This year marks 50 years since the University of Chicago’s first provost, Edward Hirsch Levi, took office. In celebration, the University held a daylong event on Sept. 21 commemorating Levi’s influence and enduring legacy, including a discussion among six University provosts—Kenneth W. Dam, Norman M. Bradburn, Edward O. Laumann, Geoffrey R. Stone, Richard P. Saller, and current Provost Thomas F. Rosenbaum.
Levi, Lab’28, AB’32, JD’35, whose historic career later included service as President of the University and as U.S. Attorney General, began his appointment as the first Provost of the University of Chicago in June 1962, at a time when the University was striving to define itself and its path forward.
The academic leader 'radiates the values of the institution'
“We were deeply fortunate to have had a scholar and an administrative leader of Edward Levi’s insight, courage and intellectual good taste in what were, in retrospect, quite perilous times in the 1960s and 1970s,” said John W. Boyer, Dean of the College and the Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor in History. Boyer, who spoke at a morning session that focused on Levi’s life and work, added, “I think it is proper and fitting that our history will judge him as having been one of the University’s most distinguished academic leaders.”
Participants spoke of Levi’s love for the University of Chicago, which not only was home for much of his distinguished career but also where he received his education from grade school through law school.
“When I asked [Edward] what makes a great academic leader, he said, 'the academic leader must radiate the values of the institution',” said Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor, reminiscing about Levi’s advice before Stone became Dean of the Law School in 1987.
“That immediately struck me not only as amazing advice, but also as a perfect characterization of Edward in his own form of leadership — that one always understood what Edward thought of his own institution. He reaffirmed that and ratified that in everything he said and everything he did,” Stone said.
Speakers at the event praised Levi for his impressive contributions to the study of law, for his leadership of the University and his tenure as U.S. Attorney General. President Gerald R. Ford appointed Levi to help restore order in a federal government reeling from the Watergate scandal, noted speaker Jack W. Fuller, a University Trustee, retired president of the Tribune Publishing Company and a Pulitzer-winning journalist.
Larry Kramer, JD’84, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, spoke about how inspired he was as a student in Levi’s trademark Law School class, “Elements of the Law,” which explored the history of law, from Socrates’ debate with Thrasymachus on the nature of justice to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade.
Edward Levi's enduring influence on academia
“The entire class was grounded in something that is increasingly lost today,” said Kramer. “It is not just the idea that a lawyer is more than a hired hand, which was of course embedded in everything we did throughout the law school, but it was really a strong sense of the law as a learned profession. That to understand the law alone or law as a profession was not to be a real lawyer. To be a real lawyer was to understand the way in which law was embedded in all of these other disciplines and ideas and trains of thought and ways of thinking about the world and the role of law in it.”
While Kramer praised Levi’s teaching skills, Dennis J. Hutchinson, Senior Lecturer in Law and the William Rainey Harper Professor in the College, spoke about the importance of Levi’s widely read book, Introduction to Legal Reasoning, which explores the processes of judicial interpretation.
Levi is remembered for having enhanced the fundamental capabilities of the University. As provost, he oversaw the expansion of both the scientific research facilities on campus and the capacity of the library system. In addition to his service as dean of the Law School, Levi also served for a year as acting dean of the College. In that role he led a reorganization of the College faculty into five Collegiate Divisions and helped establish the Common Core, which remains a hallmark of American liberal arts education.
At the event’s afternoon session, University President Emeritus, Hanna H. Gray, led a panel discussion with six University provosts on the changing University over the past 50 years. Topics ranged from the effects of electronic communication on campus interactions to the transformation of Hyde Park, the increasing quality of student life and the importance of books.
Rosenbaum said the task of cultivating critical thinking among future citizens is a key challenge facing universities today. “The notion that we teach students to think, to solve problems, to be good citizens, is not valued the way it should be,” he said.
In response to an audience question on why the University picks academics to lead the institution rather than non-academic executives, panel members spoke passionately about the importance of understanding UChicago’s distinctive culture.
“The really important part academically is understanding what the basic values are and what the basic goals and missions of the University are,” said former provost Norman M. Bradburn, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Psychology.
One of Levi’s enduring legacies is the distinctive character of the University of Chicago’s academic leadership, Stone added.
“We talk about ourselves in ways that are different and which are recognizable to people from Stanford or Harvard or Yale as a Chicago way of thinking about things,” Stone said. “Much of this derives from [Levi’s] way of talking about the institution, being reinforced and refined in the years since.”
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