Harry Burns Hutchins was born in Lisbon, N.H., in 1847 and received his preparatory education in the east. However, from the time he entered the University of Michigan as an undergraduate, his life and work were closely tied to Michigan. He was the first student to receive a degree from James B. Angell at the time Angell took office as president of the university in 1871.
Following a year as superintendent of the Owosso schools, Hutchins returned to the university as an instructor in rhetoric and history and became an assistant professor a year later. During the three years he held that post, he studied law and began practicing law in Mt. Clemens in 1876.
In 1884, he returned to the University of Michigan as Jay Professor of Law. His teaching and organizational skills were recognized by Cornell University which invited him to organize its law school in 1887. He was appointed dean of the University of Michigan's department of law in 1895. He served as interim president of the university in 1897-98 while President Angell was serving as envoy to Turkey, and again in 1909-10 after Angell's resignation. In spite of his reluctance to accept the appointment as president at age 63, the Regents prevailed on him and he agreed to serve for five years. Letters of July 5, 1910, to Regents Leland and Knappen detail the conditions of his acceptance; numerous letters in the next few months replying to congratulatory messages he received, reiterate his doubts and hesitation. However, once in office he applied himself to the job with diligence.
He believed that the university should be a leader and a contributor to the public good. Toward that end, he travelled extensively in his first year in office lecturing and meeting with alumni to encourage their support of the university by establishing active regional alumni organizations. He also oversaw the beginnings of an extension service to better serve the people of the state. At first only a kind of speakers' bureau which arranged for university professors to lecture to various groups outstate, it later added courses taught in outlying localities for which university credit could be earned.
President Hutchins took a personal interest in the students, often inviting them to call on him, but he was also a strict disciplinarian who held students to a high standard of academic work and personal morality. His term of office was stretched beyond his original limit of five years by the demands of World War I, and he continued to serve until 1920.