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One month before the close of the University of Chicago’s 1999-2000 school year, Michael Behnke prepared to brief the faculty’s governing body on the credentials of the incoming freshman class. Behnke, hired away from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to become Chicago’s vice-president and dean of college enrollment in 1997, had made only one such presentation before, but he was not nervous.
After all, he had good news to deliver. Applications had jumped 25 percent over the year before, the largest increase ever. Applicants’ test scores were up, as were their high school class rankings. In all, the school had been far choosier in accepting students. Behnke spoke for 15 minutes, after which Janet Rowley, a professor in the medical school, rose and spoke glowingly of the current crop of undergraduate freshmen. Her comments prompted a reaction that shocked Behnke. The audience in Rosenwald Hall applauded. “I’ve never heard applause at a faculty meeting before, let alone for me or for admissions,” Behnke says.
Just a few years earlier, many of those cheering professors had blasted the author of the policy that later spurred the jump in applications. President Hugo Sonnenschein was leading the charge on two polarizing initiatives-adding 1,000 undergraduates to the College and shrinking the core curriculum from 21 required courses to 18. He said he needed the paying students to put the budget back in the black. But he concluded that to lure them, the U. of C. had to shed its reputation as the place where fun goes to die. (The reputation was apparently well deserved-a 1996 McKinsey & Company study of campus social life at 357 schools had ranked Chicago dead last.)
Sonnenschein’s blueprint ignited an extraordinarily fierce reaction from many in the devoted U. of C. family-faculty, alumni, and students. They insisted that their president, a former Princeton professor, was subverting the unique character of the school and diluting the quality of the student body. Sonnenschein’s messy tenure ended with a resignation in 1999, and his name still elicits bitter words around the campus.*