Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Million Dollar Sermon

Illinois Tech has one of the greatest origin stories for a university. In 1890 Frank Gunsaulus, a pastor on the south side of Chicago, gave a sermon where he said "If I had a million dollars I would build a school to provide students from all backgrounds meaningful roles in a changing industrial society". Philip Armour, a wealthy industrialist in the congregation, went up to Gunsaulus after the sermon and said, "if you give me five years for this school, I'll give you the million dollars". Thus started the Armour Institute of Technology which after some mergers became the Illinois Institute of Technology.

The "million dollar sermon" really happened, though the exact wording and even the exact year are lost to posterity or, as speculated, hidden in a cornerstone of one of the original campus buildings. 

In 1890 we were in the beginnings of the second industrial revolution, a revolution of communication, transportation, electrification and soon the assembly line. The first revolution happened a century earlier with mechanization and the steam engine. The third revolution was computers and automation, and we are now in the early parts of the fourth industrial revolution, one based on data and information. 

There are many parallels between 1890 and today. Like 1890, the private economy is dominated by a small number of large companies that have an outsized influence in our society. Like 1890, technology is changing faster than we can manage it. Like 1890, many workers are finding their skills quickly outdated.

Today Gunsaulus's words ring truer than ever. We more than ever need to provide students of all backgrounds meaningful roles in a changing technological society. 

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