2012 Founder's Day Convocation

Below are President Glasser's remarks from the 2012 Founder's Day Convocation on October 12, 2012.

Thank you for joining us today to celebrate our heritage and honor the spirit of our founder, Lydia Moss Bradley.  This morning, I would like to share with you some thoughts and biographical information about our first faculty president, William Rainey Harper.

Yes, founder’s day is a celebration of Lydia Moss Bradley, yet Dr. Harper was closely involved in the founding of our university and instrumental in executing Mrs. Bradley’s vision. 

Much like Mrs. Bradley, Dr. Harper was an extraordinary individual who was dedicated to expanding higher education and shared her belief that colleges and universities should provide an educational platform for professional training supported by a broad liberal arts foundation.  This model continues to serve our students well after 115 years of practice.

Dr. Harper was born in a 9-by-12-foot log cabin in new concord, Ohio, in 1856, almost 40 years to the day after Mrs. Bradley. He entered prep school at Muskingum college at age eight, and by 10 became a freshman studying language and music.

Dr. Harper was considered a child prodigy for his extraordinary intellect.  He earned his bachelor’s degree at fourteen, then a PH.D. from Yale University at eighteen.  Upon receiving his doctoral degree, Dr. Harper held various positions at Dennison University, Baptist Theological Seminary in Chicago, and Yale.

By 1889 Mr. Harper had started five schools in separate cities, founded a correspondence school for those who could not attend in person and opened a printing office to publish lesson outlines and manuals. One hundred years before the internet and online classes, William Rainey Harper was a champion of distance learning to bring education to more people.

As Dr. Harper became a national figure, John D. Rockefeller noticed and selected him to lead a new educational institution in the Midwest – one that could rival Yale and other Eastern universities. This would become the University of Chicago. But Harper would not accept the position until he was promised independence to develop the institution according to his own high standards.

Not yet 35 years old, Dr. Harper became president of the University of Chicago in 1891. His success was phenomenal and his reputation as a leader in higher education was secured.

It is no wonder Dr. Harper and Mrs. Bradley became fast friends and partners. They met in October of 1896 and Harper immediately became a strong advocate for Mrs. Bradley to move ahead with her vision. He traveled to Peoria and urged her not to wait until her death to establish a school as she had planned.  Dr. Harper was a very persuasive man and within 10 days of their meeting, Lydia agreed to found the institute as soon as possible.

Bradley Polytechnic Institute was chartered on November 13, 1896.

Mrs. Bradley provided 17.5 acres of land, $170,000 for buildings, equipment and a library, and $30,000 a year for operating expenses. That was a large commitment at the time. 

In addition to his role as University of Chicago founding president, Dr. Harper became the first president of Bradley’s faculty. He had great knowledge of academics, and he was an expert in higher education administration.  Dr. Harper once said, “I have a plan that is at the same time unique and comprehensive, which I am persuaded will revolutionize university study in this country.”

So how did he become, as we might call him today, Mrs. Bradley’s right-hand man?  I believe three important characteristics made Dr. Harper the leader that she so trusted. Focus, foresight and faith.

Dr. Harper was tremendously focused on whatever goal he faced. His academic accomplishments at such a young age were evidence of that, but so was his daily routine.  From 5 to 5:30 a.m., Dr. Harper rose and dressed. At 5:45, he drank a cup of coffee. From 5:45 to 6:45, he dictated letters and instructions. From 6:45 to 7, he took a bicycle ride. His entire day was regimented. We know this because he took meticulous notes of his daily activities.  Dr. Harper lived his life “according to a working plan,” as he expressed it. He developed ambitious goals and concentrated on them until they became reality.

In meeting Mrs. Bradley, he found a like-minded colleague, one focused on educating young people.  He understood the importance of education to improve one’s position in life. At the University of Chicago, he added professional schools for medicine, education and law, and created primary and secondary schools and museums for paleontology, anthropology and Asian studies.

Pressing the urgency for more facilities at Chicago’s spring convocation in 1899, Harper said, “Patience sometimes ceases to be a virtue … some of us who ambitiously claimed to be young men when the university opened its doors must now acknowledge that old age is creeping rapidly on. We cannot afford to wait for time." Mr. Harper’s wisdom resonates today.

Like Mrs. Bradley, Dr. Harper saw the future of education differently than most. And like Mrs. Bradley, he believed in education for both men and women. He offered equal learning and teaching opportunities for women, which was virtually unheard of at the time. Many educators laughed at Mr. Harper’s radical innovations.  Newspapers referred to the University of Chicago as “Harper's folly.” But John D. Rockefeller called it "The best investment I ever made."

I’d like to believe some of Dr. Harper’s radical ideas originated with Mrs. Bradley.  Both knew the future needed educated individuals — male and female alike — to carry the nation forward toward a prosperous new century.

Dr. Harper’s foresight extended to the community college movement as well. He proposed two-year institutions close to students’ homes where they could focus on liberal arts and general education. This was Dr. Harper’s plan for Bradley – to be a two-year community college that would prepare students to attend the university of Chicago. But Mrs. Bradley had a different idea. Fiercely independent, she wanted her institution to remain unaffiliated and autonomous.

Yes, Dr. Harper was an educational pioneer, thanks to his focus and his foresight, but also because of his faith. Dr. Harper was a spiritual man. While neither Chicago nor Bradley is a religious institution, Dr. Harper made no secret of his beliefs, publishing several works including a book called religion and the higher life.

Mrs. Bradley was also a woman of faith, donating land to build a hospital that we now know as Saint Francis Medical Center. She funded construction of the Universalist Church in Peoria, and while she stipulated that Bradley Polytechnic should remain nonsectarian, she did provide in the charter for the development of programs that focused on morality and right living.

In his last year of life, before dying of cancer in 1906, Dr. Harper expressed his faith by saying, “I enter upon the unseen world with far less hesitation than I felt in undertaking the Presidency of the University.” It is said that his very last words were, “God always helps.”

These three lessons from William Rainey Harper’s life — focus, foresight and faith — continue to guide our institution. His focus on academic and institutional excellence, his foresight of social and educational justice, and his faith in something we cannot explain are noble traits, attributes that Lydia Moss Bradley valued as well.

Dr. Harper was beloved by the Bradley faculty, and they wrote this after his death: “He made a great place for himself in the history of the institute. In a very true sense he labored with Mrs. Bradley to lay deep and solid foundations upon which the faculty might build.”  Indeed, Dr. Harper made a defining contribution to Bradley that has endured for 115 years and will continue to do so long into the future. He influenced thousands of lives — students and faculty alike — and in the process helped shape the future of Bradley and our many successful alumni worldwide.

As we honor Dr. Harper and Mrs. Bradley this Founder’s Day, let’s remember the power of their collaboration toward a common goal and seek to emulate their example.  Said simply by Henry Ford, “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” Our accomplishments are before us, thanks to the dedication of Mrs. Bradley, Dr. Harper and those of us at Bradley University today.

Thank you for being part of our success.