Harper, William Rainey (1856–1906)

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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.

See also: Higher Education in the United States, subentry on Historical Development; University of Chicago.


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.

Jason R. Edwards

John R. Thelin

William Rainey Harper

views updated Jun 08 2018

William Rainey Harper

The American educator and biblical scholar William Rainey Harper (1856-1906) was the first president of the University of Chicago.

Born in New Concord, Ohio, on July 24, 1856, William Rainey Harper attended Muskingum College in New Concord, where his interest in Hebraic studies began. He graduated in 1870 and went on to receive a doctorate from Yale in 1874 for studies in the Indo-Iranian and Semitic languages. After teaching at Masonic College in Macon, Tenn., and then at Denison University, he moved on to a professorship in Hebrew at the Baptist Union Theological Seminary in Chicago. He held the chair of Semitic languages at Yale from 1886 to 1891, earning a national reputation as a teacher, lecturer, and writer. In 1889 he was also appointed Woolsey professor of biblical literature at Yale. He was active in the Chautauqua movement, serving as principal of the Chautauqua College of Liberal Arts from 1885 to 1891 and lecturing on biblical topics there and at William Dwight Moody's summer conferences at Northfield, Mass.

Harper's reputation was that of a sound, though not especially creative, scholar and an outstanding teacher whose lectures and books helped to spread the more scholarly criticism of the Bible in America. He was always a devout Christian, and his obvious piety and mild-tempered approach to controversy made him widely welcome among American religious groups. The best received of his books on the Bible were The Priestly Element in the Old Testament (1902), The Prophetic Element in the Old Testament (1905), and Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Amos and Hosea (1905).

In 1892 Harper became the first president of the University of Chicago, founded by John D. Rockefeller. From the start Harper insisted that academic excellence and academic freedom should characterize the school. He used the generous financial support of Rockefeller and others to offer substantial salaries to outstanding scholars, winning the enmity of other college presidents who resented his raiding, but rapidly assembling an outstanding faculty that soon made Chicago a leading center of research and graduate study. Harper built up the library, started a university press, and vigorously defended his faculty against sectarian attacks. Other characteristics of his institution included university extension, division of the year into quarters, separation of the two upper years of the college into a senior college, and faculty control of athletics.

Although busy with administrative problems raised by the rapid growth of the university, and continually striving to increase his endowment, Harper insisted on teaching full time and serving as chairman of his department. Even with his strong constitution, the heavy work schedule proved a drain on his vitality. He died in Chicago on Jan. 10, 1906.

Further Reading

The only full biography of Harper is Thomas Wakefield Good-speed, William Rainey Harper (1928), written at the request of Harper's family. An excellent account of his work at Chicago is in Richard J. Storr, Harper's University, the Beginnings: A History of the University of Chicago (1966).

Additional Sources

Wind, James P., The Bible and the university: the messianic vision of William Rainey Harper, Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1987. □

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