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Go Your Own Way

June 16, 1875


As far as the Rev. Dr. James Marvin was concerned, Americans owed a great deal of thanks to their European ancestors. This was particularly the case in the field of education, he told students of the University of Kansas during his inaugural address on June 16, 1875. “What there is to-day of liberty in any country of Europe,” asserted the new chancellor, “is due far more to her national universities than to her standing armies.”

For hundreds of years, he added, “those who presumed to disclose the Jovian mysteries to common mortals” had suffered the slings and arrows of public condemnation, imprisonment, even martyrdom to establish intellectual freedom and centers of higher learning. This deference to the struggles and triumphs of European academics notwithstanding, Americans should by no means emulate them or their educational institutions, Marvin contended. America’s universities were still, for the most part, in their infancies compared to Europe’s, yet they should chart their own course, in keeping with America’s unique and special identity.

The man who made these remarks came from humble New York beginnings to rise from small town schoolteacher, to Methodist minister, to college professor of mathematics, and finally, in 1874, to Chancellor of the University of Kansas, a position he held for nine years. By most accounts, his tenure at KU was a successful and rewarding one, particularly in terms of the warm, even affectionate, relationship he enjoyed with the student body. He was not, however, the Board of Regents’ first choice as chancellor.

That honor went to English professor Stephan H. Carpenter of Wisconsin, who was less than taken with Lawrence in particular and Kansas in general, and turned down the job. “Carpenter went to Lawrence and disliked everything he saw and felt,” notes KU historian Clifford Griffin. Who could blame him? “Daily temperatures were a hundred degrees and more, drought and dust overlay all, [and] the only relief from the sun was clouds of grasshoppers.” Carpenter fled Lawrence before even visiting the University. Back in cooler Wisconsin climes, he wrote a letter declining to accept the appointment. The Board then scrambled to contact Marvin, its second choice, who accepted the job on November 27, 1874.

Marvin focused his inaugural address on the history of the university system in Europe and how American institutions, given the nation’s democratic heritage, should chart a different educational course. European “seats of learning,” he said, “have at times presented the anomalous spectacle of literary despotism” that was “under the rule of courtly sycophants, bigoted prelates and professional sinecures.” Too often, human intellectual advancement was blocked by a “slavish devotion to forms, a kind of worship of the old.”

What further inhibited European universities and slowed academic growth, added Marvin, were the very monarchical systems of government and authoritarian cultures that girded each country. “The different University systems of Europe have grown up with other monarchical institutions. Royal supremacy, state ecclesiasticism, the subordination of the masses to the rule of the few” – all these are features of a society that “allows no radical change” and thus invites those “social earth quakes” that “reveal the shakiness of such foundations.”

Too often though, Marvin pointed out, American universities felt inferior to their European counterparts and thus had difficulty finding their own unique identities. While feely admitting “our country as yet furnishes no generally approved plan of University organization,” the new chancellor proposed making these institutions “emphatically American” by taking what is best from European universities, discarding what is worst, and using to full advantage “our youth, our domains [and] our people” to create “customs and institutions widely different from those across the seas.”

Free of European-style autocracy, Marvin counseled Americans to seize the blessings of a free society that allowed its young people to choose their own courses of study, unencumbered by academic dogmatism and societal rigidity. In addition, American universities must train students not only to earn a living, but also to “enjoy life in all its fullness,” helping them to discover and mold their particular talents and interests. “No longer the abode of the recluse, or the prison of the young exile, [universities] are fast becoming the homes where brothers and sisters alike may receive their benefits.”

Aside from these rather vague notions, Marvin offered little specifics as to how American universities should differ in a curricular sense from their venerable European counterparts. He did, however, suggest that America’s cultural core of respect for individual liberty would, by nature, produce institutions and graduates that would supplant those of Europe in intellectual vigor. And what better place to spur along this educational changing of the guard than in Kansas? “Look at your maps,” Marvin urged the students and faculty of KU, “and tell me where in all that vast region between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains” can we achieve such success “if not where we stand to-day.”

Greatness may have been just around the corner, but Kansas faced tough economic times after the silver panic of 1873, and Chancellor Marvin’s first few years at KU were trying. The state legislature had put the University on a strict fiscal diet, forcing Marvin and some faculty members to work at reduced salaries. In spite of tight budgets though, Marvin was able to persuade the state to appropriate sufficient funds to finish the great University Hall (which would later become Fraser Hall). He also managed to supervise a number of other building projects and renovations, add new courses to the curriculum, and welcome several new faculty members.

As for making KU an “emphatically American” institution in contrast to European forms, Marvin oversaw the establishment of a more elective-based curriculum tailored to students’ individual interests. There were still ironclad core requirements, though juniors and seniors came to enjoy a wider range of choices than ever before. The new curriculum, according to Griffin, was “midway between complete freedom and complete prescription,” although definitive major and minor fields were not instituted until 1887.

From 1874 to 1883, KU more than tripled in size, from 173 students to 583; by 1883, as a contemporary newspaper noted, it had a freshman class “as large as [that] in Brown, Bowdoin, Dartmouth and several other much older and better known institutions.” Another paper noted that Marvin built up the University “until it is now one of the best known and influential colleges in the West.” According to this complimentary article, “Everything runs smoothly, upon business principles, and faculty and students work entirely in harmony…. His sole aim seemed to be to develop the youth of college into manly men and womanly women.” Concluded the paper, “there is not a college in the land where the president is more universally respected by the students.”

This praise may have reflected majority opinion, but it was not a universal belief. By 1883, Chancellor Marvin felt compelled to resign his position. With this decision, he followed in the footsteps of his two predecessors, Robert W. Oliver (1865-1867) and John Fraser (1867-1874). Like these earlier leaders of KU, James Marvin butted heads one too many times with the Board of Regents, an often capricious, sometimes venal group of political appointees whose personality conflicts with KU chancellors were becoming almost comical in their frequency and triviality. Nonetheless, by state law, the Regents had complete control over University administration, though they often, according to Griffin, “made decisions in secret and offered the public no explanation of their actions. Concealing the facts and concealing their motives, they refused to tell the people what was happening in the people’s university.”

Marvin’s case, however, was more substantive than most. It revolved around his efforts to oust a KU chemistry professor, George E. Patrick, whom he found politically and religiously suspect. Marvin was a staunch Republican who represented Douglas County as a delegate at the party’s 1882 State Convention. His bromides about academic freedom notwithstanding, Marvin became increasingly irritated by the politically independent streak of Prof. Patrick.

Moreover, Patrick supported a group of students who had sought to arrange a university visit by Robert G. Ingersoll, a man who vehemently opposed all manner of religions, denounced the Bible as a fraud, and denied that anyone could ever know whether God existed. Naturally, to Marvin, the Methodist minister, this was dangerous, subversive sacrilege and he wanted none of it on his campus. So, in May 1883, Chancellor Marvin convinced several Regents to help him engineer the removal of his nemesis, and during a session in which one regular member of the Board was absent, Marvin himself broke the tie vote, dismissing Prof. Patrick.

This victory was short-lived. One month later, the Regents and Kansas Governor George W. Glick (the state’s first Democratic governor), had grown weary of Marvin’s behind-the-scenes scheming. This time, they resolved to get rid of him. The methods employed, however, were in keeping with the secretive, circuitous behavior that had characterized so many Boards in the past. The Regents did not simply dismiss Chancellor Marvin. Instead, they concocted an elaborate plan by which they invited possible “successors” to Lawrence for interviews, carefully leaking the news to the public and to Marvin himself. Humiliated by these “recent events,” Marvin believed that “a proper self-respect induces me now to present my resignation,” which he did on June 5, 1883.

In the wake of his departure, Marvin earned a great deal of sympathy from the KU and Lawrence communities, while Glick and the Regents came in for a fair share of scorn. “The treatment [Marvin] has received at the hands of the Glick regents has been such as no honorable man would tamely submit to,” complained one newspaper. “Secret correspondence with, and the bringing of candidates, incognito, to the University, are not evidences of refined courtesy.” The paper then called Glick a “narrow, bigoted, and selfish” man, and predicted, “history will write [him] down as the weakest and worst Governor the State has ever had.”

Despite his rough treatment at the hands of the Regents, James Marvin exited gracefully, making room for his successor, Joshua A. Lippincott, who would, in due course, have his own problems with the Regents. Marvin, however, went on to serve as the first superintendent of Haskell Indian Institute (now Haskell Indian Nations University) from 1883 to 1885. He spent his final working years as pastor of the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Lawrence and passed away in 1901, at the age of 71. Governor Glick, for his part, once one of the two Kansans permanently memorialized in Statuary Hall in the US Capitol, lost this honor in June 2003 when he was replaced by a statue of Dwight Eisenhower.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: A great deal of information on James Marvin, much of it contemporary newspaper clippings and major addresses (including his inaugural), can be found in the Marvin Papers, University Archives, 4th Floor, Spencer Research Library. See also, Fred Ellsworth, “Our Amazing Chancellors,” Kansas Alumni, 63:2-7 (October 1964-March 1965). For a full account of Marvin’s tenure as chancellor of KU, see Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1974), pp. 66-142, passim; and Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1955), pp. 12, 18, 23, 25, 38, 39, and 194.]