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John D. Rockefeller may have thought the University a plant of slow growth, but William Rainey Harper wanted it to bloom overnight. For all their mutual attraction, the founder and the first president were destined to clash.

By Ron Chernow

Illustrations by Victor Juhasz

Standard Oil baron John D. Rockefeller was, in many ways, an improbable university founder, for he was not bookish, never attended college, and operated more in a world of facts than theories.

Yet precisely because Rockefeller had missed college, no school could stake a claim on him. While he had the option of distributing his educational largesse widely, such dispersed giving didn’t jibe with his philosophy. In religion and education no less than in business, Rockefeller thought it a mistake to prop up weak entities that might otherwise perish in the evolutionary race. “I think mistakes are made by organizing too many feeble institutions—rather consolidate and have good, strong working church organizations,” he wrote in 1886—a remark that could have applied to his educational views. In the long run, Rockefeller transposed to philanthropy the same principle of consolidation that had worked so well for him in business. Worn down by masses of people clamoring for his money, Rockefeller knew that he now needed a larger and more efficient method for disposing of his fortune.

Instead of making isolated gifts, Rockefeller wanted to finance institutions whose research would have a pervasive influence. Of the University of Chicago, he later said, “Following the principle of trying to abolish evils by destroying them at the source, we felt that to aid colleges and universities, whose graduates would spread their culture far and wide, was the surest way to fight ignorance and promote the growth of useful knowledge.” To Rockefeller, the least imaginative use of money was to give it to people outright instead of delving into the causes of human misery. “That has been our guiding principle, to benefit as many people as possible,” he affirmed. “Instead of giving alms to beggars, if anything can be done to remove the causes which lead to the existence of beggars, then something deeper and broader and more worthwhile will have been accomplished.”

Businessmen such as Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie saw themselves as applying their managerial wisdom to the charity world. As at Standard Oil, Rockefeller wanted to reduce waste and duplication in the charitable sphere and deplored the lack of study behind much giving. "Today the whole machinery of benevolence is conducted upon more or less haphazard principles," he stated in his memoirs. The Universityof Chicago was Rockefeller's signature project.

In May 1888 a group of Baptist leaders met in Washington to form the American Baptist Education Society (ABES). For Rockefeller, the new group was providential, promising to serve as a handy conduit for channeling large amounts of money to worthy, well-researched Baptist schools.

Serving as executive secretary of the group was a fiery, articulate young Baptist minister, the 35-year-old Frederick T. Gates, who had recently resigned a pastorate in Minnesota and now gravitated toward more worldly affairs. Soon after he assumed the post, Gates championed a Baptist university in Chicago to fill a glaring void. The eastern churches held more money, but the faster-growing part of the membership resided in the Mississippi Valley and Great Lakes region. Before writing his report, Gates conducted an intensive study of Baptist education with prosecutorial zeal and ministerial fervor. Because many Baptist schools were located in rural backwaters, midwestern congregants often attended schools of other denominations. Having tripled in size in two decades and ranking as America’s second largest metropolis with 1.7 million residents, Chicago seemed the optimal site for a major college.

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