John James Tigert was born February 11, 1882, the third child of John James Tigert III and Amelia McTyeire Tigert. Excelling in both academics and athletics, Tigert received his secondary education in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, followed by his BA from Vanderbilt in 1904. That same year, he received a Rhodes Scholarship to attend Oxford, as the first person ever selected from Tennessee.
In 1906, upon his return from Oxford, Tigert taught philosophy at Central Methodist College in Saint Louis, Missouri. There he met and married Edith J. Bristol. After serving for four years as president of Kentucky Wesleyan College, Tigert moved to the University of Kentucky in 1913, where he accepted the Chair of Philosophy. He was appointed Chair of the Psychology Department in 1919 and served briefly as head of the Athletic Department and coach of the football team. His ten-year stint at Kentucky was interrupted by an absence during World War I, when he served as a YMCA volunteer in the American Expeditionary Force. In 1921, Warren G. Harding selected Tigert for the post of Commissioner of Education, which he served as during both the Harding and Coolidge administrations.
In 1928, Tigert accepted the presidency of the University of Florida and arrived on campus in September of that year. His administration began in the midst of an economic crisis that had brought a serious decline in state revenues. The state’s economic woes continued throughout the Great Depression. Consequently, money for expansion of the physical plant and curriculum was largely unavailable during his twenty-year tenure. Although he did oversee the creation of a School of Forestry, his major accomplishments occurred in the areas of curricular reform, administrative organization, and research support.
Under his guidance, the undergraduate program was reorganized. Entrance requirements were strengthened and all applicants were required to pass a comprehensive placement exam before they could be accepted. To curb excessive failure rates in the lower classes, the General College was created in 1935 and standardized testing for freshmen and sophomores was instituted. The creation of the General College allowed the other colleges to expand the number of upper-level courses.
The first non-agricultural research centers were created in 1930 with the foundation of the Institute of Inter-American Affairs (now Center for Latin American Studies) and the Bureau of Economic and Business Research. The Research Council, the forerunner of today’s research development offices, was organized in 1939 to develop policies on patents and copyrights as well as to stimulate research.
Student enrollment was over 2000 by the time Tigert arrived in 1928. To meet the needs of these students, Tigert created a Dean of Students and appointed B. A. Tolbert to the position. Tigert also organized an executive body, the University Council, to serve as the president’s cabinet and budget committee. The Council was composed of all deans, the president, the registrar, and the University’s secretary. A University Senate, which included the Council, faculty representatives, and key administrators, was created in the University’s first constitution.
All though his main focus was academics, Tigert never lost his love for athletics. As a member of the National Rules Committee for college sports, he helped rewrite the rules for college football. was responsible for establishing football scholarships for collegiate players, and helped create the Southeastern Conference. Today, Tigert is enshrined in the college football Hall of Fame.
Tigert oversaw the first years of postwar expansion and then announced his retirement in 1947. He later accepted a teaching position in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Miami. Before he started, though, he was asked to join the Indian Higher Education Commission to survey conditions in India’s universities and to plan a program for the country’s education system. He returned to Miami in 1950 and served on the faculty until 1959. In 1960, the University of Florida’s new administration building was named in his honor. He died January 21, 1965 at the age of 82.