Private higher education has passed rapidly from a stage where a lack of funding posed the greatest threat to its continued existence to a stage wherein the greatest pressures toward its demise arise from the biggest source of money — the federal government.
— John T. Wilson
John Todd Wilson was born March 7, 1914, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He was educated at George Washington University and the State University of Iowa, where he studied psychology, philosophy, and education. During World War II while in the U.S. Naval Reserve, he helped administer a selection and training program for radar operators and Combat Information Center officers. Following the war he obtained a PhD degree in psychology at Stanford, continuing his earlier studies of human learning patterns.
Wilson spent a year working jointly for the American Psychological Association and for George Washington University, then returned to government service, first with the Office of Naval Research, then with the newly-created National Science Foundation, serving from 1955 to 1961 as assistant director of its Biological and Medical Sciences Division.
In 1961 Wilson came to the University of Chicago as special assistant to President George W. Beadle, who had just arrived himself from Caltech. In 1963 Wilson returned to the National Science Foundation as deputy director. Then in 1968 President Edward Levi persuaded him to come back to the University, as vice-president and dean of faculties.
In 1969 Wilson was appointed Provost and held that position until Levi resigned to become U.S. attorney general in February 1975. Wilson became acting president and expected to fill the role until a replacement could be found for Levi. Instead, Wilson himself was elected president in December of that year, with the expectation that he would retire in a few years, near his 65th birthday.
Wilson had watched the University grow during the early Levi years, especially after money flowed in from the first phase of the "Campaign for Chicago," which closed successfully in 1968. By the early 1970s, though, the University was again pinched as inflation eroded income and cutbacks in government aid to education began in earnest. As provost, Wilson responded by presenting the University with a five-year austerity plan to bring the budget back into balance.
The Wilson years were colored by the atmosphere of belt-tightening and by the difficult adjustments which followed the period of campus unrest in the late 60s. Yet, once in office as president, Wilson was able to follow through on plans developed while he was serving as provost, so that the University could continue to maintain a "functional steady-state."
Because of his background, Wilson became a noted expert on the relations between universities and government. In 1963 he spoke of the need for educators to seek federal assistance actively and to participate in formulating programs in the humanities and arts as well as in science. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 had been the first major funding program of the federal government for education, and this was followed by additional programs more directly related to education needs. By the time he retired in 1978, Wilson had seen this trend come full circle, with problems developing from growing reliance on federal funding, at the same time that the government was pushing for increasing control over research and educational programs.
Reviewing the changing relationship between government and higher education over 33 years, Wilson concluded in 1983 that despite their close connections, "ignorance and misunderstanding about the nature and behavior of the other partner is pervasive on both sides." Although their purposes are different, "there is a mutual need for each other" which "requires a long-term, systematic commitment if the welfare of the nation is to be enhanced."
Courtesy of The University of Chicago Centennial Catalogues, Special Collections Research Center, The University of Chicago Library