Eastern Kentucky University President Michael Benson’s next book will spotlight “one of the most remarkable figures in the history of American higher education.”
As president of fledgling Johns Hopkins University from 1875 to 1901, Daniel Coit Gilman “created the prototype for the modern research university.”
When the university’s namesake, wealthy philanthropist Johns Hopkins, passed away in 1873, he left behind a $7-million endowment — equal amounts to fund a university and a hospital, and at that time the largest single bequest in the history of American higher education. The first task for his hand-picked trustees was to select a president to lead the Baltimore institution.
They looked to the opposite coast and unanimously picked Gilman, who had already carved a national reputation as president of the University of California. Gilman and the trustees dedicated the university to “knowledge for the world,” making original research its backbone.
The book, to be titled “Every Epoch Requires a Fresh Start: Daniel Coit Gilman and the Birth of the Modern American research University,” fills a vacuum in American higher education history, Benson said.
“The bulk of the work,” Benson added, “will revolve around the preparation Gilman spent in deliberating, discussing, developing, refining and eventually implementing the plan” that, according to educational historian John Thelin of the University of Kentucky, “brought to fruition the quest for a genuine modern American university.”
Success and fame came quickly for Gilman and the university he helmed. From 1876 to 1902, Johns Hopkins produced 596 Ph.D. graduates. Compare that to Harvard University, which logged 320 Ph.D. degrees in the same period, despite its 240-year head start.
At Gilman’s retirement celebration, President Woodrow Wilson, a Johns Hopkins graduate and later president of Princeton University, said Gilman was “the first to create and organize in America a university in which the discovery and dissemination of new truths were conceded a rank superior to mere instruction, and in which the efficiency and value of research as an educational instrument were exemplified in the training of many investigators. (Gilman) established in America a new and higher university ideal, whose essential feature was not stately edifices, nor yet the mere association of pupils with learned and eminent teachers, but rather the education of trained and vigorous minds.”
Benson said the book will also “draw on accounts critical of Gilman,” specifically a lack of original scholarship in his area of study (geography) as well as a lack of “general gravitas when compared to his contemporaries.” Laurence Veysey, best known for his history of higher education, “The Emergence of the American University,” said Gilman lacked a scholar’s temperament and was “master of the pleasant platitude,” with his rhetoric generally portraying “stately cheerfulness or ponderous caution.”
The book, to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press – the oldest university press in America, founded by Gilman in 1878 – follows “College for the Commonwealth: A Case for Higher Education in American Democracy,” authored by Benson and former colleague Hal Boyd, which appeared in 2018. “College for the Commonwealth” was recently nominated for the University of Louisville 2020 Grawemeyer Award in Education.
Benson has served as president of EKU, a regional comprehensive university with approximately 17,000 students, since 2013. He previously served as president of Snow College and Southern Utah University. He earned his B.A. cum laude from Brigham Young University in 1990 with a major in political science and double minor in English and history. In 1995, he completed his doctorate in Middle Eastern history from the University of Oxford (St. Antony’s College), where he was a Rotary Foundation Scholar and recipient of the Oxford Graduate Overseas Fellowship. He also earned a master’s degree cum laude in non-profit administration in 2011 from the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, where he was the recipient of the prestigious Father Theodore Hesburgh Founder’s Award. Currently, Benson is pursuing a Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) degree at Johns Hopkins University.
Credit: Photo of Daniel Coit Gilman taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston, courtesy of Johns Hopkins University.