University of Chicago

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Mr. Rockefeller's University--Great School, for a Tomb

Apr 8, 2000 (Updated Aug 7, 2004)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Superlative education, if you look around

Cons:Tough neighborhood, weak social life. PC to a fault

The Bottom Line: A great university, sagging rather heavily under political correctness, that opens many doors and will even educate you if you take the right classes.


The University of Chicago is one of the world's foremost institutions of higher learning. You can receive an unparalleled undergraduate education here, if you are willing to make some trade-offs--like having a normal social life.

Caveat: I did not go to college at Chicago but was an econ Ph.D. student there in the 80's and received my MBA from the business school in the mid-90's.

The U of C lies on Chicago's South Side in the fashionable and extremely liberal professional and academic neighborhood of Hyde Park, a dense urban area of expensive brownstones and less expensive apartment buildings. It's about eight miles due south of Chicago's downtown and maybe a mile from the lake and the world-famous Museum of Science and Industry.

Don't even THINK of parking around here--between the students and faculty and the employees at the U of C hospital complex, parking spaces are at a premium. The neighborhood is an oasis in what is a pretty tough surrounding area and, although the area is well-patrolled, crime is a problem. (Non-political correctness alert: there are some REAL tough black neighborhoods in the vicinity. I know what I'm talking about.) It's not as bad as Penn, but it isn't good. Be careful at night. I'm a pretty big guy and I'VE been worried when walking to my car.

The campus environs, given its urban setting, are relatively small but attractive. It was intentionally based on either Cambridge or Oxford (Cambridge, I think) so the architecture is faux Gothic, lots of gargoyles and other cool stuff lying around in unusual and unexpected places. If you drive east on the Midway all of a sudden the university comes up on your left and it's pretty impressive. Most of the buildings are connected into two large quads and everything is within walking distance.

If you go to college here, you'll spend a lot of time in the two main study areas, the Regenstein (main) library and the Harper reading room. Regenstein is huge with an excellent collection but rather sterile, a late 60's architectural mess that looks a lot like the concrete monstrosity on Northwestern's campus. Harper is a majestic cathedral ceiling reading room and is one of my favorite places on campus, along with Rockefeller Chapel and the bar in the basement of Ida Noyes Hall. The athletic facilities are OK but nothing to write home about.

Despite its world-renowned reputation for its graduate program (which often means the undergrads get short shrift), Chicago does an excellent job of educating its undergraduates. Indeed, you will receive an unmatched education here if you look around. Unlike most places, Chicago pays more than lip service to giving its students a liberal arts education and requires some core courses in the humanities, foreign languages and sciences. Even the National Review concedes that U of C is one of the few major U.S. schools that require this of its students. Admittedly, this core curriculum has recently been under fire for being dumbed down, but it's still more than you will get at most places. I got my BA from Northwestern, which makes a big deal about its supposedly extensive undergraduate requirements. NU isn't in the ballpark with Chicago when it comes to making its students get exposed to some of the Great Books, as unfashionable as that might be.

The students here are quite bright, some shockingly so. (I supervised a number of new U of C graduates who were paralegals for me when I was a young associate; they were a very sharp lot indeed.) Although you have goodly share of preprofessional types, Chicago turns out a LOT of graduates who will become academics. The course work is rigorous and challenging. As I said, I didn't go to college here but my study of the required reading lists in areas like English lit, history, econ and poli sci shows that the required readings are extensive and a little more demanding than my work at NU; major public schools like Illinois and Indiana aren't in the same league.

Despite its intimidating reputation, U of C remains a second or third choice for a lot of students and they are conscious of that fact. You get a lot of Harvard, Amherst and Stanford rejects here, and they make for a pretty impressive lot. These kids are smart, hard-working, and ambitious. The atmosphere is genuinely intellectual. You don't have the distractions that you get on a Big Ten campus here (more later).

Students come from all across the country and from broad economic strata, although it tends to be upper-middle class. Students tend to be liberal, some stridently so. There are complaints about the "apartheid" atmosphere of the school, which says more about the flat-earth-society perspective of some students than the way the crime problem is dealt with. Someone is always whining about some left-wing cause. Forget about the school newspaper. Black clothes are popular here, along with the usual assortment of body-piercing. It often looks like someone is sponsoring a contest with a prize for the student in the most-unflattering attire. It's the first school I've ever been at where the graduate women are better looking than the undergrads. The graduate men, too, for that matter.

U of C reeks with political correctness. The school is bothered--nay, almost crippled,in some departments--by the same Marxist/feminist/oppressed studies du jour claptrap that has contaminated the rest of our major universities. Avoid that garbage. Those people don't know any history and they're wrong. Pick your classes carefully. You can find some common sense in the economics department. Sciences are very strong. You'll have a well-disciplined, well-trained mind when you get out of here, if you're choosy.

Social life: there isn't one. You can visit the school and people will try to jam you about how much there is to do around here and how great it can be. They're kidding themselves. Life here is intellectually rich and rewarding, but as far as being a party school…get real. Although a social life shouldn't be based on drinking, you've got two bars here and the age is 21. Forget about it. The fraternities are weak and are not worthy of the name. There are a few restaurants on 57th and 55th Streets but, face it, this is a neighborhood designed for grown-ups. To make matters worse, Chicago is a Division III school so there is no hoopla surrounding big-time basketball and football. Granted, that stuff isn't important to some people but it was important to me and was one of the reasons I didn't go to college at Chicago; I like watching big time football, even if the big-time football players were my opponents and not my team. At least you can take advantage of the great city of Chicago, which is a short train ride away and has unmatched cultural and restaurant offerings.

In sum, you'll get a great education and valuable degree here, you'll get into the best graduate and professional schools in the country, but you'll pay the price of going to what is, at heart, a dweeb school. Look at Chicago carefully. I rejected it as a place for college for several reasons: location (tough neighborhood), lack of Division I sports, and lack of a strong Greek system. I found a home for college elsewhere but ended up here for my graduate work and never regretted it. It may be the place for you. Think about it carefully.

PS Anyone looking for college advice, feel free to email me.


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