John Howell McLean, preacher, teacher, and university president, son of Allen Ferguson and Ann (Rose) McLean, was born on September 24, 1838, in Hinds County, Georgia. His father died shortly after he was born, and his mother, his older brother, William Pinckney McLean, and his maternal grandfather, William Pinckney Rose, moved with him to Harrison County, Texas, in 1839. McLean was reared near Marshall and educated at McKenzie College, where he received the master of arts degree in 1858. He was awarded an honorary doctor of divinity degree in 1890 by Centenary College. He spent the years 1858–59 teaching at his alma mater. He was granted a license to preach by the Methodist Church in 1859 and was appointed to a congregation in 1860. He became president of Paris Female Institute in 1869. McLean was called to Southwestern University in 1880 as vice-regent, then traveled the state on behalf of the university and held the chair in English language and literature. After the death of Francis Asbury Mood in 1884 McLean acted as regent (i.e., head of the university) until the election of John Wesley Heidt in 1885. McLean was faculty chairman and vice-regent when Heidt resigned in 1889 and was authorized to act as regent for the 1890–91 school year. On June 5, 1891, he was elected regent and thus became the only head of Southwestern to have graduated from one of the four root colleges from which Southwestern University was formed-Rutersville College, Wesleyan College, McKenzie College, and Soule University.
During McLean's tenure as regent, from 1890 to 1897, Southwestern continued to be a vital element in Texas higher education, ranking as one of the top three institutions in the state in enrollment. During his administration students increased to 490 and faculty to nineteen. Particular attention was given to the library and to the science department. In 1895 the old chapel was refitted as a library and reading room, and by 1897 it contained 2,300 volumes. In 1896 the first summer school was conducted for credit. Construction ventures during McLean's administration included the planning for the administration building and the addition of a wing to the Ladies' Annex. McLean resigned the presidency of Southwestern University in 1897 to reenter the itinerant ministry and was assigned to the Dallas District as presiding elder. In 1908 he was put in charge of the Methodist Home, an orphanage in Waco. He reentered the ministry in 1912 and retired from active service in 1915. During his fifty-five years in the itinerant Methodist ministry, he was a representative to the General Conference nine times (seven times as head of his delegation), a member of the general board of education and of the general board of missions, and a delegate to several ecumenical conferences. For nineteen years (seventeen as president) he served as a member of the Board of Publication of the Texas Christian Advocate (see UNITED METHODIST REPORTER). On March 22, 1866, McLean married Olivia McDugald, the daughter of Major James and Margaret (Williams) McDugald of Paulding, Mississippi. They had nine children. McLean published his Reminiscences in 1918. He died on July 24, 1925, at the age of eighty-six.