A Methodist experiment in graduate education: John Fletcher Hurst and the founding of The American University, 1889-1914
The founding of The American University in 1891 was at once an extension of and a departure from the philosophical underpinnings of late nineteenth century higher education in the United States. Its founder, Methodist bishop John Fletcher Hurst, desired to create a German-style, graduate university in the Nation's Capital. Hurst viewed the proposed university as an intellectual antidote to the growing secularism in American higher education. At the same time, it would counteract the founding, in Washington, of The Catholic University of America a few years before. The new university would be a capstone, graduate institution to serve all of Protestantism. It would draw on the educational resources of Washington to become a university of "national" importance without direct federal assistance or control. In 1892, the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church voted to support the university, with the proviso that it raise five million dollars in endowment before opening. The fund raising challenge grew harder a year later with the onset of the economic "Panic of 1893." In addition to financial uncertainty, Hurst's efforts suffered from contradictory goals, grandiose building plans, competition from existing Methodist institutions, and confusion over efforts to create a federally-funded, national university in Washington. The American University's problems persisted through Hurst's death in 1903, and the lackluster tenure of his successor, Bishop Charles C. McCabe. The university opened in 1914, only after the General Conference withdrew its endowment requirement and Chancellor Franklin Hamilton dispensed with Hurst's unrealistic educational vision. Hamilton's modest program depended upon the resources and experts of the federal government, and operated as such until 1924, when the university admitted undergraduates for the first time. In spite of Hurst's idealistic vision, his support for coeducation, and the operation of the university as a graduate institution, the early history of The American University has been largely ignored by educational historians. This study is intended to remedy this longstanding oversight.