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Driven Snow

April 11, 1890


On April 11, 1890, the Kansas Board of Regents unanimously elected Francis Huntington Snow fifth chancellor of the University of Kansas, bestowing this responsibility upon a man who had given virtually his entire professional life to the improvement and furtherance of higher education in Kansas.

According to Snow’s biographer, Clyde Kenneth Hyder, “The appointment brought a spontaneous overflow of feeling among the students and faculty.” A large crowd of well wishers descended upon Snow’s house, begged for speeches from nearly everyone they encountered, and then accompanied the new chancellor to the Santa Fe railroad station to await his Topeka-bound train. “When the train arrived,” wrote Hyder, the “students carried Snow on their shoulders to his seat [and] lusty cheers followed the departing train.”

Snow had first arrived in Lawrence in 1866. Then a 26-year-old Massachusetts Congregationalist minister, he had applied for the professor of languages position at the soon-to-be-opened University of Kansas. The KU Board of Regents offered him mathematics and natural science instead, and he accepted.

Thus Snow became one of the first three faculty members at the fledging University, in a state that had only entered the Union five years earlier. During his career at KU, which would span nearly 40 years, Snow became one of the nation’s most eminent natural scientists. His prolific and tireless collecting of plant, animal and insect specimens, leading to the establishment of the KU’s Natural History Museum, brought him and his University worldwide acclaim. His nomination and election as chancellor seemed a truly fitting capstone to an illustrious academic career.

Yet there was hardly an air of inevitability surrounding Snow’s appointment. For one thing, Snow himself was enormously reluctant to give up or pare down his teaching duties for administrative ones. Since becoming a full-time professor of natural history in 1870 (mathematics having been taken over by a colleague, F.W. Bardwell), he had spent a great deal of time on scientific expeditions all over the western and southwestern United States.

In fact, from 1876 to 1901, Snow led 26 such expeditions – many times accompanied by his students – on which he supervised the collection and classification of thousands of rare insects, birds, reptiles and all variety of plants. As one contemporary newspaper described it, Snow “did not seem to be satisfied to rest until he had ascertained the name, age, sex, color and previous condition of every bug, moth and butterfly between the Mississippi and Rocky Mountains.”

Despite having little formal scientific training, Snow proved a natural (no pun intended) for this line of work. His enthusiasm and proficiency for entomology, botany, ornithology, zoology, even meteorology made him a favorite among his students and a virtual legend in the American scientific community. Though not all gathered by Snow himself, the University could boast an entomology collection comprising over 250,000 specimens by 1908 (the year of his death). Perhaps of most lasting importance, though, was Snow’s role in educating new generations of Kansas scientists, which included, most notably, the world-renowned taxidermist Lewis Lindsay Dyche. To give some indication of his impact, Snow’s biographer noted that, “Twenty-three years after his death a statistical study indicated that Kansas then ranked second only to Johns Hopkins, and first among state universities, in the numerical proportion of its graduates starred in American Men of Science.”

In 1890, when it came time to select a new chancellor following the resignation of Joshua A. Lippincott, Snow was not, however, the only candidate considered by the Kansas Board of Regents. Also in the running were KU history professor James H. Canfield and the Reverend Charles F. Thwing, a Congregationalist minister from Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Canfield, though certainly qualified to be chancellor after serving as both secretary and president of the National Education Association, was disqualified by his outspoken support of free trade. The tariff question was an extremely important issue for the Republicans who largely ran Kansas, and to hold administrative office, one had to pass this political litmus test. Canfield, who regularly denounced protectionism and tariffs as “crooked” taxes, enacted by “arbitrary rulers” and “self-asserting place-seekers,” soundly flunked this test. (Nonetheless, he remained one of KU’s most popular professors.) As for Thwing, he proved much more acceptable to the Regents and was initially offered the chancellorship on March 12, 1890, at a salary of $5,000. However, angry protests from Canfield supporters in Lawrence, fueled by allies in the local press who pointed out Thwing’s lack of educational experience, convinced him to decline the offer. He later accepted the presidency of Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve) in Cleveland, Ohio.

Thus, after nearly a year of delays and interim administrators in the chancellor’s office, the Regents finally settled on Snow for the job. The vote was unanimous, though not surprisingly so – the Regents were under intense pressure to come to a decision since the University had been essentially rudderless for an inexcusably long period of time. Snow accepted the position, according to Hyder, “with some reluctance” given his affinity for teaching. However, “Friends assured him that he could harmonize conflicting interests and that nobody else was so familiar with the needs and problems of the University.” And from the outset, KU’s needs and problems, but also its potential for physical and intellectual growth, became the chief objects of Snow’s administration.

In his inaugural address as chancellor, delivered on June 11, 1890, Snow offered his thoughts on the past, present, and future character of the University of Kansas. When KU was founded in 1866, he said, “we found not a single genuine High School in existence in the entire State of Kansas. It therefore became necessary to begin the University as a High School.” During its first six years, the faculty struggled to teach basic knowledge and skills that its incoming students simply did not possess, until Kansans could organize and maintain high schools of sufficient number and quality. Change came slowly, however, and KU was not able to abolish its Preparatory Department (offering essentially remedial classes) until 1891.

Despite its modest origins, Snow reminded his listeners that KU’s “first faculty had an irresistible opportunity of putting modern science into natural relations with the ancient classics” and other traditional subjects, in contrast to many of the “best eastern colleges.” As Snow recounted, “The introduction of the laboratory method of instruction in natural sciences … became a prominent feature with us even in our elementary courses….” As a result, concluded the new chancellor, KU students were “cautioned by all our professors to beware of servile dependence upon any author of textbook, and are constantly encouraged to investigate the original sources of information, in the lecture-room, the library and … the field.”

Because of these early efforts to establish firm academic foundations, Snow could confidently speak of KU as being “now in the transition stage from College to University, with some of the best points of the college, and some of the peculiar characteristics of a University.” The essential difference was whether the institution offered limited or wide-ranging programs of study. In a college, “all students [are] required to pursue the line of study laid down in the curriculum with the minimum amount of deviation in the way of elective studies. The ideal University,” though, “is an institution in which all branches of learning are thrown open to the students,” and where they are “allowed to choose freely … [their] courses of study without prescriptive action on the part of University authorities.” With the introduction of an elective system for juniors and seniors, and the establishment of definitive major and minor fields during the 1880s, KU was indeed making long strides towards becoming a full-fledged University.

To complete the transition from college to university, Snow contended KU needed “a strong body of professors” that were properly supplied and properly compensated by the state. “I shall look for financial support from the State Legislature,” he vowed, “which will enable us to retain the strong men now included in the corps of instruction. These men should receive such salaries that the tempting offers from eastern colleges will not deprive the youth of Kansas of the best talent available for their instruction…. The self-respect of a professor should not be too heavily sacrificed to his patriotic desire to serve the state of Kansas.” It is time, he said, “to turn the tables upon the eastern colleges by calling from them their best men for the educational service of the Sunflower State.”

Snow insisted that “brains, and not bricks and mortar alone,” make a university; and KU, should it hope to achieve university status, must attract, retain, and support the research endeavors of its professors. Only then will there be “no occasion for any citizen to send his sons and daughters to distant States and climes to seek that education equipment which can be obtained with greater facility within the walls of this University.”

During his 11-year tenure as chancellor, from 1890 to 1901, Snow presided over the abolition of the preparatory department and the creation of the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Schools of Engineering, Law, Fine Arts, and Pharmacy. Snow was often criticized for favoring the natural sciences over all other departments in expanding the faculty base and for spending too much time on the scientific lecture circuit. Nonetheless, he was an unflagging advocate of KU throughout the state and nation, a staunch defender of academic freedom, and contributed mightily to KU’s transition from college to university. During his watch, enrollment more than doubled (from 505 to 1,154), six new buildings were erected (including the Snow Hall of Natural History), the faculty increased from 34 to 79, and the University’s library holdings went from 14,000 to 38,000.

Another enduring legacy of Snow’s tenure at KU was his role in the building of Spooner Library (now the KU Archaeological Research Center). His great-uncle, William B. Spooner, was a wealthy Boston merchant who became so impressed with Snow’s description of the University and its future prospects that he decided to include KU in his will. In 1891, following his death, KU received $91,618 from the Spooner estate, which it used primarily to build a 100,000-volume library. Along with the donation, the Spooner estate’s trustee, Charles F. Coffin, enclosed a letter to Chancellor Snow, asking that he consider the money “in some degree a measure of your uncle’s confidence in you, his admiration for your work in the great field of science, and his faith in the institution to which you have so nobly devoted your life.”

In 1897, perhaps the single most important development of Snow’s tenure occurred, an achievement that further helped rank KU as one of the nation’s mature universities. In that year, KU established the Graduate School and formally began a PhD degree program. According to Griffin, this move was “the University’s greatest glory, … for it was the highest degree known and was given both by the great German institutions and a growing number of prestigious American schools,” such as Harvard, Yale, and Columbia. The Graduate School’s “existence raised the University from a merely undergraduate school to one of the very highest learning.”

These significant accomplishments notwithstanding, Snow certainly came in for his share of criticism during his period as chancellor. Most of the negative reviews centered on what some believed to be Snow’s “aristocratic” temperament and his lax, often graceless, administrative skills. For example, in 1894, the populist-leaning Lawrence Jeffersonian (as quoted by Griffin) “charged that Snow was an incompetent administrator, that he spent too much time delivering his ‘fish lectures’ – those on evolution – around the state [and] that student rowdyism was rampant on Mount Oread….” The paper also indicted Snow’s administrative “clique” for its “seclusiveness” and intellectual snobbery. Furthermore, in 1902, Snow’s successor as chancellor, Frank Strong, complained that University administration had for too long been embroiled in party politics and petty bickering with the Regents, to the detriment of its educational mission.

Nonetheless, when he resigned as chancellor in 1901 due to ill health, the Kansas Board of Regents passed a resolution characterizing Snow’s administration as “a period of marked progress … not only in material things, but in the growth and development of University spirit.” They lauded his “tireless energy, his devotion to duty, his wisdom and foresight … [and] his liberal and generous management of University affairs” as among the main reasons for KU’s remarkable transition from provincial college to a leading public university. At his successor’s inauguration, Hyder noted that, when Snow rose to speak, “the large audience stood, waving their handkerchiefs, and cheered the beloved little white-haired man who, more than any other person, had contributed from its very beginning to the building of an institution.”

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: Undeniably the best source for information on Francis H. Snow is Clyde Kenneth Hyder, Snow of Kansas: The Life of Francis Huntington Snow with Extracts from his Journals and Letters, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1953). See also, Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1955), passim, and Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1974), passim. Also, Fred Ellsworth, “Our Amazing Chancellors,” Kansas Alumni, 63:2-7 (October 1964-March 1965); and the University of Kansas Museum of Natural History’s publication, Panorama, vol. 21:2 (Fall 1992), pp. 1-3. For all primary documents associated with Snow’s tenure as faculty member and chancellor, including his inaugural address, see the Francis H. Snow Papers, University Archives, 4th Floor, Spencer Research Library.]