Harper, William Rainey, 1856-1906

Alternative names
Birth 1856-07-26
Death 1906-01-10

Biographical notes:

Noted academic who helped to organize the University of Chicago and Bradley University, and served as the first President of both institutions.

From the description of William R. Harper letter to Prof. H. H. Boyesen [manuscript], 1891 Feb 26. (University of Virginia). WorldCat record id: 420487062

Born in New Concord, Ohio; graduated from Muskingum College at age 14; earned a Ph. D. at Yale; teacher, Hebraist, and educator; became first president of the University of Chicago in 1892, and remained president of the university until his death.

From the description of William Rainey Harper collection, 1883-2001. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 70968147

Epithet: President of Chicago University

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000000132.0x000345

Professor and head, Department of Semitic Languages and Literatures, University of Chicago, 1891-1906. President, 1891-1906.

From the description of Papers, 1872-1938 (inclusive). (University of Chicago Library). WorldCat record id: 52246188

William Rainey Harper (1856 -1906) was the first president of the University of Chicago, from 1891 to 1906. Born on July 24,1856, Harper was the son of Samuel Harper and Ellen Elizabeth Rainey. An excellent student, Harper learned Hebrew at an early age and received his B.A. from Muskingum College at fourteen. After working for a few years in his family's store, in 1873 he went on to graduate work at Yale. There he studied philology, concentrating particularly on Hebrew. His dissertation was entitled, ";A Comparative Study Prepositions in Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and Gothic. Harper earned his Ph.D. in two years, graduating just before his nineteenth birthday.

In 1875, Harper married Ella Paul and they moved to Macon, Tennessee where Harper had found a position as the head of Masonic College. This was the first of several positions, including Denison University, Baptist Union Theological Seminary and Chautauque Institution, he held before returning to Yale in 1886 to teach Hebrew in the Semitic Languages department and the Divinity School.

Harper remained at Yale for only a few years. He had already been a member of the faculty at the Baptist Union Theological Seminary in Morgan Park, Illinois, where he had taught Hebrew. Before leaving, he had been offered the presidency of the failing old University of Chicago, so when the American Baptist Educational Society formed and decided to organize a midwestern Baptist university, Harper was invited to join the organizational committee. With the financial support of John D. Rockefeller, a board of trustees was formed and they soon nominated Harper for the presidency. On February 16, 1891, after lengthy negotiations, he accepted the presidency of the new University of Chicago.

Even before his official acceptance of the presidency, Harper was planning. Although originally envisioned as a Baptist, undergraduate college for the midwest, Harper had bigger ideas. Instead of merely an undergraduate institution Harper wanted to promote his ideal of higher education with a combination of undergraduate teaching and strong support for research. Also part of this plan was a continuation of the kind of correspondence education he had developed at the Baptist Union Theological Seminary and Yale. With this in mind, he began an intensive period of recruitment and building. Harper worked tirelessly to recruit first class faculty and raise money for his institution. He brought in faculty from a range of fields and institutions, using his persuasive skills and tenacity, as well as promises of time for research, to convince them to join the new university.

Eventually, the university came to include graduate degree programs, adult education programs, athletics, a university press and extension services. These were in addition to the undergraduate college. It was formed according to the plan of two years of general study of the classics followed by two years of greater specialization. Harper himself taught in the Department of Semitic Languages and Literatures. Despite the burden of administrative activities, Harper was the chair of his department as well as president, he felt it was important to teach. Even with this interest in teaching, a key part of Harper's vision of higher education was research and scholarship. Harper wanted his senior faculty to have ample time and freedom to pursue their research interests as well as teach. This emphasis on research was somewhat novel at the time, but Harper was able to exploit the absence of traditional constraints in forming a new university in order to give research and scholarship a central role.

When he was not occupied with his educational plan, Harper was raising money and soliciting donations, especially from John D. Rockefeller. In addition to the recruitment of faculty and the organization of programs of study, there were buildings to be built and academic ceremonies to be held. During all this activity Harper continued to write, producing biblical commentaries and other works, and maintaining a passionate interest in sports. He never stopped planning for the future and continued to expand the university and include new programs and schools over the following years. This caused problems in budgeting, however, and Harper ran up large deficits in his fifteen years in the presidency. These financial problems would not be addressed until Harry Pratt Judson was appointed president after Harper.

In 1905, Harper became ill. Although he continued to work and teach throughout the period of his illness, Harper died on January 10, 1906. He left behind the foundations of the University of Chicago, which would continue to grow and change after his death, but never lose his emphasis on a combination of undergraduate education and scholarly research.

Harper and his wife, Ella, had three sons, Samuel Northrup, Paul and Donald, and one daughter, Davida.

From the guide to the Harper, William Rainey. Papers, 1872-1938, (Special Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)

The industrialist and philanthropist, John Davison Rockefeller's (8 July 1839-23 May 1937) practice of philanthropist giving is juxtaposed against his legacy as the founder of Standard Oil which dominated the oil industry and provided him with $900 million to share.

Born in Richford, New York, the son of William Avery Rockefeller and Eliza Davison, Rockefeller's family settled in Cleveland, Ohio in 1855. Rockefeller's father, a hardworking business man who lent money and traded in lumber, salt, horses, medicines, etc., traveled a great deal and left John D. to care for the family. His mother, a devout Baptist, emphasized the virtues of discipline, thrift, handwork and proper moral conduct. Throughout his life Rockefeller would apply these values and would never exhibit ostentatious behavior in style or manner.

Graduated from Cleveland's Central High School Rockefeller enrolled in business course's in Folsom's Commercial College in the summer of 1855. By the spring of 1859 Rockefeller had determined to begin his own commission house with a $1000.00 loan at ten percent interest from his father. He and his partner, Maurice B. Clark, profited from the start and considerably more throughout the civil war.

In those years Rockefeller used his Baptist faith to guide his behavior and took a role of leadership in the Erie Street Baptist Church. Sharing his church duties was his wife Laura C. Spelman. The couple married 1864 and Spelman, a retired teacher, mothered three daughters and one son.

Rockefeller entered the oil industry in 1863 and consolidated the various companies and modes of transportation to form a formidable company. As the largest stockholder he amassed a personal wealth of $900 million by 1913. In this process he created the modern corporation by bringing stability to the emerging oil industry and instituting the board of corporate trustees. In 1911 Standard Oil could no longer resist the many court decisions regarding monopolies and struck by the Supreme Court's 1911 anti-trust act, the Standard Oil was dismantled to reform 38 companies. The stresses from his business life were so severe that by 1910 Rockefeller had lost all of his hair, including his eyelashes.

Rockefeller's philanthropic attention was pulled toward supporting and later establishing educational facilities in the Chicago area beginning in 1873. Through his association with Goodspeed and Harper he began donating to the Morgan Park Seminary. Goodspeed and his Baptist associate William T. Gates were able to convince Rockefeller to donate funds toward a college later to be expanded into a university. Rockefeller went to great lengths to procure the services of Harper for the Presidency of the future University of Chicago.

Although Rockefeller believed the college should be in the Midwest Goodspeed and Gates had to convince him that a large amount of funds were needed. Once it was determined that one million was the start up cost Rockefeller offered $400,000 and pleaded that he could not donate more due to other obligations. Gates convinced him that the fundraising must seem at least half completed in order to give heart to the remaining fund raising efforts. Within the first ten years Rockefeller donated $35 million to the University of Chicago with a strong faith in the three other university founders and he never directed how they should organize the university. He interfered only when felt they were not financially self sustaining. Rockefeller felt Harper had over reached the university's financial means and he stopped donating to the university in 1910. He returned to assisting the university in 1912 after it had ridded itself of its deficit.

Rockefeller has been criticized because the bulk of his philanthropic giving began after 1900. Prior to that he treated giving as a tithe. Rockefeller himself described the process of giving as a burden of decision making. He felt weighed down by the number of pleas for assistance that he received. From his early business days, Rockefeller's ledgers reveal that he freely donated part of his earnings, generally through the church. He would eventually donate 540 million. His philanthropy became an industry of its own as he established a foundation to make the distribution decisions. He persuaded Gates to join the advisory staff; Gates became one of Rockefeller's chief financial advisors; taking on investment responsibilities too. Including the sale of Rockefeller's iron ore interest to J.P. Morgan with a clear profit of 50 million.

Rockefeller established various foundations to receive his donations but also continued giving to existing groups and through his church. 82% of his donations went toward the endowment for the first biomedical research facility, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (established in 1901 it is now Rockefeller University). Also important were the General Education Board (1903), dedicated toward "the promotion of education within the United States, without distinction of race, sex, or creed,"; the Rockefeller Foundation (1913); the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease (1909) which expanded into the International Health Board of the Rockefeller Foundation; and for his deceased wife's remembrance, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial (1918) primarily for the concern of women and children.

Although comfortable with his family, Rockefeller rarely appeared in public or gave speeches or interviews. It was often remarked by his business associates that he seemed cold, reserved and quiet. To improve his public image Gates and his son convinced him to appear more frequently at public affairs in addition to granting more interviews with journalists and prospective charities, and individuals to whom he would dispense shiny dimes. A shrewd and conservative businessman his judgments avoided wasteful giving. Every penny must be used to its greatest extent.

Rockefeller was buried in Lakeview cemetery in Cleveland after passing away at his home in Ormond Beach.

From the guide to the University of Chicago. Founders' Correspondence, 1886-1892, (Special Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)


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  • Universities and colleges
  • Education, higher
  • Preservation of materials


  • Hebraists, Christian--Illinois--Chicago
  • College presidents--Illinois--Chicago
  • Educators--Illinois--Chicago


  • United States (as recorded)
  • Illinois--Chicago (as recorded)
  • Beverly Hills (Chicago, Ill.) (as recorded)
  • Morgan Park (Chicago, Ill.) (as recorded)
  • Washington Heights (Chicago, Ill.) (as recorded)