Ezekiel Gilman Robinson (1815-1894), seventh president of Brown University, was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts on March 23, 1815. He studied at academies in Wrentham, Massachusetts, in Pawtucket, and in New Hampton, New Hampshire, and entered Brown in the sophomore year in 1835. He was an indifferent student, who later said of his college days, “I had drifted aimlessly into college and drifted aimlessly through it, waking up only during the last year to see what I might and ought to have done.” During a revival when he was fourteen, he had become a member of the First Baptist Church in Pawtucket, and the church, thinking that he was studying for the ministry, licensed him to preach while he was still a student. Upon graduation in 1838 he worked briefly for the American Tract Society, addressing churches on the work of the Society. Uncertain of what he wanted to do, he rented a room at Brown and became a “resident graduate,” studying German with Professor Horatio B. Hackett and preaching occasionally. When Hackett left Brown to become professor of Biblical literature at Newton Theological Institution, Robinson went along. After his graduation from Newton and his ordination in 1842, he was pastor of the Baptist Church in Norfolk, Virginia, for three years, during which he was also chaplain of the University of Virginia for one year. He moved to the Baptist Church in Cambridge in 1845, and resigned in less than a year to become professor of Hebrew in the theological seminary at Covington, Kentucky. In 1849 he became pastor of the Ninth Street Baptist Church in Cincinnati. In 1853 he became professor of Christian theology at Rochester Theological Seminary. He was named president in 1860. He was offered the presidency of Brown in 1867, but declined. When approached again in 1871, he reconsidered. In his autobiography, Robinson wrote, “In the spring of 1871 there came again a proposal that I should accept the presidency of Brown University. The proposal was not an enticing one. ... On the other hand, regard for health, obligation as an alumnus of the University to go to its aid in the hour of its need, whispered suggestions of unsoundness in my teachings, the moral certainty of a coming revolution in theologic thought, – all combined to bring me to the conclusion that I ought not to refuse acceptance of the unwelcome call.” Another inducement came from Horatio N. Slater, Sr., who sent word that, if Robinson would accept, he would give $25,000 to the University. In August of 1872 Robinson left Rochester for Providence. His autobiography continued:
“I found the University in a much less promising condition than I had hoped.... The Corporation was radically divided into two opposing parties, irreconcilable in aims and methods, and mutually jealous. ... I found the range of instruction at the University narrower than that of most of the New England colleges. Its only professorships in Natural Science were those of Chemistry and Physics ... It had no professorship of Modern Languages ... The lack of professorships in the Faculty was more than equalled by the lack of buildings in which the work of the University could be properly performed.... There was, however, one encouraging feature in the aspect of the University’s affairs, – it had a surplus income.”
Perceiving that the University was most deficient in the natural sciences, and at the risk of offending the older professors who defended the old curriculum, Robinson set about establishing a professorship of physiology and hygiene, a professorship of geology and paleontology, and a professorship of astronomy, while Stephen Olney’s will provided a professorship of botany. Another new professorship was that of modern languages, and the European languages, of particular interest to students who would do graduate study abroad, began to be elected in preference to the classical languages.
The buildings and the faculty were not Robinson’s only problems. Early in his presidency he found himself conducting morning prayers in an almost empty chapel, while the students enjoyed a freshman-sophomore contest outside. Robinson was not amused. He reminisced in the ‘cane-rush’ was only one of a series of regular, or rather irregular, escapades to which the students, under the extreme leniency of my immediate official predecessor, had become accustomed. Cane-rushes at any hour of the day or evening, nightly bonfires with horn-blowing, an occasional hazing of a green Freshman, were established amusements.... A long-established practice of mock-programmes at the Junior Exhibition reached a stage of indecency and blasphemy. Drastic measures became a necessity. In due time a healthier tone prevailed; and years before my withdrawal from office a more quiet and orderly body of students could not be desired.”During his presidency Robinson, as professor of intellectual and moral philosophy, instructed the senior class in psychology and ontology in the first term, and in ethics in the second. He included some lectures on natural theology and the evidences of Christianity, and in 1879-80 introduced a course in the history of philosophy. He taught by dictation and discussion until he introduced his own work, Principles and Practice of Morality in the form of proof-sheets in 1887, to be replaced by the published book the next year. In 1878-79 he gave a weekly course of nineteen lectures on “some of the more difficult and controverted questions in metaphysics and ethics” for the benefit of recent graduates and other interested persons. Graduate study was introduced by Robinson over the objections of the senior professors of Latin and Greek, but with the blessing of history professor E. Benjamin Andrews, who was to succeed him in the presidency.
Thomas D. Anderson 1874 summarized the improvements to the University during Robinson’s administration in his memorial address:
“The College showed greater material advance during the administration of Dr. Robinson than at any other period of its history. The grounds were greatly improved. The front campus was transformed from a hayfield into an attractive lawn overshadowed by its beautiful elms; the middle campus was graded, sodded, and paved; and the field of athletic sports transferred to the lower campus, which had arisen out of a swamp. The University came to be much better housed and equipped. Rhode Island Hall was extended; University Hall was renovated; the Library, Sayles Memorial Hall, and Slater Hall were erected; Wilson Hall was begun; the Ladd Observatory was promised, and the money for the Lyman Gymnasium was in hand; and while this better equipment was secured, the funds of the College had been increased, speaking in round numbers, from $550,000 to $1,000,000. When we reflect that all this was done in spite of the President’s confessed lack of tact in dealing with men, and in face of obstructions raised by a divided Corporation, we find in these gratifying results abundant evidence of the persistent purpose and unflinching fidelity of the President, and a substantial expression of the respect and confidence which his abilities and character inspired in the community at large.”Robinson himself was satisfied with the state of the university, and decided to resign. In his letter to the Corporation on March 20, 1889, he wrote, “I am now the more ready to retire, because the prospects of the University have at no time since my connection with it been so encouraging as they now are, and because it is now in a condition from which, under wise guidance and with such changes as in due course of events will necessarily come, it can rapidly advance to a measure of usefulness not hitherto attainable.” Despite his satisfaction with the state of the University, his resignation was saddened by, and perhaps precipitated by the fact that his son, Gilman P. Robinson 1878, who had been registrar of the University since 1884, had been charged with failing to deposit cash payments of tuition to the credit of the University. Gilman Robinson resigned in 1889 and the charges were dropped.
President Robinson was not idle after his “retirement.” For most of 1890 he supplied the pulpit of a church in Philadelphia and also lectured at Crozer Theological School and the theological institutions at Andover and Rochester. He gave a course of lectures at Brown in the spring of 1892. In the fall of 1892 he became professor of ethics and apologetics at the University of Chicago. In the spring of 1894 he preached at Vassar College, of which he had been a trustee since its founding, and shortly afterward became ill and was taken to the Boston city hospital, where he died on June 13. When the class of 1884 decided to erect a gate in his memory in 1924, an editorial in the Brown Alumni Monthly, recalled Robinson as viewed by his students, “We may not all have loved him then, but we respected him. He was genuine, all through, except so far as some of his austerity may have been assumed in self-defense against an inconvenient kindliness of heart.”