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Murphy’s Loss

March 18, 1960


By the spring of 1960, a nearly four-year feud between KU Chancellor Franklin D. Murphy and Kansas Governor George Docking had reached the breaking point. On March 17 of that year, an exasperated Murphy finally resigned, and announced he would leave KU to become chancellor of UCLA. That night, some 600 students hanged and burned Docking in effigy. The next day, over 4,000 gathered in Hoch Auditorium to support Murphy and to express their disgust with his rough treatment at the hands of the governor.

The troubles began as early as August 1956 when Kansas was gearing up for a gubernatorial election. In that contest, Democrat Docking squared off against Republican Warren W. Shaw. KU Chancellor Murphy was solidly – and publicly – in the latter’s corner. “Like the chancellors before him,” wrote KU historian Clifford Griffin, “Murphy was a Republican; unlike most of his predecessors, however, he worked for the party.”

After vowing to Shaw that he would do his best to help remind Kansas voters about the “creative, expanding and wonderful days” under Republican leadership, the chancellor took a few shots at the Democratic agenda. Having no ideas of their own, charged Murphy, Democrats “can only promise to continue, or at most expand, Republican programs. This should be put to the electorate so constantly and so frequently,” he added, “that they cannot forget it.”

One person who didn’t forget it was Docking, who defeated Shaw in November despite Murphy’s support. Finding himself in a somewhat awkward situation, Murphy quickly offered some kind words to the newly elected governor. “I certainly wish you well,” he wrote Docking, “and pledge whatever assistance I can provide to help you create a bigger and better Kansas.” This goodwill gesture had little effect. According to Griffin, Docking was “none too happy about the fact that one of his political foes was chancellor,” and not surprisingly, he “was also unenthusiastic about Murphy’s vision of the University.”

Murphy had grand plans for KU. He was determined to make the University one of the nation’s great educational institutions. His vision of greatness included an expansion of the University’s physical plant, and increases in its library holdings and technological and scientific equipment. He called for higher faculty salaries to attract and retain the best professors. And he wanted KU to place greater emphasis upon academic research, which would pay dividends not only to the people of Kansas, but he believed, to the world as well. Naturally, Murphy’s vision of greatness required money, and lots of it.

Other schools around the country were charting similar courses. As Murphy reported to the Kansas State Board of Regents in November 1956, following a meeting with the nation’s top educators, “state after state has either already or will shortly substantially increase the support of their state university and/or land-grant colleges.” KU had to keep up. The University, wrote Murphy, was “poised on what could be the most remarkable qualitative growth” in its history, and it was up to the State Legislature to ensure that KU not “fall by the wayside.” Murphy went so far as to suggest the situation was approaching “crisis” proportions, and that “lack of vision, shortsightedness, political infighting, at the expense of adequate investment in higher education could be devastating.”

Governor Docking did not share Murphy’s vision or viewpoint. Instead, he believed the Legislature should only appropriate funds that went directly and immediately to educating students. Consequently, Docking was usually suspicious of investing in academic research. He did not share Murphy’s desire to allocate money for faculty travel, establish pensions for retired professors, and expand the University’s libraries, museums, and art galleries. These were “luxuries,” said Docking, and many times between 1957 and 1960 he used his veto pen to keep the University on a Spartan fiscal diet. “They’ve got a sacred cow there called ‘education,’” he once said, referring to KU administrators, “and anything” no matter how much it costs, “is supposed to be good.” His critics, Murphy chief among them, accused Docking, although not in so many words, of being a shortsighted skinflint trying to run a great university on the cheap.

On January 17, 1958, Murphy told the Lawrence Journal-World that there were some (meaning Docking) who “evidently think Kansas can afford only a mediocre university or an ‘average’ or ‘adequate’ institution. But I maintain that Kansas cannot afford not to have the best possible state institutions. Otherwise, we will lose our outstanding young men and women to other states.” Docking fired back a few days later, explaining that he and the chancellor “disagree completely on methods of operation,” but denying there was any personal animosity between the two. Contemporary accounts, however, suggest otherwise. Murphy apparently did all he could to disrespect Docking, while the governor, according to one well-placed source, “was out to destroy Murphy.”

Over the next two years, the Murphy-Docking feud intensified dramatically. The chancellor all but accused the governor of “criminal negligence” for standing in the way of University building plans and for denying his requests for a retirement program that, he believed, would help KU attract some of the nation’s most distinguished educators. Docking shot back, telling the University Daily Kansan on February 20, 1959, that KU was a “trouble spot” that needed “cleaning up.” He indicted Murphy and other University administrators for being all “tied up” with the Republican Party, and openly accused them of inculcating their students with political prejudices and suspect “ethical concepts.”

These remarks prompted a sharp rebuke from the Topeka Capital-Journal. The paper called Docking’s “unprovoked attack” on KU “one of the most intemperate comments ever made by a Kansas executive. He has insulted our leading institution of higher learning [and] insulted its administration, its faculty, its students, and its alumni…. He questioned the ‘ethical conduct’ of the University while he himself was debasing his own high office.”

This criticism did not deter Docking from continuing his public condemnation of Murphy. Indeed, just a week later, the governor maligned the chancellor personally. Speaking at the Fifth District Democratic Convention in Great Bend, Docking said Murphy “was receiving a salary of $22,000, plus a free house, a free car and overseas junkets paid by the federal government…. I think he’s getting enough. We can get plenty of others as good for less.” Murphy responded to this attack indirectly, suggesting that an editorial in the Salina Journal perfectly encapsulated his thoughts. “Docking put envy to work,” it read. “It is an old political trick. It is an old socialist trick…. So Docking, because of a personal feud, to cover his own grievous faults as an administrator … makes the chancellor a target because he is successful.”

Apparently, Murphy himself did not feel all that successful. On March 17, 1960, he shocked the University and the state in general by announcing his immediate resignation and decision to accept an offer to become chancellor of UCLA. It is unclear if there was a specific incident that prompted his decision. Murphy would only say that he sought a “clearing of the atmosphere” and an elimination of long-standing “political troubles.” Acknowledging that this was a most difficult decision, he told KU that “I have shared the pride of the state and the area in what I believe has been modest progress at the University during these years….” Yet Murphy could not help noting that whatever progress he had helped achieve was done so “in spite of unreasonable and indeed unprecedented handicaps.” While he refused to elaborate further on the reasons for his resignation, few were as tight-lipped or restrained. Most placed blame squarely upon the governor for running their chancellor out of town, with the Kansan itself leading the charge.

“He was a good man,” the paper declared on March 17. “There was no better man in American education. He was intelligent, cultured, understanding – a rare man indeed.” Murphy had devoted 12 years of his life to the University, “and what did Kansas give him? A limited budget and a conservative philosophy – in which he was to shackle his ambitious and restless views of the vital role which education must play in the fate of western democracy and world civilization…. Dr. Murphy endured a stream of abuse and insult from the statehouse in Topeka” and “deserves much more than Kansas has given him.” Murphy himself later described the editorial as “one of the finest pieces of writing I have ever read – it was sheer poetry.”

Certainly the most emotional reaction to Murphy’s resignation came later that evening. At around 8:30 p.m., over 600 students gathered outside the chancellor’s residence to await his return from Topeka. Under the headline “Student Rally Cheers Murphy, ‘Burns’ Docking,” the Kansan reported that “determined students burned effigies of Gov. Docking” and carried signs reading “We Lose!”, “We Can Get a Governor For Less!”, and “To Hell with Docking! Stay Here Murphy.” Upon his return, Murphy addressed and calmed the crowd, which contained an element that planned to burn another effigy of Docking in front of the Topeka statehouse. “Ever since I’ve held this position here it hasn’t been a job to me at all,” he said, “but sort of a love affair.” According to the Kansan, “There wasn’t a dry eye among the 600 students listening to the Chancellor when he finished talking. The students stood awed in silence for a moment after Dr. Murphy said ‘Thank you and God bless you’ and walked hurriedly into his house.”

The following day, March 18, 1960, a larger and more dignified, but not less passionate, crowd of nearly 4,000 students packed Hoch Auditorium to protest what they believed was Murphy’s forced resignation. Griffin described the crowd’s “ugly and resentful mood” and noted that some planned a protest march on Topeka. Once again, Murphy calmed the crowd, urging them to act in a “mature and respectful way,” at which point the students decided that a formal petition was a more appropriate response. According to the petition, the students “deeply regretted” the chancellor’s resignation and felt it was “a great loss not only to our University, but to all of Kansas’s higher education.” They promised to support his successor (which turned out to be Dean W. Clarke Wescoe of the KU Medical School) but remained convinced that “our University has been abused. But with help we will be able to face and overcome the handicaps which have been placed upon us.” During his address, Murphy never mentioned Docking by name. He also described his conflicts with the Board of Regents merely as “honest differences of opinion between people who look at matters from different points of the compass.”

In his final Biennial Report to the Board, Murphy said that “there must be recreated and maintained in this state a truly educational climate. This means plainly that educators in Kansas must be given the opportunity to proceed with their difficult tasks unencumbered by extraneous and traditionally unrelated matters.” In short, “Politics and education simply cannot be mixed.” As Griffin put it, “This had long been a slogan of the University’s leaders and friends. It was, of course, not true.” The Murphy-Docking feud also served to expose the chasm that lay beneath the genial façade of the university-state relationship. Griffin summed up the situation quite nicely, contending that the debacle demonstrated two important points. One was that “as the University’s first century was ending, there was no unanimity in Kansas about the institution’s purpose, character, or value.” And the second “was that there was no general commitment by Kansas citizens and their representatives to build a state university as splendid as its leaders thought it should be.”

As for Murphy himself, his post-KU career was stellar indeed. While serving as chancellor of UCLA during the tumultuous 1960s, he taught classes in medical history and spearheaded major physical and research-oriented advances at the University’s School of Medicine, including the establishment of the world-renowned Jules Stein Eye Institute. His love of art and commitment to campus beautification culminated in UCLA’s Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden, something he always regarded as one his proudest achievements. After leaving UCLA in 1968, Murphy became chairman and CEO of the Times Mirror Corporation, serving until 1980 whereupon he took the position of director, then director emeritus until his death in 1994.

Throughout his life, Murphy did all he could to advance the arts by sitting on countless national, state, and local boards, including serving as chairman of the trustees at the National Gallery of Art. At KU, his generosity helped established the Franklin D. Murphy Lecture Series at the Spencer Museum of Art and an annual Murphy Seminar that brings some of the most distinguished art historians to campus. He said once that, “the most exciting thing of all is the exploration of new and interesting and beautiful things.” “In pursuit of such vision,” eulogized his friends and colleagues at UCLA, “and through countless private kindness, Franklin D. Murphy endeared himself to a legion of admirers around the world.”

His friends at KU would certainly concur, and have shown their affection for Murphy by naming not one, but two, campus facilities after him – Murphy Hall and the Murphy Art and Architecture Library – the only former chancellor to enjoy such an honor.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: The Murphy Papers in University Archives, 4th Floor, Spencer Research Library contain a wealth of material on the chancellor’s feud with Gov. Docking, including contemporary news accounts. See also Kansas Alumni (March 1960), pp. 16-17; Kansas Alumni (June 1960), pp. 10-12, 28. Of particular interest are the following issues of the University Daily Kansan: February 23, 1960, pp. 1,8; March 7, 1960, p. 1; March 8, 1960, p. 1; March 11, 1960, p. 8; March 15, 1960, pp. 1,8; March 16, 1960, p. 1; March 17, 1960, pp. 1-3, 8; March 18, 1960, pp. 1-5; March 21, 1960, pp. 1-2; March 22, 1960, pp. 1,8; and March 23, 1960, pp. 1,8. Also quite helpful is Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1974), pp. 517-543, and The Art Newspaper, January 1991 (4).]