The 11th president of the university (1887–1904), Charles Dabney was the first UT president to have earned the PhD degree (in chemistry). He was born in Hampden-Sydney, Virginia; was the son of Robert Lewis Dabney, DD, LLD; a theologian; for many years a professor at the Union Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church; and professor of philosophy at the University of Texas. The elder Dabney was Stonewall Jackson’s chief of staff and biographer.
Dabney received the AB degree from Hampden-Sydney in 1873, taught for a year in the public schools, and studied at the University of Virginia from 1874 to 1877. He left the University of Virginia in 1877 to become professor of chemistry and mineralogy at Emory and Henry College. After a year he went to Gottingen, Germany, to study mineralogy, industrial chemistry, and organic chemistry. He received the PhD from Gottingen in 1880. He became professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina just before returning to the United States and soon thereafter became state chemist of North Carolina. He conducted explorations for phosphate in Eastern North Carolina and was the first to discover and bring these deposits to the attention of the scientific and commercial world. He discovered cassiterite (black tin) and a number of other new and valuable minerals in this section.
Dabney was the representative of the state of North Carolina at various expositions and was elected the chief of the Department of Government and State Exhibits at the New Orleans World’s Exposition of 1884–85 in Atlanta. He was serving as North Carolina’s state chemist and director of the North Carolina Experiment Station at the time he became president of UT on July 30, 1887. He had tried unsuccessfully to introduce industrial courses into the curriculum of the University of North Carolina. At Tennessee he had the sanction of the board of trustees to make industrial education, as opposed to classical learning, the leading objective of the university and the authority to select the staff to implement the program. He strengthened the experiment station and organized all undergraduate instruction into a College of Agriculture, Mechanic Arts and Sciences.
Dabney was appointed US assistant secretary of agriculture by President Grover Cleveland in 1893 and was on partial leave of absence from the university until late fall of 1897 while holding the post. In 1895, as assistant secretary, he was in charge of United States’ exhibits at the Cotton States and International Exposition, at which the UT exhibit won a gold medal. Two UT alumni (Lloyd Branson and Catherine Wiley) also received awards. He received the LLD from Davidson College in 1889.
He was a staunch advocate of public elementary and secondary education for both Caucasian and African American children and assisted in forming the Southern Education Board, where he served as head of the Bureau of Information. He instigated the Summer School of the South and hired P. P. Claxton to head it. In fact, he borrowed $1,500 on a life insurance policy in 1902 to meet his commitment to Claxton to hire the professors for the school (he was repaid the following year). In 1904 he left the university to become president of the University of Cincinnati. In 1915, “for his contributions to public instruction in France,” he was made a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur and Officer de l’Instruction Publique. At the 1921 commencement, friends and former associates presented UT with a life-size portrait of Dr. Dabney. He visited the campus in 1931 as the guest of Charles Ferris, at which time he was retired and living in Winter Park, Florida.
Dabney Hall was named for him on May 21, 1935, and the 79-year-old Dabney was on hand for the dedication. He was also the honor speaker at the sesquicentennial celebration of the university in 1944.