Alderman was born on May 15, 1861, in Wilmington, North Carolina. He was the youngest of three children and the only son of James and Susan Alderman. James Alderman was an inspector of timber that floated in rafts down the Cape Fear River. He was also an official in the Presbyterian Church where Joseph Ruggles Wilson, father of future U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, ministered. Though Edwin Alderman was several years younger than Woodrow Wilson, Alderman had a great respect for his family and was a staunch supporter and close advisor to Wilson throughout his political career. (Wilson, too, had ties to Virginia; he was born in Staunton.)
Alderman attended two private schools in Wilmington as a young boy, Burgess Military School and the Catlet School. He was also informally educated by his mother and his older sister, Alice. As a child, Alderman was an avid reader. His college preparation was at Bethel Military Academy near Warrenton, Virginia.
Alderman enrolled at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 1878. He participated in literary societies and public speaking, winning a medal in his junior year for his speech on the subject “Ireland and Her Woes.” He also won the Mangum Medal for oratory at his 1882 commencement exercise on the topic of “Corporate Power.”
Despite his political aspirations, Alderman took on a teaching position in the Goldsboro, North Carolina, school system following graduation in 1882. He taught in the highest classes, corresponding to the eighth and ninth grades of today. Three years later, at the age of twenty-four, Alderman became superintendent of the Goldsboro schools. On December 29, 1885, he married Emma Graves, daughter of noted schoolmaster Ralph Henry Graves. They had three children, all of whom died at a very young age.
In April 1889, Alderman was appointed to the North Carolina Board of Education as an institute conductor and agent of the board. He resigned his post as superintendent and began traveling the state with fellow agent and former classmate Charles D. McIver, offering training to teachers in pedagogy and informing the community about the needs of the schools and areas for improvement. Alderman and McIver submitted reports of their activities and recommendations to the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Through their reports and presentations, Alderman and McIver campaigned for more spending on public education and the creation of a training school for teachers, especially women. Their efforts resulted in an increased tax rate and the authorization of the Normal and Industrial School at Greensboro, North Carolina (later the University of North Carolina at Greensboro). Alderman’s work as a conductor had a profound effect on his philosophy of education, which emphasized professionalization and social progress.
Following the compilation of their reports to the superintendent in 1891, Alderman and McIver were charged with establishing the Normal and Industrial School. McIver was elected president and Alderman was chosen as professor. The school opened in October 1892 with two hundred students. Alderman taught history and literature at the school until he was approached by George T. Winston, a former teacher and then president of the University of North Carolina, and offered the position of professor at the university. Alderman accepted and began his tenure there in 1893 at the age of thirty-two.
Work in Higher Education
At the University of North Carolina Alderman taught history, English, and philosophy of education. He was also charged with the library and for the first year of his term at the university held the title of librarian. Alderman served as the superintendent of summer school for teachers and helped to increase enrollment from 60 teachers in 1894 to 153 in 1896. As a history professor, he made numerous presentations for meetings on local history and wrote a Brief History of North Carolina, published in 1896.
At the 1895 Atlanta Exposition meeting of the National Education Association, Alderman delivered a paper titled “Higher Education in the South,” which elevated him to a recognized spokesman for education in the New South. Alderman called for an end to the contempt for higher education, and greater service to the public good, overthrowing the tyranny of public ignorance. Following the speech, he became established in the inner circle of southern reformers and was elected president of the University of North Carolina in 1896.
During Alderman’s administration the university prospered in several ways. Enrollment increased notably, university buildings were renovated, and greater emphasis was placed on “modern teaching” methods that were less mechanized, stereotyped, and formal. He developed many personal connections outside the state and brought in well-known speakers, such as writer Walter Hines Page and educator Nicholas Murray Butler.
In 1900 Alderman moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, to become president of Tulane University. During his tenure there, he became actively involved in the promotion of public education through the Southern Education Board. He worked diligently to increase government appropriations for schools and to raise the public’s consciousness about the importance of maintaining adequate public schools. Educational campaigns supported by the Southern Education Board were successfully carried out in many southern states, and Alderman was recognized as one of the board’s chief spokespersons.
President of the University of Virginia
In September 1904, Alderman assumed his duties as the first president of the University of Virginia. Since the university’s beginnings in 1825, faculty members rotated as executives to oversee the activities of the university. By the turn of the century the administrative affairs had grown to such an extent that the old form of government became too cumbersome. The appointment of Alderman brought a new era of progressivism to the university and service to Virginia.
In his inaugural address, Alderman announced four objectives. First, the university needed to coordinate the state’s educational system through the establishment of a school of education. Second, a greater understanding of society in the state should be explored through a school embracing the studies of economics, political science, sociology, and history. The result of this greater awareness would be Alderman’s third objective, the establishment of schools of business and engineering. The last objective was to preserve the tradition of culture through a school of English writing. In order to finance these objectives, Alderman administered a large alumni fundraising campaign to increase the university’s endowment. His aggressive solicitation of prominent citizens, such as the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and philanthropic foundations including the Rockefeller family’s General Education Board, netted more than $700,000 toward the campaign’s goal of $1 million.
In requesting support from the General Education Board in 1905, Alderman outlined his plans for instilling the principles of southern progressivism. Efficiency, departmental rationalization, the coordination of state educational agencies, and the promotion of professional, technical instruction were the principal objectives. Alderman worked to increase the efficiency of the university by appointing five new deans and merging several of its medical schools. His recommendations for greater professional and technical instruction led to a 100 percent increase in the number of faculty by 1907. Alderman’s vision for identifying the university more closely with educational life in the state was realized through the establishment of the Curry Memorial School of Education in 1905.
With the creation of the School of Education, Alderman worked to expand the university’s outreach program to make its instruction and resources more available and serviceable to the whole state. A plan was developed to create a University Extension Bureau that would publish practical information, hold public discussion on social issues, offer correspondence courses, and form liaisons between university experts and government organizations. The Summer School program was established in 1906 for the continuing education of elementary and secondary school teachers. Both the Extension Bureau and the Summer School typified the university’s desire to influence the state’s educational and social policies.
An extended bout with tuberculosis in the winter of 1912 forced Alderman to take a leave from the university. He was a sanatorium patient at Saranac Lake in New York, but he returned to his duties at the University of Virginia in the autumn of 1914. Upon his return, he received a request from the Virginia Federation of Women’s Clubs to establish a coordinate college for women near the university. Alderman expressed his support for the idea but was met with great resistance from alumni and students fearful that the coordination would lead to gender integration. Legislation to create the coordinated college for women was defeated in 1916. In 1918 the University of Virginia began admitting women to its graduate and professional studies programs. At the same time, the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg became the first coeducational college in Virginia.
In 1924 Alderman received an invitation to deliver the memorial address before a joint session of the United States Congress after the death of former U.S. president Woodrow Wilson. This speech was the greatest achievement of his notable public speaking career, acclaimed by politicians and educators alike.
During his 1924 Founder’s Day address this same year, Alderman announced an ambitious plan to construct a new million-dollar library for the university. Since early in the 1900s, the library had outgrown its facilities in the Rotunda. While formal planning of the library began after he unveiled the plan, the onset of the Great Depression curtailed further development until the mid-1930s.
Despite not being able to finish the library, the University of Virginia’s growth during Alderman’s tenure was impressive. By the time that he ended his twenty-fifth year of service in 1929, the student body had multiplied by four and the faculty had multiplied by five. The endowment had increased from $350,000 to $10 million. He continued to be regarded as a great orator throughout the country. On the train to a speaking engagement at the University of Illinois on April 29, 1931, Alderman suffered a stroke. He was rushed to a hospital in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, where he died. He was buried in the University of Virginia Cemetery in Charlottesville. In 1938, the university library that Alderman began finally opened. Alderman Library, as it is still known today, was dedicated to the university’s first president during Final Exercises in June of that year.