Title Reviewed:
A City and Its Universities: Public Policy in Chicago, 1892–1919

Author Reviewed:
Steven J. Diner

Robert L. Reid


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 77, Issue 1, pp 91-92

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

A City and Its Universities: Public Policy in Chicago, 1892–1919. By Steven J. Diner. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980. Pp. 263. Illustrations, appendixes, tables, notes, bibliography, index. $18.00.)

This study examines the public service activities of Chicago's first generation of academic professionals. Beginning with the founding of the University of Chicago in 1892, Steven J. Diner describes the role of faculty and administrators in the urban progressive movement. The account ends in 1919 with the unsuccessful attempt by Charles Merriam, a political scientist from the University of Chicago with an impressive record of political achievement, to unseat Mayor William Hale (Big Bill) Thompson in the Republican primary election.

Two major themes essential to the process of modernization provide the background for this book: (1) the development of a complex, interdependent urban pattern of life and (2) the emergence of the university as the major agency for the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. In discussing the relationship between the city of Chicago and its four universities—Chicago, Northwestern, Loyola, and DePaul— Diner attempts to explore the evolution of "our modern mechanisms of public policy" (p. 87). He does so by examining community service, that area of faculty performance which was then, and is today, least understood in terms of professional role.

Diner considers major public policy issues, including public education, criminal justice, social welfare, and urban planning and administration. Academicians identified with these subject areas participated in shaping related policy, albeit in limited numbers and with varying degrees of success. These specialists, primarily from the emerging fields of social science, conveyed an outlook which valued scientific research, specialized training, and professional expertise. Examples to indicate that similar developments existed in other town-gown settings are included.

Faculty participation is set in the context of urban reform. Diner analyzes major civic organizations and identifies persons affiliated with three or more of them. He argues that progressive reform in Chicago was led by upper-class businessmen, usually Republican in political orientation and Protestant in religious belief. Added to this group were aspiring professionals, twenty-five of whom were university professors. Of these, twelve are characterized as leaders, with Merriam's career illustrating the failure of these reformers to gain the political control necessary to put their scientific methods to work.

A City and Its Universities presents new material in a well-organized study. Unfortunately, Diner's reliance on personal papers and biographical accounts distorts the picture. The substantial role played by ethnic groups and organized labor in urban progressivism is virtually ignored. The book is weakened further by errors of fact and interpretation. In two separate places Diner states that William Thompson defeated Carter Harrison II for mayor in 1915. Harrison lost in the Democratic primary to Robert Sweitzer. While the school controversy of 1915 to 1917 included the issue of tenure, the real struggle centered on the affiliation of the Chicago Teachers' Federation with organized labor. Diner's attempt to argue that academicians sought control of public functions remains unconvincing: there is little evidence to support his claim that professors from the University of Chicago "took the lead in the battle for the control of the public schools" (p. 85). The phrase "hardly impressive" is used to conclude Diner's assessment regarding criminal justice; this same description seems appropriate to the general record of academic participation in public affairs.

Indiana State University, Evansville Robert L. Reid

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.