A History

On July 30, 1891, William Rainey Harper completed his first month as president of the University of Chicago, an institution which had yet to construct a building on its newly acquired campus on the city's south side. The University was not to open for another fifteen months. There was faith that there would be time to raise the money, build buildings, and recruit faculty and students, but in the meanwhile Harper, his wife, their three children, and a small group of Yale students set out for Berlin.

This voyage was not unlike the only other Atlantic crossing Harper had made three years earlier. Both trips were urged on Harper as a way of preserving his health and renewing energy which he recklessly expended. Besides completing his teaching at Yale, Harper had been maintaining a preposterously heavy schedule of public lectures. Ever since his nomination for Chicago's presidency he had been forced to defend himself from criticism by orthodox Baptists while attempting to move John D. Rockefeller and the University's Board of Trustees to create a full-fledged university rather than a modest college. At the time Harper submitted his resignation to President Timothy Dwight of Yale in February, Frederick T. Gates advised John D. Rockefeller that "Dr. Harper is overworked, worn out, physically sensitive and weak in proportion." When Harper accepted the Chicago presidency shortly thereafter, Rockefeller himself admonished him to "have a rest at the earliest moment possible."

As Harper readied himself for the trip, Gates' misgivings increased, and he poured out his frustrations to Rockefeller:

I cannot persuade myself that Dr. Harper's methods of employing his time have been or promise to be for the highest good of the University. I believe he should abandon his lectures, decline Chautauqua, throw off every outside engagement, and concentrate every energy on the direct upbuilding of the University.... I urged him strongly to drop the European trip for the present. He yielded far enough to curtail it.

Harper agreed to return to Chicago by October 15, but only after Gates had exhausted "every reserve and [strained] my personal relations with him." Within hours of embarking, Harper fired the final shot in this skirmish:

Meanwhile, as indicated to you in my last words, I have accepted the proposition subject to the condition named, which is that, should the condition of my health or the character of the presidential duties seem to demand it, at the end of one year I shall be free to resign my position.

If Harper left New York harbor feeling chastised by Gates' insistence on an early return, he remained eager to visit the German universities and to meet with their leaders. There was also the possibility of seeking out recruits for his new faculty. Finally, he had his Yale students, especially James Henry Breasted, who had been engaged to tutor Harper and his family in German. Although gifted in reading written language, Harper, by his own account, "hadn't the slightest ear for spoken language."

He was not unmindful that the new University would require books and that Berlin would be an excellent place to look for them. There were forty-thousand volumes on hand in Chicago, the legacy of the defunct "Old Chicago University," and collections which would come from the Baptist Union Theological Seminary in Morgan Park, soon to be transformed into the University's Divinity School. An assistant librarian, Mrs. Zella Allen Dixson, had already been engaged to operate the library and to implement Harper's scheme for departmental libraries. Some donations of local collections were in the offing, but it was obvious that these would hardly satisfy the demands of the research faculty which Harper was assembling. A large number of books at the University would be one way of forcing the issue of providing a building to house them. Harper was not unaware that books would legitimatize the University's broad commitment to education as well as cast an aura of scholarly respectability over the whole enterprise.

Robert Rosenthal
April, 1979