Harry Huntt Ransom, chancellor of the University of Texas, was born in Galveston, on November 22, 1908, the only child of Harry Huntt and Marion Goodwin (Cunningham) Ransom. He received his early education at a public school in Houston, Texas, Miss Dubose's Private School, Sewanee, Tennessee, and Sewanee Military Academy, and was graduated B.A. in 1928 at the University of the South and M.A. (1930) and Ph.D. in English (1938) at Yale University. He also studied at Harvard University (1929–30) and at the University of London, England (1939). He was instructor in English and journalism at the State Teachers College, Valley City, North Dakota (1930–32; 1933–34) and instructor in English and history at Colorado State College, Greeley, Colorado (1934–35). Joining the University of Texas in 1935 as instructor of English, he advanced through the academic ranks: assistant professor, 1938; associate professor, 1946; and professor, 1947. From 1942 to 1946 he was in the United States Army Air Forces and was advanced in rank from second lieutenant to major. In 1947 he was awarded the Legion of Merit for his work in editorial intelligence. He began an administrative career in 1951 when he was appointed assistant dean of the Graduate School at the University of Texas. In 1953 he was advanced to associate dean, in 1954 to dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, in 1957 to vice president and provost, in 1960 to president, and in 1961 to chancellor of the University of Texas System. After his retirement from the chancellorship in 1971 as chancellor emeritus, he continued his work in the development of special research collections and prepared materials for a history of the University of Texas, a project that was incomplete at the time of his death.
During his tenure as an administrator he was instrumental in a major expansion of library materials throughout the system. His efforts were concentrated on the Austin campus, where in 1957 he proposed a program for expanding the special collections. Most observers believe that Ransom's most lasting contribution is the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center with its vast collections, housed largely in a building that in 1974 was named the Harry Ransom Center. Because of the HRC collections, which include literature, the history of science, iconography, theater arts, photography, and cartography, the University of Texas at Austin library was cited in 1970 by Anthony Hobson in his book Great Libraries as one of the thirty-two leading libraries in Western Europe and North America. One of the principal adornments of the center, incidentally, is the Pforzheimer copy of the Gutenberg Bible, dedicated to Ransom's memory and donated in large part by the Chancellor's Council, of which Ransom was founder. Ransom was coeditor (with J. Frank Dobie and Mody C. Boatright of the Texas Folklore Publications (volumes 14–17). From 1952 to 1957 he was associate editor of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly and in 1956 was associate editor of English Copyright Cases, 1660–1775. In 1958 he founded the Texas Quarterly, which achieved international recognition; he served as chairman of the editorial board until his death in 1976. His principal research interests were in the fields of copyright law, bibliography, Texas history, and eighteenth and nineteenth century literary history. In 1939 he organized a research program for the International Copyright League in London and was chairman of its historical commission for several years. Among his publications are Bibliography of English Copyright History, (1948), Notes of a Texas Book Collector, 1850–1899,(1950), The First Copyright Statute, (1956), and scores of articles, addresses, and editorials.
One of his principal concerns throughout his teaching and administrative years was the individual student. He originated or fostered numerous programs to improve the quality of teaching and research and was active in attracting private support to advance his goal. Among these programs were the twenty-four-hour student counseling service, the Provisional Admissions Program for highly motivated students who failed to meet traditional entrance requirements, such honors programs as Plan II for the bachelor of arts degree and the Junior Fellows, student scholarships, the Program in Criticism lecture series, and the overall concept and construction of the Undergraduate Library and Academic Center (now the Peter T. Flawn Academic Center), with its open-shelf library and audiovisual facilities. To commemorate Ransom's own brilliance as a teacher, one of his former students inaugurated a Harry Ransom award for excellence in teaching, given annually to a faculty member in the College of Liberal Arts. In May 1988 alumni, administrators, faculty, and friends from the University of the South joined friends at the University of Texas at Austin to honor the memory of Harry Ransom. Ransom was a director of the Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, St. Louis, Missouri, and of the American National Bank, Austin. He was a member, and in 1965 president, of the International Commission for Library Development and served as a member of the National Committee on Accrediting Board Commissioners from 1966 to 1970 and as a member of the commission on academic affairs of the American Council on Education. He was at various times a member of the President's Commission on the Patent System, the National Advisory Commission on Libraries, the National Advisory Council for Education in Health Professions, and the Permanent Committee for the Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise. He was a member of the Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio (1961–76), Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (1962–70), and Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth (1962–71).
For his contributions to education, Ransom received a number of honorary degrees, including Litt.D. from the University of the South (1958), the University of North Dakota (1970), and the University of Dallas (1971); LL.D. from Baylor University (1958) and Trinity and Texas Christian universities (1963); L.H.D. from Austin College (1966) and Southern Methodist University (1972); and D.Eng. from Colorado School of Mines (1972). He was chairman of the executive council of the Commission on Colleges and Universities of the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools and president in 1962 of the Council of Southern Universities. He was also a fellow of the Texas State Historical Association and a member of the Modern Language Association of America, Philosophical Society of Texas, Texas Institute of Letters, Phi Beta Kappa, Kappa Sigma, Newcomen Society in North America, the Grolier Club of New York City, and the Cosmos Club of Washington, D.C. He was an Episcopalian. Ransom was married in Galveston on August 11, 1951, to Hazel Louise Harrod, daughter of Andrew Cray and Ora (Lee) Harrod of Waco. They had no children. Harry Ransom died in Dripping Springs, Texas, on April 19, 1976.