The University of Chicago hit two mile-markers in its decade-long transformation this week. The first, generally celebrated by students, alumni, and their parents, is a new high-water mark in the school's US News & World Report ranking. The University now shares the fourth spot with Columbia, rising from 12 a few years ago and leapfrogging Stanford, Penn, and MIT, among others.
The second is a reduction in the graduation requirements. Starting next quarter, graduates will not have to pass a swimming test and either pass a fitness test or take three PE classes to graduate. In an email to students, the Dean of the College cited a rationale steeped in the lingo of a marketing consultant:
The change in the College physical education requirement occurs in the context of a larger decision by the University to reimagine and expand our fitness and athletics programs to meet growing demand and the diverse needs of our community.
These may seem like unrelated incidents, but they reflect a massive paradigm shift in the way the University sees itself. Since it wants donations from trustees who prize vacuous but still prestigious measures of schooling excellence like the US News rankings, the University has goaded itself into playing the rankings game.
US News's calculations consider prospective students' view of the institution as measured by the admissions rate. But should we determine a university's quality based on the preferences of seventeen year olds? The university is ultimately supposed to shape its young and not be shaped by its young. It is supposed to tell the naïve what is worth studying and what it takes to be a human being and a citizen of good character.
The aim of increasing its ranking and pleasing high-schoolers also inspired the University to pare down its Common Core in the mid-Nineties. Though the Core still is large enough so that the empiricist studies ethics and the ethicist empirics, the University threw out the very notion behind the Core: a university only completes its duty if it teaches its students several things.
The Core now consists of distribution requirements that flatter young people's instinct to set their own course. The humanities requirement can be fulfilled by what is essentially an introductory linguistics class, the social science requirement by an introduction to psychology class. No one needs to read the classics of either field. Indeed, students must consciously choose the courses which are watered-down relics of the traditional path
Swimming and fitness requirements are, like a set Core curriculum, decidedly uncool and anachronistic. The real argument for the requirements--that human excellence is excellence in mind and body--doesn't stand a chance when pitted against teenagers who feel that such requirements are onerous or just plain weird.
This week the University got its best evidence yet that its strategy is working. Seventeen year olds like what the University offers and increasingly want to spend a few years in Hyde Park. What they do there, though, is increasingly anyone's guess. Ten years after the University of Chicago made it possible to hold its bachelors degree without ever examining a page of either Plato or Shakespeare, it now makes it possible to hold its bachelors degree without ever exerting a muscle. Decline is a choice, and the University of Chicago has made its choice.