The Chronicle: How We Got Here

The Chronicle founder 
Corbin Gwaltney
November 06, 2016

F ifty years ago this month, The Chronicle of Higher Education began life with an unprecedented and audacious vision: to produce great journalism about every facet of American colleges and universities.

Unprecedented because no newspaper had ever attempted to report exclusively on higher education. (Before The Chronicle, news and data about the sector made their way to campuses slowly, sometimes weeks or months after the fact.) And audacious because the thousands of disparate institutions that made up the sector didn’t have a national culture in common until The Chronicle helped to create it — through its regular presence, journalistic integrity, and uncompromising independence.

Corbin Gwaltney and John A. Crowl, who founded The Chronicle, were well positioned to seize this opportunity. As an alumni-magazine editor and a public-relations officer at the Johns Hopkins University, they brought an intense interest in news affecting colleges and universities (news often neglected by the daily press) together with the metabolism of newspaper reporters. They wanted to create a national publication that reported honestly and fairly about colleges, not one that would serve as a booster for higher education.

As the staff of 11 worked on The Chronicle’s first issue, they worried that higher education might not produce enough news to fill the eight-page paper 22 times a year. As it turned out, there was no need for concern. The Chronicle arrived at just the right moment, as the sector was facing exceptional growth as well as rapid change.

The federal government was expanding its role in higher education. In coming years, the draft and the escalation of the Vietnam War would stir protests around the country. Radical movements divided faculties and student groups as never before, while civil-rights demonstrations were met by police force. A depressing recitation of campuses experienced riots, bombings, shootings, and other forms of violence: Kent State, Jackson State, Southern, Columbia, Madison, Berkeley.

A s you’ll read in this anniversary issue, representing some of the best and most representative journalism of The Chronicle’s first 50 years, we covered it all — from the turbulence of the 60s to the present moment of financial constraint and accountability.

Over time, we expanded our reporting staff to include coverage of every corner of campus life: technology, the business of college athletics, scholarly research, intellectual currents. We provided continuing coverage about threats to academic freedom and about sexual and racial discrimination. In the face of outright hostility, we reported the salaries of college presidents.

We sent reporters to South Africa to report on universities and apartheid, to Lebanon during its civil war to cover the American University of Beirut, to Beijing to report on the student uprising at Tiananmen Square. With the advent of the internet, we began a daily news operation, expanded our presence online, and introduced sophisticated interactive data features and multimedia.

Along the way, our reporters have sat down with thousands of college presidents, attended hundreds of scholarly meetings, and tagged along on the occasional spring break. One was carjacked doing a story on hitchhikers; another sustained broken ribs riding a bronco while reporting on collegiate rodeo.

Over the years, our coverage has informed and influenced national conversations about higher education among academics and in the broader society.

As The Chronicle helped to define the higher-education community, it also became an enduring home for some of the finest reporting and writing of the past half-century. In assembling this anthology, we chose from an impressive variety of articles. And as we made those choices, we kept seeing themes repeat themselves. Many headlines that The Chronicle ran in the 60s and 70s — about the professoriate, the value of the humanities, the consumer orientation of students — would be just as apt today.

Here you’ll find portraits of scholars and presidents, explorations of the lived experience of students and faculty members, investigative reporting, data-driven journalism, provocative opinion articles and essays, and documentary photographs and original illustrations. They represent the range and depth of our reporting over the years.

The Chronicle’s story has been about being in the right place at the right time. It’s our ambition to continue that narrative in the decades to come. We hope you enjoy this issue.