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The Presidents of
the University of Chicago

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William Rainey Harper, The Graphic, April 23, 1892, cover.

William Rainey Harper, The Graphic, April 23, 1892, cover.




William Rainey Harper, first convocation address, January 2, 1893

William Rainey Harper, first convocation address, January 2, 1893. One of Harper's innovations was to hold convocation each quarter rather than once a year. Although no degrees were given until the third convocation in June, Harper used this opportunity to discuss progress and plans for the new University.

William Rainey Harper

Harper transferred his excitement about Hebrew to his students, convincing them to take classes in Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Chaldee and to come back for additional language sessions during Christmas and summer vacations. He arranged to use the seminary building for his own summer school, drawing 23 students the first year and 65 the next. The success of the program led to a second summer school at Chautauqua in 1883. By 1889 he had five schools in separate cities, with courses covering Arabic, Assyrian, New Testament Greek, the Ancient Versions, and the Old and New Testaments in English. At the same time, he founded a correspondence school for those who could not attend in person, opened a printing office to publish lesson outlines and manuals, and organized a group of 70 professors in the U.S. and Canada into the American Institute of Hebrew.

As Harper became better known, he began attracting the interest of Yale. The BUTS trustees feared they could not hold onto him and offered him the presidency of the financially troubled University of Chicago in hopes that this challenge would keep him in Chicago. Instead, Harper accepted a chair at Yale and took his schools and printing office with him to New Haven; the original University of Chicago soon after foundered in bankruptcy.

When the American Baptist Education Society formed two years later to plan a new Baptist university in the midwest, Harper was invited to join a committee of nine to plan the institution. John D. Rockefeller had met him in 1886 and was impressed with his energy and ideas. Rockefeller supported the Baptists' plans, although initially only for an undergraduate college, and offered an initial $600,000 for endowment if they could raise another $400,000 from other sources. A board of trustees was formed in 1890, and one of their first actions was to nominate Harper as president.

Harper envisioned a university, not a college, and would not accept the presidency until he was promised a free hand in developing the institution along the broad lines he wanted. Additional funds would be needed to support Harper's scheme, and Rockefeller pledged another million. Harper officially accepted the presidency in April 1891 and took office on July 1.

Under Harper's plan, the University of Chicago would include an undergraduate college, but senior professors would be freed from heavy teaching loads in order to pursue research. In addition, Harper projected extension work and a university press as key elements of the University. The adult education programs he had developed as an adjunct to his teaching would be given full status within the university's curriculum.

While these plans were being developed, Harper had to recruit a complete faculty, amounting to 120 appointments by the time the university opened; oversee selection of a student body (over 3000 students applied for admission, and 520 showed up on opening day); supervise the construction and equipping of university buildings, including classrooms, laboratories, libraries, and housing for faculty and students; and raise money, for the original funds given by Rockefeller and the ABES were quickly seen as inadequate. Harper's appetite for work was legendary, both his ability to plan large endeavors in broad strokes, and his concern for details, such as the planning of the academic ceremonies which he loved.

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