Endowed College Chairs

  • Education
  • 1721

The endowed professorship—an educational post funded over a long period of time by the earnings from an initial gift—is among the signal accomplishments of U.S. educational philanthropy. The pervasiveness of the endowed chair in the U.S. today makes it easy to assume that the practice must be common everywhere. Actually the institution is rare outside of America, where it took root long before we were even a country.

Thomas Hollis, a wealthy merchant and Baptist from London, wanted to express his gratitude for the good treatment Baptists had received in Boston. So in 1721 he gave funds to Harvard University to found the Hollis Chair of Divinity with a salary of £80 per year for its occupant. The gift also included money to offset administrative expenses, to increase the size of the student body, and to support “ten scholars of good character, four of whom should be Baptists, if any such were there.”

Hollis’s gift was the largest Harvard had received from a single individual. Five years later he established another professorship, the chair of mathematics and experimental philosophy. All told, Hollis’s gifts eventually topped £6,000, a staggering amount for the time.

The endowed professorship spread rapidly in the U.S. and became an increasingly popular way for donors to support institutions of higher education—undergirding the spectacular rise of American colleges and universities to their current position of international preeminence.

  • Nathan Wood, History of the First Baptist Church of Boston (Ayer, 1990)