Gilman’s Legacy: Ph.D. Education and the Making of the Modern University

Provost Lloyd B. Minor
October 25, 2011
Johns Hopkins University Conference on the Future of Ph.D. Education
Baltimore, Maryland

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[Introduction by Ronald J. Daniels, President, Johns Hopkins University]

Thank you, Ron. Good morning and welcome. Today’s conference, as you all know, is on the future of Ph.D. education. But before we look forward, I’d like for a moment to look back—to find context for the challenges and opportunities we have gathered here to discuss. As Shakespeare said, “What’s past is prologue,” and that’s particularly true here at Johns Hopkins where the towering figure of one man continues to influence us today. Daniel Coit Gilman was not just our first president; he was the founder of graduate education in the United States.

It was on June 13, 1878, just two years after opening its doors that Johns Hopkins University awarded its first Ph.D.’s to four men: Henry Carter Adams in political economy, Thomas Craig in mathematics, Josiah Royce in philosophy, and Ernest Sihler in Greek. They received their degrees after having proved through written and oral examinations their proficiency in a principal and subsidiary subject, submitted an elaborate research-based thesis, and demonstrated a reading knowledge of Latin, French, and German and an acquaintance with the “methods of modern scientific research.” [i]

But the story of Gilman’s legacy really begins in 1817. That was the year that Edward Everett received a Ph.D. from the University of Göttingen. Everett was the first of a wave of young Americans who went abroad to find opportunities for advanced study that they could not find here in the United States. [ii] In the nineteenth century some 10,000 Americans studied in Europe. [iii]

In fact, many of the founding faculty and students of the young Johns Hopkins had followed in Everett’s footsteps and sought advanced training abroad. Three of the four men in that first group of Ph.D.’s had previously studied in Germany. And of Johns Hopkins’ first four professors, Basil Gildersleeve had a Ph.D. from the University of Göttingen; James Sylvester, an Englishman, had studied at Cambridge; Ira Remsen had a Ph.D. from the University of Göttingen and was previously a lecturer at the University of Tübingen; and Henry Rowland had studied in Berlin.

Gilman himself experienced the lack of opportunities for specialized, advanced study. In 1852 and 1853 he did graduate study at Yale and Harvard, but was frustrated that even under the aegis of outstanding teachers like Professor Noah Porter of Yale, graduate studies could avail very little without official support and encouragement. The following winter he attended lectures at the University of Berlin.

In 1861 Yale awarded the first doctorate in the United States; the University of Pennsylvania followed a decade later and Harvard a few years after that. But these graduate programs continued to be peripheral, subsumed into the work of the college, involving very few students–mostly alumni–and given little emphasis and little support.

In planning for the new university, the Johns Hopkins trustees conferred with Charles Eliot, president of Harvard. When he was asked whether the new university should offer advanced education, Eliot replied, “The post-graduate course is a matter far off for you. Not until you have organized the whole of the college course, only in the fifth year of existence of the college, could that question practically present itself.” [iv] Eliot, like his contemporaries, thought of graduate study as simply an extension of undergraduate work completed at the same institution.

Given great freedom by the trustees in designing Johns Hopkins, Gilman was determined to establish something different in Baltimore, a new type of university that would fulfill the unmet needs of Everett and those who followed behind seeking greater knowledge. But this new institution would not only transmit existing knowledge—as was the custom of American institutions, like the British universities on which they were modeled—but like the German universities, would seek to produce new knowledge.

Research, Gilman believed, was desirable not just for its own sake—that is, for its ability to push the boundaries of what is known—but also for its effectiveness as a method of graduate training. In English universities the choice was always said to be between a good instructor and a good investigator, but Gilman—adopting the German notion of the unity of teaching and research—believed that in fact the best teachers were also the best researchers and the best researchers were also the best teachers. “… [L]earning and teaching, inquiry and instruction should never be separated.” [v]

Though research was important for Gilman, teaching was essential. Doctoral candidates at Johns Hopkins learned to teach undergraduates and general audiences alike. Among that first group of Ph.D.’s, Josiah Royce gave five public lectures on the “Return to Kant” and taught a course on Schopenhauer. Ernest Sihler gave three public lectures on “Attic Life and Society” and taught a course to two undergraduates on The Acharnians by Aristophanes. [vi]

Gilman’s new model of a university was a place not just of discovery but of specialization. In his first annual report in 1876, Gilman wrote that the trustees had agreed that a fundamental principle of the new university was that “instructions should be as thorough, as advanced, and as special as the intellectual condition of the country will permit.” In selecting faculty, he and the trustees considered foremost “the devotion of the candidate to some particular line of study and the certainty of his eminence in that specialty; the power to pursue independent and original investigation.” [vii]

Yet at the same time Gilman understood, as we do today, the dangers of extreme specialization. As an antidote, he and the university’s first professors created learned societies in philology, science, and history to keep scholars of one discipline informed of the work being done in other disciplines. But few survived for very long, and these societies on the whole did not live up to Gilman’s expectations. He likely would have appreciated our own challenges in encouraging interdisciplinary programs.

A correlate to the new university’s focus on discovery and specialization was freedom—freedom to follow one’s intellectual curiosities, freedom to pursue opportunities with passion, and freedom to take the big chances that just might lead to big discoveries. This freedom began with Mr. Hopkins who in his will put very few restrictions on the trustees. The trustees in turn left the faculty unfettered and the faculty gave great freedom to the students. In 1891 Gilman recalled that “[Johns Hopkins] began without formulas and rules, without decrees of the faculty or the trustees, without regulations, and yet with that which was more binding than any code, the unanimous recognition of certain clear and definite principles in respect to the methods, the duties, and the possibilities of the new university.” [viii]

For teachers, there was freedom in the methods of instruction—among them recitations, lectures, examinations, laboratories, libraries, field exercises, and travel—and for students there was freedom in the selection of their studies. For Gilman, this freedom was a fundamental characteristic of what it meant to be a university, juxtaposed against the rules and restrictions of undergraduate life at that time. “University freedom” was a privilege earned by “collegiate discipline.” [ix]

This idea of freedom was influenced by German notions of the independence of mind necessary for academic inquiry, though “academic freedom” was a phrase little used in the 1870s and 1880s. Indeed, in the midst of a tumultuous time of labor strikes in 1886, a Cornell professor, Henry Carter Adams, gave a speech in defense of labor. When Henry Sage, a powerful university benefactor, demanded that he be expelled for “sapping the foundations of society,” Adams was quietly terminated. [x] It is not just a coincidence that Adams was among that group of four who were the first to earn Ph.D.’s at Johns Hopkins. The university would later recognize Adams with an honorary degree.

For all of Gilman’s great ideas, attempts to develop graduate education at Johns Hopkins would have in all likelihood failed had it not been for the creation of a novel fellowship system. Before opening, Johns Hopkins advertised that it would offer ten graduate scholarships of $500 a year in addition to exemption from tuition. One of that first class of Ph.D. recipients, Thomas Craig had learned about the fellowships from an article in the New York Tribune and contacted Gilman at once. The two met the following week and kept in touch until Craig began his studies at Johns Hopkins, Gilman even lending him money and warning him against the dangers to his health of over-study. [xi]

In all, the trustees received 152 applicants representing 46 different colleges and universities including Göttingen and Heidelberg. The number of outstanding candidates was so large that the trustees decided to increase the number of fellowships from ten to twenty. [xii]

Nowhere in America in 1876 was there any such program offering stipends so large or so numerous. Before 1876, the few American universities that did offer fellowships gave them only to their own graduates. Having none, Johns Hopkins University chose the best applicants from around the country, establishing itself from the outset as a university of national influence.

Even today, the provision of financial aid is a primary factor in the success of our doctoral programs, and indicators demonstrate that the financial burden is growing. For the first time, by 1999 more than half of all graduating doctorate earners across the country had accumulated education debt, and the proportion who said they owed more than $20,000 has now climbed to 26 percent, up from less than seven percent two decades ago. [xiii]

Easing the financial burden—both for the student and the institution—these first Ph.D. recipients earned their degree in just two years. A few years later, the minimum number of years of study was increased to three, marking the beginning of a trend to increase the amount of time needed to earn a degree to accommodate the explosion in new knowledge and the tendency toward greater specialization.

Like many good ideas, Gilman’s thoughts about graduate education, the importance of discovery and specialization, and the necessity of freedom spread quickly. In just a few years after Johns Hopkins awarded its first Ph.D.’s, a dozen American universities were making substantial provision for graduate education. And within ten years, Johns Hopkins’ fellowship system had been widely imitated. What was once so innovative became so widely adopted as to become almost commonplace. The experiment here in Baltimore transformed older colleges into research universities and deeply influenced the shape of new research universities such as Clark, the University of Chicago, and Stanford.

At Gilman’s retirement in 1902, President Eliot of Harvard acknowledged Johns Hopkins’ outsized influence when he said, “I want to testify that the graduate school of Harvard University, started feebly in 1870 and 1871, did not thrive, until the example of Johns Hopkins forced our faculty to put their strength into the development of our instruction for graduates. And what was true of Harvard was true of every other university in the land which aspired to create an advanced school of arts and sciences.” [xiv]

In sheer number of degrees awarded, Johns Hopkins quickly took the lead. From 1878 to 1889, Johns Hopkins awarded 151 Ph.D.’s. During that same period Harvard granted 43 Ph.D.’s. Yale had granted 101 Ph.D.’s from the time it introduced the degree in 1861 to 1889. [xv] Today, I might note, academic institutions in the United States grant nearly 50,000 research doctorates annually.

In awarding the Ph.D., Gilman believed that Johns Hopkins had prepared the recipients for academic careers. The cadre of Johns Hopkins graduate students, he wrote, “constitutes in fact, though not in name, a class of young men in training for professorships.” [xvi] And the numbers bore this out. In 1891, fifteen years after the opening of Johns Hopkins University, 184 of the university’s 202 Ph.D. graduates—over 90 percent—were teachers, most of them in the faculties of American colleges and universities.

Among that first class of Ph.D.’s, Henry Carter Adams became a professor at Cornell and then at the University of Michigan; Ernest Sihler became a professor at New York University; Josiah Royce became a professor at Harvard; and Thomas Craig, refusing an invitation from Harvard, became a professor at Johns Hopkins. In Gilman’s time, college and university enrollments were expanding substantially, easily accommodating this influx of new graduates.

But that is no longer the case. So many others have adopted Gilman’s model of graduate education that the supply of doctorates now exceeds the demand for academic positions. Academic job commitments among new Ph.D.’s nationally fell from about 67 percent in the early 1970s to about 50 percent by the end of that decade, a mark that has remained steady to this day. [xvii]

The recent economic troubles have only exacerbated this imbalance, particularly in the humanities. According to the Modern Language Association’s projections, there will be 39 percent fewer jobs in current academic year than there were three years ago in English and foreign languages. [xviii] According to the American Historical Association, the number of positions listed during the last academic year was down 46 percent from just two years earlier. [xix]

Several months ago the Council for Graduate Schools released a report which said that for the first time in seven years, the enrollment of first-time graduate students fell by 1.1 percent between the fall of 2009 and the fall of 2010. [xx] Despite the current, persistent imbalance, I do not find this decline in enrollment to be an encouraging sign.

In the world today we face so many challenges: sustainable energy and the environment, water security, the promise of individualized health, and the challenge of an urbanizing world. These are immensely complex problems that will require innovative solutions. We need more education, not less.

But we must be willing to value career paths outside of academe—career paths that engage social challenges and apply the results of our research to the broader community. Fundamentally Gilman believed that universities existed to reach out for a better state of society than now exists. We too should see our mission as broader than just educating the next generation of professors, but as serving the needs of society.

In his inaugural address, Gilman said, “Universities easily fall into ruts. Almost every epoch requires a fresh start.” [xxi] It is in this spirit that we have convened this conference today. Gilman has left us a tremendous legacy, the system of graduate education he established 135 years ago remains stronger than ever. Yet we must still ask ourselves if we have allowed our long-standing traditions and years of success to let us fall into ruts. Our challenge today is to examine ourselves, to turn our powers of analysis, evaluation, and skepticism on ourselves to find ways to keep innovating without compromising the very principles that have made us who we are.

The preeminence of American higher education is universally acknowledged as one of our most important national resources. University research has brought about life and society-changing inventions, from which we have all benefited—not just here in America but all around the world.

For this, much is owed to Daniel Coit Gilman whose belief in the power of research and advanced training not only opened up new possibilities for young men—and soon, young women—here in America but established the foundation of the research enterprise that we all benefit from today. Gilman’s contribution was not just as the first president of Johns Hopkins, not just in establishing graduate education in the United States, but in founding the modern university. This is his legacy.

Thank you. 


[i] Gilman, D.C. (1876). First Annual Report of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, 1976. Baltimore: John Murphy & Co.

[ii] French, J. C. (1945). A History of the University founded by Johns Hopkins. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.

[iii] National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics. (2006). U.S. Doctorates in the 20th Century, NSF 06-319, Thurgood, L., Golladay, M.J., and Hill, S.T.

[iv] Hawkins, H. (1960). Pioneer: A History of the Johns Hopkins University, 1874–1889. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

[v] Gilman, D.C. (1879). Fourth Annual Report of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, 1879. Baltimore: William K. Boyle & Son.

[vi] Hawkins, H. (1960). Pioneer: A History of the Johns Hopkins University, 1874–1889. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

[vii] Gilman, D.C. (1876). First Annual Report of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, 1976. Baltimore: John Murphy & Co.

[viii] Gilman, D.C. (1891). The Johns Hopkins University. Cosmopolitan, XI, 463.

[ix] Gilman, D.C. (1876). Addresses at the Inauguration of Daniel Coit Gilman. Baltimore: John Murphy & Co.

[x] Coats, A.W. (1992) On the History of Economic Thought: British and American Economic Essays, Volume 1. London: Routledge.

[xi] Hawkins, H. (1960). Pioneer: A History of the Johns Hopkins University, 1874–1889. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

[xii] Hawkins, H. (1960). Pioneer: A History of the Johns Hopkins University, 1874–1889. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

[xiii] National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics. (2006). U.S. Doctorates in the 20th Century, NSF 06-319, Thurgood, L., Golladay, M.J., and Hill, S.T.; NSF/NIH/USED/USDA/NEH/NASA, 2009 Survey of Earned Doctorates, Table 36, Education-related debt of doctorate recipients, by sex, citizenship, and race/ethnicity: 2009.

[xiv] Cordasco, F. (1960). Daniel Coit Gilman and the Protean Ph.D.: The Shaping of American Graduate Education Leiden: E. J. Brill.

[xv] Hawkins, H. (1960). Pioneer: A History of the Johns Hopkins University, 1874–1889. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

[xvi] Gilman, D.C. (1879). Fourth Annual Report of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, 1879. Baltimore: William K. Boyle & Son.

[xvii] National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics. (2006). U.S. Doctorates in the 20th Century, NSF 06-319, Thurgood, L., Golladay, M.J., and Hill, S.T.

[xviii] Jaschik, S.A. (2011, January 5). Tough Job Outlook. Inside Higher Ed.

[xix] Townsend, R.B. (2011, January). Job Market Sagged Further in 2009–10. Perspectives in History.

[xx] June, A.W. (2011, October 2). Graduate Enrollment Declines in Part Because of Caution About the Economy. Chronicle of Higher Education.

[xxi] Gilman, D.C. (1876). Addresses at the Inauguration of Daniel Coit Gilman. Baltimore: John Murphy & Co.