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The Schurman family was of Dutch descent, and after flourishing in America, was forced to leave New York for Canada during the American Revolution due to its Loyalist sympathies. Born on May 22, 1854 in Freetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada, Jacob Gould Schurman early in his life demonstrated himself as a talented student, and he earned a series of scholarships. After attending the Prince of Wales College and Acadia College in Nova Scotia, he graduated in 1877 from the University of London with first class honors in mental and moral science, attending other lectures at Manchester New College on mental and moral philosophy and religion. He then studied philosophy for a year at Edinburgh while simultaneously studying in London, earning there an M.A. and D.Sc. with distinction, in 1878. Schurman then studied philosophy in Berlin, at Gottingen, and at the University of Heidelberg. While in Berlin he made the acquaintance of Andrew Dickson White, ambassador to Germany and president of Cornell University

In 1880, Schurman returned to North America to become a professor of English literature at Acadia College. From 1882 to 1886 he was professor of English literature, rhetoric, and metaphysics at Dalhousie University.

From Dalhousie, Schurman moved to Cornell University, where he served as a professor of Christian ethics and moral philosophy. His work at Cornell came under the close sponsorship of University Trustee and benefactor Henry W. Sage. When in 1890 Sage endowed the School of Philosophy, Schurman was appointed dean. Two years later, in 1892, as Charles Kendall Adams ended his troubled presidency of Cornell, Schurman became the third president of the university, serving until 1920.

Schurman's stewardship of Cornell was characterized by the extensive growth of the University's facilities, and its shift from a privately endowed institution to its current coalition of state and private funding. Throughout the twenty eight years of his presidency, Schurman was a proponent of academic freedom and an advocate of a generally liberal intellectual atmosphere on campus. During his presidency of Cornell, Schurman's scholastic pursuits and writings gradually moved away from philosophy and toward public and philanthropic endeavors. He became a presence in the national and New York State Republican Parties, identifying himself with Charles Evans Hughes, and it was thought that only his Canadian birth prevented him from seriously pursuing the presidency of the United States. While still president of Cornell, Schurman served as chairman of a commission examining social and political life in the Philippines in 1899. In 1912 and 1913, he was minister to Greece and Montegnegro during the Balkan Wars. In America, he served as vice president of the New York State Constitutional Convention in 1915, and was a member of the New York State Food Commission in 1917-1918

Upon leaving Cornell, Schurman went to Japan and the Far East, and then served as minister to China from 1921 to 1925, a time of war and great political upheaval. His pattern of finding himself in tumultuous times continued when he served as the American ambassador to Germany from 1925 to 1930. The honor that was due him for his efforts to rebuild the University of Heidelberg translated into popularity with the centrist forces in the Weimar Republic.

After a lectureship in California and additional travels and writing on international subjects, Schurman died in New York in 1942.