See biography by T. W. Goodspeed (1928); R. J. Storr, Harper's University (1966).
William Rainey Harper (July 26, 1856 – January 10, 1906) was a noted academic who helped to organize the University of Chicago and Bradley University and served as the first President of both institutions.
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.
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. While his critics called this policy imprudent, Rockefeller called the move one of his best investments.
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. 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. 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.