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William Rainey Harper (1856–1906)

The University of Chicago, Contribution to Academia

The first president of the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper was a leading figure in the development of the modern university in the United States. He was born in New Concord, Ohio, and was considered an academic prodigy, enrolling at age ten as a freshman at Muskingum College where he studied language and music. After graduation at age fourteen, he went to Yale and earned a Ph.D. in Philology in three years. While in graduate school he courted Ella Paul, daughter of the president of Muskingum College. They were married a few months after Harper completed his Ph.D.

Following his advanced studies at Yale, Harper was a teacher and principal in Tennessee and Ohio before accepting an instructorship in Hebrew Theology at the original University of Chicago. He became a full professor of divinity in 1880. In 1886 he was named president in the university's final year.

Upon the closing of the university he went to Yale as professor of Semitic languages in the graduate department and instructor in the divinity school. He taught Hebrew, Assyrian, Arabic, Aramaic, and Syrian. He continued to oversee his summer schools, journals, correspondence school, and printing office. Soon he branched out into lecturing, and began giving courses on the Bible to the public, finding a new means by which he could expound on its origins.

The University of Chicago

Harper's reputation as a prodigious scholar of religion, combined with his Baptist affiliation, attracted the attention of John D. Rockefeller, who was making plans and generous donations for the founding of a university. Harper accepted Rockefeller's invitation to be the first president of the new University of Chicago in 1891, and served fourteen years until his death in 1906 at the age of forty-nine.

Although Harper was impressive as a scholar, his enduring contribution to American higher education was as an organizational genius and innovative leader. He was gregarious, and worked well with civic leaders and donors in Chicago. Harper was unabashedly ambitious in his plans for the new University of Chicago, and transformed that zeal into successful and even ruthless recruitment of talented faculty, students, and administrators. He gained the envy and scorn of college presidents across the nation when he "raided" the faculty of Clark University in order to enhance the behavioral sciences and psychology departments at Chicago. In concert with Professor Albion Small of the sociology department, whom Harper named dean, the University of Chicago pioneered such innovations as an elaborate bureaucracy of academic departments and ranks. In sum, Harper housed a modern, innovative university in the historic motifs of a monumental Gothic Revival campus that was the pride of the city.

Harper was known as Chicago's "Young Man in a Hurry." As president of the University of Chicago, Harper understood and thrived in the setting of a complex, multipurpose institution. He added new features such as a two-year junior college and an extensive summer school. He planned and obtained generous funding for scientific laboratories, an observatory, a university press, a graduate school with numerous Ph.D. programs, research institutes, and a library. At the same time he also emphasized inter-collegiate football with a magnificent stadium geared to a large spectator audience. His hiring of Yale's Amos Alonzo Stagg as football coach and athletic director was instrumental in making the University of Chicago Maroons the dominant champions of the Western (Big Ten) conference. And Stagg, with Harper's approval, created the prototype for the highly commercial athletic department that had direct access to the president and the board of trustees, with little accountability to faculty governance.

Although Harper was an historian of religion, as a campus leader he felt no deference to academic traditions, whether in admissions examinations or degree requirements. He endorsed the coeducation of men and women. He relied on advertising, billboards, and mass mailings to promote all facets of campus programs and activities. He was committed to systematic public relations and fund raising. He served on numerous boards and committees in the city and nation. The University of Chicago was to be a young, modern university that was central to a dynamic metropolitan area, and that created the national prototype for a truly great American university.

Contribution to Academia

In 1905 Harper's doctors discovered that he had cancer. In his final months he published a book about education; revised two scriptural articles; published a biblical text; and finished his greatest piece of scholarly work, his Commentary on Amos and Hosea. With his characteristic energy, Harper even on his death bed was busy making plans for his elaborate funeral procession, including detailed instructions for Chicago faculty to march wearing full academic regalia.


HARPER, WILLIAM RAINEY. 1883. An Introductory New Testament Greek Method Together with a Manual, Containing Text and Vocabulary of the Gospel of John and Lists. New York: Scribners.

HARPER, WILLIAM RAINEY. 1886. Elements of Hebrew by an Inductive Method. New York: Scribners.

HARPER, WILLIAM RAINEY. 1900. The Prospects of the Small College. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

HARPER, WILLIAM RAINEY. 1905. The Prophetic Element in the Old Testament: An Aid to Historical Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

MAYER, MILTON. 1941. Young Man in a Hurry: The Story of William Rainey Harper, First President of the University of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Alumni Association.

SLOSSON, EDWIN E. 1910. Great American Universities. New York: Macmillan.

STORR, RICHARD J. 1966. Harper's University: The Beginnings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

VEYSEY, LAURENCE R. 1965. The Emergence of the American University. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.



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