The Presidents of Northwestern Archives Home Exhibit Index

Charles Henry Fowler
 
Born:
 
August 11, 1837
Burford, Canada
Died:
 
March 20, 1908
New York, New York
President:
 
1873 - 1876
Education:
 
Prepared at Rock River Seminary, Mt. Morris, IL and Genesee Wesleyan Seminary (Lima, NY);
B.A., Genesee College (1859);
B.D. and D.D., Garrett Biblical Institute, Evanston (1861) ;
L.L.D., Syracuse University;
LL.D., Wesleyan University
 
"He was a man of remarkable intellectual powers, and it was more on account of these and of his rhetorical abilities, than because of his scholarship or experience in educational administration, that he was chosen to lead the institution which was now rapidly advancing to the position of a university of the first class."
-J. Seymour Curry, Chicago, Its History and Its Builders, 1912
Charles Henry Fowler
 

Born in Canada in 1837, Charles H. Fowler moved to Illinois with his family when he was a child. After attending two Methodist preparatory schools, Fowler took his undergraduate degree at Genesee College (now Syracuse University) in Lima, New York, in 1859. He returned to Illinois, planning to study law, but within a year decided to study for the ministry. He moved to Evanston to attend Garrett Biblical Institute. On September 8, 1860, he and other Garrett and Northwestern students helped rescue passengers from the Lady Elgin shipwreck.

After he graduated from Garrett in 1861, Fowler was immediately called to the ministry in Chicago, serving in four churches over the next twelve years. During that time, he turned down opportunities to serve as president of various colleges, including Northwestern. He married Myra Amanda Hitchcock (1842-1918) of Chicago in 1868. In 1872 he accepted a new offer from Northwestern, and was elected President of the University on the same day that Erastus O. Haven resigned.

Fowler took on the presidency with no previous experience in educational administration, or in teaching. Still, he was ambitious and energetic, and aspired to transform Northwestern from a college into a university. According to legend, when he arrived on the Northwestern campus, Fowler confidently stated, "I think I can ride that horse." His well-known rhetorical abilities were demonstrated on June 26, 1873, during a stirring two-hour inaugural address on the purpose of a university, including the injunction that universities give instruction to women as well as men.

During his short tenure as President, Fowler did take significant steps toward his goals of enhancing Northwestern’s reputation and increasing its offerings. In 1873 he appointed Dr. Herbert Fisk as Principal of Northwestern's Preparatory School (later called the Evanston Academy). Fisk built the Preparatory School into a significant and respected institution during his 30 years of service. To Northwestern’s traditional classical or scientific curricula, Fowler added a modern language curriculum, leading to a Bachelor of Letters degree (this degree existed until 1904).

Frances WillardMeeting a long-term goal of the University, in 1873 the Union College of Law became a department of Northwestern University, co-managed by Chicago University. Another new affiliation was the Evanston College for Ladies, established in 1871, which became the Woman’s College of Northwestern in 1873. The President of the Evanston College for Ladies, Frances E. Willard (who long ago had briefly been engaged to Fowler), became Northwestern's first Dean of Women. (She resigned in 1874 after a disagreement over the governance of the women students.) Fowler also established a College of Technology, offering courses in Engineering, Chemistry, and Natural History. Twenty students were enrolled in the new College in 1875-6, but, due to funding and staffing difficulties, it was discontinued by 1877 (the College of Engineering, which became the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, was founded in 1908).

Despite these successes, Fowler's ambition overreached the ability of the University to support his goals, especially in view of the current financial situation. Like many academic institutions of the time, which relied heavily on real estate income rather than endowments, Northwestern suffered when the Panic of 1873 became a depression and real estate values declined. Interest payments on money borrowed in more prosperous times created an increasing deficit. In addition, in 1874 the city of Evanston filed a suit to overturn the section of Northwestern's charter that exempted the University from paying taxes on its property holdings. The suit dragged on for several years, making it impossible for the University to increase its spending while the threat of a substantial debt persisted. Without funding, new faculty could not be hired or existing faculty sufficiently recompensed, and plans for expansion faltered.

Fowler resigned from Northwestern in May, 1876, when he was elected by the Methodist General Conference to be editor of the Christian Advocate in New York City. In 1880 he was elected Missionary Secretary of the Methodist Church, and in 1884 he became the third Northwestern president to be elected a bishop of the Church. He died on March 20, 1908, in New York City.

 
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archives@northwestern.edu | Last updated 9/8/2009