The Presidents of Northwestern Archives Home Exhibit Index

Thomas Franklin Holgate
April 8, 1859
Hastings County, Ontario
April 11, 1945
Evanston, Illinois
1904 - 1906
1916 - 1919
B.A., University of Toronto (1884);
M.A., University of Toronto (1889);
Ph.D., Clark University (1895)
"His sound judgment and administrative ability brought Northwestern through what seemed then to be a crisis, but proved to be the beginning of a period of unprecedented expansion and addition to resources."
- D.R. Curtiss
Thomas Holgate

Like Henry Sanborn Noyes, Thomas F. Holgate served twice as president of Northwestern University, in Holgate's case as the thirteenth and fifteenth occupant of the office.  Holgate was first drafted for this role on September 27, 1904, when Edmund Janes James unexpectedly accepted the presidency of the University of Illinois.  Holgate served as president ad interim until the arrival of Abraham Winegartener Harris in 1906.  Then, upon Harris's equally unexpected resignation in 1916, Holgate again received the call ad interim, serving until 1919.  In the cases of both James and Harris, Holgate was called upon to hold the rudder steady following the departure of two highly competent, well-respected presidents, hard acts to follow. But in Thomas Holgate the trustees had found a fine low-profile administrator, an old Northwestern hand, to shepherd the University briefly through uncertain times.

Thomas Franklin Holgate was born on April 8, 1859, in Hastings County, Ontario, Canada, and received his B.A. from the University of Toronto in 1884 and, from the same institution, an M.A. in 1889. Holgate began his professional teaching career in 1874 in the public school system of Ontario. Then upon graduation from college in 1884 he became a mathematics master (instructor) at Albert College, Belleville, Ontario, remaining there until 1890 when he became a fellow at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. He received a Ph.D. from Clark University in 1893, and in the same year came to Northwestern as an instructor in the Mathematics department. Rising quickly, he was made a full professor a mere year later. By 1897 he was playing an instrumental role in the formation of the Chicago section of the American Mathematical Society; he served as its secretary from 1897 to 1905. In 1902, he was appointed acting dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and, the following year, dean permanently.

In his first term as president (1904-1906), after James's departure, Holgate, realizing that the professionalization of education was an urgent priority, took the significant step of establishing an education department within the College of Liberal Arts. In the same vein, he initiated a training school for nurses, while the geology, zoology, and romance language departments were enlarged to accommodate the growing importance of the sciences. Also in his first term, the athletics field on Central Street—later the site of Ryan Field—was opened. He recommended the construction of a dining hall for men, no small matter when adequate facilities are lacking; he also recognized the need for a new women's dorm, as the number of women at the University had been on the increase for years and the shortage of space for them was pressing. All these steps were designed to outfit the University for what Holgate correctly anticipated as the future direction of American education.

Upon the appointment of Abram Winegardner Harris as president in 1906, Thomas Holgate happily resumed his post as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and as the Noyes Professor of Pure Mathematics.  But in 1916, with Harris's resignation, Holgate was again recruited.  This second tour of duty would be transitional both because of circumstances native to Northwestern and because of the wider context of World War I.

Academy at Fisk HallTwo major changes occurred during the second Holgate years.  The School of Pharmacy – beset by falling enrollment amidst a principled drive to improve the competence of the profession by increasing the curriculum's rigor – in 1917 was at last closed as it merged with the University of Illinois.  In addition, the Academy, Northwestern's preparatory school, which had through the years provided a steady supply of students for the University (and, hence, funds), was disadvantaged as never before by the ongoing rise of accessible public secondary education.  It too was shut down in 1917.  Set against this, however, was Holgate's success in lengthening the Law School's course of study to four years.  Likewise, in another move consonant with his emphasis on professionalism during his first term as president, degree courses in physical education and public speaking were initiated.

By way of showing the University's support for the war effort, under Holgate student military training was instituted and 3,600 soldiers and sailors were trained in technical subjects.  He also teamed up with future president Walter Dill Scott in doing personnel work for the War Department.  And, beyond Northwestern, Holgate was instrumental in the formation of the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools and served as its president in 1917-1918.  Also during Holgate's second term, Northwestern was elected to membership in the Association of American Universities. 

By the end of the war Holgate was ready to return to the classroom.  In 1919 he persuaded the trustees to accept his resignation, citing the familiar complaint of inadequate finances, but also prey to poor health.  It was true that the University relied too heavily on student fees rather than the cushion that an adequate endowment would have afforded.  (It would remain to Walter Dill Scott to overhaul the university's finances during his subsequent tenure as president in the twenties and thirties).  When Lynn Harold Hough was named to succeed Holgate, the latter was made dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts.  But he continued to teach mathematics for the next fifteen years, retiring in 1934.   Before his death on April 11, 1945, Thomas Holgate remained very active in the Methodist Church in many capacities, and served the cause of African American education, a particular interest of his, staunchly.  In recognition of this, the library at historically black Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, bears his name today.

Return to Index Abram Harris Lynn Hough | Last updated 9/8/2009