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Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad

July 19, 1866

In the summer of 1866, the University of Kansas was such a fledgling entity that its first building was still under construction on the brow of Mount Oread. Lacking quarters of their own, the Board of Regents met in the council rooms of the City of Lawrence to choose the individuals who would establish an intellectual foundation for the new college, which was then known as “The Kansas State University.” On July 19 of that year, the Regents elected the first three members of KU’s faculty.

Their names were Elial J. Rice, David H. Robinson, and Francis Huntington Snow. Each was to be paid $1,600 per year in quarterly installments. The fact that all three were men may have been something of a surprise. Originally – as per the school’s charter – the Regents had planned to hire separate female faculty members to teach women students. But at that same meeting, the Regents voted to “indefinitely postpone the employment of female teachers,” and gender segregation never materialized in KU’s classrooms. From the start, it was a coeducational institution, a concept still in the experimental stage in 1866.

Elial J. Rice was the oldest and most experienced – on paper, at least – of the new faculty members. A native of Ohio, Rice was an 1857 graduate of Madison University in Hamilton, New York, where he had earned both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. He had started a seminary in Savannah, Ohio, and had also been a superintendent of schools in Evansville, Indiana. KU named him “Chair of Belles Lettres and Mental and Moral Philosophy” as well as faculty president. This latter title notwithstanding, Rice was essentially little more than a first among equals. By most measures, his status was no greater than that of Snow and Robinson, but he considered these younger men his inferiors and made little attempt to conceal this attitude.

Coupled with his quick temper and poor health, Rice managed to alienate both of his colleagues as well as many students. The resulting personality conflicts caused the Regents to demote Rice to “acting president,” which only added to his irritation. When Rice sought the first recorded instance of “spousal accommodation” at KU and tried to have his wife installed as “female professor,” the ensuing heated arguments with the Regents led him to look elsewhere for employment. He did not have to look very far. Baker University in Baldwin was seeking a president, and Rice applied for, was offered, and accepted the job in 1867. (John W. Horner, Baker’s former president, came to KU in Rice’s stead, but left to start a newspaper in Chetopa, Kansas the next year.)

David Hamilton Robinson, a professor of Latin who became Chair of Languages at KU, was from Cayuga County, New York. Robinson studied at the University of Rochester, where he graduated with high honors in 1859. He eventually went on to receive both a Master’s and PhD from that school. In 1872, Robinson’s department at KU was split up, and he was named professor of Latin Language and Literature, a position he retained until his death of typhoid fever in 1895. He was loved and respected by his students and colleagues, several of whom, upon hearing of his death, wrote letters to the University stating as such. Though a professor of Latin, he was competent in Greek as well, and considered the study of these languages to be a doorway into the history, art, and society of ancient cultures. Robinson published a Latin textbook for the use of pharmacy students, a volume thought to be one of the first of its kind.

Francis Huntington Snow was a Congregationalist minister who hailed from Fitchburg, Massachusetts. He had graduated from Williams College in 1862 and served in the United States Christian Commission in the Civil War. His father had been a friend of future Kansas Governor Charles Robinson before the state of Kansas existed, and it was Robinson – then chair of the Board of Regents – who persuaded Snow to choose the academy over the pulpit. Ironically, Snow’s major areas of study were not those he was hired to teach. Indeed, although he applied for the professor of languages position, Snow was named Chair of Mathematics and Natural Sciences instead. It was a choice no one would regret, including Snow himself.

Division of fields was not as strict in 1866 as it is today, particularly in a nascent school in a brand new state that looked out over Indian country. Snow, who was soon drawn to the field of entomology, was not only competent to teach math and science, but was known as a down-to-earth individual who minimized the gap between professor and student. His combination of high academic standards and love for field science gave his students a respect for the best of both worlds.

Snow’s passion for entomology took him on many trips through Kansas and the Southwest – often with his students in tow – where he collected and ultimately mounted thousands of insects. Although a Topeka newspaper editor once jocularly claimed that Snow’s chief ambition was to discover the “name, age, sex, color, and previous conditions of servitude of every bug, moth, and butterfly between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains,” his entomological work came to be considered among the best in the nation. Snow was named state entomologist in 1882 and worked toward the eradication of the chinch bug, which had perennially plagued Kansas farmers. In 1890, he became chancellor of KU, a position he held until 1901.

In retrospect, the Regents’ initial hiring decisions appear to have been as wise and farsighted as could be reasonably expected. Although Rice turned out to be something of a dud, Robinson and Snow ended up providing the University with a solid core around which the institution would be built. All start-up enterprises should be this lucky.

Douglas Harvey
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: For articles about KU’s initial faculty, see the Graduate Magazine 3, no. 3 (December 1904), 81-103; and the Graduate Magazine 5, no. 8 (May 1907), 275-291. For primary source documents, see “Executive Committee of the Board of Regents,” Minutes, March 21, 1865, July 19, 1866, December 5, 1866, which are available in University Archives. See also Clyde K. Hyder, Snow of Kansas: The Life of Francis Huntington Snow with Extracts from His Journals and Letters, (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1953); Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas,1955), 507; Clifford S, Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1974), see index.]