The Story of the University of Chicago

Chapter 4 The First President

Thomas W. Goodspeed

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THE first president of the University was William Rainey Harper. He was born at New Concord, Ohio, July 26, 1856, and was of sturdy Scotch-Irish stock. A student from early boyhood, he entered the Freshman class of Muskingum College, New Concord, at ten years of age. Although one of the youngest students ever permitted to pursue a college course, it was characteristic of him that he habitually took more than the required amount of work. He graduated at fourteen with the honor of the Hebrew oration. Although on his graduation his father wisely made the boy a clerk in his store, it cannot be doubted that he himself regarded the clerkship as incidental to his real work, for his studies still went forward with such zeal that at seventeen he went to Yale as a graduate student in philology. Before his nineteenth birthday he received from Yale the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

The same year, 1875, he married Ella Paul, daughter of President Paul of Muskingum College. In the autumn of the same year, 1 875, he became principal

( 38) of Masonic College, Macon, Tennessee. The following year he went to Granville, Ohio, as tutor in the preparatory department of Denison University. Here his unusual qualities were soon divined by President E. Benjamin Andrews and the preparatory department was made the Granville Academy with the youthful tutor as principal. Let it not be thought that young Harper was merely a bookworm, who knew none of the joys of youth. He early developed a love of music which greatly enriched his life. He was a member of a band and played the cornet, and playing on this instrument was one of his recreations when president of a great university.

President Andrews soon came to see that the principal of his Academy was an altogether exceptional man—that he could not be confined to academy work and ought not to be. Much, therefore, as he disliked to lose Dr. Harper, he put selfish considerations aside and recommended him to the Theological Seminary at Morgan Park for its vacant chair of Hebrew. I first met Dr. Harper in the study of Dr. Northrup, president of the Seminary at Morgan Park. We were members of a committee appointed with power to engage him as instructor in Hebrew. Dr. Harper was stockily built, five feet seven inches tall, smooth-faced and spectacled, and looked very young. He was twenty-two—younger than the men he would be called upon to teach. He was too young to be made

( 39) a professor, but, with some misgiving, was made an instructor, with a salary of $1,000, and began work January 1, 1879. The next year he was made a full professor. In April, 1881, "The use of the Seminary building was granted to Professor Harper for a summer school for the study of Hebrew." This was the first of his Hebrew summer schools.

Dr. E. B. Hulbert, dean .of the Divinity School, wrote of the Morgan Park period.

.... At the end of two years Dr. Harper found that his super-abounding zeal could not work itself off in regular classes in term time. The impulse seized him to utilize the vacation periods. In 1881, in the Seminary lecture rooms, he opened the first of his famous summer schools. One summer a second school was conducted at Worcester, Massachusetts, to meet New England needs, and the following summer a second school at New Haven, and yet a third in Philadelphia appealed to a still wider constituency. . . . The awakened interest creating the demand for better study helps, the Elements of Hebrew appeared in 1881; Hebrew Vocabularies in 1882; A Hebrew Manual and Lessons of the Elementary Course in 1883; Lessons of the Intermediate Course and Lessons of the Progressive Course in 1884; Introductory Hebrew Method and Manual in 1885.

The business of promoting Hebrew, so auspiciously begun and so rapidly extending, could not get on without an organ. The new journal was christened The Hebrew Student . . . . The Hebrew Student was popular in character; to meet the more technical linguistic needs, Hebraica was launched.

It did not take many years for Dr. Harper to grow too great for Morgan Park. The authorities became

( 40) aware that they could not permanently hold him there. It was therefore no surprise to them when in 1885 and the winter and spring of 1886 he was invited to Yale. It goes without saying that we did everything possible to keep him from leaving us. Although Mr. Rockefeller was not then acquainted with Dr. Harper, on April 5, 1886, he wrote me a letter, telling me that someone representing Yale had called on him in reference to an effort then being made to take Professor Harper from Morgan Park to New Haven. It was the interest he manifested in helping us to hold Dr. Harper that inspired my first letter to him in reference to a new university. I said to him in the course of this letter:

We have proposed to Dr. Harper to assume the presidency of our wrecked and ruined University and to re-establish it here at Morgan Park, retaining the oversight of the department of Hebrew in the Seminary. The suggestion has taken a strong hold on him and if he had some assurance of help he would not hesitate to do it.

This same suggestion was welcomed with enthusiasm by the trustees of the then existing University and he was at once elected president. But Mr. Rockefeller not then seeing his way to encourage so large a project, Dr. Harper declined the presidency and accepted the position at Yale. It was during these negotiations that, on April 26, 1886, these two remarkable men first became acquainted.

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It was in the early eighties, while Dr. Harper was still at Morgan Park that Dr. John H. Vincent, always on the lookout for efficient teachers for Chautauqua, heard of this young teacher of Hebrew and in the summer of 1883 added him to his corps of instructors. Here, as everywhere, Dr. Harper soon made a great impression. It was not long before he was principal of the College of Liberal Arts. His influence and power in the affairs of Chautauqua constantly increased until its whole educational work was in his hands.

In the autumn of 1886 Dr. Harper went to Yale as professor of Semitic languages in the graduate department. He was also made instructor in the Divinity School. He was teaching Hebrew, Assyrian, Arabic, Aramaic, and Syriac. He had taken the American Institute of Hebrew with him to New Haven with his summer schools, journals, and correspondence school, his assistants, and printing office.

Soon he made a new departure. He began to give courses of lectures on the Bible to popular audiences and proved as attractive and inspiring on the lecture platform as in the classroom.

The value placed on Dr. Harper's work at Yale may be measured by the establishment in 1889, especially for him, of the Woolsey professorship of biblical literature in the undergraduate department.

Thus within three years he came to occupy three

( 42) separate chairs of instruction, in the College, the Graduate Department, and the Divinity School. After so short a time he was already filling a great place at Yale, and not at Yale only. He had developed such gifts for public address that his services as a lecturer on the Bible were sought far and wide, in universities, in theological schools, in women's colleges, and in churches. On December 10, 1889, he was elected president of the University of South Dakota, but declined. He had developed such extraordinary gifts in so many directions that Dr. A. H. Strong had sought and obtained his co-operation in the plans for organizing the proposed graduate university in New York City. Dr. Strong said of him:

Pedagogies were natural to him. How to get the most out of a teacher and out of an hour were vital problems to him. And this pedagogic instinct qualified him to launch a new university upon uncharted seas and with new methods of navigation. . . . His executive powers were quite equal to his ambitions. He could organize a machine to run the federal government.

Is it to be wondered at that all who were intimately connected with the founding of the University of Chicago thought of Dr. Harper and of him only as its president? They never wavered in their choice of him nor in their expectation that he would take the place. They regarded his presidency as manifest destiny, as a duty imposed which he could not escape.

( 43) Their object was to bring him to this view and make him willing to undertake the duty. The movement looking toward Dr. Harper's presidency began very early. On July 17, 1886, three weeks after the Old University closed its doors, I wrote: "Hold yourself ready to return here some time as President of a new University." When, after the Vassar conference in October, 1888, he informed his friends in Chicago of the new prospects opening before them for an institution of learning, without a moment's hesitation they began to tell him that he must be its president. To all these suggestions, however, he turned a deaf ear. He would listen to none of them and we would listen to none of his objections. All this continued with some interesting developments till January, 1889. There is a humorous side to the matter of these serious discussions as to presidency of an institution that did not exist and the future existence of which was still wholly problematical. Mr. Rockefeller himself was engaged in them although it was not till four months later that he made his first subscription.

From this date, January, 1889, the question of the presidency was wholly in abeyance for many months. The question was, should there be any institution at all. But no sooner was the money raised for the foundation of the new University than that question came again, at once, to the front. It was now a live question.

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When Dr. Harper was again approached on the subject, as he was at once, to our immense gratification he acknowledged that he "was much more inclined to consider the Chicago question" than ever before.

Dr. Harper was not elected president at the first meeting of the trustees of the University because the board was not then legally incorporated, but it had been made plain to him that as soon as the incorporation was effected the trustees would elect him by a unanimous vote and fully expected him to become president of the University. This very quickly became common knowledge throughout the country, in New York and New Haven, as well as in Chicago. Naturally enough the first difficulty arose in New Haven. Dr. Harper lost no time in acquainting President Dwight with the condition of affairs, confessing that the pull of the Chicago opportunity and duty was felt by him very strongly. President Dwight objected strenuously. He thought he had done so much for Dr. Harper that the latter was bound to remain at Yale indefinitely. But he was a hard man to drive and insisted that he was free to go where and when duty called him.

Information of what was in the wind becoming thus generally diffused, in a surprisingly short time letters began to pour in on Dr. Harper from every quarter. His Yale friends strongly advised him to remain

( 45) at New Haven. Many things which, in the light of the subsequent attraction of the University of Chicago for graduate students and students of all kinds, seem very amusing, were urged, e.g., the following by a Yale professor: "While you are in your prime, few men will care for a Ph.D. or even a B.A. from your University who can manage to get a similar degree from an institution like this."

But even stronger arguments were urged in a flood of letters from all parts of the country in the effort to convince him that he must go to Chicago. Presidents and professors of universities, colleges, and theological seminaries, pastors of churches, trustees of the new University, and others enforced the claims of Chicago by every sort of consideration. With the question immediately and practically before him Dr. Harper found himself greatly perplexed and disturbed. He wrote to Dr. Gates, July 30, as follows:

The great question and the question which I am trying to settle in my own mind is, Whether or not I can continue my life work as a biblical specialist, and do this work which the University of Chicago will demand; and if not, whether I am justified in giving up the life work. . . .You may be sure I am thinking, and dreaming, and doing nothing really but this Chicago matter.

On the next day he wrote to me as follows:

It does not seem possible to do what ought to be done, what the denomination will expect, what the world will expect, with the money we have in hand. There must in some way be an assurance of an additional million. How this is to be obtained, or

(46)   where, is the question. If Mr. R. is in dead earnest, possibly the case will not be so difficult as we may think.

He heard from Mr. Rockefeller within a week after writing this letter and the message must have helped him farther on toward a decision. The letter was written August 5, 1890.

I agree with the Board of Trustees of the Chicago University that you are the man for President, and if you will take it I shall expect great results. I cannot conceive of a position where you can do the world more good; and I confidently expect we will add funds, from time to time, to those already pledged, to place it upon the most favored basis financially. I do not forget that the effort to establish the University grew out of your suggestion to me at Vassar.

In this letter Dr. Harper had been invited to visit Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller at Cleveland and in answering the letter and accepting the invitation he said, after speaking of his reluctance to make the great change in his life-work which the acceptance of the presidency would require:

There is one other difficulty which I think has hardly been appreciated. The denomination, and, indeed, the whole country, are expecting the University of Chicago to be from the very beginning an institution of the highest rank and character. Already it is talked of in connection with Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan, and Cornell. No one expects that it will be in any respect lower in grade and equipment than the average of the institutions to which I have referred, and yet, with the money pledged, I cannot understand how the expectations can be fulfilled. Naturally we ought to be willing to

(47)  begin small and grow, but in these days when things are done so rapidly, and with the example of johns Hopkins before our eyes, it seems a great pity to wait for growth when we might be born full-fledged.

About this and other matters I shall hope to talk with you when we meet.

The next moment of great interest in the story was a conference between Dr. Harper and Dr. Gates at Morgan Park, on August 17, 1890. The two men spent the day together, as Mr. Gates writes of it,

a day of crisis and decision, happily fateful for the new institution. The fundamental question was how could he become President of a University in Chicago and at the same time not practically renounce his chosen life work of Old Testament research, criticism, and instruction.

Gradually the following plan unfolded itself:

1. The Theological Seminary to be removed to the campus of the University.

2. The Seminary to become an organic part of the University.

3. The Seminary buildings at Morgan Park to be used for a University Academy.

4. Equivalent or better buildings for the Seminary to be erected on the University campus.

5. Instruction in Hebrew and Old Testament criticism to be transferred to University chairs.

6. Dr. Harper to be head professor with salary and full authority over the department.

7. Mr. Rockefeller to give one million dollars as a new, unconditional gift, a part of which would go for aid to the Seminary in carrying out the program.

8. Dr. Harper to visit Mr. Rockefeller and agree to accept the presidency on this program.

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The visit to Cleveland was made on September 4 and 5. Dr. Gates had already laid the program before Mr. Rockefeller and he was therefore prepared to discuss the whole question. Nearly one entire day was given to the consideration of details, Mr. Rockefeller having apparently immediately decided to give the million dollars as soon as he was assured that Dr. Harper would, if he did so, accept the presidency.

On receiving the assurance of this gift Dr. Harper began at once to act on the theory that he was committed to the presidency. The day after the interview he wrote to me, asking me to do six things, indicating that he wished to see things pushed and saying he would assume the responsibility. The second meeting of the board of trustees of the new University was held September 1 8, 1890, and Dr. Harper was elected president by a unanimous and rising vote. He asked and was given six months in which to communicate his decision, but it was understood by the trustees that his acceptance was assured. And indeed he began at once to perform a president's duties.

Our troubles, however, were by no means over. Dr. Harper was very conscientious and he became doubtful whether he would be regarded as sufficiently orthodox to occupy the presidency of the leading University of his denomination. I have told the story of our struggle with him elsewhere. In the end we satisfied him or at least won him over to our view. His

( 49) acceptance of the presidency was conveyed to the trustees in the following letter:


February 16, 1891

To the Trustees of the University of Chicago:

GENTLEMEN: After having considered the proffer of the presidency of the University of Chicago with which you honored me in September, 1890, I beg herewith to indicate my acceptance of the same. With your permission I will not enter upon the work of the position until July 1, 1891.

I believe that, under your wise and liberal management and with the co-operation of the citizens of Chicago, the institution will fulfil the generous hopes of its friends and founders.

It is with this conviction that I unreservedly place myself at your service.

Trusting that the same divine Providence which has guided this undertaking in the past will continue to foster it through all the future, I remain

Yours sincerely,


This letter was laid before the board of trustees on April 11. Dr. Harper's salary was thereupon fixed at $6,000 per year. He was also appointed head of the Semitic Department with a salary of $4,000, and was granted leave of absence during such part of the time between July 1, 1891, and the date of the opening of the University as he could spend abroad profitably for the University.

Dr. Harper's acceptance of the presidency was hailed with deep and wide satisfaction. Dr. Wallace

( 50) Buttrick voiced the general feeling when he wrote to the new president on hearing of his acceptance: "I thank you and congratulate the Universe." The relief of those most intimately related to the enterprise was unspeakable. For them a long period of anxiety and struggle was over. The first president was secured.


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