James H. Kirkland 1893-1937
James H. Kirkland, just 34 years old when he became chancellor, hailed from South Carolina. The son of an itinerant Methodist preacher, he attended Wofford College then received his Ph.D. at the University of Leipzig. With the help of colleagues he met during his German studies, he landed a job teaching Latin at Vanderbilt in 1886.
Kirkland remained in the post for 44 years, dealing with financial problems - the Methodist church was proving to be long on criticism and short on financial contributions - and fostering a number of projects designed to raise educational standards in the South.
One of the biggest challenges Kirkland faced in his tenure occurred at 11 a.m. on April 20, 1905. Fire broke out in Old Main, the heart and soul of Vanderbilt life. Throughout the afternoon, while the fire raged, students threw books out the windows. Students waiting below caught the books and carried them to a safe place. Before the fire finally gutted most of the building, students had saved 4,000 books; another 18,000 books burned.
Before the day ended, Chancellor Kirkland posted a letter to the anxious student body. Do not brood over this calamity, he wrote his charges, move on and look to the future. He assured them the academic program would continue. Indeed, students assembled the next morning in makeshift classrooms across campus. Not one class was cancelled. In the months ahead, Kirkland took the sow's ear of a fire and turned it into a silk purse of unprecedented new giving to the university, giving prompted in large part by the alumni's desire to help rebuild that cherished building.
In 1910, open warfare broke out between the Vanderbilt administration and the Methodist church. The bishops opposed Kirkland's attempt to swap some land with Peabody College. Kirkland, in turn, opposed the bishops when they pushed to retain the right to name members of the Vanderbilt board. The campus strongly supported the chancellor. Finally, in 1914, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled against the bishops and the university's separation from the church was complete. Some 1,000 students, with Chancellor Kirkland leading them, marched in celebration through downtown Nashville.
Kirkland enjoyed golden years from 1916 to 1929. One of his major triumphs was the relocation of the School of Medicine to the main campus and the construction of a facility in 1925 to join under one roof the medical school's laboratories and its teaching hospital. In order to build that facility, the chancellor led a drive to raise more than $5 million, an immense sum at the time. The Rockefeller Foundation and the General Education Board also provided funding to build the full-time, research-oriented medical school dedicated to specialized scientific research and public health outreach, a medical school unlike any other in the South at that time.
Kirkland retired in early 1937 and the board named Oliver C. Carmichael to replace him as chancellor. Kirkland died two years later while vacationing in Ontario. As a tribute to the years he spent building the university, Old Main was renamed Kirkland Hall.