His parents were Ellen Rainey and Samuel Harper, a grocery store keeper, who lived and worked in New Concord, Ohio. William was born in the afternoon of July 24th 1856, in the 9X12 foot downstairs bedroom of a five room log cabin. Harper cabin remains intact in its original location and restored condition across from the entrance to Muskingum College in the middle of Main Street (photo below). Across the street and about a block east, the grocery building still stands, now housing an antique shop (Margaret Lane Antiques). As a boy, William supported his father's business by purchasing and selling wool and by helping dam a local stream to produce and sell ice.
Oil baron, John D. Rockefeller, sought to create and endow a "Harvard" of the midwest. He called on 35 year old Harper to help organize and run this new private, nondenominational, coeducational university which by the fall of 1891 would be located on a swampy piece of prairie near the shore of Lake Michigan on what is now called the "gray city". On October 1, 1892 classes began at the University of Chicago. Its enrollment consisted of 594 students and 103 faculty. So great was its promise that the first faculty included eight former college and university presidents who resigned their posts in order to teach here. William Rainey Harper, the University's first president, envisioned a university that was "`bran splinter new,' and yet as solid as the ancient hills." His institution would be a modern research university, combining an English-style undergraduate college and a German-style graduate research institute. Harper was an aggressive upstart who used persuasion, money, and promises of institutional power to lure prominent, but often young, scholars to the "wild" West. Although the university was located on an urban frontier, it wanted to rival the intellectually preeminent East. Largely eschewing the areas of established excellence, Harper encouraged early administrators to seek new disciplines and ambitious faculty. The University put the undergraduate college solidly in the center of a major graduate research institution and the faculty in charge of its educational mission. The University of Chicago fulfilled Rockefeller and Harper's dream, quickly becoming a national leader in higher education and research. Williams College professor of history, Frederick Rudolph (The American College and University: A History, 1962) wrote, "No episode was more important in shaping the outlook and expectations of American higher education ... than the founding of the University of Chicago, one of those events in American history that brought into focus the spirit of an age." Harper was outspoken and scorned tradition. His belief that sectarianism was an enemy of education played a major role in the formation of Chicago's program. Seizing an opportunity generated by academic unrest at another institution, he visited Clark University and recruited two-thirds of the faculty and half of the graduate students, generating a solid core upon which build his University, but devestating that institution. Clark president and pioneering psychologist, G. Stanley Hall, was rightfully outraged and never forgave him, viewing "Harper's raid" as an unethical act. Harper shook the 1892 others in the academic world by giving women equal education and teaching opportunities, by initiating the four quarter system, by creating extension programs for adults, and by doubling the top salary scale. Many educators laughed at these radical innovations and newspapers referred to the University as "Harper's Folly", while John D. Rockefeller called the it "the best investment I ever made."
By the end of its first century, the University had an enrollment of more than 10,700, a faculty of 1,200, and more than 60 Nobel Prize-winners. The University included the undergraduate College, four graduate Divisions, six graduate professional schools, the Office of Continuing Education, the University of Chicago Press, and the "Chicago Research Schools" of Economics, of Sociology, and of Literary Criticism.
In the field of education, Chicago has stood out as an innovator since its start. Notably, John Dewey, America's most influential philosopher of education and one of the founders of the Functionalism School of Psychology, stimulated long-lasting curricular ferment during his tenure from 1894 to 1904. His "laboratory school" for elementary-age children promoted the idea that research was the way to improve educational programs and it became a model for similar schools around the world. By the time the University was ten years old it was the nation's leading center for the study of educational psychology and philosophy.