William Rainey Harper: Young Man in a Hurry
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William Rainey Harper seemed destined to become a revolutionary agent of change in
American higher education. He was born to Samuel Harper and Ellen Rainey on July 24,
1856. His birth home, a five room log cabin located in New Concord, Ohio, remains
intact in its original location and is owned and operated by Muskingum College.
During his childhood, young William supported his father's business by purchasing
and selling wool and by helping dam a local stream to produce and sell ice. He also
developed a fondness for books and learning at a very young age (in fact, he was able
to read by age three), and his parents, taking notice, decided to foster his inclinations
to study by teaching him at home. Consequently, he was far ahead of other children
his age, earning a college degree at the age of thirteen in 1870, and his Ph.D. by
1875, when he turned eighteen. He took a quick break from academics to marry Ella
Paul, daughter of the president of Muskingum College, and then proceeded onto the
next phase of his life.
Dr. Harper had earned his Ph.D. as a student of languages, and soon got the opportunity
to teach Greek, Latin, and Hebrew at Masonic College in 1875, where he took over as
the institution’s principal. Soon thereafter, he became the principal of the preparatory
school at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, teaching classes in Hebrew to the
faculty. As a professor, his classes in Hebrew and biblical studies were widely popular.
In fact, by 1883, colleges around the country were asking him to come teach Hebrew
in their summer schools, and by 1906 (the year of his death), he was counted amongst
the foremost scholars of Hebrew in the United States.
Morgan Park Academy, located in the city of Chicago, soon took an interest in Dr.
Harper’s academic credentials, and he began teaching classes in Hebrew and the Old
Testament there in 1879. While there, he expanded the educational services offered
by the Academy, first by enacting summer school classes in 1881, and then by creating
correspondence courses, in which students would correspond by mail with the professor
in lieu of attending classes in person. Dr. Harper hoped that by offering these special
courses, students who lacked the time or money to journey out to the campus to attend
classes would still be able to receive an education. By 1889, there were between five
and thirty summer schools in operation around the country. He also proposed sending
university lecturers out to nearby cities.
These innovations in higher education got the attention of Yale University, and they
eventually secured his employment in 1886 as a professor of Semitic languages.
During this time, he also accepted a position with the nearby Chautauqua institution.
While in New York, he became a close associate of John D. Rockefeller, the owner of
the Standard Oil Company, who, in 1890, convinced Dr. Harper to lead an educational
institution in the Midwest - one that could rival Yale and other eastern universities.
While agreeing to an initial commitment of $600,000, ultimately, Rockefeller and his
foundations contributed some $80,000,000 towards the creation of the University of
Chicago. Dr. Harper’s endless enthusiasm and fund-raising abilities were crucial to
the early success of the enterprise.
The University of Chicago opened its doors in 1892, and as its first president, Dr.
Harper attempted to attract world class educators to the school, and continued to
secure funds from Rockefeller. In doing so, he did not endear himself to other college
presidents. He believed that the quality of the faculty was of primary importance
in creating a great institution of higher learning, and so he ruthlessly raided other
colleges for the best minds in the country. Less than two years after founding the
University of Chicago, he managed to build the faculty to a total of 120 members (including
eight former presidents of other colleges and universities) and the school into a
10 building campus. In developing his faculty, Dr. Harper offered a series of benefits,
such as freedom from outside influences, reduced teaching loads, and excellent salaries
that far exceeded the existing wage structure.
In his view, the ultimate goal of higher education was to create serious scholar-researchers;
the enterprise was unapologetically academic. Consequently, undergraduate students
were expected to eventually focus their studies in two or three areas, not just sample
a variety of different disciplines in order to attain a kind of gentlemanly polish
by the end of their four years. Under this model, the first two years were a preparatory
period devoted to general education – the foundation from which to build knowledge
in specialized areas during the third and fourth years. From this, Dr. Harper got
the idea of creating “junior colleges” to focus on that preparatory period, thus allowing
universities to focus on more advanced studies, and advocated this split during the
first meeting of his new faculty after the University of Chicago opened. While some
educators argued that this division of junior colleges from research universities
provided ordinary people with access to some degree of higher education (which would
otherwise not have been available to them), others have come to believe that this
vision was elitist in that it attempted to limit the University's functions to those
of research and advanced professional training, rather than democratizing access to
Although the idea of moving the junior college off campus never came to fruition,
a friend of Dr. Harper, J. Stanley Brown, sought to put his ideas into action. Under
Brown’s guidance, Joliet Junior College was established in 1901, and is today the
nation’s oldest community college. In 1965, residents of the northwest suburbs of
Chicago sought to create their own community college in order to provide access to
higher learning for their children, and the result was the creation of William Rainey
Harper College, which opened in 1967.
Harper College has continued Dr. Harper's dream of expanded access to higher education
for all citizens. The college offers courses for students interested in obtaining
degrees, continuing their education, or pursuing side interests and hobbies, and it
offers classes during the day, nights, and weekends for traditional and non-traditional
students alike. In addition, both traditional classroom courses and distance learning
courses delivered in online, blended, and teleweb formats.
|Annotated Bibliography on Dr. William Rainey Harper|
Driver, Rev. Samuel Rolles, et al. The International Critical Commentary on the Holy
Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. 1973. Print.
Goodspeed, Thomas Wakefield. The Story of the University of Chicago, 1890-1925. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1925. Print.
---. William Rainey Harper: First President of the University of Chicago. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1928. Print.
Harper, William Rainey. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Amos and Hosea. Edinburgh:
T. & T. Clark, 1973. Print.
---. Introductory Hebrew: Method and Manual. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910.
---. Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
---. The Biblical World. March, 1906. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1906.
---. The Trend in Higher Education. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1905.
Harper, William Rainey, et al. Hebraica: A Quarterly Journal in the Interests of Semitic
Study. Vol. 11. Chicago: The University Press of Chicago, 1894. Print.
Mayer, Milton Sanford. Young Man in a Hurry : The Story of William Rainey Harper,
First President of the University of Chicago. Chicago: The University of Chicago Alumni
Association, 1957. Print.
Montgomery, Robert N, ed. The William Rainey Harper Memorial Conference : Held in
Connection with the Centennial of Muskingum College, New Concord, Ohio, October 21-22,
1937. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1938. Print.
Morrison, Theodore. Chautauqua : A Center for Education, Religion, and the Arts in
America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. Print.
Murphy, William Michael and D. J. R. Bruckner, eds. The Idea of the University of
Chicago: Selections From the Papers of the First Eight Chief Executives of the University
of Chicago From 1891 to 1975. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. Print.
Ogan, R. W., et al. A College Looks at its Program. New Concord: Muskingum College,
Storr, Richard J. Harper's University: The Beginnings; A History of the University
of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966. Print.
The Cap and Gown: The Year Book of the University of Chicago. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1906. Print.
The Quarter-Centennial Celebration of the University of Chicago, June 2 to 6, 1916:
A Record of David Allan Robertson. Chicago: The University of Chicago press, 1918.
The University Record: Memorial Number, March, 1906. Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1906. Print.
Wind, James P. The Bible and the University: The Messianic Vision of William Rainey
Harper. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987. Print.