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The University of Chicago was founded in 1890 by the American Baptist Education Society and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, who later described the University of Chicago as "the best investment I ever made." The land for the new university, in the recently annexed suburb of Hyde Park, was donated by Marshall Field, owner of the Chicago department store that bears his name.

William Rainey Harper, the first president, imagined a university that would combine an American-style undergraduate liberal arts college with a German-style graduate research university. The University of Chicago quickly fulfilled Harper's dream, becoming a national leader in higher education and research.

Frederick Rudolph, professor of history at Williams College, wrote in his 1962 study, The American College and University: A History, "No episode was more important in shaping the outlook and expectations of American higher education during those years than the founding of the University of Chicago, one of those events in American history that brought into focus the spirit of an age."

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