William Rainey Harper

William Rainey Harper
William Rainey Harper, first president of the University of Chicago

William Rainey Harper (July 26, 1856 – January 10, 1906) was one of America's leading academics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Harper helped to organize the University of Chicago and Bradley University and served as the first President of both institutions.


Early life

Harper was born on July 26, 1856 in New Concord, Ohio1, Harper's parents were of Irish-Scottish ancestry.[1] Very early in life, Harper displayed skills years ahead of other children his age and was labeled a 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; and at the age of fourteen he graduated from Muskingum. In 1872, Harper enrolled in Yale University to begin his post graduate studies, which he completed in 1876. Throughout his academic life, Harper wrote numerous texts. A strong supporter of lifelong learning, Harper was also involved with the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, NY, and its programming.

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 the organization of the University of Chicago, and shortly thereafter, Harper was named its first President. In staffing the University and selecting students, Harper set the standards very high. Harper elevated the compensation of academic professions above that of school teacher, and by doing so attracted the best and the brightest 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 .[1]

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 work or other conflicts. 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 community college system in the United States.

Personal life

Harper married Ella Paul in 1875. They had three sons, Samuel Northrup, Paul and Donald, and a daughter, Davida.


Additionally, in 1896, Harper assisted Lydia Moss Bradley in developing her plans for the Bradley Polytechnic Institute in Peoria, Illinois. Upon the founding of the Institute, now known as Bradley University, Harper served as its first President.[2] Harper College, a two-year college in Palatine, Illinois, is named after him. There is also an elementary school in Cleveland, Ohio named after him. He is also the namesake for a high school and street in Chicago, Illinois.

Harper died on January 10, 1906 of cancer at the age of forty-nine.

Published works

  • Introductory Hebrew Method and Manual (1886)
  • An Inductive Greek Method (1888) (co-written by William E. Waters)
  • Elements of Hebrew Syntax By an Inductive Method (1888)
  • Eight Books Of Caesar's Gallic War (1891)
  • Young Folks Library: Leaders of Men or History Told in Biography (Editor-1891)
  • Xenophon's Anabasis Seven Books (1893)
  • Religion and the Higher Life (1904)
  • The Prophetic Element In The Old Testament: An Aid To Historical Study For Use In Advanced Bible Classes (1905)
  • A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Amos and Hosea (1905)


  1. ^ a b Bradley University (1907). Bradley Polytechnic Institute: The first decade, 1897-1907. Bradley University. p. 128. 
  2. ^ "The Founding of Bradley". Bradley University. Archived from the original on 2008-02-10. http://web.archive.org/web/20080210021958/http://www.bradley.edu/about/founding.shtml. Retrieved 2008-04-06. 


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.

External links

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

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