Asa Messer graduated from Rhode Island College in 1790 and thereafter served in a variety of roles at the College, including tutor, librarian, professor of learned languages, and professor of natural philosophy until he succeeded Jonathan Maxcy as president pro tempore in 1802. In 1804, Messer was named president, the same year that Nicholas Brown, class of 1786, donated $5,000 to his alma mater, resulting in the renaming of the College to Brown University.
Messer's administration witnessed the increased unruliness of students—acts such as burning the privy and removing the chapel doors and furniture during the night were not uncommon. Messer ordered such perpetrators "rusticated"—sent to the country to continue their studies for a time under the direction of clergymen. Messer presided over the opening of Hope College, the University's second building and the first used exclusively as a dormitory, and the founding of Brown's first Medical School.
Despite such achievements, his presidency is remembered most as a time of conflict. His liberal religious views set him at odds with many members of the student body and the Corporation. He lamented how, in 1824, protesting students "broke open the Library: they beat down the pulpit: they prevented or disturbed for several weeks a regular recitation: they even assailed our house, in the night, and broke the windows." The continued strife resulted in Messer's resignation in 1826.