This summer seems to be high season for finding new college presidents. Harvard is seeking its 29th. William and Mary is after its 28th. The person who succeeds Teresa Sullivan at the University of Virginia will be only its ninth president.
Why so few? As always, look to Thomas Jefferson.
Having helped to throw off the material tyranny of the British monarchy and block the spiritual tyranny of state-established clergy, Jefferson, when he turned his energy and influence to the final great project of his life—creating the University of Virginia—he was unsurprisingly hostile to the autocratic, clerical model of college rule that prevailed in America at the time. He wanted no president.
Jefferson’s dream was of a self-governing community of scholars. There was no place in that democratic dream for a strong executive.
Not that Jefferson’s opposition was beyond debate. It was challenged from the outset, and regularly thereafter. Over the University’s first eight decades, the office of president was proposed repeatedly, usually in some crisis of lawlessness or poverty, and even offered to (and declined by) Robert E. Lee and Woodrow Wilson.
This is the story of that 80-year debate, through student riot and Civil War, through Reconstruction, industrialization and the rise of the New South, until the irresistible tide of the Progressive Era swamped tradition and in 1904 delivered the University its first president, Edwin A. Alderman.
The story begins in England.
Higher education in America was largely established on the model of Oxford and Cambridge, under which a chancellor or vice chancellor exercised administrative authority. Instead of chancellor, the title of president has been commonly applied at American colleges since it was assumed by Cambridge graduate Henry Dunster at Harvard, the first college in America, in 1640. The 1693 royal charter of William and Mary, the second college in the country, specifically calls for a president. W&M’s first president, James Blair, was both tutor and clergyman, as were Dunster and the presidents of most of the colleges founded in the Colonial period—another feature of the “Oxbridge” model carried into the American institution, as described in James Axtell’s history of higher education, Wisdom’s Workshop. That model still prevailed at the time the University of Virginia was chartered by act of the General Assembly in 1819. However, the office of president is conspicuously missing from the Assembly’s detailed description of the governance, faculty and curriculum of the new state university, details drawn directly from the commission report the previous year—drafted by Jefferson—that recommended putting the new university in Charlottesville.
Classes began in 1825 under the system Jefferson preferred: the chairman of the faculty—elected each year by the Board of Visitors—performed as chief administrator. Student discipline was to be entrusted to the character of the students themselves. Morality was to be taught not by a professor of divinity—unlike at other colleges of the time, there was not one at the University—but a professor of ethics.
“[T]he faculty chairmanship, though not without European parallels, was peculiarly a Jeffersonian creation, reflecting his abhorrence of centralization of authority in officers of life-tenure,” wrote historian and Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone.
But the idea of a presidency arose again almost immediately.
In April 1826, in only the second session of classes and in what would turn out to be Jefferson’s final Board of Visitors meeting, the Board formally defined and created a presidency on the exclusive condition that it be offered to William Wirt, a prominent lawyer and close associate of Jefferson. As recorded in the minutes, Jefferson protested and dissented on three arguments: the change exceeded the Board’s authority under the General Assembly’s charter (which by his own design included no reference to a president); the faculty was capable of doing anything a president might do; and the already indebted university could not afford the expense. But he was outvoted. As rector, he dutifully offered the position to his friend. Wirt declined, and the change was abandoned—for a time.
In those early years, calls for a strong executive appear to have been provoked by violence and disorder among students, often resulting from offenses, real or imagined, under a peculiarly Southern code of honor. The offer to Wirt came soon after one such outbreak of violence, which saw the entire faculty threaten to resign and brought the Board—including former U.S. presidents Jefferson, Madison and Monroe—to an urgent meeting in the Rotunda. The episode dashed Jefferson’s dream of a self-governing community of scholars, wrote the late UVA education professor Jennings L. Wagoner, in the paper “Honor and Dishonor at Mr. Jefferson’s University: The Antebellum Years.” In his last annual report as rector, describing how student lawbreakers would thereafter be subject to punishment by civil court, rather than student court, Jefferson concluded that “coercion must be resorted to, where confidence has been disappointed.”
Still, as Wagoner wrote, “For two decades following Jefferson’s death in 1826, ‘virtuous’ students and university authorities had to contend with recurring rounds of disorder, riot, and open rebellion.” Some of the disorder was mostly annoying—the “callithumping” of horns, drums and raucous noisemaking or loud pistol shots on the Lawn late at night. But the incidents also included the beating and whipping of a professor in the 1830s over a perceived insult to a student’s honor and the infamous murder of Professor John A.G. Davis in 1840, shot by a student rioter. After a disturbance the next year, a Board member wrote: “The Board must do something about the Presidency. We can’t get along without a President.”
At an annual meeting in early 1845, the Society of the Alumni formally endorsed the creation of a presidency. The issue ripened after a weeklong riot in April that required the intervention of the local militia, and the Board prepared a proposal to convert the faculty chairmanship into a presidency at its July meeting. Faculty chairman William Barton Rogers described that session’s students as including “so strong an admixture of cowardly rowdies.”
With the prospects of a presidency rising, Board members privately advanced names in the months that followed. When a General Assembly committee came to the University to learn more about the April riot and how to prevent such disturbances, the Board recommended authorizing a president who could exercise strict discipline. The faculty, however, opposed the addition of a level of governance between themselves and the Board, arguing that concentrating authority in one man unwisely relieved the other faculty members of their share of responsibility. In his history of the University from 1819 to 1919, Philip Alexander Bruce notes, too, that the change would have diminished faculty authority and importance. The legislative committee took the proposal to the next General Assembly session, but Jeffersonian tradition prevailed—along with, Bruce suggests, the legislature’s unwillingness to add a president’s salary to the University’s annual appropriation.
The notion returned after the Civil War, with the alumni taking the lead, but the visitors and faculty were apparently uninterested, according to Bruce. From that time arose the belief that it was privately suggested to Robert E. Lee not long after his surrender at Appomattox that he become president of the University, a possibility Bruce takes seriously, while noting the absence of any proof in University records or in Lee’s published correspondence. In an account cited by Bruce, Lee’s son writes that “to some suggestions that he should connect himself with the University of Virginia he objected because it was a state institution.”
In the sentimental style that flavors much of Bruce’s history, he laments, “Identified as the University had always been with the Southern States as a whole, his appointment would have consecrated that relation with the halo that will forever linger around his memory as the most splendid of Southern champions.”
Washington College in Lexington won Lee’s halo instead.
By the mid-1880s, in Bruce’s chronology, the faculty was beginning to see that the role of chairman was becoming inadequate, and students had become insistent. He quotes from a student publication: “The spirit of the age calls for the innovation. Every prominent seat of learning in the United States, except our own, has adopted it.”
The “spirit of the age” was social and economic change—change brought by the American Industrial Revolution after the Civil War, the growth in public education, a rising middle class and the drive for “efficiency” in all things that became a hallmark of the Progressive Era. In the “New South,” industrialization and education shone as the path to prosperity after the destruction of the plantation economy and the impoverishment that followed. The number of colleges in America more than doubled between 1860 and 1900.
The will to change was also beginning to show in the Board of Visitors. Bruce relates that specific candidates emerged over the next five years. At one point, the prospective position was formally offered to Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University. He declined. By 1902, the Board was focusing on one of its own members, George W. Miles. He drew opposition from the faculty, but the creation of some sort of executive office now appeared inevitable, and the faculty presented its plan for a system to the Board. That plan recognized the need for a president to act as a business agent and manager, to raise funds, and to represent the University in public and among other institutions. But it preserved the faculty’s authority over academics.
The prospect of a president at UVA had now become a public issue, with newspaper editorials, along with alumni chapters, weighing in. In 1903, the legislature granted the Board the power to create and fill the office. On June 14, 1904, the Board unanimously elected Edwin A. Alderman.
Citing Alderman as a primary force, historian Michael Dennis writes, “Revitalized by the progressive creed of bureaucratic efficiency, Southern leaders of higher education set out to rationalize not only the university but all of society.” On Founder’s Day the following spring, in administering the oath of office at Alderman’s formal inauguration, Rector Charles Pinckney Jones (who had fought for the Old South as a Confederate soldier) hoped aloud that the new system would not abandon the benefits of the old, but harked back to the Jeffersonian adage that institutions must change to keep up with changing times: “And may we not believe that the change now made would have been sanctioned by Mr. Jefferson under conditions as they now exist?”