Volume 6, Number 3, 1997

From the Past-Presidential Profiles

The University of Delaware traces its origins to a school founded by the Rev. Francis Alison in 1743, which later became the Academy of Newark. In 1833, the state of Delaware chartered the state's first institute of higher education, located in Newark, called Newark College and which was closely tied to the Academy. Later known as Delaware College, it was coordinated with the Women's College, founded in 1914, and became the University of Delaware in 1921.

At its opening in May 1834, Newark College, now the University of Delaware, was governed by the faculty, with Nathan Watson Munroe as principal. Most of the students were then in the preparatory division (the old Academy of Newark), though they were now moved into the new college building.

In September 1834, at the end of the first college term, the trustees, dissatisfied with the previous arrangement, named their own president, Eliphalet Wheeler Gilbert, to be the first president of the college. Gilbert, who had been pastor of a Presbyterian church in Wilmington, was unhappy that the chief source of college income was a lottery, and his growing conviction that this encouragement of gambling was wrong led him to resign the presidency in 1835.

His successor was an Episcopal minister, Richard Sharpe Mason, previously president of Geneva (later Hobart) College. Mason strengthened the faculty and thereby added to the reputation of the college. Critics, however, faulted him for lax administration, and he resigned in 1840.

In this year, Eliphalet Gilbert was brought back to the presidency, his scruples regarding the lottery being satisfied by a new arrangement under which the lottery money went to the state, which then made a direct appropriation (in the same amount) to the college. Gilbert was a good administrator and the college, renamed Delaware College in 1843, seemed to be flourishing. But state appropriations ended in 1845 when the state ceased raising money by a lottery, and Gilbert became discouraged, particularly when he failed in efforts to find money and increased enrollment through his Presbyterian connections

When Gilbert resigned in 1847, the trustees chose another Presbyterian minister as president, James Patriot Wilson Jr. With Wilson, the college entered on a period of short presidential terms and increasing financial difficulties as the trustees gradually spent the endowment that had been built up in the good years prior to 1845, mainly from lottery income--direct or indirect.

Wilson resigned in 1850 and was succeeded by William Augustus Norton, the first non-minister to be made president and the first to be taken from the faculty. Norton planned to turn the college into a scientific institute, but quickly became discouraged and left before a year had passed.

His successor, Matthew Meigs, another Presbyterian minister, had enjoyed great success as head of the academy, still a branch of the college. But in his short tenure (1850-51), he proposed a plan that was to have catastrophic consequences-a plan to raise funds by the sale of scholarships.

The new scholarship plan was put in effect during the presidency of Walter Scott Finney Graham (1851-54), a Presbyterian minister and the first graduate to become president. A record enrollment was attained and many of the students entered a three-year scientific program that included courses in agriculture and engineering. But the funds raised by sale of scholarships were spent as rapidly as they were accumulated, whereas scholarship students kept enrolling after the funds were gone.

Upon Graham's untimely death, the trustees prevailed on a reluctant faculty member, Daniel Kirkwood, a distinguished astronomer, to become president. Pressing financial problems-his own low salary as well as the institution's difficulties-led Kirkwood to quit after two years, in 1856.

With some difficulty, the trustees located a successor, Ellis James Newlin, another Presbyterian minister. In his short term (1856-59), Newlin, the first native Delawarean to be chosen president, made repeated but vain efforts to get aid from the state legislature. The murder of an undergraduate, John Edward Roach, in Old College in 1858 hurt the reputation of the institution, but it was the gradual dissipation of the endowment that caused the trustees to close the college in March 1859.

Newlin had already resigned in January, when the trustees appointed one of their number, George F. Wiswell, still another Presbyterian minister, as acting president. As far as can be learned, Wiswell did nothing to prevent the demise of the college. At any rate, in March 1859, the trustees replaced him in the role of acting president with Rathmell Wilson, a well-to-do Philadelphia merchant whose country home, Oaklands, lay on the western edge of Newark

Wilson, who had been president of the Board of Trustees since 1851, made various efforts to reopen the college in his 11-year tenure (1859-70) as acting president. Troubled times-the Civil War began in 1861-were a deterrent, but at last an opportunity to reopen the college was seen in 1867 when the state legislature designated Delaware College to be the recipient of federal assistance provided under the Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862. The Academy of Newark was now officially separated, and a new charter in 1869, recognizing an obligation to agriculture and the mechanic arts, gave the governor the right to appoint half of the members of the Board of Trustees. (A later charter reduced the number of gubernatorial appointees, but made all appointments subject to the confirmation by the state Senate.)

William Henry Purnell, a Maryland lawyer and former officeholder, who was both a graduate and a trustee of Delaware, began his 15-year presidency in 1870, when the college reopened. Notable accomplishments of his period were the admission of women in 1872 and the inauguration of a teacher-training program with state aid in 1873. Unfortunately, the state refused to renew its financial assistance after 1875 and the program for teachers had to be abandoned. Federal aid, too, proved wanting. The total realized from the sale of Delaware's rights to public lands amounted only to $4,980, and the interest on this sum was too little to sustain the college. Purnell hoped coeducation would greatly increase the enrollment and the income, but it did not. It was, indeed, so little popular with the trustees that when Purnell, in despair, resigned in 1885, the board put an end to this innovation.

John Hollis Caldwell, the next president (1885-88), a Methodist minister, was a strange and unfortunate choice. Sixty-five years old in 1885, he had very little college experience. His strict and unbending adherence to his views led him into such bitter conflict with both students and faculty that the college was almost destroyed. With enrollment reduced to 16, the trustees forced his resignation in 1888.

Lewis Potter Bush, a Wilmington physician who had been president of the Board of Trustees since 1881, served as acting president of the college for a few months following Caldwell's resignation in March 1888 until July, when a new permanent president took office.

Albert Newton Raub, Caldwell's successor, was a professional educator from Pennsylvania, who won the attention of the trustees by his success as head of the Academy of Newark. Raub quickly increased the enrollment, aided by new federal funds from the Second Morrill Act of 1890 and the Hatch Act of 1887. The latter established the Agricultural Experiment Station, which began the first consistent, organized research program on campus.

When Raub retired in 1896, the trustees, disappointed in their attempt to hire a president from the outside, turned to a faculty member, George Abram Harter, professor of mathematics. Named at first only for one year, Harter served 18 years as president (1896-1914), the longest term to date. It was generally a quiet but happy time on campus, with engineering decidedly the most popular program, though the agricultural course gained popularity for the first time soon after the arrival in 1906 of Harry Hayward, who, in a few years, was made dean, the first on campus. Various statutes increased federal assistance to campus programs, but most notably the state legislature began making occasional grants, usually for the construction or reconstruction of buildings, but gradually its interest widened. In 1907, a state appropriation allowed the purchase of an experimental farm just south of Newark, and in 1911, the legislature came to support the Agricultural Extension Service, which received federal funding beginning in 1914. In 1911, the legislature created a chair of history, and from 1909, it made regular appropriations for the general needs of campus maintenance-not just for specific objects, as heretofore.

Despite these signs of progress, Delaware College was still living a hand-to-mouth existence. Its income was small, its buildings generally in poor shape; its library undernourished; its professors underpaid; its president, like his predecessors, wearied by a demanding teaching schedule as well as administrative duties. A group of alumni decided to remedy the situation by bringing in the first full-time president. They succeeded in appointing Samuel Chiles Mitchell, a Southern historian who was then president of the newly formed Medical College of Virginia and had previously been president of the University of South Carolina. Harter returned to his faculty post in mathematics and continued to teach, in the absence of a pension system, until 1935.

Mitchell's term began auspiciously. The year of his inauguration, 1914, also marked the opening of the Women's College of Delaware, an affiliated college on an adjoining campus, employing some of the same faculty and subject to the Board of Trustees of Delaware College. The result of a concerted drive led by the Federation of Women's Clubs, backed by such organizations as the State Grange and the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the new college was created and financed by the state legislature.

Mitchell's administration was also marked by the first large private benefactions Delaware College had known. The donor was Pierre S. du Pont who, usually acting anonymously, gave over a million dollars to Delaware College within the next six years. Most of this money went for new buildings, their equipment and their upkeep.

Mitchell's successor was Walter Hullihen, who came to Delaware in 1920 from a deanship at the University of the South (Sewanee). Hullihen, though trained in the classics, dedicated himself to administration and had some notable achievements in what was the longest presidential term in Delaware's history, from 1920 to his death early in 1944.

In 1921, soon after coming to Newark, he succeeded in securing a change in the charter that named the institution the University of Delaware. It was simpler thereafter to understand the relationship of Delaware College (for men) and the Women's College. He took pride also in a statewide fund campaign that allowed construction of the Memorial Library, now Memorial Hall, as the centerpiece of a campus being developed on plans of the architectural firm of Day & Klauder, with Marian Coffin as landscape architect. Inauguration in 1923 of the Junior Year Abroad, a proposal of a young teacher of French, encouraged by Hullihen and backed by Pierre du Pont and others, won national attention and popularity, as well as imitation by several other institutions.

By private gifts and state appropriations, new buildings were being added to the campus, until the Great Depression, which brought a reduction in gifts and in state appropriations. Before and after the Depression, Hullihen's great problem was that the money at his disposal was barely enough to carry on operations. When extra funds came, they were usually for a specific purpose, such as a new building. Professors' salaries and the library budget lagged behind those of comparable institutions. A visiting committee of educators discovered that Delaware ranked nearly at the bottom in its per capita appropriations for higher education and also in the percentage of its youth going to college. Peculiarly, reported the committee, though Delaware did less than other states, its people thought it did more.

In 1937-38, a new era began with the construction of a new chemical laboratory and the appointment of Allan Colburn, a bold, young (33-year-old) chemical engineer. Colburn used his contacts in the Du Pont Co. and elsewhere to establish a lively research and teaching program in his field that brought Delaware into the forefront of chemical engineering education.

The Second World War gradually drew most of the male students off the campus. Their place was taken by Army trainees, but as an emergency measure, the few male undergraduates left on campus were permitted to sit in classes at the Women's College. Accession to the presidency of Wilbur Owen Sypherd, veteran and respected professor of English, upon the death of Hullihen, allowed the emergency coeducational measures to become permanent. Sypherd, a graduate of Delaware in the class of 1896, thought coeducation had many advantages for an institution as small as Delaware, which had never had as many as 1,000 undergraduates, and he used his influence to bring about a reorganization of the University in 1945 that raised home economics and education to the same rank as agriculture, engineering and arts and science (each with a dean) but eliminated the Women's College and Delaware College as separate units.

Insisting on returning to his professorship, Sypherd, in 1946, turned the presidency over to William Samuel Carlson, who came from the University of Minnesota. Carlson's brief administration (1946-50) was featured by increased state appropriations to provide for a student body that grew rapidly as veterans resumed their education. The state also improved the weak pension system that had begun in 1935, but possibly the most notable development of this period was the awarding, in 1948, of the first Ph.D. degrees, in chemical engineering and chemistry, a climax of the work begun by Colburn in 1938.

It was natural that Allan Philip Colburn should become acting president upon Carlson's resignation in 1950. Though Colburn's tenure was very short, it was notable, most especially for a decision in Delaware Chancery Court opening the University to black students. Some blacks had been admitted by trustee action in 1948 to programs not offered at Delaware State College, a school that had been founded by the legislature in 1891 to preserve segregation in higher education as in the public schools. The University did not appeal the Chancery Court decision and was henceforth open to all Delawareans, regardless of race. Within a short time, the same freedom from any racial restriction was quietly extended to out-of-state applicants.

John Alanson Perkins, appointed to the presidency in 1950, came to Delaware with administrative experience at the University of Michigan, as well as experience in public administration, which was his scholarly field. Young (36) and vigorous, he quickly became a dominant figure on a campus that grew rapidly in enrollment and facilities, particularly in the later years of his long term (1950-67).

The endowment, somewhat over $5 million in 1950 thanks to one large bequest, grew rapidly to many times what it was when John Perkins came. Some of the princely gifts had been planned before his arrival (like the very large gifts from H. Rodney Sharp), but Perkins added to them, with the constant cooperation of Hugh M. Morris, longtime board chairman. The state government also showed mounting concern for higher education for a rapidly growing population, and state appropriations increased significantly.

As the undergraduate enrollment grew from 1,500 to nearly 6,000, the campus was enlarged, new buildings were erected and new programs were instituted. Perkins showed particular concern for the library, which occupied a new building in 1963, and he encouraged the development of cooperative graduate programs with nearby museums (Winterthur and Hagley) and with Longwood Gardens. In 1965, the name of each of the major academic units was changed from school to college. A significant event in 1964 was an amendment to the University charter making clear the independent responsibility of the trustees for its conduct.

When Perkins resigned in 1967 to accept the presidency of Dun & Bradstreet, John W. Shirley, the University provost, was appointed acting president. The year of his administration, 1967-68, was a troubled one on university campuses, stirred by student disturbances that largely grew out of the draft and the Vietnamese War.

Student disturbances continued, marring the early years of the presidency of Edward Arthur Trabant, who came to Delaware in 1968. Trained in applied mathematics at the California Institute of Technology, Trabant held successive administrative posts at Purdue, Buffalo and Georgia Tech. At Delaware, he called immediately upon all elements on campus to cooperate in fashioning a community design for the future. Sharing some responsibility with leaders of the student body and with a Faculty Senate, Trabant saw the University gradually become a more harmonious body. The rapid growth characteristic of the last Perkins' years continued, with the undergraduate enrollment reaching 13,000 by the mid-1970's. Facilities, of course, had to expand to meet this growth. In addition to the growth at Newark, where the John M. Clayton Hall (1972) and a greatly enlarged Hugh M. Morris Library (1986) were among the major new buildings, growth occurred in Sussex County, where new facilities were constructed at Lewes for the College of Marine Studies (created in 1970), and in Wilmington, where a permanent home was established for the classes offered at night by the Division of Continuing Education and during the day by the Academy of Lifelong Learning.

A revised academic schedule permitted insertion of a Winter Session that soon surpassed the Summer Session in popularity. A Freshman Honors Program attracting superior students at the end of their junior years in high school was initiated in Dover in 1976 and was later moved to and expanded in Newark. Special attention was given to the needs of minority students, primarily blacks, and an active effort was made to enroll them. Women ceased to be a minority in 1970; thereafter, they comprised a majority of the undergraduates.

In 1986, President Trabant announced he would give up his position at the end of the academic year, concluding a tenure that was second in length only to Walter Hullihen's. After a nationwide search, the trustees appointed Russel C. Jones to Trabant's place. A civil engineer, Jones had taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ohio State University before serving in administrative positions at the University of Massachusetts (as a dean) and at Boston University (as academic vice president). After beginning his service on July 1, 1987, Jones engaged the entire University in developing a five-year plan, called Project Vision. Conflict soon arose, however, between Jones and the Board of Trustees, largely over expenditures, and on Oct. 24, 1988, the new president abruptly announced his resignation.

At this critical moment, the University community was greatly relieved that experienced replacement was available in the person of Trabant, who, in his retirement, was residing nearby and teaching courses in mathematics. Agreeing to take up the duties he had recently relinquished, Trabant began a brief second term as president while the University sought a long-term solution to the administrative crisis.

However people felt about Jones and the programs he had instituted, they warmly welcomed Trabant and the assurance his presence gave them that the work of the University could continue calmly. From Oct. 26, 1988, when he resumed the presidency, to May 1, 1990, Trabant extended his long term to more than 20 years.