Robert Hutchins

William Benton had been recruited to the University of Chicago in 1937 by his fellow student in the Yale College Class of 1924, then Chicago’s president, Robert Maynard Hutchins. Hutchins was one of the 20th Century’s most prominent intellects and educators. A true wunderkind, Hutchins had been named dean of the Yale Law School at the age of 28. He was only 30 at the time of his appointment as Chicago’s president in 1929.

The University’s trustees said famously as they turned down the gift Sears offered that the University was in the business of education, not the business of business. Bill Benton knew a good commercial opportunity when he saw it, however, and he seized both the moment and the company.

When Benton purchased Britannica, he agreed to pay the University a three percent royalty on U.S. encyclopedia sales in return for the editorial advice of its faculty. Not long thereafter, Benton appointed Hutchins chairman of Britannica’s board of editors. The University of Chicago’s connection to Encyclopædia Britannica lasted more than five decades. Thanks to the simpatico relationship of Benton and Hutchins, it brought the University’s endowment more than $200 million in that time.

Charles Swanson, EB President, William Benton, EB Chairman, and Robert Hutchins, Chairman of the EB Board of Editors and President, University of Chicago

In 1974, after an investment of more than $33 million, the then 30-volume, 44- million- word 15th Edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica was published. The event made the front page of the New York Times. A standalone two- volume index was added to the set as part of a major revision published in 1985.

Both Benton and Hutchins had died by the time I got to Britannica in January, 1986, but I did know Charles Swanson, the President of Britannica during the development of the 15th Edition.  I had interview him for the positions of Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary of Encyclopaedia Britannica in fall 1985, shortly before he retired and was succeeded as President by Peter Norton.

Though I never met Hutchins, I did here him speak once.  At the time he was President of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California, but as I was starting my third year at the University of Chicago Law School, Hutchins returned to Chicago and the Law School to dedicate its newly finished Laird Bell Quadrangle.

Robert Hutchins and William Benton

He was a national as well as a University legend by that time and I anxiously awaited his remarks in the School’s Weymouth Kirkland Courtroom.  Hutchins didn’t disappoint.  He was magnetic, erudite and funny, and I got a good idea how how it was that he had approached if not attained secular sainthood.