The Presidents of Northwestern Archives Home Exhibit Index

Edmund James
 
Born:
 
May 21, 1955
Jacksonville, Illinois
Died:
 
June 17, 1925
Covina, California
President:
 
1902 - 1904
Education:
 
Attended Northwestern, Harvard;
M.A., Ph.D., University of Halle, Prussia (1877)
 
"Dr. James believed that it was truly the function of a university to take all knowledge for its province, and to exalt all great human values. Into the various fields of research and endeavor in whcih other men worked as specialists, his trained mind penetrated with sympathy, imagination, and understanding."
- Rev. James C. Baker, D.D.
Edmund James
 

When Edmund Janes James arrived in Evanston in March of 1902 to assume the presidency of Northwestern, the trustees could not be blamed for thinking that—finally—they had found their man. After the tenure of Henry Wade Rogers (1890-1900) ended in controversy and recrimination, and that of Daniel Bonbright (1900-1902) in fatigue, they had managed to conjure up a pious native son with a glittering resume, whose philosophy of higher education seemed in harmony with their own and whose abundant energy promised to transform the University. It did not take both sides long to learn that therein lay a problem.

James, the son of a Methodist clergyman from a distinguished line of Methodist notables from Jacksonville, Ill., was born on May 21, 1855, and spent one year as a student at Northwestern before finishing his undergraduate education at Harvard and securing his doctorate at the University of Halle, in Germany, in 1877. Immediately upon his return, he became the principal of Evanston High School; two years later he went on to lead Model High School in Normal, Ill. in the same capacity. By 1883 James had raised his sights, joining the Business faculty at the University of Pennsylvania as professor of public finance and administration, and taking on the directorship of the Wharton School of Finance. In 1893 he accepted an appointment at the new University of Chicago, as professor of public administration and as director of Pennsylvania's extension program there. It was from there that he attained the presidency of Northwestern University in early 1902.

James was already a man of considerable academic distinction. He was a founder of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and its first president in 1889-1901; he was also one of the organizers of the American Economic Association and its first vice president in 1885. As the first president of the American Society for the Extension of University Teaching in 1891, he was hugely successful in expanding the number of lecture courses and students in American extension courses. He was widely recognized as one of the country's foremost experts on municipal government, both for his activities in professional societies and for his numerous publications.

James's accession to the presidency of Northwestern was based upon his understanding with the trustees that they wanted to make the University the premier Methodist institution of higher learning in the country. After the cautious stewardship of Daniel Bonbright, bolder moves in a time of transition seemed called for. But all that was difficult to do simultaneously with a charge that the new president restrict his efforts within a highly restrictive financial policy. The trustees were happy to see Northwestern improve, but not at the cost of incurring debt to do so. From the start there was already some measure of misunderstanding, as the chairman of the board of trustees, M. H. Wilson, wrote to James that "[NU] is ambitious to develop and broaden that curriculum as rapidly as a wise administration of its resources will permit … [W]e cannot believe that on this proposition, your judgment will differ from our own."

Their confidence in James seems to have been based upon a mutual misapprehension. Upon his arrival in March, 1902, he lost no time in enumerating the defects he found at Northwestern. What he saw as a mediocre education was due to both lackluster faculty and a sketchy supporting staff. The faculty's weakness, he thought, was the natural result of an underfunded library with a sub-par collection. In addition, there were no decent science laboratories, and the professional schools were undistinguished; and James insisted that the University needed both a graduate school and a full-fledged technical school. Nor did Northwestern have a gymnasium, residence halls, a dining hall, a chapel, or a student union. Would the trustees be willing to marshal the resources to make good these defects?

Inauguration InvitationIn a word, after all, no. He was able persuade the trustees to establish a Jubilee Memorial Fund to celebrate semi-centennial in 1905, but not much beyond that. And so, James tried many expedients to raise funds otherwise. His primary focus was on alumni, and he encouraged the organization of alumni groups and reunions, the use of publications to appeal to alumni as well as news releases to them to enhance the school's credibility. Ahead of his time, he touted Northwestern football, baseball, and debate teams as means to raise the school's profile. He supported scholarships and fellowships designed to spread the word. He sponsored various educational conferences at Northwestern. He advocated having the president tour the country to bolster the school's reputation. In the same spirit, James's inauguration was an exercise in pomp—as was the opening of the new combined faculties at the Northwestern University Building on the Chicago campus—that was meant to gild Northwestern's image and facilitate fundraising. He even tried to interest Andrew Carnegie in supporting Northwestern, but after some effort, was disappointed when Carnegie balked at the school's religious affiliation. As for the Methodist community itself, they were supportive in theory—but in theory only.

In the end, James's innovations designed to raise money to support a "new university" did little to fill the school's coffers. They did, though, promote tension between him and the trustees, as his fine vision of Northwestern's future collided with that of sober trustees already still unsettled by their clash with mover-and-shaker Henry Wade Rogers. No surprise, then, that in 1904 James jumped at the offer of the presidency of the University of Illinois, a state school with more material support for the ambitions of the likes of an Edmund James. Upon James's departure, Northwestern business manager William A. Dyche, said, "I sometimes feel that James's wide horizon and his eagerness to plan for the years ahead were, from a practical standpoint, a source of weakness. Possibly if he had not had so many things in mind, each of which was beyond criticism, he might have been better satisfied with his labors." In the same vein but with admirable succinctness, William Deering, president of the Board of Trustees, proclaimed, "No more kite flyers."

Unsurprisingly, the trustees turned immediately to old reliable, former interim president Daniel Bonbright, who was certainly less subject to flights of fancy. This time, however, Bonbright demurred, and so the trustees settled on Thomas Holgate, another old Northwestern hand who understood implicitly how the University worked. Meanwhile, at Illinois Janes James went on to became well respected president (1904-1920), who, among his many accomplishments, played a critical role in setting the Illinois university library on the road to becoming one of the very best in the country, if not the world.

 
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