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William Rainey Harper: Bradley’s first president

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An illustration of William Rainey Harper, the first president of Bradley University.

When Lydia Moss Bradley started Bradley Polytechnic Institute in 1896, she enlisted the help of one of the nation’s leading educators in William Rainey Harper.

Five years before Bradley was established, Harper founded the University of Chicago where he served as that institution’s first president.

Karen Graves, a professor at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, a school where Harper taught for two years, called Harper “a major player in education in the early 20th century.”

“At the University of Chicago, the departments of economics, theology and education all had a critical impact on public policy in the 20th century,” said Graves.

Harper was a fast learner. He received his undergraduate degree at the age of 14 and completed his doctorate just four years later. A lifelong teacher, Harper never stopped writing textbooks or holding classes—even as a college president.

While a classics scholar who taught languages such as Hebrew and Sanskrit, Harper was also an innovator in his day, Graves said.

“Harper helped establish the concept of the university as a place where knowledge is created—using research,” she said.

“Harper was very good at convincing John D. Rockefeller, one of the nation’s richest men, to release the purse strings for institutions at that time,” said Graves.

Joanne Glasser, then Bradley’s president at the university’s Founder’s Day ceremony in 2012, cited Harper’s relationship with Lydia Moss Bradley.

“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,” recalled Glasser.

Harper’s foresight extended to the concept of the community college, said Glasser in 2012. “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,” she said.

Bradley Polytechnic Institute was renamed Bradley University in 1946.

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Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.