UT's First Presidents

Blount College, the forerunner of the University of Tennessee, was chartered by the legislature of the Southwest Territory in 1794 as a non-sectarian school without ties to any religious denomination. Nevertheless, the college's first president was a minister--as were six of the next nine men who followed him as the institution changed its name to East Tennessee College, East Tennessee University, and the University of Tennessee. Two of the three men who were not ministers had close ties to organized religion: one, James H. Piper, studied for the ministry and may have become a minister; his successor, Joseph Estabrook, was preparing for the ministry when a throat ailment forced him to discontinue his studies.

The religious character of the institution's presidency during these early years was reflected in a classical curriculum not unlike that of the colleges at which these minister-scholars had received their own education. It was not until the inauguration in 1887 of the eleventh president, Charles Dabney--the first president with an earned Ph.D.--that the course of study changed significantly.

Three of the minister-presidents (Carrick, Coffin, and Cooke) were ordained as Presbyterians; two were Episcopalians (Humes and Ridley), and one was a member of the Christian Church (Carnes); Piper was probably a Presbyterian minister at one time but later shifted his religious affiliation to the Episcopal Church; the affiliation of Sherman is unknown.

The classical influence of the New England colleges must have been strong on those presidents who attended them: Estabrook and Cooke were graduates of Dartmouth, Sherman went to Yale, and Coffin attended Harvard. Carrick, the first president, was educated in Virginia at Liberty Hall Academy, which was founded by a minister. The academy later became Washington College and was the alma mater of James Piper. Ridley was an alumnus of the University of North Carolina. Three of the early presidents had East Tennessee connections: Reese attended Blount and Greeneville Colleges, and Humes and Carnes graduated, respectively, from East Tennessee College and East Tennessee University.

The salary of the first president, Samuel Carrick, was $450 a year in 1808, but a little over a decade later David Sherman was paid $900. The increase was probably due to inflation after the War of 1812. The next president, Charles Coffin, in addition to receiving a home, was paid $1,500, presumably quite a good salary for 1827. Three years before the Civil War, the salary of William Carnes was $2,100 along with a house -the largest salary of any of the first ten presidents. In 1865, Thomas Humes received $2,000 in addition to his traveling expenses.

The eighteen-year tenure of Humes was the longest of the early presidents, and he probably would have served longer had not the proponents of change caused his resignation. Joseph Estabrook's presidency lasted sixteen years, reflecting a period when the school's money problems were less severe than usual. Samuel Carrick had been president for fifteen years when he died at the age of forty-nine. The other seven presidents served terms of less than six years, with Cooke and Carnes serving two years each and Piper only one. At the age of thirty-three, Piper was the youngest president of the first ten.

Carrick was a year older when he became president of Blount College. Estabrook and Cooke were both forty-two; the others were in their fifties, with Reese being the oldest at fifty-seven. As Sherman's birthdate is unknown, it is not clear how old he was when he assumed the presidency of East Tennessee College.

Reverend Samuel Carrick, 1794-1809

Like many Presbyterian ministers who began private schools on the frontier, Carrick opened a seminary in his home for Knoxville students seeking a classical education. The event occurred in 1792, two years before a bill to establish a college in the territorial capital was introduced in the legislature. Born in 1760 in Pennsylvania, Carrick was educated in Virginia and ordained as a minister at the tender age of twenty-two. He visited the Southwest Territory several times, presumably as an itinerant preacher, before settling in the vicinity of Knoxville about 1791, accompanied by his wife and three children. His first church was located at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers, near the site of the present Forks of the River industrial park. Variously described as "urbane, and even courtly and of a fine commanding appearance" and as "liberal, tolerant, and refined," Carrick was also rugged enough for the Tennessee frontier; a story told of him is that he left the burial of his first wife to others in order to join a retaliatory expedition against a band of Cherokees. Carrick was the first preacher in Knoxville and served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church concurrently with his presidency of Blount College.

Pioneers were jacks of all trades, and Carrick was no exception. He served as a teacher in his classical school at home, preached in two churches, and practiced "the art of healing" even though he had no formal medical training. At Blount College, Carrick was president and sole faculty member to an unknown number of students. Gifts and tuition of $8.00 per semester were insufficient to sustain the college very long. When Carrick died in August 1809, he was owed salary of $87.82, which his heirs received twelve years later with interest of $59.61.

With Carrick's death, the college, which had been redesignated as East Tennessee College in 1808, was closed until 1820. No likeness of Carrick has survived. His appearance is as mysterious as the middle name CZR which was inscribed on his tombstone.

Reverend David A. Sherman, 1820-25

When East Tennessee College reopened in 1820, its new president was David Sherman, formerly principal of Hampden-Sydney Academy, a struggling Knoxville preparatory school which now merged with its larger neighbor. Sherman was a New Englander and a graduate of Yale College, where he remained as a tutor after his graduation in 1802. In 1817, he was in Knoxville as principal of Hampden-Sydney; his salary was apparently so meager that he also took on the post of librarian of the newly formed Knoxville Library Company--at an annual salary of $20. One of Sherman's students said he was a hard worker and a rigid disciplinarian. Apparently, he did not "spare the rod" as he carried with him a two-foot stick roughened on the end to better sting a pupil's hand. Strict laws concerning church attendance, absences, damages, and misdemeanors and crimes were adopted during his administration.

Sherman resigned in 1825 due to poor health, but he seems to have regained enough vigor to assume the presidency of Jackson College in Columbia, Tennessee. Sherman's departure would have left East Tennessee College bereft of a library had not the school's trustees purchased his books for $161.63. Sherman had allowed the students to use his own volumes during his presidency.

Reverend Charles Coffin, 1827-32

In 1826, the trustees of East Tennessee College voted to sever ties with Hampden-Sydney Academy and to purchase a new site for the college. A forty-acre tract of land to the west of Knoxville called "Barbara Hill" was chosen because of its excellent location ("near and yet secluded"), its spaciousness, the springs on the property, and the commanding view from its hill. They tendered the presidency of the college to Charles Coffin, president of Greeneville College (Tusculum) and a Presbyterian minister with a Doctor of Divinity degree from Williams College. A native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Harvard, Coffin had come to Tennessee in 1800 to join the faculty of Greeneville College. Ten years later he assumed its presidency and also the pastorship of the local Presbyterian church. As a special enticement to get him to come to Knoxville, the trustees offered a $1,500 annual salary, generous for that time, and a president's home, purchased when an additional seventy-four acres including a spacious residence were added to the original tract.

Coffin remained as president for five years, teaching full-time in addition to performing administrative work. During his tenure, fierce public opposition was expressed over the expenditure of $13,000 on the college s first building (Old College which was razed in 1919 to build Ayres Hall). Additional criticism was directed at the college for being primarily a school for the wealthy. This opposition was partly a factor in Coffin's resignation, for in leaving he told the trustees that the "public feeling" of East Tennesseans was not sufficient to support a college. Although Coffin was only fifty-seven when he left the presidency, he thought a "younger man, of unfailing health" should be selected to lead the institution.

James H. Piper, 1833-34

The trustees must have felt the same way for they chose the youngest man of the first ten to be president. At the time of his selection in 1833, James Hays Piper, age thirty-three, had been president of Columbia College (formerly Woodward Academy) in Columbia, Tennessee, for two years and professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at East Tennessee College for three years.

A native of Rockbridge County, Virginia, Piper received a bachelor's degree from Washington College (later Washington and Lee) in 1819 and the Master of Arts degree from East Tennessee College in 1830, the latter apparently as a reward for his joining the faculty. After serving only one year as president, Piper resigned and returned to his home state of Virginia, where he became a surveyor, engineer, and turnpike builder. He also served in the state senate from 1840 to 1846 and thereafter for a short time in the Polk administration as Principal Clerk of Public Lands in the General Land Office. Although he is said to have been a Presbyterian minister, there is no corroborative evidence of this. There is evidence, however, that he attended the first Episcopal convention in Tennessee in 1829 and was a vestryman of an Episcopal church in Wythe County, Virginia.

Although he disliked speaking of it, Piper won some renown in his later years for a feat he had accomplished while a student at Washington College in 1818: he was the first white man known to have scaled the Natural Bridge.

Joseph Estabrook, 1834-50

Joseph Estabrook was one of three UT presidents who were not ministers. A native of New Hampshire, Estabrook graduated from Dartmouth in 1815 and began preparing for the ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary when throat trouble interrupted his studies and ended his ministerial career. He had been principal of academies in Massachusetts, Virginia, and Knoxville when East Tennessee College tapped him for its presidency.

Although Estabrook was "given to elegant ruffles and fine boots" and "to the prodigious use of snuff," he was also a good administrator and secured the respect and affection of the students, many of whom referred to him as "Old Joe."

During his sixteen-year administration (the longest of any president up to that time), Estabrook relaxed discipline, employed scholarly professors for the faculty, and oversaw the building program which led to the construction of the East and West College buildings, flanking Old College. Courses of instruction became more organized, catalogs were published for the first time, an alumni association was formed, and the first literary societies, Philomathesian and Chi Delta, were established. It was during Estabrook's presidency, as well, that the school assumed its military character. Estabrook was also instrumental in securing from the legislature the change of the institution's name to East Tennessee University in 1840. Estabrook's reforms were said to have raised the college "from almost total prostration to a respectable rank among the educational institutions of the country." One indication of the effect of Estabrook's reforms was the near doubling of the student body during his administration, from 95 to 169.

Estabrook's resignation in 1850 was prompted ultimately by a bitter sectarian debate among Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. Although no sectarian doctrines were taught at the University in the 1840s, some of the trustees were concerned that two of the five faculty members were Presbyterian ministers.

In 1842, one of the two resigned voluntarily; three years later the trustees terminated the second for financial reasons. A furor really erupted in 1847 when increased enrollment at the University necessitated the hiring of a new professor and the trustees chose another Presbyterian minister, Rev. A. Alexander Doak. Although he was well qualified to teach Greek and Latin and only remained on the faculty a few months before assuming the presidency of Washington College, Presbyterian and Methodist newspapers hotly debated the appointment for several years. One critic claimed that since there were more Methodists in the student body than all other denominations combined, the faculty should reflect the same sectarian ratio. In disgust, Estabrook tendered his resignation on March 4, 1850.

Honorable William B. Reese, 1850-53

In UT's first ninety-three years of existence, William Reese was the third president who was not a minister. A native Tennessean, Reese was a prominent Knoxville lawyer and jurist who had attended Blount and Greeneville Colleges and, after reading law, was admitted to the bar in 1817. He served as chancellor of the eastern division of Tennessee and had finished a twelve-year term on Tennessee's Supreme Court before becoming president of East Tennessee University in 1850.

Financial difficulties continued to plague the University during Reese's brief administration. The trustees had adopted a plan under which the president and faculty would not receive fixed salaries: the president would earn $350 per annum and each professor $250 yearly, and both would receive a percentage of the tuition receipts, providing that their salaries did not exceed $1,500 and $1,000, respectively. Five professors were invited to join the faculty; two immediately rejected their appointments. The third professor, the Rev. Alexander Doak, accepted on the conditions that his salary "certainly not be less than before" and that there be no "sectarian wrangling" about his selection. Doak's terms were apparently not met, because he did not join the faculty. Eventually, five professors were hired, but enrollment declined and the institution remained in poor fiscal shape. Reese remained only three years as president, resigning in frustration.

Reverend George Cooke, 1853-57

George Cooke, a New Hampshire native and 1832 graduate of Dartmouth College, had served as pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church upon his arrival in Knoxville in 1852 from a church pastorship in Andover, Massachusetts. Cooke was also serving as principal of a Knoxville female academy when asked to be president. The energetic Cooke set about with "almost unprecedented zeal . . . to recuperate the languishing University."

Salaries were reduced, tuition was increased, and laboratory fees for chemistry were charged for the first time. A plan of studies used at the University of Virginia was adopted which allowed students to be grouped by the academic fields in which their talents lay. Students were also allowed to pursue degrees by examination, irrespective of the length of their attendance at the University.

The Alumni Association, now formally organized, was encouraged to be more active in securing popular support for the institution. Unfortunately, such support was undermined by the slavery controversy. Local pro-slavery newspapers complained about the inappropriateness of a northerner presiding over a southern school. Although little is known about the political climate surrounding the University itself, sectional strife could hardly have failed to affect the increasingly frail institution. The resignation of Cooke in January 1857 and two other faculty members a month later resulted in the suspension of operations at the school for less than a year.

Reverend William D. Carnes, 1858-60

Although there was talk of closing the University permanently, a year later William Carnes accepted the presidency. A South Carolinian, Carnes had entered the ministry at the age of nineteen and became a student at East Tennessee University in 1839, when he was already a married man in his thirties with a family. He graduated in 1842 and was immediately made principal of the Preparatory Department, a position which he held until 1848. He later served as principal of Lafayette Academy in Bledsoe County and as president of Burritt College in Spencer, Tennessee.

One of the new president's first proposals was the construction of a gymnasium, an innovative idea in higher education since most colleges had no such facilities at this time. A Military Department was also established at the University while Carnes was president. This was partly the result of a legislative act which provided arms and equipment for that purpose. Carnes was also an innovator in his attempts to obtain additional funds for the school; he appeared personally before the legislature in Nashville to make his appeal for more money. Personal tragedies--the almost fatal illness of his youngest son and the death of his wife--probably hastened Carnes's resignation in May of 1860.

Reverend Joseph J. Ridley, 1860-62

Ridley, a native of North Carolina who was educated at the University of North Carolina, held pastorships in several Tennessee towns before becoming East Tennessee University's president. He entered upon his presidency buoyed by an increase in the student body to 110 (73 of whom were in the Preparatory Department), the largest enrollment in the previous twelve years. The increase permitted the trustees to enlarge the faculty and hire a janitor. According to the catalog of that year, Ridley would govern students "by the law of kindness and affection." Students were also required to attend chapel each morning and evening and Sunday services at local churches "chosen at the pleasure of the parent[s]." Ridley described the University as "wholly unsectarian," with Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists represented on the faculty. Too, one of Ridley's first acts as president had been to request of the Board of Trustees that ministerial students of any denomination receive free instruction.

Ridley's optimism was dashed by the firing on Ft. Sumter in April 1861. Nevertheless, East Tennessee University opened in the fall of 1861, although with a much-reduced student body and with the same faculty, excepting Professor Milford C. Butler, a Union sympathizer who had returned to Ohio after receiving threats upon his life. (Butler, professor of ancient languages, was replaced by the perennial Alexander Doak.) The term lasted only one-fifth its normal time, however, and in January 1862, University buildings were taken over by the Confederates (and later by Union troops) as a military hospital. Shortly afterward, pro-Confederate Ridley resigned to return to his home state of North Carolina. He subsequently took up a pastorship in Milledgeville, Georgia.

Reverend Thomas W. Humes, 1865-83

Following the hiatus of the Civil War, the trustees named Thomas Humes president in July 1865, but it was not until a year later that the institution could resume operations. Even then, the campus was in such a state of disrepair that classes for the twenty students who enrolled were held downtown in the Knoxville Deaf and Dumb Asylum (later the City Hall building). Humes was a Knoxville native and an 1830 graduate at the age of fifteen from East Tennessee College. He had studied for the ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary but had been unwilling to subscribe to the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith and was not ordained.

Humes then worked for a time as a merchant and a newspaper editor and was an unsuccessful candidate for the legislature before his ordination in 1845 in the Protestant Episcopal church. He had been the much-respected rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in Knoxville for seventeen years when asked to be president of East Tennessee University, and he continued additionally in this capacity for another four years.

The major task facing Humes was the rebuilding of the University. During the period of Reconstruction following the war, this task was made easier by the fact that Humes had been a staunch Union supporter. Although it took nine years, the school was able eventually to collect $18,500 from the federal government as compensation for the damages incurred while occupied by federal troops. Also, in 1869, East Tennessee University was designated the recipient of the federal land grant funds provided by the Morrill Act of 1862.

During Humes's administration, great strides were taken to reorganize and rehabilitate the once war-torn campus, including the erection of several new buildings (one of which, South College, still survives), the addition of new faculty, increased enrollments reaching a high of 315 in 1874, the addition of medical and dental departments located in Nashville, the establishment of an agricultural experiment station, and the redesignation of the institution by the legislature in 1879 as the University of Tennessee. But much of the Humes years was taken up by bitter contention between those who would shift the University's curricular emphasis from the classics to the agricultural and mechanical arts and those who would retain the traditional academic framework. Humes stood with the traditionalists, and this led to his unfortunate downfall. The trustees asked for his resignation, and on August 24, 1883, Humes complied.

Humes's departure marked the end of an era. The appointment in 1887 of Charles W. Dabney, the first president with a Ph.D., led to changes so drastic that at the end of his administration in 1904 the century-old institution on the Hill finally could be called a university in fact as well as in name.