Charles Tenney, Class of 1878, never imagined that he would return to his alma mater in the "character of a Chinese official."
Tenney returned to Dartmouth on March 2, 1907 as the director of Chinese government students. He had trained over fifty percent of the more than one hundred Chinese students who had enrolled in graduate programs at Ivy League institutions and MIT between 1901 and 1907. In fact, his students achieved such a high level of education that they entered these programs without having to take entrance examinations. Many notable alumni from his university eventually took leading positions in various fields in China and played important roles in modern Chinese history.
Tenney went to China as a missionary in 1882 but left the Missionary Society in 1885. He believed that his duty lay in the field of education. He went to Tianjin where he opened his own independent school of Western learning for Chinese boys and young men. His success drew the attention of Viceroy Li Hongzhang, the highest and the most important official in China at the time, and he soon became the tutor of Li's children. With the support of the government and the approval of Emperor Guangxu, Tenney established Beiyang University, the first Western-style university in China, in 1895. He remained president of the university for eleven years.
Tenney was a pioneer of Chinese educational reform. Traditional Chinese education focused on ethical teaching, which Tenney considered to be narrow in scope. At his university, he mapped out the curriculum, employed top teachers from both the West and from China, and recruited excellent students. The university offered courses in English, math, sciences, civil engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, mining, law and other subjects. Through this work, he set the direction for a new school system to develop. His role in modernizing education in China was unparalleled among Westerners during his time.
Tenney's efforts were hugely successful because they met the urgent need to solve a national crisis experienced by the Chinese. In 1895, China was shocked and shattered at its humiliating defeat by the tiny island country Japan. The Chinese were compelled to rethink their existing system, and to embark on a program of reform and modernization by learning from Westerners.
Determined to bring China into greater interaction with the larger world, Tenney worked tirelessly, sometimes under extremely difficult conditions. There were times when his students and teachers had to be armed and stand guard day and night to prevent attacks from "reactionaries" who opposed the reform movement. During the Boxer Uprising in 1900, his university was forced to suspend class activities for two years. The campus was damaged and occupied by German troops who used it for barracks. In order to rebuild the school after the uprising, Tenney went to Germany to negotiate damage claims with the German government. He was successfully granted 50,000 silver yuan by the German government.
Tenney didn't stop at reforms for higher education. He understood that reform needed to penetrate beyond the university if it were to take root in the larger society. In his own words, he "had the privilege of assisting in the organizing of lower schools throughout the interior of the Metropolitan Province. A modern school system is now completely organized throughout China. It is not yet highly efficient owing to the lack of a sufficient number of well-trained teachers, but every year and every month will see progress in real efficiency."
To acknowledge Tenney’s service to China spanning over thirty years, the Qing court awarded him with Double Dragon, 3rd class medals and 2nd Order of Merit. In 1901, Dartmouth awarded him an honorary Doctorate in Law. Clearly, Tenney, while largely forgotten today, was one of Dartmouth’s most distinguished graduates during his time.
See The Papers of Charles Daniel Tenney, available through the Dartmouth Digital Library Program.