Sign Up Twitter

The Chancellor Of Firsts

September 22, 1939


When Deane W. Malott agreed in the spring of 1939 to leave his professorship at Harvard and become the eighth chancellor at the University of Kansas, observers quickly dubbed him the “Chancellor of Firsts.” Not only was he the first native Kansan to hold the top office, but he was also the first former graduate, having earned an economics degree from KU in 1921.

Furthermore, Malott was the first chancellor to have extensive business experience, something most agreed was going to be an asset in the formidable task of righting his undergraduate alma mater after an unhappy decade of economic depression and academic listlessness. And finally, with his youthful appearance, he was almost certainly the only chancellor ever to have been mistaken for a student.

Malott’s 12-year tenure as chancellor, during which he presided over rapid growth, a renewed sense of purpose and direction, and, of course, the dislocations and awesome responsibilities associated with World War II, began with great fanfare on September 22, 1939.

Deane Waldo Malott was born a banker’s son on July 10, 1898, in Abilene, Kansas. During his years at KU, Malott was quite the busy and well-rounded student: he worked as circulation manager for the University Daily Kansan, sang in the Glee Club, performed in campus musicals, was a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and numerous honor societies, and even worked part-time in the College Dean’s Office.

In an interesting coincidence, when it came time for him to receive his AB degree in 1921, the man who presented young Malott his diploma was newly installed KU Chancellor, Ernest H. Lindley, whom Malott would replace in that very same position 18 years later, becoming his successor.

After KU, Malott was accepted into the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, from which he earned an MBA two years later in 1923. While at Harvard, though, Malott never forgot his Midwestern or KU roots, and even wrote back to the Graduate Magazine in May 1922 about his impressions of the venerable eastern university. After commenting drolly on the accents of the “R-juggling” folks of Massachusetts, he wrote: “I don’t believe they have dusted behind their family portraits since Cornwallis surrendered, and they sit around in their great-grandfathers’ rocking chairs, in solid respectability, and trace their ancestry back to Paul Revere.”

The 23-year-old Malott added that, “In spite of the advantages back here, however, I believe the best opportunities are to be found in the Middle West.” In any event, Harvard was enamoured enough with Malott (and he with them) that they hired him on immediately following graduation as the Business School’s assistant dean, charging him with the responsibility of traveling the country to interview prospective students.

Malott served in this capacity until 1929 when he joined the Hawaiian Pineapple Co. (later the Dole Pineapple Co.) as its vice-president, a post he held for four years before returning to the Harvard Business School as an associate professor. From 1933 till 1939, Malott taught business administration, specializing in agricultural issues, and authored or co-authored five books. It was this distinguished and rare balance between the worlds of academia and business that first brought Malott to the attention of the Kansas Board of Regents who, in the spring of 1939, were conducting a nationwide search for a new chancellor.

After nearly two decades as chancellor, Lindley, by 1939, was clearly a tired, almost broken, man, having served in both the best of economic times and certainly by then in the worst. KU during the 1930s was beset not only by serious financial hardships, but also by a number of rending academic and psychological troubles that called many to question if the University would ever (or should ever) recover.

From scandalous, though essentially unfounded, charges of communist radicalism on campus to criticism of the University’s ham-handed and woefully inadequate dealings with and respect for the public, KU was, according to a Committee on Public Relations, in dire need of someone to present the University in a “clear and winning manner,” and hopefully save the school from falling into an abyss of apathy and indirection. Even before the Depression decade, noted KU historian Clifford Griffin, the University “was itself a disappointment to idealistic – and even realistic – men…. [Thus] the 1930s were disastrous.”

The Regents considered over 100 candidates for the chancellor’s position and finally, on April 10, 1939, after some brief haggling over the $10,500 per year salary, they offered the job to Malott, who promptly accepted. The deal was in some ways sweetened by the fact that Mrs. Elizabeth Watkins (who would pass away on June 1, 1939) had generously willed her beautiful mansion on the eastern edge of campus to the University; after some renovations, it would become (and remains) the official residence of the chancellor. Malott, his wife Eleanor, and their three children moved in later that summer.

Right away it seemed as if a palpable sense of optimism wafted over the University. The 41-year-old Malott was the University’s youngest chancellor to date, the first native Kansan and first alumnus to reach the post, and perhaps the epitome of the storybook hometown boy making good and then coming back to serve his community. Almost without exception, people delighted in Malott’s youthfulness and Kansas roots; and few failed to mention how “handsome,” “engaging,” and “energetic” the new chancellor was, sure to breath new life into an ailing University by his mere presence.

Malott, said one observer, is “just what he looks like, a tall, well set up Kansan with the gleam of the distant horizon in his eye and the flame of the Kansas sun on his cheeks. He looks as much a prosperous farmer as he does a college head.” Proclaimed the Graduate Magazine: “A new captain is at the helm of the good ship K.U. The crew and the passengers are voicing their utmost confidence in his steady hand and clear eye.” In addition to his “brilliant mind” and “pleasant charm,” Malott’s business experience meant “the Chancellor-elect scores again.”

Not to be outdone, the Kansan, on May 28, 1939, lauded the “tall, dark, handsome, [and] affable” Malott who, after only a brief visit to campus, demonstrated that he could “meet any situation,” “take care of all controversies with diplomacy,” and would “remain cool and calm in the face of any exigency.” The April 4 Kansan went even further, noting that Malott “very definitely caused feminine hearts to flutter at first sight.”

Upon accepting the position, Malott told the Kansas City Star on April 11 that “It is a heavy responsibility to assume the chancellorship of the University of Kansas, particularly to follow as great an educational leader as Chancellor Lindley has been in Kansas for nearly twenty years. It also is a great honor of which I am all the more mindful because it means returning to Kansas, my native state, and to the university of which I am a graduate.”

While his relative youth may have been an impediment – he was once mistaken for a student in a Lawrence barbershop – Malott made the most of his natural ebullience and enthusiasm for his alma mater, seeing his primary duty as reintroducing (and reselling) the University to the public. “I have a feeling,” he later wrote in 1940, “that public relations is one of my biggest jobs, that we must be at work to get the University off this Hill and out over the state, and the people of the state up on the Hill…. All in all, there is a good deal going on, and we need to have all of this interpreted to the people of the state.” And that is precisely what he vowed to do during his formal inauguration speech on September 22, 1939, in Hoch Auditorium.

Much of Malott’s inaugural address was undoubtedly academic boilerplate: He pledged his allegiance to academic freedom, high scholarly standards, and the upholding of University traditions. He also placed great emphasis on research as “an integral part” of higher education and warned that if KU was ever to abandon this institutional staple, “it will shrivel in intellectual stature to the point where it becomes not a center of learning but a mere merchandiser of knowledge, retailing stale and obsolete wares in annual and repetitive routine.” This was assuredly a businessman’s speech as much as it was an academician’s.

But, for Griffin, this “lack of novelty in Malott’s program was fortunate.” In 1939, noted Griffin, “the last thing that the University needed in the outlook and plans of its chancellor was major innovations. At a time when the school was trying to shake off the depression’s disasters, a suggestion of fundamental changes would have been an invitation to dissent and turmoil…. Malott was asking for a revitalizing of the existing University, and that only. It was exactly what he should have asked.”

Malott’s tenure as chancellor, though in hindsight and aggregate seems quite successful, had a somewhat rocky beginning. He began by telling students, “Don’t call me ‘Chancellor’; call me Mr. Malott. I’m one of you – not over you.” But the realities of leadership and authority inevitably clashed with this “man-of-the-people” attitude when it came time to make decisions. On November 17, 1941, following a KU football upset win over Kansas State, students desperately wanted a holiday declared so they could celebrate the win. Malott refused. In response, many students announced a strike and then gathered downtown where they paraded a casket, labeled “Malott’s Coffin,” later hanging an effigy of the chancellor. A year later, over a thousand students, angry over the shortening of Christmas vacation, staged a sit-in in front of Malott’s office until they received some assurance that their grievances would be considered.

In spite of these unpleasant instances, however, as the Kansan later noted, Malott “gradually became [more] popular” with students, due in no small part to his good-humored participation in student activities such as the Nightshirt parade and his support of smoking rights in the library reading rooms. During World War II, Malott also made repeated and hearty exertions to raise money for the war effort by washing student cars and greeting dates at sorority houses.

Indeed, if there was anything that defined Malott’s chancellorship and his legacy at KU, it was his role in running the campus during the turbulent years of the Second World War. Prior to Pearl Harbor, student and faculty opinion, like that of the country at large, was solidly opposed to American intervention. As Griffin has noted, immediately following the outbreak of war in September 1939, a student vote found 1,995 opposed to US involvement and only 371 supporting it. Similarly, in May 1940, with France overrun and Britain facing annihilation, over 95 percent of KU students opposed declaring war on Germany “to help the democracies and for our own protection.” December 7, 1941, however, changed everything, in America and at KU.

Addressing the University in the fall of 1942, Malott, who had none of the moral qualms or innate pacifism of KU’s other wartime chancellor, Frank Strong, told them the war was “part of civilization’s struggle – the common cause of the United Nations as they plan a world in which men stand straight and walk free, free not of all human trouble, but free of the fear of despotic power, free to develop as individuals, free to conduct and shape their affairs.” According to Griffin, Malott challenged students to “meditate on the nature and value of freedom as [they] went from class to class, to prepare [themselves] in new ways for a new future.”

But lofty and powerful rhetoric was not going to be enough to steer the University through the difficult times that lay ahead. KU faced a potentially crippling crisis as male students by the hundreds left for war, taking with them much-needed tuition dollars. Indeed, many colleges and universities across the country had to shut down during the war or were hobbled into insignificance. Unless KU found a way to reverse plunging enrollments, it might share their fate.

In early 1942, Malott convinced the federal government to declare KU an official military training center. With this designation, the School of Engineering began to train skilled war industry workers; women enrolled in mechanical drawing classes sponsored by the US Office of Education; Air Force cadets received pre-flight training; the Navy sent officer candidates to KU as part of its V-1, V-7, and V-12 training programs; and perhaps most importantly, some 500 Navy machinists’ mates received their education on Mount Oread starting in the summer of 1942. To accommodate this last group, which by 1943 had reached over 800, the University had to basically convert Strong Hall into a military barracks, build temporary housing units, and allow itself to become what amounted to an armed camp. In all, KU trained over 3,000 Navy men by the time its training duties were suspended in October 1944, and over 6,800 military personnel in all.

“The University of Kansas is now converted to war,” Malott proudly announced in September 1943. “Between two thousand and twenty-five hundred soldiers and sailors are marching on Mt. Oread.” Crucially, though, Malott insisted, “no department has been abandoned, no fundamental activity has been stopped.” He furthermore wished to affirm that the University’s academic priorities in no way clashed with the country’s wartime needs; in fact, they harmonized: “The training of soldiers in science, of sailors in engineering, and coeds in education or music or philosophy, does not seem an incongruous thing on a university campus. All are young people, ambitious, earnest, hard-working, unselfish – all have in mind the fundamental objective of winning the war.”

The following year, Malott again stressed the continued operation of the University, its “dual purpose” of furthering the war effort through its military programs and preparing for eventual peace “through its normal curricula.” As Malott put it, “These are days of adventure, and all those with the adventurous spirit will find opportunities galore at the University of 1944-45.”

Indeed, as Roy Roberts – who had studied journalism at KU in the early 1900s and went on to become president of the Kansas City Star – put it in 1951, “Guiding the University through the all-out World War II period was the greatest challenge the institution ever faced – through the war itself with shrunken enrollments as the sons of K.U. fought on the far-flung global battle fields and seas; in the after-war period with the huge influx of the returned GI’s swamping the already expanding facilities as never before. It was a tremendous job, but into it the Chancellor put his remarkable talents for administration. So the University emerged from this period of abnormality not weakened, but stronger than ever in quality of education, in plant equipment and in the soul and spirit of the school.”

Malott’s legacy at KU is also inextricably linked to a dramatic increase in campus building; indeed, during his tenure, ten new structures went up, including Lindley Hall, the Military Science building, and Danforth Chapel. (The science building Malott Hall, built in 1954, now stands in his honor.) Also prominent was the establishment of Navy ROTC in 1946; the conversion of the old Fowler Shops into the new William Allen White School of Journalism (now Stauffer-Flint Hall), which opened in 1948; and the fundraising and organizational drive to construct the Memorial Carillon and Campanile, whose first tones sounded in 1951.

Thus, from campus beautification projects (led by Eleanor Malott) that gave KU its more than 1,200 crabapple trees, to remarkable financial achievements such as convincing the state to more than quadruple the University’s annual budget and raise faculty salaries by nearly 50 percent, Malott undoubtedly accomplished his original goal of helping to revitalize the University of Kansas.

And this is exactly why, in April 1951, the University was almost to-a-person saddened by the news that Malott had decided to resign the chancellorship and accept an offer to become the sixth president of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “To leave Kansas and the University has been for Mrs. Malott and me a most difficult decision,” he admitted. “In my own state and in serving my own university we have spent 12 very busy and very happy years, and we have somehow built ourselves into K.U…. It is therefore with very great reluctance that this July we shall leave our many friends and fine associations to undertake new tasks in new surroundings.” Malott had often confided that no one should stay too long at any one school, and the challenge of the Ivy League turned out to be more than he could possibly turn down in good conscience.

Just as at KU, he would hold the Cornell presidency for 12 years, retiring from that post in 1963. From then until his death on September 11, 1996, at the age of 98, Malott would remain active in the business world, sitting on the boards of companies such as B.F. Goodrich, Owens-Corning, and General Mills, and lending his expertise to developing nations through a private foundation called the International Executive Service Corps. He never quite left the academic world either, serving as a consultant to the Association of American Colleges.

Truly, Malott was an outspoken chancellor, whether crusading for more funds for research from the state, speaking against communism, or just talking up the University in his travels, both foreign and domestic. Yet on one issue the chancellor was unfortunately silent, and if there is a telling criticism to be made of his administration it is his inaction in combating racial discrimination on campus. As Griffin has noted, even though Malott “bore [not] the slightest taint of prejudice,” he did painfully little to discourage or condemn the de facto segregation that prevailed at KU during his tenure.

“I have no antipathy whatever for the negro [sic] and have great sympathy for the plight in which they find themselves,” Malott once remarked in 1943. But he felt that “we have gone as far in non-discrimination as the people of this state are willing to accept. I propose to lie low, avoid argument, avoid public statements, and trust that we can temporize with the situation for the present.” (His failure to deal forthrightly with civil rights issues is even more surprising when one considers his 1942 recommendation that KU accept Japanese-American college students being deported from the West Coast in the wake of Pearl Harbor. At that time, Malott suggested the presence of these deportees would be “an interesting leaven to our group,” and contended the whole deportation scheme would appear “utterly foolish” in the “light of later years.”) In fairness, Malott probably was reading the people of Kansas correctly in his stance on segregation, but one cannot but think that had he himself been more outspoken, more forceful, more crusading, true equality at KU might have been achieved much quicker.

In any event, according to Fred Ellsworth, a KU grad one year behind Malott and longtime secretary of the Kansas Alumni Association, Malott’s administration was a rousing success and Malott was “one of the greatest salesmen Kansas ever had.” When confronted with this assessment later in life, Malott laughed and told Kansas Alumni that, yes, perhaps he had a knack for loosening legislative purse strings.

With his characteristic good humor, he added: “I always had my tambourine out for funds…. I found the legislature very much interested in higher education, really. They wanted to be proud of their university, and it was my job to make them proud of it.” Malott left KU more stable, more confident, with more funds and promise, and more prepared to meet future challenges than he found it. As Roy Roberts put it, “What better accolade could Deane Malott desire?”

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: Extensive materials are available in the Deane W. Malott Personal File, located in University Archives, Spencer Research Library. Of particular interest are the following: Graduate Magazine (September 1943); (March-April 1939), pp. 4-5; (June 1939), pp. 17-18; (September 1939), p. 7; (October 1939), pp. 5-6; and (September 1944), pp. 7-8. Roy Roberts, “The University Flowered Under Chancellor Malott,” Alumni Magazine (February 1951), pp. 6-8; (November 1954), pp. 8-10. Kansas Alumni (February 1978), pp. 1, 3; (November 1996), pp. 10-11. University Daily Kansan, September 22, 1939, p. 1, and May 22, 1951, pp. 6-7; May 28, 1939; Fred Ellsworth, from “Our Amazing Chancellors,” pp. 12, 24. Kansas City Star, April 11, 1939; Lawrence Journal-World, September 12, 1996, p. 1A; Topeka Daily Capital, April 8, 1951, Feature Section. See also Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1974), pp. 452-457, 480-497, 502-503, 512-513, and 627]