John Milton Gregory was the first regent of the Illinois Industrial University, serving from its founding in 1867. Gregory began his career as a graduate in law from Union College in Schenectady, New York, with academic standing near the head of his class. He then relocated to Michigan, where he was principal of a private academy and a member of the State Teachers' Association, founded the Michigan Journal of Education, served as president of Kalamazoo College and was elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction. A member of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees heard him speak at a convention in Chicago and nominated him to become the first regent for the Illinois Industrial University.
The University was one of 37 public land-grant institutions established after the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act was signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. Gregory's proposed curriculum promoted the establishment of a classical liberal arts education in addition to the anticipated industrial and agricultural education. Gregory faced opposition as some in Illinois held a different interpretation of the Land-Grant Act, arguing that courses in classical studies, such as literature and languages, should not be taught. Nevertheless, Gregory continued to promote the teaching of the classics.
The University opened on March 2, 1868, with about 50 students and 2 faculty members. Bare, open prairie surrounded the sole building on campus. Two years later, the Illinois Industrial University opened enrollment to women, becoming one of the first institutions after the Civil War to do so. Gregory advocated for self government for the students, including a court system and a constitution. Additions to the campus during Gregory's administration include the Morrow Plots, Harker Hall, and Mumford House. The original library was housed in Old Main University Hall with more than 1,000 volumes.
By the time Gregory resigned after his sixth two-year term as regent, the University had increased in size to nearly 450 students and 30 faculty. At his request, Gregory was buried on campus. Along the path he walked each afternoon rests his gravestone, a simple bronze tablet attached to a boulder that had been on Illinois soil for centuries. His epitaph reads: "If you seek his monument, look about you."