William Rainey Harper

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William Rainey Harper
Portrait of William Rainey Harper.jpg
First President of the
University of Chicago
In office
Succeeded by Harry Pratt Judson
Personal details
Born (1856-07-24)July 24, 1856[1]
New Concord, Ohio
Died January 10, 1906(1906-01-10) (aged 49)
Spouse(s) Ella Paul Harper
Children Samuel, Paul, Donald, and Davida Harper
Alma mater Muskingum College
Yale University
Profession Scholar and educational administrator

William Rainey Harper (July 24, 1856 – January 10, 1906) was one of the leading American academic leaders of the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Harper helped to establish both the University of Chicago and Bradley University, and he served as the first presidents of both institutions.

Early life

Harper was born on July 24, 1856, in New Concord, Ohio1, to parents of Irish-Scottish ancestry.[2] Very early in his life, Harper displayed skills years ahead of other children of his age, and he was labeled a child prodigy. By the age of eight, Harper began preparing for college-level courses. At the age of ten he enrolled in Muskingum College in his native New Concord, Ohio. At the age of fourteen, he graduated from Muskingum College. In 1872, Harper enrolled in Yale University to begin his postgraduate studies, and he completed these in 1876. Harper quickly assumed a series of faculty positions, including ones at Denison University and Yale University. Throughout his academic life, Harper wrote numerous textbooks. A strong supporter of lifelong learning, Harper was also involved with the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York, and its academic programs starting in 1883.[3]

Harper Library at the University of Chicago

As University of Chicago president

In 1891, John D. Rockefeller selected thirty-five-year-old Harper to assist in organizing the University of Chicago, and shortly thereafter, he was selected as the university's first president. In hiring the faculty the new university and selecting its students, Harper set standards quite high. Harper elevated the salaries of the faculty members above those of ordinary schoolteachers, and by doing so, he attracted the best scholars to the university. Harper had expert knowledge of every department of education as well as business acumen, and he was a very powerful public speaker .[2]

Academic innovations

In addition to encouraging the establishment for the first department of Egyptology and Sociology in the United States, Harper ensured the establishment of the University of Chicago Press. Harper also instituted the first extension service in America designed to bring classes to those who could not attend regular classes—because of their work or other obligations. One of Harper's ideas, that students should be able to study the first two years of college in their own communities to be better prepared for the rigors of college, helped lead to the creation of the system of community colleges in the United States.

In the 1890s, Harper, fearful that the vast resources of the University of Chicago would injure smaller schools by drawing away good students, established an affiliation program with several regional colleges and universities, including Des Moines College, Kalamazoo College, Butler College, and Stetson University. Under the terms of the affiliation, the schools were required to have courses of study comparable to those at the University of Chicago, to notify the University early of any contemplated faculty appointments or dismissals, to make no faculty appointment without the University's approval, and to send copies of examinations for suggestions. The University of Chicago agreed to confer a degree on any graduating senior from an affiliated school who made a grade of A for all four years and on any other graduate who took twelve weeks additional study at the University of Chicago. A student or faculty member of an affiliated school was entitled to free tuition at the University of Chicago, and Chicago students were eligible to attend an affiliated school on the same terms and receive credit for their work. The University of Chicago also agreed to provide affiliated schools with books and scientific apparatus and supplies at cost, to provide special instructors and lecturers without cost except travel expenses, and a copy of every book and journal published by the University of Chicago Press was to provided to the affiliated schools at no cost. The agreement provided that either party could terminate the affiliation on proper notice. Several University of Chicago professors disliked the program, as it involved uncompensated additional labor on their part, and also because they believed it cheapened the academic reputation of the University of Chicago. After Harper's death in 1906, the program was gradually discontinued, and it passed into history by 1910.[4]

While at University of Chicago, Harper also chaired a mayoral commission responsible for reorganizing Chicago Public Schools and standardizing the system's curriculum. Harper, being opposed to the employment of women as teachers (which had resulted from the reforms of Horace Mann), moved to block a raise for female teachers and encourage the selective hiring of men. The ensuing dispute contributed to the organizing of the Chicago Teachers Federation, the precursor to the Chicago Teachers Union.[5]

Personal life

William Rainey Harper married Ella Paul Harper in 1875. They were the parents of three sons, Samuel Northrup, Paul, and Donald, and one daughter, Davida.


Additionally, in 1896, Harper assisted Lydia Moss Bradley in developing her plans for the creation of Bradley Polytechnic Institute in Peoria, Illinois. Upon the founding of the institute, now known as Bradley University, Harper served as its first president.[6] William Rainey Harper College, a community college located in Palatine, Illinois, is named for him. In 1903 Harper founded the Religious Education Association.[7] He is also the namesake of Harper High School and Harper Avenue in Chicago. A former elementary school in Cleveland is named for him as well.[8]

Harper died on January 10, 1906, of cancer at age 49. He and his wife are interred at the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on the University of Chicago campus.[9]

Published works

See also


Note 1: The original log cabin that was William Rainey Harper’s birthplace has been preserved and is located in New Concord, Ohio, across from the main gate of Muskingum College.


  1. "William Rainey Harper". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2015-07-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 Bradley University (1907). Bradley Polytechnic Institute: The first decade, 1897-1907. Bradley University. p. 128.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. George E. Vincent (Jul 6, 1914). "What is Chautauqua?". The Independent. Retrieved July 28, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Gilbert Lycan, Stetson University: The First 100 Years at 70-72, 165-185 (Stetson University Press 1983)
  5. Goldstein, Dana (September 2, 2014). "'School Ma'ams as Lobbyists'". The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. p. 69. ISBN 978-0-385-53696-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "The Founding of Bradley". Bradley University. Archived from the original on 2008-02-10. Retrieved 2008-04-06.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Archibald, Helen (Fall 2003). "Originating visions and visionaries of the REA". Religious Education. 98 (4): 413–425. doi:10.1080/00344080390244856.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Cuyahoga County Schools". Oldohioschools.com. Retrieved March 8, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Liss, Joseph N (August 2004). "Myth Information". 94 (6). University of Chicago Magazine. Retrieved March 8, 2013. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
President of the University of Chicago
Succeeded by
Harry Pratt Judson