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The Early Faculty
Erika Lindemann

Though the cornerstone for Old East had been laid on October 12, 1793, the trustees had difficulty securing faculty for the new university. No one had applied for the position by December 1793. Rev. Dr. Samuel Eusebius McCorkle , a highly regarded educator who in 1784 had initiated the bill to establish the University, might have been an excellent choice, but William Richardson Davie opposed him on several grounds. McCorkle was a Presbyterian minister, and Davie distrusted the influence of preachers, even though he understood that clergymen had the most respectable academic credentials of his day. More important, McCorkle and Davie disagreed on the nature of a university curriculum. McCorkle supported a traditional classical curriculum, based on a knowledge of Latin and Greek and supporting a philosophy of mental discipline that was as fashionable in education as was the doctrine of original sin in theology. Davie , on the other hand, held much more liberal views of a university education. For him, the curriculum should be practical, grounded in the sciences, and conducted primarily in English.
Though McCorkle was among the seven men nominated to head the new university, 1 on January 10, 1794, the trustees elected Rev. David Ker . Ker was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, who had recently emigrated to Fayetteville, NC, where he was pastor of a Presbyterian congregation and headmaster of a local academy. He was thirty-six, married to Mary, who also had been educated in Ireland, and the father of at least one child by the time the family moved to Chapel Hill. Called the "presiding professor" and serving as the professor of humanities, he received a salary of $300 per year, two-thirds of the tuition receipts,2 and the use of the president's house. By April 1795, Ker was joined by Charles Wilson Harris , a 1792 graduate of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) who was appointed the tutor of mathematics at a salary of $100 per year, the remaining one-third of tuition receipts, free board at commons, and the use of a room in Old East.
Presiding professor Ker lasted only eighteen months. Student disorders and sectional politics forced his resignation in July 1796. Harris reports that Ker was "a furious Republican," and other sources imply that he became an outspoken infidel, though the nature of his religious views is unclear. Offending both Christians and Federalists on the board of trustees, Ker lost their support, and as Battle reports, "much against his inclination he was constrained to send in his resignation" (1:100). Turning to Samuel McCorkle , the trustees elected him professor of moral philosophy hoping that he would replace Ker as presiding professor. When McCorkle requested a housing allowance, should he later be replaced as presiding professor, the board refused his terms. Instead, they asked Harris to take charge for the five months remaining in 1796. Harris had given notice that he would leave the University in December 1796 to become a lawyer, but he recommended Joseph Caldwell , a twenty-three-year-old Presbyterian minister who had been a student at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in the class ahead of Harris' . On being invited to head the University, Caldwell accepted "with great reluctance."
Though Caldwell remained at the University until his death in 1835, he much preferred teaching mathematics to being an administrator. In 1797, the year in which the chapel was completed, Caldwell threatened to leave unless he could relinquish the duties of presiding professor. To induce him to stay, the trustees agreed to let him teach mathematics, retitled the presiding professor's position, and appointed James Smiley Gillaspie as "principal" of the University. Gillaspie , who also taught natural philosophy, proved especially unpopular with students, and rebellions against him and the rest of the faculty took their toll on enrollments, which dropped from 115 students to about 70 in 1799. Unable to restore order, all of the faculty resigned.
Caldwell was the only professor to be rehired, and once again he became the chief administrative officer. In 1804 the trustees changed his title from principal of the university to president. In 1812 Caldwell again resigned to become a fulltime professor of mathematics. Robert Hett Chapman , a Peace Federalist, became president and almost immediately began to be in trouble with the state's Republicans. In the eyes of many students and their parents, his opposition to the War of 1812 made him a traitor. Students harassed him in 1814 and again in 1816, when he moved to suspend a student for delivering a speech without accommodating the president's corrections. The speech, published in a several North Carolina newspapers, and the University's response to it appear here. After Chapman's resignation in 1816, Caldwell was reelected president, a position he held until his death in 1835.
Between 1800 and 1818, the size of the faculty remained relatively stable at two professors and two or three tutors. Caldwell remained professor of mathematics throughout this period, but the professorship of languages changed frequently.3 In 1818 two new professors joined the faculty, Denison Olmsted as professor of chemistry and Elisha Mitchell as professor of mathematics and natural philosophy. Olmsted and Mitchell were both Yale graduates. In 1819 Shepard Kosciusko Kollock , a graduate of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) at the age of sixteen, became the University's first professor of rhetoric and logic. Despite persistent difficulties in recruiting and retaining qualified teachers throughout the early years of the institution's history, the faculty quickly had grown from one to five professors (four of them Presbyterian, one an Episcopalian). With the addition of these new faculty members, the institution and its curriculum were poised for a decade of growth.


1. The seven nominees were Rev. John Brown, Rev. Robert Archibald, Rev. James Tate, Rev. George Micklejohn, Rev. Dr. Samuel McCorkle , Andrew Martin, and Rev. David Ker (Battle 1:59-61).

2. Tuition varied, depending on the course of study. On December 21, 1793, the trustees set tuition for the preparatory course—including reading, writing, arithmetic and book keeping—at $8 per year. The language course—including Latin, Greek, French, English grammar, geography, history and belles lettres—cost $12.50 per year. The scientific course of study—astronomy, natural and moral philosophy, chemistry, and agriculture—cost $15 per year. Students paying $15 per year could undertake whatever studies they wished (Connor 1:268).

3. In 1800 the professor of ancient languages was Archibald DeBow Murphey , who held the position for only one year. In 1801 the appointment went to William Bingham . Andrew Rhea replaced Bingham in 1806. Then in 1814 William Hooper , a "senior tutor," took the post until he was elevated to a professorship in 1817.