President, Office of: Historical Sketch
The Office of the President
A Brief History Provisions were laid out for an office of President, to be elected by the board of trustees, in the document which first established Ohio University.(1) The position remained unfilled, however, for the first seventeen years of the university’s existence. For the first several years the institution was under the sole control of the board, and only in 1808 was one man–Rev. Jacob Lindley–put in charge of the university’s operations. His title was Preceptor of the Athens Academy and President pro tempore of the Board of Trustees, and not of the university per se. Lindley, however, is still considered to have been the university’s first president.(2)
The first person to actually hold the title of President of Ohio University was James Irvine, who succeeded Lindley in 1821. He was followed by Robert G. Wilson in 1824, and William Holmes McGuffey (author of the famous McGuffey readers) in 1839. An acute financial crisis, exacerbated by the resignation of McGuffey in 1843, forced the closing of the university in 1845. The presidency was at that time a battleground between the Presbyterians, who dominated the faculty and the board of trustees, and the Methodists, who were very strong in the Athens area. Neither side was willing to allow the other to gain in power, yet neither could find an acceptable candidate to champion the cause in the office of president.(3) Finally Alfred Ryors accepted the position in 1848, but his term lasted only until 1852, when his resignation finally brought an end to the Presbyterian hold on the presidency.(4)
Solomon Howard, the university’s first Methodist president, took office in 1852. He succeeded in pulling the university out of debt for the first time since the Lindley administration, but the institution remained virtually destitute.(5) Howard also steered the university through the Civil War. He resigned in 1872.
Howard was succeeded by William Henry Scott, the only Ohio University alumnus to ever hold the office. Scott served until 1883, when Charles W. Super followed him. Super was responsible for the creation of the “normal school,” the music department, and the commerce department (forerunners of the Colleges of Education, Fine Arts, and Business, respectively) . Super also established Ohio University’s first (non-residential) Ph.D. program.(6)
Super resigned in 1896, but maintained his position as professor of Greek. He was succeeded by Isaac Crook, but friction between Super and Crook limited the latter’s term of office to two years, after which Super returned to the presidency.(7)
Super once again left office in 1901, but remained on the faculty as Professor of Greek. His successor, Alston Ellis, presided over the university for twenty years in a term marked by massive expansions in the university, especially in the normal school and the summer program.(8) It was also during the Ellis administration that the First World War took place.
Following Ellis’ death in office in 1920, one of the most popular presidents in the university’s history, Elmer Burritt Bryan, assumed the presidency in 1921. Among other accomplishments, Bryan established the university’s first chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.
Bryan passed away in 1934, and his successor was Herman Gerlach James. James’s major accomplishment was the creation of the college system as we know it today, based on five degree- granting colleges: the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Commerce, the College of Applied Science, the College of Fine Arts, and the College of Education. In addition James established the University College as a required program for incoming freshmen. He also created the office of Provost, with Dean Thomas C. McCracken named as the first. James’ most controversial move, however, was his introduction of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) to campus, which met with great resistance. In 1943 James left to work for the State Department in South America, thus ending his very productive term of office.(10)
Walter Sylvester Gamertsfelder followed James, and presided over the university at a time of diminished enrollment due to the Second World War. He was succeeded in 1945 by John Calhoun Baker. During Baker’s term the university saw an unprecedented expansion, as a flood of war veterans returned to the classrooms. Baker is also known for his establishment of the Ohio University Fund (now known as the Ohio University Foundation) and for his keen interest in international affairs.(11)
In 1961 Baker resigned, followed by Vernon Roger Alden, who presided until 1969. During Alden’s term the university switched over to the present quarter system, at the insistence of the Ohio Board of Regents. He was also responsible for the establishment of the Honors College.(12) Alden presided over the campus during a time of increasing tension between students and the administration, tension which continued during the administration of Claude Sowle, who succeeded Alden in 1969. In 1970, in the wake of the Kent State shootings, Sowle called on the National Guard to maintain order at the university, and eventually closed the institution for several months.
Sowle resigned in 1974, followed by Harry Crewson, whose one-year term saw the birth of the College of Osteopathic Medicine. Charles Ping, succeeded Crewson in 1975. His administration has been marked by an interest in educational planning, an enhanced general education program, and continued international connections. During his tenure enrollment figures for the Athens campus returned gradually to near the previous high reached in Fall 1970. Ping was also in office for two highly successful capital campaigns which significantly increased the institution’s endowment. Robert Glidden succeeded him in 1994.
1/”An Act: Establishing an University in the Town of Athens,” reprinted in William E. Peters, Legal History of the Ohio University, Cincinnati: the Western Methodist Book Concern, 1910, p. 94.
2/Thomas N. Hoover, The History of Ohio University, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1954, p. 25.
3/ibid., pp. 88-94.
4/ibid., p. 99.
5/ibid., p. 106.
6/ibid., pp. 164-170.
7/ibid., p. 177.
8/ibid., p. 194.
9/ibid., pp. 217-218.
10/ibid., pp. 220-230.
11/ibid., p. 242.
12/Meno Lovenstein, The Decade of the University: Ohio University and the Alden Years, Athens: The Lawhead Press, Inc., 1971, pp. 116-117.
The Presidents and Their Terms
Robert G. Wilson
William Holmes McGuffey
William Henry Scott
Charles W. Super
Charles W. Super
Elmer Burritt Bryan
Herman Gerlach James
Walter Sylvester Gamertsfelder
John Calhoun Baker
Vernon Roger Alden
Roderick J. McDavis
Prepared by John E. Moser Fall 1988. Updated Spring 1995, Fall 2003 and Fall 2004.