When Edwin Alderman was inaugurated as the University of Virginia’s first president on Founder’s Day 1905, he represented much more than a change in the system of governance initiated by Thomas Jefferson. The renowned education reformer’s arrival signaled the University’s plunge into the fast-moving current of modernization in American academics and a new prominence in the New South.

Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

Under the Jeffersonian system of faculty rule, the University had climbed out of the poverty of Reconstruction and improved during the economic expansion of the late 19th century, but Alderman would bring it quickly into what historian James Axtell calls the “coming of age” of American higher education.  Growing beyond their legacy of preparing the social elite for leadership, American universities were emphasizing professional and technical education, research and its practical application, and a commitment to public service and social progress.

Having come to Charlottesville after serving as president of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and of Tulane University in New Orleans, Alderman told the audience at his inauguration that there was no modern university of national distinction between the Rio Grande and the Potomac. And he intended to correct that, to restore UVA to what he saw as its rightful place at the pinnacle of Southern education and the equal of any university in the nation.

Until his death 27 years later, he labored for that result, remaking the faculty, the curriculum, the finances, the physical grounds and the reputation of the University. He expanded and highlighted professional, graduate and technical education. He multiplied the endowment through his connections to private philanthropy and even won improvements in appropriations from the General Assembly. He brought modern administration and organization to the University. He made it an engine of modernization for public education in Virginia, from primary schools to college, applying the principles and lessons he had learned as a crusader for improved public schools in North Carolina at the beginning of his career. In another hallmark of the Progressive Era reformers, he recast the University as the natural source of expertise for the state on public issues and public projects.

But Alderman’s paternalistic views on race meant he saw African Americans as better suited to labor than to intellectual pursuits. And while advocating racial equality under law, he assured audiences that his support for African-American advancement did not include tearing down the segregation of Southern society. In addition, Alderman led the University into a prominent place in the pseudoscience of eugenics. 

“He was a titan in the field of education—not just Southern education,” says retired UVA history professor Phyllis Leffler. “Part of what made him such an effective leader was his political savvy, his understanding that there were certain issues that would negate his capacity to do other things.” 

“He was someone who was profoundly shaped by the Southern past and the reality of the New South, who looked around and didn’t like what he saw,” says historian Michael Dennis. “He embraced the New South Creed, that by industry and racial stratification and attention to engineering and science in agriculture, the South could lift itself out of its impoverishment.”

National newspaper editorials and statements from well-known figures at the time of Alderman’s selection reflect high praise and expectations for his presidency. Historian Dumas Malone cites an editorial in the New-York Tribune in his 1940 biography of Alderman: “[T]o the public in general the chief significance of this selection is that it links the University of Virginia, with all its traditions and its powerful influence on Southern thought, with the movement for the democratization of education.”

Alderman’s career to that point justified that praise.

Alderman added an emphasis on new social sciences. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

After graduating from the University of North Carolina, he began his work as a teacher and then a teacher of teachers in the post-Reconstruction educational revival that began in North Carolina in the 1880s. The state’s new commitment to free public education saw the introduction of school taxes, the replacement of its one-room-fits-all schoolhouses with “graded” schools, and most important, the expansion and professionalization of formal training for teachers. Alderman traveled the state instructing rural school teachers and making speeches to raise public support for the school movement. He married during that time and began a family. But he and his wife lost all three of their children to illness in the space of six years. He joined the UNC faculty in 1893 and was chosen president in 1896, just two months after his wife died of tuberculosis.  “I have known so much of loss and death that I cannot talk about it,” he wrote to a friend years afterward.

Beyond the South, he became recognized as a champion of public education. However, the education revival in North Carolina temporarily foundered in a storm of anti-tax and anti-intellectual Populism in the late 1890s. Alderman left Chapel Hill in 1900 to become president of Tulane University in New Orleans, then probably the best-endowed university in the South.

At Tulane, Alderman again stressed the mission of educating teachers to educate the public. His greatest influence there came as one of the leaders of the Southern Education Board—an association with national reach that successfully promoted public support for better schools across the region—though it chose not to challenge Jim Crow laws and the era’s systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans, on the belief  that education and work would overcome ignorance and race prejudice. As Alderman himself put it in a 1901 interview with the New Orleans Times-Democrat, “[T]he highest welfare of the Negro lay in the education of the white man even more than in his own education.”

Working with the SEB, the related General Education Board and other education philanthropies, backed by the wealth of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and others, Alderman developed connections he would draw on later at UVA.

While rumors and newspaper speculation in 1903 and 1904 included Alderman as a potential pick, he stayed clear of the question in public. Privately, he was blunt about his doubts. In a confidential letter to one of his oldest friends, cited in Malone’s biography, he wrote in April 1904, “Virginia is poor. I am afraid they are very provincial and the place bristles with difficulties, more so than any other American position in education.”

The Board of Visitors voted on June 14, and immediately communicated its unanimous choice. Rector Charles Pinckney Jones’ three-sentence telegram to Alderman  included no information about salary, authority, goals or any other detail. But it did say that the Board would be afforded “much gratification” if Alderman could wire his acceptance in time for an announcement to be made at final exercises the next day. Alderman wrote his friend Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University: “It would be amusing, if it were not so tragic, for you to know how absolutely sure the Virginians were that no human being could decline the Presidency of the University of Virginia. They wanted me to reply by wire.”

He replied, but did not accept so instantly. But his cordial telegram, agreeing to meet with the Board, betrayed none of that gentle mockery. Three weeks later, after the financial and other arrangements were settled, and after much lamenting by Louisianans, he agreed to assume the position that September.

Alderman had married again in New Orleans, and his only child, Edwin Anderson Alderman Jr., was born in Virginia the following spring, just a month before his father’s formal inauguration.

Alderman delivers a memorial address for Woodrow Wilson before a joint session of Congress. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

In many respects, Alderman’s inaugural speech set the pattern and agenda for his tenure as president—the longest of any of UVA’s eight presidents. In it, he calls for opening new schools of education and commerce; applying practical sciences to engineering, agriculture, business and manufacturing; recasting curriculum to emphasize the new social sciences of economics, political science and sociology over the traditional classics; producing expert answers for state government; aligning the University’s goals and standards with those of comparable institutions across the country, not just the South; and—reanimating a goal advocated but not achieved by Jefferson—coordinating a system of public education in Virginia from elementary to secondary to college, under the leadership of the University.

Alderman’s inauguration also displayed a personal style that had been admired as dignified, but also chided as dandy. For his formal air and fashionable attire, students at Chapel Hill had given him the nickname “Tony,” which was still with him when he came to Charlottesville. That Founder’s Day in 1905 was the first ceremony at the University at which faculty and dignitaries were expected to wear their academic regalia.

At the time of his formal swearing-in, Alderman had been president for eight busy months. The University had received pledges of more than $700,000 toward a goal of $1 million. Half a million came from Carnegie. Rockefeller promised $100,000 to endow a school of education to honor J.L.M. Curry—with whom Alderman had worked on the Southern Education Board. Curry, a secessionist member of the U.S. Congress, former Confederate officer and Confederate legislator, had been one of the leading proponents of free and universal public education after the Civil War.

Alderman’s arrival in Virginia coincided with a Progressive campaign to promote a statewide system of public high schools with common standards. Financed by the General Education Board with the backing of the General Assembly, the campaign drew Alderman’s support, particularly with the creation of the Curry School. Dennis, who devotes a chapter to Alderman in Lessons in Progress: State Universities and Progressivism in the New South, 18801920, credits UVA with helping the campaign succeed.

Alderman had doubled the University’s faculty by 1907, notably adding a corps of professors in science and medicine and the laboratories and equipment to support those studies. Likewise, his improvements focused on professional studies, with faculty also added in law and engineering, and a new focus on graduate studies. A report to the General Assembly on his progress proudly noted that the University had become the first Southern member of the Association of American Universities—an organization begun in 1900 by the elites of American higher education, from Harvard and Yale to Michigan and Chicago to Stanford.

Alderman and the Progressives saw the university’s role in public service as contributing to social and economic progress not only by educating students but also by providing expert advice to the government and other institutions. In this extension, faculty soon participated in state commissions on education, taxation, highways and more, the basis for today’s University institutes and centers focused on particular challenges, as well as the familiar role of professor as expert or consultant.

Expanding the social sciences was inevitably in conflict with the traditional requirements of learning ancient languages, philosophy, logic and ethics. But Alderman regarded the new studies as more useful in the age of industrialization—the success of which was key to the resurgence and economic progress of the South. “He was emblematic of the generation of educated professionals who were going to wrench the South out of its cultural and economic isolation and backwardness and forge a path to the future,” Dennis says. “He was driven, he was competitive, he was determined to put his name on the map—and Virginia’s name on the map.”

The pace of work and fundraising, combined with speaking engagements around the country, took a toll. By his own admission overworked, he took a leave of office in 1910. A harder blow struck in 1912, when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the larynx, with complications in the lungs. His friend from childhood, Woodrow Wilson, had just been elected president, and Alderman was mentioned as a prospect for a post in the administration. Instead, he spent most of the next two years being treated and recuperating at a sanitarium in Lake Saranac, New York, carrying on his University duties at a distance. The tuberculosis was checked, but the pattern of debilitation, illness and rehabilitation recurred over the ensuing years.

The early 20th century also saw conflict between tradition and progress as other barriers were weakened and taken down. Women in Virginia had access to the state’s public higher education system chiefly in training to be teachers or nurses. In 1911, women seeking an opportunity for broader public higher education began a campaign to create a “coordinate college” at UVA—a separate but affiliated institution in Charlottesville, as opposed to coeducation.  While he was officially in favor, Alderman took a position similar to the “go-slow” stance he and the Southern Education Board advocated regarding the education of African Americans. Writing to the proponents, such as Richmond activist Mary-Cooke Branch Munford, he described the need as an inevitable matter of justice but advised building public support before pressing for change. “Alderman reneged on a real value that he had, which was to enhance the training of teachers, and in so doing, support women’s education,” Leffler says. “The way I read the correspondence is that he was initially behind it, and he initially supported the idea of coeducation, but he was a pragmatist, and he knew the legislature wasn’t going to support it.”

Alumni generally opposed even a coordinate college, Malone writes, on the grounds that it would be an opening wedge to coeducation and end of the all-male tradition.  Bills to create the coordinate college came closer to passage in three successive legislative sessions, but failed. In a compromise in 1918, with Alderman’s support and no need for legislative approval, UVA’s graduate and professional schools were opened to women. William and Mary would become the state’s first coeducational public college that year.

Born the year the Civil War began, Alderman, the New South reformer, carried with him the contradictions of the Old South.  As did many in the New South movement, he saw African Americans though a lens of paternalism and condescension and in his inaugural speech assured listeners of his commitment to “the solemn obligations of racial integrity.”  Coupled with the age’s enthusiasm for “scientific improvement,” that commitment no doubt contributed to Alderman’s promotion of the University as a center of eugenics, hiring professors later notorious for their zeal to cull “inferior” genetic traits in favor of “pure” Old Virginia stock—by which they literally meant “unmixed” descendants of the Jamestown settlers and “Ancient Planters.”

Ivey Lewis, a eugenicist brought to UVA by Alderman in 1915 to chair the Miller School of Biology and Agriculture, even recast Jefferson’s most famous words: “We must reword the bold statement to read that all men are created equal only in the sense that all have a right to equality of opportunity and equality before the law. Actually all men are created unequal in their hereditary equipment and potentialities, in their natures.”

The pseudoscience of eugenics was discredited in the 1940s, especially as it had been promoted in the Nazi culture of a master race. But it had done its damage as the underpinning of forced sterilization laws that persisted for decades in Virginia and around the country. In 2016, UVA notably changed the medical school's Jordan Hall to Pinn Hall, honoring Vivian Pinn, a distinguished Class of 1967 medical alumna and an African American, instead of Harvey Jordan, a eugenicist who had been dean of the department of medicine from 1939 into the 1940s.

In his biography of Alderman, Malone takes account of UVA’s progress from Alderman’s arrival to the point of his 25th year as president. The number of students had quadrupled. There were five times as many faculty members. The endowment stood at $10 million, compared with $350,000 in 1904. Annual income had grown by a factor of 10, approaching $2 million.

New buildings, too, were part of the change. The President’s House was built on Carr’s Hill for Alderman. The hospital had expanded. Minor Hall housed the law school. Madison Hall was built for the YMCA. In his Founder’s Day address in 1924, the same year he eulogized his friend Woodrow Wilson before a joint session of Congress, Alderman spoke of the need for a great library. But the times were not right for the proposed $1 million building. He returned to the idea in his last Founder’s Day speech in 1931, but he would not live to see it.

On April 29, on a train bound for Illinois, where he was to speak at the inauguration of the new president of the University of Illinois, Alderman suffered a stroke. Taken from the train for medical attention, he died in a hospital in Pennsylvania later that day.

Alderman Library was dedicated to his memory in June 1938.

Ernie Gates is a writer and editor based in Williamsburg, Virginia.