People & Events: William Rainey Harper (1856-1906) and the University of Chicago
The first University of Chicago was founded in 1856 as a Baptist school, and went bankrupt just thirty years later. Thomas Goodspeed, one of its trustees, asked the world's wealthiest Baptist, oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, to help finance a new, world-class university in a city he had never visited. Rockefeller agreed to donate $600,000 (the equivalent of $11.4 million in 2001 dollars) if local Chicagoans could come up with another $400,000. Goodspeed turned to banker and philanthropist Charles Hutchinson, and Hutchinson's support opened the door to the rest of the Chicago elite. Merchant Marshall Field donated land in Hyde Park. All they needed was a president.
William Rainey Harper was an academic prodigy who earned a Ph.D. from Yale when he was just eighteen years old. He was schooled in Hebrew and biblical studies, and was familiar with Aramaic, Arabic, Syriac and Akkadian, the language of the ancient Assyrians. He had met Goodspeed while teaching at a Baptist seminary in Illinois, before his return to Yale as a professor. When Rockefeller offered him the presidency of the new university, Harper accepted.
Harper's ambition was to create a university that focused on research and graduate training at the highest levels, but at the same time, was accessible to the most students. His goals were abetted by the free rein Rockefeller and the other trustees gave him on all academic affairs. Rockefeller asked only that the university not be named for him, and then he and the trustees worked to fund Harper's program.
Harper's first goal, to establish an institution of world-class scholars and students, was a matter of spending. The University of Chicago offered high salaries and light teaching loads, and successfully wooed the academic superstars of the day. Nine former college presidents came aboard, including Albion Small, who created the first sociology department in the nation, using data and methods developed at Hull-House.
Physicist Albert A. Michelson, educator John Dewey, and physiologist Jacques Loeb all came to the university. James H. Breasted, the Egyptologist, founded the university's Oriental Institute, sponsored important archaeological excavations across the Middle East, and established a department that remains pre-eminent a century later.
To reach out to more students, Harper created University Extension, based on programs at Oxford and Cambridge. Lecture courses were given all over the city, including lectures for immigrants at Hull-House. For those outside of Chicago, correspondence courses were available and books from the university library could be ordered by mail. Another of Harper's innovations was co-education. There were women on the faculty and administration and a quarter of the students were female.
Harper's most popular move was hiring young, athletic Amos Alonzo Stagg to head the athletic department as an associate professor with tenure. It was the first appointment of its kind in the nation. Stagg brought the game of football to the school. When questioned by his faculty, Harper stated, "the university of Chicago believes in football. We shall encourage it here." Marshall Field gave more land to the school for a football practice field -- called, perhaps predictably, Marshalls Field.
The president encouraged his professors to take classes themselves, and develop secondary disciplines. He made personal loans to students who could not pay their tuition. And he worked every day, even as he succumbed to debilitating pain from cancer. After his death in January of 1906, the city grieved. According to Chicago journalist and professor Robert Morss Lovett, the city "realized that another of the titans who had made its history, and the most unselfish of them all, was gone."
previous | return to people & events | next