Sesquicentennial Memories

John Lincoln Alger: Last Principal, First President

By Michael Smith

image: John Lincoln AlgerPrincipal & President, 1908-1939Construction fencing has gone up around the gigantic shoebox of a building known as Alger Hall. Pre-construction work has begun on the venerable 45-year old structure, which is slated for transformation into a new center of learning that will serve as home to the School of Management and Technology.

One of the architectural features of the rebuilt structure will provide something the 1958 version lacked: a formal entrance. Absent such a feature, the small and simple plaque commemorating the building in honor of John Lincoln Alger had been affixed to a wall in the east vestibule of the building.

In contrast to the humble plaque, the contributions of John Lincoln Alger to the history of this institution were enormous.

Alger was born on November 20, 1864 in Eaton, Quebec, Canada. His parents were noted Vermont clergyman Nathan Willis Alger and Mary Key (French) Alger. According to the History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, published by the American Historical Society in 1920, Alger earned his BA at Brown University in 1890, making Phi Beta Kappa, and earned his masters degree at Brown in 1895. He was later awarded an Ed.D. by the Rhode Island State College (now URI) and a Sc.D. from the Rhode Island College of Pharmacy (succeeded by the College of Pharmacy at URI but until 1957 an independent institution of higher education).

Alger's teaching career began in 1890 at the Rutland (Vermont) High School, following which he returned to Providence to teach at the English High School until 1892. At that time he became an instructor of mathematics at Brown University, a post he occupied until earning his graduate degree in 1895. He then resigned to accept the superintendency of the public schools of Bennington, Vermont, holding that position five years (1895-1900). It was during this time that he married the former Edith Goodyear of North Haven, Connecticut (June 30, 1896). After leaving Bennington, Alger spent the next four years as Principal of the Vermont State Normal School at Johnson, then returned to his alma mater, Vermont Academy at Saxtons River, where he served as Principal from 1904 to 1908.

In 1908, at the age of 44, John Lincoln Alger was appointed as the ninth – and last -- Principal of the Rhode Island Normal School. He gained this distinction because when the General Assembly rechartered the institution on April 22, 1920 as the Rhode Island College of Education, Alger's title was changed to President.

image: Alger Hall, a classic International Style building designed by the firm of Howe, Prout, and Ekman in 1957.  (photo date 2002)Under Alger's leadership, the institution would undergo a series of key changes and important accomplishments, not the least of which would be the transition of the Normal School into New England's first College of Education (1920). He also began Saturday classes for teachers (1909), instituted the first student government (1910), established entrance tests (1913), created the first summer school for in-service teachers (1918), entered into a cooperative agreement with the Rhode Island State College permitting students to receive a baccalaureate degree and Normal School diploma in four years (1919), established a graduate program (1925), extended the required program to three years (1926), helped design, with Clara Craig, a new, purpose-built Henry Barnard School on the campus that opened in 1928, oversaw the establishment of the “Associated Alumni of the Rhode Island College of Education” (1928), instituted intercollegiate athletic competition (1929), encouraged publication of the first student newspaper (1927) and yearbook (1929), increased library holdings to 35,000 volumes (1931), and instituted a new selective admissions plan (1936). Many other traditions were established, such as the May Day exercises and the adoption of the Anchor as the symbol of school spirit.

Alger retired from the Presidency on June 6, 1939 at the age of 75. His 31 years as Principal and President not only give him the distinction of having the longest tenure of any of the institution's chief executives, his 12 years as Principal was a longer span than any previous principalship and his 19 years as President is, to date, the longest tenure of any individual in that position. In 1946, John Lincoln Alger passed away at the age of 82.

image: Artistís rendering for new design of Alger Hall by Kite Carbone Architects of Providence.  The architectural style, with its visible structural components, can be described as of Structural Expressionist design.For the first hundred years of the College's existence, there were relatively few ways by which a grateful campus community could recognize the accomplishments of past leaders. Shortly after Dr. Alger's death, for instance, the Associated Alumni of the Rhode Island College of Education dedicated the Alger Organ in his memory – most certainly a sincere and thoughtful gesture, but hardly what we would today regard as an appropriate recognition for one of the institution's most significant figures. A decade later, however, the Associated Alumni, looking forward to the construction of a new, multi-building campus, voted to recommend to the Board of Trustees of State Colleges that one of the first buildings be named in memory of President Alger.

Two years later, on May 23, 1958, James P. Adams, Chair of the Board of Trustees, announced that one of the new buildings, a classroom building, would indeed be named in honor of John Lincoln Alger. For 45 years, this building has served tens of thousands of students, faculty, and staff. After its reconstruction, it will begin anew to continue to serve the institution – and to honor one of the true giants in the history of Rhode Island College.


In each edition of What’s News at Rhode Island College during the course of the College’s Sesquicentennial observance, Michael Smith, Assistant to the President, presents a brief glimpse of an historic College event that occurred at some point in the institution’s history corresponding to the publication date of that particular edition of What’s News. This is the tenth installment. The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Marlene Lopes, Special Collections Librarian, for her contributions to the research for this series.


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