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The Presidents of
the University of Chicago

A Centennial View
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President's House, 1914

Page vi: The President's House, 1914.


0n July 1, 1896, the University of Chicago commemorated the fifth anniversary of its founding. In preparation for this Quinquennial celebration, University officials considered which date should mark the formal beginning of the institution's life. Several events in the University's brief history seemed particularly notable. The original Board of Trustees had first met on July 9, 1890; the University's certificate of incorporation was issued by the state of Illinois on September 10, 1890; and the first day of classes on the new campus was October 1, 1892. In the end, however, the date chosen to represent the founding was July 1, 1891, the day on which William Rainey Harper had formally assumed his duties as the first president of the University. The selection of this day as the University's true point of origin fixed the date of the Quinquennial in 1896, and it has governed the scheduling of every successive anniversary celebration over the past century, including the Centennial.

The significance attached to the beginning of Harper's presidency was in part a reflection of the enormous influence he exerted on the creation and shaping of the University. Faculty and students credited him with everything both good and bad that they saw in the raw, young institution, and the same was true for many observers at greater distance from the muddy campus. Harper's educational plan may have been more a skillful synthesis than a radical departure, but it won him an enormous amount of publicity in the popular press. When cartoonists depicted the triumphs and foibles of the new University, it was invariably the stocky, energetic figure of Harper himself that provoked the most vivid caricature.

Harper's fame was not an isolated phenomenon. Beginning in the period just after the Civil War, American university presidents acquired roles of increasing consequence in national life. Unlike their clerical predecessors of the earlier collegiate era, the new generation of university presidents relished the growth of higher education and avidly promoted its influence in social, commercial, and political affairs. James B. Angell at Michigan, Andrew D. White at Cornell, Charles W. Eliot at Harvard, Daniel Coit Gilman at Johns Hopkins, and Nicholas Murray Butler at Columbia were easily the best known and most powerful of this group, but their success set the pattern for academic leadership at many other private and state universities across the country. By the time that Woodrow Wilson, former president of Princeton, was elected to the White House in 1912, the ascendancy of the university executive had long since become an accomplished fact.

For all its unquestioned brilliance and achievement, the age of the great university presidents was not without its tensions and contradictions. Powerful presidents provided visionary leadership, but their actions also intruded on academic custom and provoked faculty resentment. Students were drawn to campuses in unprecedented numbers, but they did not all meet traditional prerequisites for admission or maintain a uniformly strong commitment to the academic enterprise. New departments, schools, and research institutes were created in abundance, but donations from benefactors and appropriations from state legislatures were not always sufficient to sustain their growth. Presidents themselves seemed to personify all the virtues of scholarly reflection and disinterested science, yet they also attracted the fierce judgment of critics such as Thorstein Veblen, who disdained higher education's "captains of erudition" as money-driven accomplices of the business elite.

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