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Today’s Question:
Dec. 11, 2008

Dear Cecil:

Many sources, including Wikipedia and the Web site of the University of Chicago’s admissions department, describe the school as having been founded by John D. Rockefeller in 1890. I challenge the university to provide legal evidence that Rockefeller founded it rather than simply giving it a substantial endowment. It is problematic to call funders or donors founders, because the people who developed the idea are not receiving adequate recognition. If the donation or endowment by Rockefeller came with an agreement that Rockefeller would be called founder, then it is understandable that he is so labeled. Still, I would prefer that the University of Chicago's founders be described as "people such as William Rainey Harper, John Rockefeller providing a significant endowment, the Baptist Education Society, Stephen A. Douglas founding an earlier university that went bankrupt in the 1880s and many others."

James T. Struck, BA, BS, AA, CNA, MLIS
Rogers Park

Dear James:

You probably remember three years ago when the University of Chicago organized a campaign to stuff the ballot box so it would be named one of the “seven wonders of Chicago” in a poll conducted by the Tribune. (The plot worked; the university wound up as wonder number six.) So when your letter came in we thought: Whoa, here’s a chance to rip the lid off this sleazy enterprise once and for all. However, having inquired, I’m sorry to say the big exposé will have to wait.

Here are the facts:

1. Wikipedia indeed states that the University of Chicago was “founded by the oil magnate John D. Rockefeller.” This proves nothing. Anybody can add anything to a Wikipedia article. At 2.6 million English-language articles, Wikipedia is assuredly the most impressive piece of participatory scholarship yet produced. The fact remains that, from the standpoint of authoritativeness, a Wikipedia article merely represents the opinion of whoever got to it last. 

2. The “About the University” page on the U. of C.’s Web site has a “basic facts” sidebar containing the line “Founder: John D. Rockefeller,” which I gather is what you’re all worked up about. As you say, this claim in some respects is a stretch. However, the “History of the University” page on the same site says the University of Chicago was founded “by the American Baptist Education Society and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller,” a formulation that ought to please any reasonable person, and possibly even you.

3. The present University of Chicago, which was founded in 1890, is the second institution of that name, the first having been established pursuant to an 1856 land grant by U.S. senator Stephen A. Douglas, of Lincoln-Douglas debates fame. The timing wasn’t as propitious as it might have been. In a relatively brief span of time, U. of C. #1 had to endure the financial panic of 1857, the Civil War, the Great Fire of 1871, the panic of 1873, and a second big fire in 1874. However, it’s safe to say the university’s real problem was gross undercapitalization. After sputtering along for 30 years, the institution folded in 1886. From this we deduce the following:

Eq.1. Smart people + good intentions + no money = squat.

4. U. of C. #1 had been founded by Baptists, evidently more of a force in Chicago in the nineteenth century than today. The Baptists were determined to try again, but equally determined not to make the same mistake twice. By happy coincidence, John D. Rockefeller was (a) a Baptist, and (b) the richest man in the world, or close to it. Rockefeller’s coreligionists had the obvious thought. Around this time the American Baptist Education Society was formed, with the aim of educating not merely American Baptists but Christians generally i.e., practically everyone in America at that point (from the start the University of Chicago has admitted students of both sexes without regard to religious affiliation). The society determined that the principal Baptist university ought to be in Chicago rather than New York or Washington, D.C., which also harbored ambitions on this score, and Rockefeller agreed to pony up a good chunk of the cash. After some haggling he settled on a gift of $600,000, with subsequent donations by others bringing the total to a little more than $1 million. In other words, one of the world’s great universities was launched with a sum that in Hyde Park today would buy you a decent-sized house.

5. Rockefeller contributed another $2 million before the University of Chicago opened its doors in 1892, for a total of $2.6 million out of about $4 million raised to that point. In October of that year the university’s trustees declared, “in recognition of the fact that the University owes its existence and its endowments to Mr. Rockefeller, the words ‘Founded by John D. Rockefeller’ [shall] be printed on all official publications and letterheads under the name of the University and be put upon the seal.” Rockefeller’s generosity to the university continued; during its first ten years he contributed $35 million and the Rockefeller Foundation has provided many additional millions since. The University of Chicago remains a thriving concern today, having produced 82 Nobel prize winners, awarded degrees to 143,000 students, produced numerous “Chicago schools” of this and that, and on the whole, although you may get an argument about the details, contributed materially to the betterment of humanity. We summarize thus:

Eq. 2. Smart people + good intentions + buckets of cash = first-class institution of higher learning.

Comparing equations 1 and 2 leads us to an inescapable conclusion. To give credit where it’s due, the American Baptist Education Society and its members were undeniably the driving force behind the university’s establishment, while William Rainey Harper, the first president, was principally responsible for assembling the distinguished faculty and guiding the university through its early years. John D. Rockefeller, so far as can be determined, contributed no educational vision, hired no professors, and laid no brick upon a brick. However, he did put up the bulk of the money, which clearly was why the second U. of C. escaped the first one's fate, so he gets to be called the founder. Is this unfair? Much in life is unfair. But tell you what. When I start the University of East Illinois Street, if you kick in $35 million, I’ll let you be founder of that. 

Cecil Adams


Goodspeed, Thomas Wakefield, A History of the University of Chicago, 1916:

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