A native of Illinois, Edmund Janes James became president of the University of Illinois in 1904. He had briefly studied classics at Northwestern and Harvard before earning a doctorate in political economy in Germany in 1875. He returned to Illinois in 1877, serving as principal of high schools and publishing an educational journal until 1883. He became professor at the University of Pennsylvania, directing the Wharton School of Finance and Economy. In 1893, James returned to Illinois as professor of public administration and head of university extension at the University of Chicago before becoming president of Northwestern University in 1902.
James worked to foster and recognize scholarly achievements and to raise the University to international attention by hosting world-class scholars and researchers. During his administration, the newly developed graduate program to promote academic and experimental research became the first program in the nation to receive its own appropriation from a state legislature. He established the University High School, a model school open to any Illinois high school student preparing for college. The James Scholar program for students with outstanding academic records, high aptitude, solid reputation, and self-discipline was named for him.
He laid the foundation for the expansion and enhancement of the University's library during a time when librarianship was becoming a profession. He increased legislative appropriations to expand the library collection from 66,000 volumes in 1904 to about 420,000 in 1920. James also established the University of Illinois Press.
New buildings during his administration included the Round Barns, the English Building, Lincoln Hall, the original Laboratory of Physics (now the Materials Science and Engineering Building), and Foellinger Auditorium. Captain Thomas J. Smith donated four farms in 1914 to provide funds for a School of Music. The Honorable William B. McKinley donated securities totaling about $120,000 to provide for an infirmary.
The cornerstone for a new Commerce building on the quad was laid on May 21, 1911. The College of Commerce expanded to include commercial, financial, and administrative fields. The Commerce building, which also housed University administrative offices, was later renamed as the David Dodds Henry Administration Building.
In 1919 when his health began to fail, James offered his resignation but the Board refused to accept it, giving him a year's leave of absence instead. On his recommendation David Kinley was appointed acting president.