Edmund Burke Fairfield

Edmund Burke Fairfield

Portrait of Edmund Burke Fairfield

Chancellorship Dates

July 1, 1876 - June 30, 1882


  • Bachelor, Oberlin College, 1842
  • LL.D., Madison University (Colgate), 1857,
  • D.D., Indiana University, 1863


August 7, 1821 - Parkersburg, West Virginia


November 7, 1904 - Oberlin, Ohio


Westwood Cemetery, Oberlin, Ohio; Row O, Plot 10
  • "Prairie University," Robert E. Knoll

Edmund Burke Fairfield graduated from Oberlin College in 1842. In 1848, he became president of Hillsdale College in Michigan – a position he would hold until 1869. In 1876, he was chosen by the Board of Regents to be Allen R. Benton's successor as the second chancellor of the University of Nebraska.

Early in his tenure, Fairfield hired the university's first female faculty member, Ellen Smith, as a teacher of Latin and Greek. Fairfield had been a colleague of Smith's at Hillsdale College (Smith would become head of the NU Latin School, a professor of Latin, and finally university registrar from 1884-1902; today's Smith Hall is named in her remembrance).

The Fairfield era did not turn out to be harmonious. Fairfield clashed with members of the faculty, the Board of Regents and local newspaper writers over issues like educational reform and the nature of religion and its place in public higher education.

In particular, a long-lasting unrest involving four professors who wished for a broadening of the university’s fields of inquiry resulted in the dismissal of three of them in January of 1882. Led by the professor of Latin, George Church, these professors were among the group of leaders of a wholesale revolution in teaching sweeping higher education.

The revolution was the lecture, in which the professor guided students through a subject by exposing them to information synthesized from various sources. Previously, most university courses were organized around recitation. The University of Nebraska, formed at the end of the era of the recitation, was an ideal — if quarrelsome — laboratory for change.

The purge of Church and his colleagues George Woodberry and Harrington Emerson ignited a debate in the newspapers of the day, hinging on whether the state university should rest on the 'old' foundation of religion and recitation or embrace the 'new' – secularism and lecture. The victory of the old over the new, through the professors' dismissal, was short-lived and the debate continued to roil the state.

At its June meeting in 1882, the Board of Regents voted to remove Fairfield from the chancellor's post in September of the same year.

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