Lost Chapter of Iowa-ISU Feud Revealed in ‘Hancher vs. Hilton’


Conflict between Iowa’s largest universities alternately heats up and cools off. Between 1934 and 1977 the University of Iowa suspended athletic contests with Iowa State, and seemingly sent rivalry into a deep freeze for decades. Yet it’s amid these years that Matt Kuhns’s new book Hancher vs. Hilton recounts a series of fiery battles away from the playing fields, for far bigger prizes than any trophy.

In the late 1950s the presidents of Iowa State and the U of I began a several-year feud which shaped both institutions, and higher education in Iowa generally. The University of Iowa’s Virgil Hancher and Iowa State’s James Hilton fought about on-campus curriculum and off-campus extension programs. They fought over money, inevitably. Above all, they fought over what form higher education in Iowa ought to have, and whether Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts should expand into a full competing university.

Hilton’s Iowa State won that particular campaign, obviously, but the story of how it and other arguments played out is rich with detail. Hancher and Hilton clashed publicly more than once, but much of their conflict took place behind the scenes in remarkably pointed memos and meetings. Kuhns’s book, the product of more than two years’ archival research, explores the missing stories behind headlines which have nearly been forgotten themselves.

In the process, Hancher vs. Hilton reintroduces the fascinating individuals left behind as their names have lived on in concrete. Long before “Hancher” was a performing arts center, Virgil Hancher was a Chicago lawyer with no professional experience in academia, appointed to a university presidency with the help of an old fraternity brother—who somehow forgot to tell colleagues that their nominee was being sued for stock fraud. The namesake of Hilton Coliseum and its signature “Magic” was once a high school dropout, only enrolled at Iowa State courtesy of a wink and a nod. Yet both men went on from compromised beginnings to earn power as well as respect, and establish lasting legacies.

An alumnus of Iowa State, Kuhns presents a portrait of each man which is admiring and candid. He documents Hancher’s triumphs, including saving the U of I medical college from dissolution, and Hilton’s remarkable expansion of Iowa State in the face of suspicious and even hostile legislators. But Kuhns also examines the failures of Hancher’s counteroffensive, as well as missteps by Hilton that verged on fiasco.

The result provides opportunities to cheer, and to wince, for everyone. (Even the University of Northern Iowa joins the quarreling more than once.) Iowans, fans, and alumni of all three universities should find ample interest, as should anyone curious to learn just how fierce academic politics gets when it involves the top figures of two rival, public institutions.

Hancher vs. Hilton: Iowa’s Rival University Presidents will be available beginning November 28.

Download this news release as a Microsoft Word document

Return to the top.
Site © Matt Kuhns. www.mattkuhns.com