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State Of Confusion

January 13, 1925


In late December 1924, Kansas Governor Jonathan M. Davis, a lame duck Democrat, caused KU Chancellor Ernest H. Lindley to be fired on what most people believed were trumped-up and politically-motivated charges. Davis accused Lindley of incompetence, insubordination, procrastination, aloofness, and of interjecting politics into University administration.

The Iola Register called the governor’s act “an outrage, unjust to Dr. Lindley and a crime against the university.” Former Kansas governor Henry J. Allen described it as “malicious and destructive.” Frank Pinet, secretary of the Kansas state teachers association, said Lindley’s removal was “a vicious attack upon the entire educational system of the state” and lamented that “state schools can be made the playthings of politicians.” And according to the Lawrence Journal-World, Davis had shown himself to be a man of “little and narrow vision,” a “bull-headed and bull-necked … bonehead” who had committed a “crazy-mad act” and “caused more grief and humiliation to the state of Kansas than any governor in half a century.”

Kansas’ new governor, Republican Ben S. Paulen, rendered the final verdict on January 13, 1925, when he made the reinstatement of Lindley his first official act. The chancellor had been officially unemployed a mere three days.

Ernest Hiram Lindley was a native of Indiana who had received both his AB and AM degrees in psychology from Indiana University, and then went on to receive his PhD in psychology from Clark University. He spent over 20 years as professor of psychology and philosophy at Indiana before becoming the president of the University of Idaho in 1917. Following a yearlong search for a new chancellor by the Kansas State Board of Administration (equivalent to the present-day Board of Regents), Kansas Governor Henry J. Allen formally offered the job to Lindley on May 30, 1920. He accepted a week later.

During the first year of his administration, Lindley worked closely with Allen and the Kansas state legislature to secure an unprecedented $3.5 million building allotment for the University. With these and future appropriations, Lindley oversaw a major campus construction boom that included Strong Hall, Watson Library, Hoch Auditorium, New Snow Hall, the Kansas Memorial Union, Memorial Stadium, and the University’s first dormitory for women, Corbin Hall.

But while Lindley was changing the face of the campus, he also ended up plowing new ground in the often-contentious relationship between the University and the State. Lindley was hardly the first chancellor to butt heads with a governor and a Board. He was, however, the first to ultimately survive a concerted effort to secure his ouster.

When Lindley became chancellor, the University was under the direct control of the Board of Administration. The Board consisted of four men appointed by the governor who exercised administrative jurisdiction over 27 state institutions, including the state’s five colleges and universities, the prisons, reformatories, orphans’ homes, even the State Fish Hatchery in Pratt. Not surprisingly, Lindley expressed serious reservations as to whether the Board, given its broad ranging responsibilities, could adequately serve the needs of a growing University. The situation got even worse from his perspective when a new governor, Democrat Jonathan M. Davis, took office in January 1923 and filled the Board with his own hand-picked appointees, three of whom were Democrats.

Despite being a staunch Republican, Lindley initially thought he could work with Davis and the new Board. And after the governor assured him that there would be no salary reductions or undue interference in University affairs, Lindley told a friend that, “If he keeps to that platform, we should get on very well.”

By June, however, this nascent comity between state and University started to deteriorate. The Board began complaining loudly about “overpaid deans” at KU and refused to authorize raises for professors making over $5,000. Meanwhile, a study published by an independent state commission that suggested stripping the Board of its authority over Kansas higher education received Lindley’s public support. The study, called the Zook Report (after its author George F. Zook, a KU alum who was the US Bureau of Education’s specialist in higher education), advocated the establishment of a separate Board of Regents. The governor would still appoint its members, but they would serve seven- to nine-year terms, and thus be insulated from day-to-day political machinations.

Lindley favored this reform because he believed a virulent strain of cronyism had infected the Board, leading it to meddle needlessly and destructively in University affairs by making politically based hiring and firing decisions. His case in point was the firing of the University’s superintendent of buildings and grounds, John M. Shea.

“Throughout the 1923-1924 academic year,“ according to KU historian Clifford Griffin, “the Governor and other Democrats pestered [Shea] … to hire party faithful as workmen. Often they urged on Shea men whom the superintendent thought entirely unfit. After Shea had turned down several [Davis supporters], the Board determined that he had to go.” Instead of merely firing him, though, the Board cooked up a series of bogus offenses that it claimed Shea had committed. This bill of particulars alleged Shea had used obscene language when addressing certain (unnamed) professors, had treated his (unnamed) employees in an “arbitrary, unfair, and partial” way; and had dodged the draft in World War I. (The first two charges were not proved; the third, as it turned out, was an outright lie.)

Shea was not without his defenders, several of whom engaged in similarly wild accusations. Some of the governor’s political opponents charged him with religious bigotry in his decision to fire Shea, who was a Roman Catholic. Others took it one step further, claiming that Davis was attempting to curry favor with the Ku Klux Klan, and had fired Shea as a means to sate that organization’s anti-Catholic appetites. And, according to the Graduate Magazine, there was another instance where the governor tried to appoint as dean of women someone who “had not a college education and who was, in the estimation of the chancellor [Lindley], unqualified for the place for many reasons.”

While it is difficult to distinguish truth from falsehood in individual cases, it is nonetheless fairly clear that Davis was operating a system of political patronage out of the governor’s office. That in itself was not unusual, nor particularly odious. What made the situation unique (and consequently volcanic) was that Davis, a Democrat, was seeking to increase his party’s heretofore-anemic power and influence in state governance. The Republican opposition simply was not going to let that happen and, thus, seized upon every opportunity to discredit Davis.

After a genuine misunderstanding that resulted in the early (some said forced) resignation of Dean Mervin T. Sudler of the Medical School, the press pounced on Davis. The Kansas City Star claimed the governor had wrested control of the University “out of the hands of the chancellor and has made even the positions of the faculty mere political jobs.” Unless he was defeated, the University would soon become the “pawnshop of every political broker in the state.” The Wichita Beacon declared that Davis had “wiped out the work of five administrations which had earnestly sought to build up a condition of merit in the educational personnel of state institutions.”

There was another gubernatorial election in 1924, for at this time the term of Kansas governors was only two years. And the Shea and Sudler affairs, according to Griffin, afforded “anti-Davis men” the opportunity to get in “some well-placed kicks at the Governor.” And though “no one knew how much the charge of meddling hurt Davis in the election,” his main opponent, Republican Ben S. Paulen, beat him handily, winning 323,000 votes to Davis’s 180,000. (Former KU student and Board of Regents member William Allen White, editor and publisher of the Emporia Gazette, also ran for governor in this election as an independent candidate, mainly to protest what White saw as the KKK’s influence in Kansas.)

It is unclear what role, if any, Chancellor Lindley played in Davis’ defeat. Apparently, the lame-duck governor thought it substantial. In the time remaining before he officially left office on January 12, 1925, Davis sought to exact a certain measure of revenge upon Lindley. He fired his first salvo on December 12, writing a letter to the chancellor expressing a series of “concerns” he had about Lindley’s job performance. Davis then summoned him to Topeka to sit before the Board of Administration. At this hearing, Lindley found himself accused of two separate offenses: administering overly harsh and unfair punishment against four KU men accusing of drinking while driving; and “countenancing irregularities” in the University’s purchasing records that supposedly defrauded the state. These charges were vague and unsubstantiated. Nonetheless, they convinced the Board that Lindley had to go.

On December 27, after deciding that no further hearings would be necessary, the Board asked for Lindley’s resignation. He refused. On a 3 to 1 vote (with the lone Republican, William P. Lambertson, dissenting), Davis’ Board fired Chancellor Lindley. Then, three days later, Davis fired Lambertson, too, accusing him of “double-crossing and lack of dependability.” Immediately, newspapers from around the state and across the country picked up the story, invariably painting Davis and his henchmen on the Board as villains. Faculty, students, alumni, as well as many of the chancellor’s personal and professional friends and colleagues, scrambled to organize petitions, issue statements, and write scathing letters denouncing Davis and defending Lindley.

Undaunted by these criticisms, Davis issued another anti-Lindley statement on January 1, 1925. Curiously, the governor omitted his charges about unfair punishment and fraud, and instead, made five new ones. This time, Davis accused the chancellor of incompetence, insubordination, procrastination, aloofness, and politicizing the University administration. Incompetence was an issue because, according to Davis, Lindley “does not now know, and never has known, his school in the way the responsible head of a school should know it. He constantly avoids and shuns responsibility by putting it upon the heads of departments.”

Following his accusatory pattern, Davis would have liked to provide specific evidence, but his “informants” wished to remain anonymous, fearing “the punishment the chancellor would visit upon them.” He accused Lindley of insubordination for “encouraging and fostering attacks upon the governor and the Board of Administration.” Lindley’s “failure to make prompt and sincere efforts to do what the board would have him do” was the rationale behind the governor’s charge of procrastination. In addition, asserted the governor, Lindley was aloof because he had “severed himself almost wholly from contact with the student body” and had allegedly made students wait outside his office for inordinate lengths of time while “town politicians” went in and out with impunity. And, finally, Davis accused Lindley of operating a “personal political machine within the school that would strengthen his own power and help him in his own arbitrary control of the school and its policies.”

Lindley remained resolute. Determined to retain his job, he quickly sought a temporary injunction against his termination. On January 5, 1925, however, District Court Judge Hugh Means denied his request, saying that, under Kansas law, the chancellor served at the “pleasure” of the Board of Administration. Even though Lindley’s lawyers presented evidence of Davis’ “maliciousness,” and his unsubstantiated and false charges, Judge Means ruled, according to Griffin, “the discretionary act of the Board was not subject to judicial review.” Lindley then took his case directly to the Kansas State Supreme Court, but was similarly rebuffed. On January 10, after exhausting all his legal appeals, Ernest H. Lindley was formally dismissed as chancellor of the University of Kansas.

Two days later, on January 12, Ben S. Paulen, the Republican victor in the November gubernatorial election, took his oath of office. Ever since Davis and his Board had fired Lindley back on December 27, Paulen had been flooded with petitions asking (some demanding) that he reinstate the chancellor upon taking office. He gladly complied. On January 13, 1925, the same Board that had so roughly handled Lindley a few weeks before, unanimously reinstated him as chancellor.

Lindley achieved further vindication on March 7, 1925, when Paulen signed into law the Regents Act, establishing a system of university governance essentially along the lines outlined in the Zook Report. The Act created a Board of Regents, composed of nine unsalaried members, appointed by the governor, who would serve four year terms and meet four times a year. The Regents would exercise control over Kansas’s five institutions of higher education (the University, the Agricultural College, and the three teachers’ colleges), and nothing more.

“The enactment of the Regents Bill,” said Chancellor Lindley, “is the most important educational legislation in recent years. [It] restores the good name of Kansas educationally, and brings her in line with the best educational standards of the country.” He further contended the Act would “secure the institutions of higher education of Kansas against further dangers of political interference … [and] restore the morale of the University whose faculty and students have shown the utmost loyalty in this crisis.”

Lindley’s career as chancellor of KU lasted another 13 years, until 1939. All indications suggest much of his remaining time on the hill was acutely unpleasant. The Great Depression hit Kansas particularly hard, and the University drifted and stumbled through the period on the shakiest of financial grounds. Lindley had served in the best of economic times and the worst of economic times, and by the late 1930s, the worst had clearly broken him. He resigned as chancellor effective June 30, 1939, and then embarked upon a much-needed vacation with his wife Elizabeth. They toured the Far East, including Japan, China, and India. Lindley never made it home alive. He died on August 21, 1940, and was buried at sea.

No eulogy failed to mention Chancellor Lindley’s nearly epic battle against Governor Davis, his rough treatment at the hands of the Board of Administration, his reinstatement as chancellor, and his role in getting the Regents Bill signed into law. Most agreed with the Lawrence Journal-World that “taking the administration of the state’s educational institutions out of politics and returning it to the hands of the people … [was his] greatest educational achievement.” Lindley himself would have agreed. It was an “extraordinary situation,” he once said, “and one not altogether pleasing.” Yet despite these drawbacks, “It has been the biggest and most worth while fight that I have ever gotten into.”

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: Local newspapers and the Kansan covered the events surrounding Lindley’s resignation extensively, and one can find a wealth of clippings and related materials in the files for 1924 and 1925 in the Lindley 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 Lindley’s retirement and death, see the following respectively: Lawrence Journal-World, December 2, 1938, p.1-2, and August 21, 1940, p. 1-2. Also quite helpful are Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1974), pp. 390-413; and Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1955), pp. 117-119 and 129-132.]