An excerpt from Hancher vs. Hilton

Please enjoy the following sample from chapter seven of Hancher vs. Hilton: Iowa’s Rival University Presidents. (You can also download a PDF with this excerpt, as well as the book’s introduction.)

Iowa State University’s historians have ascribed some remarkable things to President Virgil Hancher. He campaigned against the school changing its name. He fought Iowa State’s admission to the Association of American Universities. He personally hated President Hilton. I found each of these suggestions remarkable, at any rate, and I will presume that most who read this far share at least some of that interest. Of all Hancher’s purported aggressions, though, none surprised me more than the claim that he vigorously opposed Iowa State offering degrees in English and speech. This seemed such petty, vindictive animosity as to be grotesque, in a way that exceeded any of Hancher’s other objections. Yet it is more reliably documented than almost all of the others.

Unlike Iowa State’s new name, or its candidacy for the AAU, President Hancher made his objections to an ISU major in English repeatedly, and publicly, leaving behind an ample paper trail. He also went into deep detail about his reasoning, which does at all events challenge the notion of a simple reactionary turf battle. He found powerful allies, too—though at the same time he was so vocal that a number of State University of Iowa [i.e. University of Iowa] alumni called on him to back down. Hancher never did so willingly, and even after giving his arguments their full due, his lasting offense at this particular proposal can appear excessive. Seemingly here, if anywhere, is indisputable evidence of arrogant “big brother” selfishly trying to hold back “little brother.” The basic facts are beyond dispute.

Unfortunately for this version of events there are more facts, that tell a larger story. In that story Hancher’s SUI may still be a bully but it isn’t the only one, or even the first. Well before Hancher entertained even a single unkind thought about James Hilton, the Iowa State president’s administration was picking on “littler brother” Iowa State Teachers College [i.e. today’s University of Northern Iowa]. Most awkward of all, it was doing so in exactly the same way.

In fairness to President James Hilton, he largely walked into Iowa State’s efforts to restrict curriculum at ISTC after they had begun. He also did nothing in particular to stop them. Presumably he could have, though, even if it would have been difficult saying no to Helen LeBaron. Just beginning an eventual long career running Iowa State’s home economics programs, LeBaron was a human dynamo who also squeezed in endless volunteer work, boards of directors, national committee appointments and several years on the Ames City Council. Being a woman dedicating her career to domestic arts in the 1950s did not dissuade her from forming strong opinions and fighting for them. One month before Hilton took office as president, she wrote Iowa State’s dean of science Harold Gaskill to express her very negative opinion of a proposed new course at ISTC.

That Iowa State Teachers College earned LeBaron’s ire by proposing to teach vocational home economics may surpass any other example of how obscure the era’s conflicts now appear, in their details. In 2015, home economics is essentially a minor program at Iowa State University. Promoted to a college along with other divisions in 1959, it was renamed the College of Family and Consumer Sciences in 1987, then merged with the College of Education in 2005 under the heading “Human Sciences.” Long before that, the distinction between home economics and vocational home economics was already fine. A contemporary newspaper article suggested that “The difference between a vocational home economics teacher and other home economics teachers is largely one of federal definitions.” Today the very term is nearly obsolete.

In 1953, however, Helen LeBaron was dean of a full-fledged college of home economics (even if it was not formally labeled a college) and took all of its offerings very seriously. Writing to Gaskill, she argued that Iowa State should firmly oppose ISTC establishing a rival program in vocational home economics. First, she wrote, it would violate the Board of Education’s edict against duplication. Second, it would distract ISTC from a more basic responsibility that was already being neglected; LeBaron asserted that nearly one-third of Iowa high schools lacked certified teachers of general homemaking, and suggested that ISTC would do better to focus more on this subject, which it already offered. As a teachers college, LeBaron added, ISTC was better suited than Iowa State to prepare these teachers, whom high schools frequently assigned additional subjects. Finally, LeBaron protested that a duplicate vocational home economics program would inevitably harm the high quality and standing of home economics at Iowa State. Declaring that “we have an unusually fine faculty with a large proportion holding doctor’s degrees,” she warned that a competing ISTC program would inevitably divert resources from Iowa State and result in loss of top faculty.

Short of actually employing the word “mediocrity,” LeBaron’s complaints prefigured many of President Hancher’s later themes to an uncanny degree. Details of the competition for funding were somewhat different, here; LeBaron was particularly concerned about federal grants for vocational education in home economics and other subjects. But in general, she made most of the same arguments later offered by the Hancher administration: the Board charges us to avoid duplication, Iowa’s schools should focus on established specialties, a competing department will dilute the budget and prestige of our own. While Hilton himself had little to say, Iowa State pressed these objections throughout his first year, and as president he was ultimately responsible. His administration’s response to the Budget and Financial Control Committee in 1954 took a very aggressive line on duplication in general: “If constant vigilance in this respect is not maintained, many departments tend to expand their offerings to the point where they are actually conducting parallel courses under different names.”

The arguments deployed by Iowa State Teachers College and its president, in response, offer interest as well. Notably, President Maucker made a case for prestige’s value in attracting good faculty five years before Hilton offered the same rationale for changing Iowa State’s title from college to university. A memo to the Board of Education suggested, in favor of ISTC’s proposal, that “Restriction against preparing teachers for vocational home making is interpreted by many as indication of a low caliber program” and was prompting both prospective students and faculty to look elsewhere. The proposed program, Maucker told the Board, would allow ISTC “to strengthen our instructional program without appreciable additional cost.”

Beyond this, the Teachers College played down the idea that its program would pose any competition to Iowa State’s. In addition to ceding any claim to the federal grants that concerned LeBaron, ISTC’s dean of faculty suggested that “I suspect that the Iowa State people are not so well acquainted with our relatively small set-up” and might be reassured by touring the modest programs in Cedar Falls. Maucker’s administration also pointed to existing duplication within areas that were arguably its own area of responsibility, noting for example that “All three institutions have prepared persons for careers in public schools during most of the lives of the institutions.” Above all, the ISTC president questioned whether the Board’s formal aversion to duplication should really restrain the development of Iowa higher education at all times, and in all places. “Duplication has almost come to be a ‘scare word,’” he wrote as the Board weighed a final decision in early 1955. Previewing his later thoughts on appropriate “Future Directions” for Iowa’s colleges, he asserted that “Not all duplication is bad; in fact, some duplication is both necessary and desirable.”

For interpreting the larger battles over curriculum between Iowa State and State University of Iowa that followed, however, the most significant feature of the skirmish over vocational home economics is its outcome. In May 1955, the Board voted to approve the ISTC proposal. While remaining formally in favor of three distinct institutions and opposed to further duplication, it chose to respect President Maucker’s arguments for making an exception. I can only guess that Dean LeBaron did not welcome this outcome. Though President Hilton’s papers record no direct comments on the issue, it may be that he was disappointed as well. I have a stronger suspicion that, whatever his opinion of Maucker’s reasoning or the Board’s response, he was certainly paying attention to both.

By autumn of 1959, James Hilton had already been through a very full year even for a university president. He had parried proposed restrictions on “Future Directions” for his institution, with a detailed, forceful response. He had, through intense personal conferences, won over more than a dozen state senators to recognizing Iowa State as a university. He had maintained the ongoing effort to persuade legislators to provide adequate funding. He was overseeing plans to open an experimental two-year technical institute the following year. He was, as always, still trying to scare up resources for the Iowa State Center.

In September, Hilton also earned one of his most memorable anecdotes at the cost of a very tense moment or two. With Cold War tensions relaxing slightly, if still quite high, an eccentric farmer named Roscoe Garst had invited the leader of the Soviet Union to visit Iowa, and premier Nikita Kruschev had accepted. Kruschev spent the morning of September 23 with Garst (who regularly wrote Hilton with various novel suggestions as well) inspecting his farm. While in the area, the premier and his party then spent the afternoon touring Iowa State University. Despite the Cold War and guards from the Secret Service, Hilton recalled Kruschev’s manner as ebullient, perhaps even impish. Security arrangements called for keeping curious students at a distance but they repeatedly circumvented this, to Kruschev’s delight. Students lined windows of MacKay Hall “while Kruschev was supposedly looking at demonstrations there,” Hilton wrote, and “He immediately went to the windows and shook hands with the students… as if he were campaigning for office.” Secret Servicemen may have been less amused by this, but they were absolutely frantic when, a little later, a group of unknown persons approached wearing long coats and dark glasses, and carrying violin cases.

Just moments later the grim faces split with amusement. A handful of students had decided it would be funny to give the Soviet premier and the Secret Service a scare. Kruschev, doubtless to the great relief of his hosts, agreed; in Hilton’s words, after explanations were made the premier “was very amused and slapped his knee as he laughed heartily.” Years later, Hilton acknowledged the incident among other amusing moments of his presidency. All the same, he confessed, in most cases “They were not so amusing at the time.”

Under the circumstances, President Hilton might have decided that he had taken on enough for 1959. The Regents had tasked Iowa State and the other schools with hammering out development plans—this had first prompted the “Future Directions” argument earlier in the year—but there are always means of deferring bureaucratic chores of this type. Hilton might very reasonably have employed them to focus on other work, or even to take an afternoon to unwind. Courtesy of coach Clay Stapleton, Cyclone football was finally winning games. Reduced to just 30 healthy players, the team that finished a victory over Drake University covered in mud became a minor legend as the “Dirty 30.”

But while President Hilton enjoyed a rousing gridiron contest or other diversions, when he allowed himself the time, these were not the reasons he had returned to Iowa State. In his first address to staff, he had pledged not only to fight the school’s battles but to fight for specific, additional development beyond existing programs. As much as Hilton revered Iowa State’s achievements in agriculture, home economics, or other applied sciences he had concluded that deeper responsibilities to society demanded more. In 1953 he declared “…we must train citizens who will have some understanding of the great moral and social issues of our day. We must have more research and education in social sciences and in human relationships because herein lie some of the greatest problems of our times.” Six years later, he remained as convinced of this as ever, and meanwhile the Board of Regents was asking him to outline plans for his university. The time had come, and Hilton was not going to be diverted by other projects or deterred by the already contentious year behind him. He would deliver his views on developing Iowa State University, and its peers as well.

On its face, President Hilton’s 1959 plan for expanded humanities and social sciences at Iowa State was simple. He wanted to introduce degree-granting majors in English and speech, and modern languages. He later added physical education for women to this list, but with or without this addition it seems a very modest request relative to the great controversy that resulted.

Hilton’s arguments could be judged straightforward enough as well, given that most of them had been advanced by Iowa State Teachers College six years earlier, and judged adequate. I hesitate to suggest that Hilton lifted material directly from ISTC and President Maucker; an idea is rare indeed that has no precedent elsewhere, and quite possibly both Maucker and Hilton were already familiar with similar reasoning before the debate over vocational home economics. But whatever the platform’s origin it had obviously persuaded the Board of Regents just a few years earlier. Hilton can have seen no compelling reason to depart from the same script, and he did not do so. He repeated the suggestion that good faculty valued having students majoring in their field, emphasizing that restricting them to service-course roles was not thrift but rather increasingly costly. Iowa State spent more than most schools to attract equally qualified English and speech faculty, yet department morale was low, turnover was high, and quality suffered. Just like Maucker and ISTC, Hilton insisted that Iowa State’s programs would be very modest. The department would remain small. He was asking for neither master’s degrees nor PhDs. His provost James Jensen explicitly declared that “the ‘main show’ in these fields will be recognized as being at the University in Iowa City.”

President Hilton’s other arguments were generally simple and direct as well. As with his campaign to rename Iowa State, he acknowledged that trends did play a part and ISU could not realistically ignore them. Relevant professional societies were strongly recommending more social science and humanities curricula for students majoring in the sciences. Other land-grant institutions had already responded, and Iowa State, Hilton insisted, “can do no less than this.” Already, it was “the only four-year institution in the state of Iowa which does not now offer a major in English.” English and speech, and modern languages, were basic disciplines and well within ISU’s traditional responsibilities. The closest that President Hilton came to any sort of esoteric argument was in claiming that at Iowa State these majors would emphasize science and technology, producing in effect a different curriculum than the bachelor of arts programs at a liberal arts college.

In contrast, most of President Hancher’s reasons for opposing the new majors at Iowa State demanded a more ambitious conceptual reach. As he marshaled his objections to the newest item on Hilton’s agenda, Hancher argued again for a holistic view of Iowa higher education instead. If the state had need to expand language programs, in his view the most natural place to do so was at its liberal arts university. Hancher also continued warning that a kind of domino effect would follow from duplication. He proposed that “the pressures for expanding programs into the masters and doctors degrees were natural once undergraduate degrees were established,” no matter how sincere Hilton’s reassurances at the moment. The ultimate result would be, of course, a complete duplicate liberal arts college, dilution of funds, and

The alternative which Hancher outlined was the most challenging of all his ideas, perhaps in any context. He proposed, in effect, transforming the whole prevailing concept of liberal education. Hilton, in order to integrate more humanities into applied science curricula, basically advocated traditional social science and humanities courses with an emphasis on relevance to science; essentially, i.e., to teach liberal arts somewhat more scientifically. Hancher’s solution in turn envisioned teaching sciences much more liberally.

Throughout his career President Hancher thought, spoke, and wrote frequently on the issue of liberal education. By 1960, as Iowa State campaigned for majors in English and speech, etc., he had expanded and refined his thesis that this direct approach was a flawed, peculiarly American model. It was still both costly and elaborate in practice, he argued, while simplistic in its thinking: “a liberally educated man is not produced automatically by the study of any particularly designated subject matter. A liberally educated man is one who, by whichever route he has come, has achieved that breadth of outlook and depth of wisdom which enable him to see life steadily and to see it whole.” Simply assigning students social sciences or humanities requirements, Hancher believed, might only provide a liberal education on paper. “Too often his liberal courses seem an obstacle to be overcome in order to get on with the professional study which is his goal,” he warned.

For his own solution Hancher turned back once more to his studies at Oxford. In his case, studying the history of Roman and English law as part of his primary coursework had opened his eyes to broader views of society and history in general, and—just as important—to how his chosen profession interacted with them. Hancher called for similar integration of liberalizing knowledge and ideas into American professional and science majors’ core curriculum. Warming to his theme, he speculated on the likely product of Hilton’s approach:

The engineer is not made a liberally educated man merely by adding Chaucer to Engineering Drawing. … Indeed if the engineer learns his Chaucer only because it is an obstacle to be overcome, he may well end up by becoming a pedant both in Chaucer and in Engineering Drawing. On the other hand, if his Engineering Drawing is so taught that it opens his eyes to the civilizations it has served and to the social utility out of which it has come, how can he escape becoming a more liberally educated man?

Again Hancher took an instinctively holistic view. Think beyond assembly-line curriculum models, he urged, think beyond trying to solve every institution’s problems within that institution, think beyond the way things happen to be done in our culture and look further afield. It was heady stuff, admirable for a leader of higher education. It was also, however, an awkward pitch to offer the bureaucratic system that was the presidents’ most important audience. Hancher’s own ideas were complex, in their demand for imagination and different perspectives. The complexity which he also perceived in Hilton’s approach was, however, the sort with which bureaucracy is most comfortable; if it was in some sense elaborate it could be diagrammed, and if it was costly the costs could be calculated with formulae.

For the Board of Regents, then, President Hilton’s request was at least straightforward in and of itself. But Hilton was making that request within a larger context. In that fuller context his pursuit of this modest, simple proposal led onto narrow, tricky paths.

To be continued in Hancher vs. Hilton: Iowa’s Rival University Presidents.

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