An early convocation
ceremony at the University of Chicago.
The University of Chicago was incorporated as a coeducational institution in 1890 by the American Baptist Education Society, using $400,000 donated to the ABES to match a $600,000 donation from Baptist oil magnate and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, and including land donated by Marshall Field. While the Rockefeller donation provided money for academic operations and long-term endowment, it was stipulated that such money could not be used for buildings. The Hyde Park campus was financed by donations from wealthy Chicagoans like Silas B. Cobb who provided the funds for the campus' first building, Cobb Lecture Hall, and matched Marshall Field's pledge of $100,000. Other early benefactors included businessmen Charles L. Hutchinson (trustee, treasurer and donor of Hutchinson Commons), Martin A. Ryerson (president of the board of trustees and donor of the Ryerson Physical Laboratory) Adolphus Clay Bartlett and Leon Mandel, who funded the construction of the gymnasium and assembly hall, and George C. Walker of the Walker Museum, a relative of Cobb who encouraged his inaugural donation for facilities.
The Hyde Park campus continued the legacy and name of the original university of the same name, which had closed in 1880s after its campus was foreclosed on. What became known as the Old University of Chicago had been founded by a small group of Baptist educators in 1856 through a land endowment from Senator Stephen A. Douglas. After a fire, it closed in 1886. Alumni from the Old University of Chicago are recognized as alumni of the present University of Chicago.  The university's depiction on its Coat of Arms of a Phoenix rising from the ashes is a reference to the fire, foreclosure, and demolition of the Old University of Chicago campus. As an homage to this pre-1890 legacy, a single stone from the rubble of the original Douglas Hall on 34th Place was brought to the current Hyde Park location and set into the wall of the Classics Building. These connections have led the Dean of the College and University of Chicago and Professor of History John Boyer to conclude that the University of Chicago has, "a plausible genealogy as a pre–Civil War institution".
William Rainey Harper became the university's president on July 1, 1891 and the Hyde Park campus opened for classes on October 1, 1892. Harper worked on building up the faculty and in two years he had a faculty of 120, including eight former university or college presidents. Harper was an accomplished scholar (Semiticist) and a member of the Baptist clergy who believed that a great university should maintain the study of faith as a central focus. To fulfill this commitment, he brought the Old University of Chicago's Seminary to Hyde Park. This became the Divinity School in 1891, the first professional school at the University of Chicago.
Harper recruited acclaimed Yale baseball and football player Amos Alonzo Stagg from the Young Men's Christian Association training Shool at Springfield to coach the school's football program. Stagg was given a position on the faculty, the first such athletic position in the United States. While coaching at the University, Stagg invented the numbered football jersey, the huddle, and the lighted playing field. Stagg is the namesake of the university's Stagg Field.
The business school was founded thereafter in 1898 and the law school was founded in 1902. Harper died in 1906 and was replaced by a succession of three presidents whose tenures lasted until 1929. During this period, the Oriental Institute was founded to support and interpret archeological work in what was then called the Near East.
In the 1890s, the University of Chicago, fearful that its vast resources would injure smaller schools by drawing away good students, affiliated with several regional colleges and universities: Des Moines College, Kalamazoo College, Butler University, and Stetson University. In 1896, the university affiliated with Shimer College in Mount Carroll, Illinois. Under the terms of the affiliation, the schools were required to have courses of study comparable to those at the university, to notify the university early of any contemplated faculty appointments or dismissals, to make no faculty appointment without the university's approval, and to send copies of examinations for suggestions. The University of Chicago agreed to confer a degree on any graduating senior from an affiliated school who made a grade of A for all four years, and on any other graduate who took twelve weeks additional study at the University of Chicago. A student or faculty member of an affiliated school was entitled to free tuition at the University of Chicago, and Chicago students were eligible to attend an affiliated school on the same terms and receive credit for their work. The University of Chicago also agreed to provide affiliated schools with books and scientific apparatus and supplies at cost; special instructors and lecturers without cost except travel expenses; and a copy of every book and journal published by the University of Chicago Press at no cost. The agreement provided that either party could terminate the affiliation on proper notice. Several University of Chicago professors disliked the program, as it involved uncompensated additional labor on their part, and they believed it cheapened the academic reputation of the university. The program passed into history by 1910.
In 1929, the university's fifth president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, took office; the university underwent many changes during his 24-year tenure. Hutchins eliminated varsity football from the university in an attempt to emphasize academics over athletics, instituted the undergraduate college's liberal-arts curriculum known as the Common Core, and organized the university's graduate work into four divisions. In 1933, Hutchins proposed an unsuccessful plan to merge the University of Chicago and Northwestern University into a single university. During his term, the University of Chicago Hospitals (now called the University of Chicago Medical Center) finished construction and enrolled their first medical students. Also, the Committee on Social Thought, an institution distinctive of the university, was created.
Some of the University of Chicago team that worked on the production of the world's first human-caused self-sustaining nuclear reaction, including Enrico Fermi
in the front row and Leó Szilárd
in the second.
Money that had been raised during the 1920s and financial backing from the Rockefeller Foundation helped the school to survive through the Great Depression. During World War II, the university made important contributions to the Manhattan Project. The university was the site of the first isolation of plutonium and of the creation of the first artificial, self-sustained nuclear reaction by Enrico Fermi in 1942.
It has been noted that the University of Chicago did not provide standard oversight regarding Bruno Bettelheim and his tenure as director of the Orthogenic School for Disturbed Children from 1944 to 1973.
In the early 1950s, student applications declined as a result of increasing crime and poverty in the Hyde Park neighborhood. In response, the university became a major sponsor of a controversial urban renewal project for Hyde Park, which profoundly affected both the neighborhood's architecture and street plan. During this period the university, like Shimer College and 10 others, adopted an early entrant program that allowed very young students to attend college; in addition, students enrolled at Shimer were enabled to transfer automatically to the University of Chicago after their second year, having taken comparable or identical examinations and courses.
The university experienced its share of student unrest during the 1960s, beginning in 1962, when then-freshman Bernie Sanders helped lead a 15-day sit-in at the college's administration building in a protest over the university's off-campus rental policies. After continued turmoil, a university committee in 1967 issued what became known as the Kalven Report. The report, a two-page statement of the university's policy in "social and political action," declared that "To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures." The report has since been used to justify decisions such as the university's refusal to divest from South Africa in the 1980s and Darfur in the late 2000s.
In 1969, more than 400 students, angry about the dismissal of a popular professor, Marlene Dixon, occupied the Administration Building for two weeks. After the sit-in ended, when Dixon turned down a one-year reappointment, 42 students were expelled and 81 were suspended, the most severe response to student occupations of any American university during the student movement.
In 1978, Hanna Holborn Gray, then the provost and acting president of Yale University, became President of the University of Chicago, a position she held for 15 years.
In 1999, then-President Hugo Sonnenschein announced plans to relax the university's famed core curriculum, reducing the number of required courses from 21 to 15. When The New York Times, The Economist, and other major news outlets picked up this story, the university became the focal point of a national debate on education. The changes were ultimately implemented, but the controversy played a role in Sonnenschein's decision to resign in 2000.
From the mid-2000s, the university began a number of multimillion-dollar expansion projects. In 2008, the University of Chicago announced plans to establish the Milton Friedman Institute, which attracted both support and controversy from faculty members and students. The institute will cost around $200 million and occupy the buildings of the Chicago Theological Seminary. During the same year, investor David G. Booth donated $300 million to the university's Booth School of Business, which is the largest gift in the university's history and the largest gift ever to any business school. In 2009, planning or construction on several new buildings, half of which cost $100 million or more, was underway. Since 2011, major construction projects have included the Jules and Gwen Knapp Center for Biomedical Discovery, a ten-story medical research center, and further additions to the medical campus of the University of Chicago Medical Center. In 2014 the University launched the public phase of a $4.5 billion fundraising campaign. In September 2015, the University received $100 million from The Pearson Family Foundation to establish The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts and The Pearson Global Forum at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies.
On May 1, 2014, the University of Chicago was named one of fifty-five higher education institutions under investigation by the Office of Civil Rights "for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints" by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.