After its foundation as a distinguished department by E. H. Moore in the 1890s, the single most decisive event in the history of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Chicago was the assumption of its chairmanship by Marshall Harvey Stone in 1946. Stone arrived in Chicago from a professorship at Harvard as the newly appointed distinguished service professor of mathematics as well as chairman of the department. Within a year or two, he had transformed a department of dwindling prestige and vitality once more into the strongest mathematics department in the U.S. (and at that point probably in the world).
This remarkable transformation, which endowed the department with a continuing vitality during the trials of the following decades, is unparalleled, to the writer’s knowledge, in modern academic history for its speed and dramatic effect. This was no easy victory on the basis of great infusions of outside money. It was completely a triumph of Stone’s sureness of judgment and his determination and strength of character in getting done what he knew had to be done.
Stone’s account of the transformation which he led is unparalleled for its candor and its objectivity (despite the strong flavor of Stone’s personality) and for its remarkably open presentation of the process by which academic decisions are reached and leadership exerted. The central problem of academic life for institutions which aspire to excellence and to greatness is precisely the difficulty of achieving that excellence and that greatness.
Within every academic institution, policy leadership falls into two patterns. The most common pattern, which is the basis of the ongoing routine of the institution’s existence, falls within the rational-bureaucratic mold (to use the classical terminology of Max Weber) in terms of rationalized general policies and procedures to be applied uniformly to an array of cases in the context of a balance of special interests and influences. The other pattern, which is less common, is that of charismatic leadership in which the individual judgment and personal qualities of the administrator play a fundamental role in both the choice and nature of the policy decisions which are made, and in their acceptance by those who are affected by them. Stone’s account gives us a picture of the most highly developed form of charismatic leadership, one which turned out to be enormously successful. What is most interesting about it is the question it raises about the role of charismatic leadership in the search for academic excellence.
To my knowledge, there is no case in which academic excellence in any reasonably high degree has been achieved and maintained without an infusion of charismatic leadership, either public or behind the scenes. Yet to an ever greater degree, it has become increasingly incompatible with the growing pressures and struggles of interests that tend to dominate the organized life of our universities.
When Marshall Harvey Stone arrived at the university in 1946 to play such a distinctive role, he was a relatively young man (43) and a mathematician of great distinction and great reputation. He had spent most of his academic life at Harvard, getting his Ph.D.degree there in the late 1920s with the dominant personality of the Harvard department,, who had himself been a student of E. H. Moore at Chicago. Stone had done fundamental work in a number of widely known directions, in particular on the spectral theory of unbounded self-adjoint operators in the Hilbert space and on the applications of the algebraic properties of Boolean algebras in the study of rings of continuous functions. He was an inner member of the country’s mathematical establishment, having obtained a full professorship at Harvard as well as such honors as election to the National Academy of Sciences. He was profoundly involved in the growing trend toward putting mathematics research and education on an abstract or axiomatic foundation, and was sharply influenced by the efforts of the Bourbaki school in France in this direction, which achieved a major impact in the years after the end of World War II.
Most important of all, Stone was a man of forceful character and unquestioned integrity, with a strong insight into the mathematical quality of others.
Stone’s fundamental achievement at Chicago was to bring together a faculty group of unprecedented quality. In the senior faculty he appointed four very diverse men with widely different personal styles and mathematical tastes. The most important of these was undoubtedly, the dominant figure of the Bourbaki group, who was one of the decisive taste-makers of the mathematical world, as well as the brilliant research mathematician in his own work.
S. S. Chern, who was to be the central figure of differential geometry in the world, was brought from his haven at the Princeton Institute after his departure from China.
Antoni Zygmund, who became the central figure of the American school of classical Fourier analysis, which he was to build up single-handed, came from the University of Pennsylvania.
Saunders Mac Lane, who had been Stone’s colleague and sympathizer in the abstract program as applied to algebra, came from a professorship at Harvard.
Together with Adrian Albert, who had been Dickson’s prize student at Chicago and a longtime member of the Chicago department, these men formed the central group of the new Stone department at the university.
To do full justice to the kind of revolution that Stone brought about in Chicago mathematics, one needs to perform the unedifying task of acknowledging the decay of the department in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The great prestige and intellectual vitality that had been created under the long reign of E. H. Moore as chairman had not been maintained after his retirement from the chairmanship at the end of the 1920s. His successors, G. A. Bliss and , were not Moore’s equals in either mathematical insight or standards. Especially under Bliss’s regime, a strong tendency to inbreeding was in action, and as the great elder figures of the department died or retired, they were not replaced by younger mathematicians of equal caliber. Some of the most promising of those who came into the department soon left. There was one principal exception: Adrian Albert. But despite his distinction as an algebraist in the Dickson tradition, Albert at that time had neither the influence nor the vision to bring about the kind of radical transformation that the department needed, and that Stone brought about.
The insights that Stone provides in his firsthand account of his great achievements and of how they were brought about provide us once more with a dramatic vindication of the decisive importance of the special qualities of significant individuals as the major agents of the development of academic institutions. In academic terms, Marshall Stone served as a great revolutionary and a great traditionalist. The revolution he made is the only kind which has a permanent significance — a revolution that founds or renovates an intense and vital tradition.