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From the outset, Rockefeller swore that he would avoid the rich man’s trap of endowing institutions that would become dependent wards. His ideal was to create organizations that would take on independent lives and outgrow him. Pledging $600,000 for the Chicago college, he gave the ABES one year from June 1, 1890, to drum up another $400,000 from outside sources.

Having devoted his career to eliminating risk from the petroleum business, Rockefeller was unsettled by the uncertainties that dogged the Chicago project. For a long time, the question of who would lead the college was every bit as vexing as who—besides Rockefeller—would support it.

William Rainey Harper was always Rockefeller’s choice for president, and at times the venture seemed to hinge upon his acceptance. As the star salesman who had converted Rockefeller to the cause, Harper enjoyed his special trust. Whatever his occasional qualms about Harper’s flamboyant rhetoric, Rockefeller was sure the young biblical scholar had unique credentials to run the school. In his grandiloquent visions of this new institution, Harper was not above gently flattering Rockefeller, making the new institution sound like the collegiate equivalent of Standard Oil. “And let it be a university made up of a score of colleges with a large degree of uniformity in their management; in other words, an educational trust,” Harper advised him. These sublime words both inspired and petrified Rockefeller. Hounded by requests for money, he didn’t know if he had the income to juggle so many commitments. In January 1889, he told Harper that they should start modestly with a college and defer the university till a later day. “So many claims have pressed upon me,” he explained. “I have not really needed a University to absorb my surplus.”

Harper agonized over whether to take the presidential post at Chicago or stick with the biblical scholarship he loved. The question was a proxy for the larger issue of whether he sought power and status in life or the quieter rewards of scholarship. Harper was an original theorist and a charismatic teacher who hated to lose contact with his students, but he was also intensely ambitious. To pin him down, Yale offered him a generous, six-year compensation package that would allow him to hold two prestigious chairs at once. Learning of this, Rockefeller wrote Harper, “It would break my heart if I did not believe you would stay in the fold all right. For all the reasons I believe you will. Be sure you do.” When Harper conferred with him two weeks later, Rockefeller pleaded with him to avoid any permanent commitment to Yale.

When the University of Chicago charter was adopted in May 1890, the school still lacked a president. In spite of Rockefeller’s reiterated preference for a small college, Harper wanted nothing less than a full-fledged university and believed the $1 million raised so far a mere pittance that fell short of his visions. As Harper wrestled with the dilemma, Rockefeller wrote to him in August, promising to add a premium to his salary. “I do not forget that the effort to establish the University grew out of your suggestion to me at Vassar and I regard you as the father of the institution, starting out under God with such great promise of future usefulness.” Harper must have noted Rockefeller’s use of the hitherto taboo word university.

This letter alerted Harper to the fact that he now enjoyed considerable bargaining power in shaping the new institution, and his rhetoric only grew more sonorous. “The denomination and indeed the whole country are expecting the University of Chicago to be from the very beginning an institution of the highest rank and character,” he replied to Rockefeller. “Already it is talked of in connection with Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan, and Cornell.” Harper characterized the money raised so far as insufficient to realize such lofty aims. Among other things, he envisaged a university where he could perpetuate his own scholarly interests and act as president and professor. When Rockefeller consented to his demand for an extra million dollars to transfer the Morgan Park Theological Seminary to the new Chicago campus, the 34-year-old Harper capitulated and formally accepted the presidency in February 1891. It now seemed clear that his spacious dreams would carry him beyond the small, cloistered world of a biblical scholar.

Over time, the immoderate Harper gave liberal interpretations to Rockefeller’s vague promises of money, but he never misrepresented the scope of his plans. Even before accepting the presidency, he boasted to Rockefeller, “I believe that ten years will show an institution at Chicago which will amaze the multitudes.” Working 16-hour days, Harper now negotiated more than 120 faculty appointments in little more than a year. Rockefeller might think the university a plant of slow growth, but Harper wanted it to bloom overnight. The new president raided so many Ivy League faculties—the ranks of Yale and Cornell were especially depleted—that his ransacked rivals complained of foul play. Harper dangled sizable sums before reluctant prospects, enlarging the school’s future financial requirements. This nationwide talent search netted nine college presidents for the first faculty. Harper signed up John Dewey and George Herbert Mead for the philosophy department and enticed novelist Robert Herrick to join the English department, while Albion Small initiated America’s first graduate department in sociology. Another eminent recruit, economist Thorstein Veblen, came to regard Harper as the educational counterpart of capitalists such as Rockefeller and satirized him as a captain of erudition, one of a new species of empire builders in higher education.

However inspired he was by Harper, Rockefeller felt sorely beset by his extravagant spending, and their relations began to fray. With outside fund-raising stalled, it seemed that Rockefeller’s worst nightmare was coming true: He would end up sole benefactor of an institution that would bleed him dry for years. Whenever they met, they stayed away from money talk and spoke of educational policy. Financial matters were shunted off into increasingly testy private exchanges between Gates and Harper—exchanges that Rockefeller reviewed privately. By the spring of 1891, Rockefeller began to develop the queasy sense that Harper regarded his money as a blank check to cover annual deficits. To their surprise and disbelief, Rockefeller and Gates saw that the new president would not drop his busy lecture schedule (which netted him $4,000 a year) and contemplated a $3,000 offer to head the Chautauqua School of the English Bible, while also planning a fancy European trip—all the while banking a handsome $10,000 salary at the University of Chicago. As Rockefeller fumed in the summer of 1891, Gates met with Harper and urged him to shed his outside activities. “Of course he rejected these proposals,” Gates informed Rockefeller, “as well as the intimation contained in it that his motives are not without their mercenary side.” It was an odd situation: the world’s richest man chastising a biblical scholar for unseemly materialism.

What really disturbed Rockefeller was not so much making money but spending it. One Cleveland society woman, a friend, told a story of sitting beside him on a streetcar when the conductor came to collect fares. When Rockefeller handed him a quarter, the conductor deducted two nickel fares, assuming he would pay for the lady, and gave him 15 cents change. “My change is 5 cents short,” Rockefeller declared. “Why, no. I took out two fares and gave you back 15 cents,” explained the conductor. “But I did not tell you to take out two fares,” Rockefeller retorted. “Let this be a lesson to you, and never assume that a passenger is paying for two people unless he says so.” Rockefeller reviewed every bill that arrived at home and often patrolled the hallways, turning off gaslights. Such habits were not simply reflexive stinginess but were rooted in bedrock beliefs about the value of money. When he discovered that one railroad overcharged him $117 for carrying his family and horses, he had the Standard Oil treasurer immediately retrieve the money. “I need the $117 to build mission churches in the West,” he explained, showing the association in his own mind between savings and charity.

With such uncommon respect for the dollar, he couldn’t cope with the psychological demands of the University of Chicago and other philanthropic commitments. As Rockefeller said, “I investigated and worked myself almost to a nervous breakdown in groping my way, without sufficient guide or chart, through the ever-widening field of philanthropic endeavor. It was forced upon me to organize and plan this department upon as distinct lines of progress as our other business affairs.” Had he known what lay ahead, it seems doubtful that he would have persevered. But he had now publicly staked his reputation on this hugely expensive endeavor and, in the last analysis, wherever William Rainey Harper led, John D. Rockefeller would grudgingly follow. He was not a man to abandon a project that had received his blessing.

The figures of Rockefeller’s contributions between 1889 and 1892 reflect the expanding nature of his giving. From $124,000 in 1889 (right before his big pledge to Gates), his donations soared to $304,000 in 1890, $510,000 in 1891, and then a spectacular $1.35 million in 1892 ($22 million today) as he opened the spigot for the University of Chicago.

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