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First Emory President Educated in Georgia

George Foster Pierce

President 1848-54
George Foster Pierce

Possessed of as keen and ready a wit as A. B. Longstreet's, George Foster Pierce carried forward the work of building Emory after 1848 by relying on the same kind of appealing personality that had marked the administration of Longstreet. Henry Morton Bullock recounts, in his history of Emory, the story of an encounter between Pierce and a presumptuous young man. Trying on the hat of Pierce—who by then had been elected a bishop—the young man said, "Bishop our heads are the same size." "Yes," Pierce is said to have replied—"on the outside."

A graduate of Franklin College of the University of Georgia, Pierce was the first Emory president educated in Georgia. From the first, he appeared to be a progressive and forward-thinking man among less enlightened souls. He joined the Georgia Conference as a minister in 1831, the only college graduate member at the time. Eight years later, he was elected president of the Georgia Female College in Macon—now Wesleyan College—the first four-year college in the world chartered to offer undergraduate education exclusively to women. Elected, along with Longstreet, to attend the New York City General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844, he tried in vain to be a moderating influence in the debate over slavery; in the end, however, he reluctantly helped to organize the Southern church in Louisville the next year.

Viewing Emory as not just Methodist but Christian in character, Pierce advocated the church's strong participation in educational institutions. Espousing the nineteenth-century progressive's view of the enlightenment of the age, he urged the church to occupy the realm of education, "where opinions are formed and character molded." Otherwise, he feared, the church would "grow imbecile, effete, and disreputable. . . . Bigoted, ignorant, superstitious, such a Church would deserve her doom."

Coming to Emory in the chair of English literature, Pierce himself needed a good mathematician or accountant, for he found the college burdened by debt and inadequate facilities. Pledges to the endowment in the early years of the college—for professorships honoring Few, the city of Columbus, and Bishop Andrew—either were never paid or had been cannibalized for construction budgets. Times were so tough that in 1850-51, Pierce received only $1,231 of his $1,600 salary, and the full-time faculty received only 77 percent of their $1,100 salaries. Pierce quickly set about campaigning throughout the state for endowment and operating funds, and by July 17, 1853, the cornerstone could be laid for Emory's first large, stone building, which contained the library, classrooms, an auditorium, and science demonstration halls. The cost was $15,000.

Although Pierce could report to the trustees that year that the endowment stood at $12,000, the college was also several thousand dollars in debt. Nevertheless, enrollment grew steadily, and in 1854 Emory could boast a hundred sixty students in the college and fifty-five in the preparatory school.

Resistant to secession and, in 1863, courageous enough (or realistic enough) to advocate repeal of the slave laws in Georgia, Pierce nevertheless was widely popular throughout Southern Methodism, owing largely to his irenic spirit, his skill with people, and his achievements in education. He was elected a bishop in 1854 and resigned Emory's presidency. Still, he continued his close affiliation with Emory, serving in later years as a trustee and raising capital funds for the school.

Source: A Legacy of Heart and MInd: Emory Since 1836. Gary S. Hauk, PhD


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