a highly competitive Chicago Studies Quarter, a cohesive suite of three courses that combine classroom instruction and engagements with individuals and diverse communities across the city.

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While no one change or no one person is responsible for the College’s transformation, Boyer’s contributions will no doubt hold an important place in UChicago history. 

He remains confident of the College’s ability to continue the path forward as a preeminent liberal arts college within a respected global research university.

“This is not a transformation that ends with me,” said Boyer. “It begins with you.”