Skip to main content

James, Edmund J. (Edmund Janes), 1855-1925



Edmund Janes James, Northwestern University's thirteenth president (1902-1904), was the son of a Methodist clergyman in Jacksonville, Ill. He was born on May 21, 1855, and attended Northwestern University for one year (1873) before finishing his undergraduate education at Harvard; he then attended the University of Halle, in Germany, to study historical economics, receiving his doctorate in 1877. Upon his return, he became the principal of Evanston High School; two years later he went on to lead Model High School in Normal, Illinois.  James married Anna Margarethe Lange of Halle, Germany, in 1879.

By 1883 James had joined the Business faculty at the University of Pennsylvania as professor of public finance and administration, taking on the directorship of the Wharton School of Finance. In 1893 he accepted an appointment at the new University of Chicago, as professor of public administration and as director of Pennsylvania's extension program there. It was from there that he accepted the presidency of Northwestern University in early 1902.

            James was already a man of considerable academic distinction, widely recognized as an expert on municipal government. He was a founder of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and its first president (and editor of its quarterly Annals...) in 1889-1901; he was also one of the organizers of the American Economic Association and its first vice president in 1885. He was the first president of the American Society for the Extension of University Teaching in 1891.

            Northwestern’s trustees hoped that James could help the University become the premier Methodist institution of higher learning in the country. After the cautious stewardship of interim president Daniel Bonbright, bolder moves seemed called for. Upon James’ arrival in March, 1902, he perceived that Northwestern’s faculty was lackluster, due in part to a sub-par library. In addition, there were no decent science laboratories, and the professional schools were undistinguished. James saw that the University needed both a graduate school and a full-fledged technical school. Further, Northwestern lacked a gymnasium, residence halls, a dining hall, a chapel, and a student union. But James’ plans to improve these conditions were impossible to implement within Northwestern’s restricted budget.

            James tried many expedients to raise the requisite funds. His primary focus was on alumni, and he encouraged the organization of alumni groups, reunions, and an alumni publication.  Ahead of his time, he touted Northwestern football, baseball, and debate teams; he supported scholarships and fellowships, sponsored various educational conferences at Northwestern, and advocated presidential tours of the country--all to bolster the school's profile and reputation.  He also combined some of the professional faculties (Law, Dentistry, Pharmacy) in the Northwestern University Building (the former Tremont Hotel, in Chicago’s Loop—predecessor to the Chicago campus).

            In the end, James's innovations did little to fill Northwestern's coffers, while antagonizing the Board of Trustees and administration. In 1904 James accepted the offer of the presidency of the University of Illinois, a state school with more material support for his ambitions. Upon James's departure, Northwestern business manager William A. Dyche said, "I sometimes feel that James's wide horizon and his eagerness to plan for the years ahead were, from a practical standpoint, a source of weakness. Possibly if he had not had so many things in mind, each of which was beyond criticism, he might have been better satisfied with his labors." Northwestern awarded James an honorary LLD in 1914.

            At Illinois, James was a well-respected president, who, among his many accomplishments, played a critical role in establishing the University’s Library. In failing health, he resigned from the University of Illinois in 1920; he died at his sister’s home in Covina, California, on June 17, 1925.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Edmund Janes James Papers

Identifier: 3/11

The papers of Edmund Janes James, filling one box, deal almost exclusively with James' term as Northwestern University's thirteenth president (1902-1904).

Dates: 1881 - 1965; Other: Majority of material found within 1902 - 1904