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Chancellor Strong’s About-Face

May 4, 1917


From the outbreak of World War I to early 1917, the University of Kansas was largely unaffected by the calamitous events taking place across the Atlantic. The faculty and administration were essentially united in their opposition to President Woodrow Wilson’s “preparedness” initiatives, believing them portents of “militarism” that would undermine the educative purity of American universities. Many KU students, for their part, were markedly apathetic. Few had anything more than a passing interest in world affairs. In this instance, public opinion in Kansas was reflective of the Midwest in general, a region for which isolationism was a bedrock belief.

When the US finally did enter the First World War, however, the situation changed dramatically and immediately. KU faculty, administrators and students rushed to pledge their assistance, their energies and, if necessary, their lives to support President Wilson and the nation’s war efforts. Even KU Chancellor Frank Strong, a longtime opponent of on-campus military training, committed his full and unconditional support.

As soon as war was declared, he and Dean F.W. Blackmar of the Graduate School joined Kansas Governor Arthur Capper’s Council of Defense to coordinate the state’s domestic wartime policies with the federal government. To further confirm this change of attitude, Strong delivered a speech titled “Mobilization at the University” before the National Council of Defense in Washington, DC, on May 4, 1917. His address, in which he explained the past month’s developments at KU, showed how the University was “attempting to make itself fully available for the service of our common country.”

Six days after the US entered World War I, Strong pointed out to his DC audience, he had taken special care to assure all male students that their service to the country, whether on foreign battlefields or in domestic wheat fields, would be respected by the University. The so-called “Chancellor Resolution,” submitted and subsequently passed by the University Senate on April 12, stated “University men called to the service of their country in any way whatever should receive credit for the semester on the basis of their current work.” This included men who enlisted in the armed forces, as well as those who left school to help with critical farm labor and harvest a “considerable wheat acreage” to meet the nation’s growing wartime needs.

Roughly a month after the University’s “war credit” policy was announced, Strong continued, 150 KU men had withdrawn to help out on the farms. Furthermore, he added, “All students enlisting and being called out for military service are granted full credit on the basis of their grades” as well. At the time of the chancellor’s address, he was able to report that “sixty students have received endorsements to join the Officers’ Reserve Corps… six students have joined the Medical Corps of the United States Navy …, one hundred twenty-six have enlisted in the Kansas National Guard …, [and] thirty one [have joined] the Kansas Engineering Corps….” (One week later, the University Daily Kansan announced that 500 students, nearly one-fifth of the total student population, had “answered the call of gun and hoe.”)

Other aspects of Strong’s speech dealt with the progress of military training on KU’s campus. Led by faculty members with prior military experience, 329 students had enrolled in military drill, which had commenced on April 10. There was also a “school of military instruction … to give some preliminary training for the Officers’ Reserve Corps or for any other service during the war.” Taught by officers of the Kansas National Guard, this military training offered instruction in a wide variety of skills and procedures to hundreds of soon-to-be soldiers. Some of the courses offered included “Field Service Regulations,” “Organization and Military Science,” “Military Engineering,” Military Topography and Mapping,” “Electrical Signaling and Telephony,” and “Use and Handling of Explosives.” (Actual marksmanship skills, however, were impossible to impart since only wooden rifles were available.)

As for KU faculty, Strong told the National Council of Defense that two held “the rank of captain in the Kansas National Guard, … one member is Chaplain of the First Kansas Infantry [believed to be James Naismith], … [and] four members of the faculty have applied for membership in the Officers’ Reserve Corps.” Indeed, the entire University was being marshaled to aid in the war effort: “Practically all of the departments … have offered their services for any duty they are competent to perform,” and this was especially true of the Physics, Chemistry, and Engineering departments, not to mention the Medical School. He was also proud to report that another 531 students and faculty (most of whom were women) were “taking part in Red Cross work.”

Strong admitted, though, that keeping the University “as nearly intact as possible” was a principal concern, since the nation must ensure a steady supply of well-educated young people. European leaders, he noted, made a grave error “in sending to the front partially trained men of high scientific ability.” This was something Strong was committed to avoid since such people, “during a long war, would be absolutely essential for the successful prosecution of the war.”

Thus, in spite of his earlier impassioned protestations against “militarized” campuses, Chancellor Strong spared no effort in preparing KU for the trying times ahead. As he assured the president in a telegram to the White House, KU “has always been loyal to the country and the flag, and always will be.” Indeed, by the fall of 1917, the University had instituted compulsory physical or military training for all undergraduates, men and women alike (although many women fulfilled their requirements by attending Red Cross, knitting, or personal hygiene classes.)

Strong’s generally upbeat and positive appraisal of how KU was coping with and contributing to the war effort sounded good. But in the end, chaos, apathy, and misfortune were what most characterized the University’s wartime experience. In the first place, while military training at KU began with a good deal of enthusiasm among the students, it quickly became a serious annoyance and eventually descended into farce.

By January 1918, the Kansan reported that, “Military drill at the University has reached a point where it is almost a joke. In numerous cases, men in the ranks have willfully disobeyed orders of superior officers who are powerless to demand obedience to their commands.” Students were unwilling, ultimately, to accept the time commitment and strict discipline required of military instruction, so many simply quit. The University Senate later worked out a scheme by which some students could receive military science credits for participating in drill, though by the fall of 1918, it required that able-bodied men participate for only three hours a week.

Secondly, the war credit policy, though conceived with the best of intentions, soon became mired in red tape and riddled with fraud. Just a week after its inception, the Kansan had to report that “in many cases … withdrawals have been made and credits granted on the slightest pretense of work.” In short, students were withdrawing from school, applying for and receiving credit for war-related work, and then not actually doing any work. When the University increased its oversight and imposed more stringent restrictions, many students simply remained in school, feeling the war credit policy was more trouble than it was worth.

And thirdly, in the fall of 1918, the University became home to a unit of the Student Army Training Corps (SATC), and its history was probably the most chaotic of all. To accommodate these student-soldiers, KU turned itself upside down, rearranging class schedules and the campus itself; building barracks and teaching new courses; and enduring all the inconveniences associated with transforming the University into an armed camp virtually overnight. Further strains occurred in October of that year, when the influenza epidemic struck Lawrence and shut down KU for over a month.

The First World War ended abruptly on November 11, 1918. These failures at KU had no measurable effect on America’s war effort. The war had, however, taken its toll on Chancellor Strong. He later recalled “the death of so many that had been students during my administration, and the calamitous history of the Students’ Army Training Corps, with the appalling list of those who succumbed to the Spanish influenza.”

These tragedies, he said, had “caused personal shock from which I found it very difficult to recover, and helped produce an overwhelming desire to be relieved from the responsibilities attaching to the office.” Strong resigned a year later, on September 13, 1919.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: For Chancellor Strong’s speech, see “Mobilization at the University,” the Graduate Magazine, vol. 15:8 (May 1917), pp. 235-237. For how student life and the University’s daily schedule changed, see the Graduate Magazine, vol. 16:2 (November 1917), pp. 45-46. For coverage of the “war credit” policy and student participation in the early months of U.S. involvement, see University Daily Kansan, April 12, 1917, p. 1; University Daily Kansan, April 17, 1917, p. 1; University Daily Kansan, April 19, 1917, p. 1,4; University Daily Kansan, April 26, 1917, p. 1; University Daily Kansan, May 11, 1917, p. 3; and University Daily Kansan, January 7, 1918, p. 1. For KU during the WWI period, see Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1955), pp. 111-115; and Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1975), pp. 371-375.]