Presidents leave lasting legacy

By Charles Menchaca

Gregory Hall. Willard Airport. James Scholars. All of these are integral to the University of Illinois, and all are named after its presidents.

15 presidents have served this University throughout its 137-year history, all attempting to advance the school in a variety of ways.

Local historian Winton Solberg has written two books on the University’s history, covering the years from 1867 to 1904. Solberg said presidents are important to the University because they have the ability to provide leadership and direction.

“A good president is able to guide his board,” Solberg said, referring to the Board of Trustees, the 13-member body that has appointed every University president.

Former President Stanley Ikenberry said the president can consult the board on what its priorities are and where it’s headed.

“Everyone brought their own particular vision, style and set of values,” Ikenberry said of University presidents.

The first University president – or “regent,” which the first three presidents were called – was John R. Gregory. Solberg said Gregory had the task of getting the University – then known as the Illinois Industrial University – started.

Gregory struck a balance, Solberg said, between technical subjects and existing subjects such as language, literature and history.

“At a time when there was tremendous revulsion against classic studies, Gregory tried to find a line between new demands and old traditions,” Solberg said.

A letter dated Sept. 11, 1880, from James P. Slade, then the state superintendent of public instruction, discussed Gregory’s resignation. Slade called Gregory “a successful teacher of large experience, a ripe scholar of extensive and varied learning,”

One of Gregory’s last requests was that he be buried on campus. His grave plot is situated between Altgeld Hall and the Henry Administration Building.

Later presidents continued to strengthen the University’s academics. President David Kinley was essential to the study of economics at the University. Kinley, who was an economics professor before becoming president, formed the Department of Economics in 1895. He urged the University Senate to approve the formation of the College of Commerce and Business Administration.

President Edmund J. James, one of the longest-serving presidents in the University’s history, spent a large amount of time recruiting faculty. By 1920, his last year in office, James raised the number of faculty to nearly 1,000.

President George C. Stoddard was also known for bringing new faculty, though Solberg said he moved too fast.

“Stoddard had a unique capacity to cause trouble,” Solberg said.

One incident included Stoddard’s appointment of Howard Bowen as the dean of the Commerce College. Bowen brought in many Keynesian economists, who were considered to be liberal economists.

Solberg said the appointment of the economists was done quickly and in the time of McCarthyism.

“This led to a great, great, big fight,” said Solberg, and culminated with Bowen’s termination in 1950.

Ikenberry said Stoddard was a strong advocate of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). He was also involved with research for the alleged cancer-curing agent Krebiozen.

The Board of Trustees disliked both issues and discussed Stoddard’s term at a Friday night meeting held at the Illini Union in 1953.

According to a July 25, 1953, Associated Press news article, Stoddard resigned at midnight after the Board of Trustees gave a 6-3 vote of no confidence regarding his presidency.

Although Ikenberry said he considered Stoddard controversial, he also said Stoddard was profoundly influential to the University.

“Controversy can actually be good because it can signal that the president is actually making a difference,” Ikenberry said.

Stoddard pushed for scientific advancements of the time and improved the library, Ikenberry said.

A number of issues await the University’s new president, B. Joseph White, who will take office in February.

White’s predecessor, President James Stukel, who has been president since 1995 and plans to retire in February, said the budgetary issue will continue to be important. He said private donations will determine whether the University has a superlative faculty or an average faculty.

“They’ll find things they want to do, and have an exciting plan of action,” Stukel said.

Ikenberry said the president will need to acquaint himself with the University in all its complexity, including students and faculty of all three campuses.

Stukel said it all boils down to the president enhancing the quality of the University.

“I have no doubt the next president will achieve that,” he said.