The first half of Alexander G. Ruthven's presidency was characterized by quiet, yet effective leadership which exercised a stabilizing influence on a campus torn by turmoil prior to Ruthven's presidency. In his unobtrusive way Ruthven reorganized the University administration, instituting "The Michigan System" of vice-presidents with specific areas of responsibility and corresponding authority — the precursor of contemporary university organization. Ruthven also promoted the trend to faculty involvement in academic decision-making at a time when autocratic centralized administration was the accepted standard.
During the 1930s Ruthven was at his best. He instituted a new residential living program for Michigan; he persuaded the legislature to vote sufficient funds for the ongoing support of the Depression-wracked University; he made valiant attempts to "humanize" the University and combat its depersonalizing largeness.
During the first half of his presidency, Ruthven was controlling events and moving the University forward. The faculties had great confidence in his leadership and, as he faced the "40s," President Ruthven had every reason to anticipate golden years of fulfillment for himself and his University.
It was not to be. As the University began the painful process of growth toward a full-fledged multiversity, the President was forced to react to events beyond his control.
Surprisingly, the root of much of Ruthven's distress was the Board of Regents. At the institution of his presidency and throughout the Depression years Ruthven had enjoyed an unusually harmonious relationship with his Board. Long-term regents such as Junius Beal, James Murfin, Dr. Walter Sawyer, Ralph Stone, and Edmund Shields were able, devoted to the University, and cooperative with its president. By 1941, however, new elections had brought to office three regents who questioned Ruthven's authority and sought for themselves a more direct role in University operations. Ruthven referred to his detractors as the Page 2"minority group." The "minority group" wished Ruthven replaced, but could never generate the necessary votes. Much of the history of the University during the 1940s can only be understood in terms of this underlying conflict between the President and the "minority group."
The War years, of course, dominated the latter half of the Ruthven presidency. Ruthven anticipated the War years with genuine dread, for he had been on the Michigan campus during the first World War, when military training units had totally disrupted the academic program and fifty-seven men had died in an influenza epidemic. He determined to do what he could to aid the war effort, while at the same time to preserve the educational integrity of his institution.
The University had had a voluntary ROTC unit since the end of World War I. This unit enrolled about a thousand men and graduated about one hundred commissioned officers a year. In addition, a Civilian Pilot Training Program was established in 1939. Ruthven's determination that new military units not disrupt the campus, however, was evident from the beginning. In April 1939, the Bureau of Navigation proposed to establish an NROTC unit at Michigan. The President consulted with his faculties and replied that the proposal was "deemed inadvisable," for "curricular adjustments are not entirely satisfactory to [the] University and it has been found quite impossible to provide necessary physical facilities." Rear Admiral Chester W. Nimitz received the same reaction when he proposed that Michigan students embark on a thirty-day cruise and then attend a ninety-day Reserve Midshipmen's School, for which University course credit would be given. Nimitz, however, persisted and some units of the University agreed to grant one course credit to the venture.
When Congress, in September 1940, passed a bill requiring compulsory military training, Ruthven told the Centennial Celebration of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts that drafting men out of college was a disservice to democracy. He continued to speak out against conscription and was gratified when General Hershey of the Selective Service issued orders deferring students in certain critical disciplines, such as engineering and chemistry.
Shortly after war was declared, Ruthven established a University "War Board," charged with formulating "plans for the adjustment of the operations of the University to Page 3war demands." The War Board, which consisted of six faculty and administrators, met daily for several months. One of its first innovations was probably its most significant: In order to accelerate its program, the University's calendar was changed to three terms. This plan, first proposed in January, 1941, was subject to considerable skepticism by the deans but was operative throughout the war.
Major new programs were introduced to the campus. Chief among them were the Judge Advocate General's School for military lawyers, and the Army's Japanese Language School. Many of the faculty began to engage in classified research. By the Fall Term, 1942, enrollment for men showed a 17 percent decline, and many of the faculty began to leave for government service. Still, as President Ruthven had hoped, the academic regimen was not appreciably altered, and Michigan continued to function as an institution of higher learning.
By October 1942, critics of Ruthven's position began to be heard. The Michigan Daily published a page-one editorial accusing the administration of insufficient determination in supporting the war effort. The editor urged the students to assume aggressive leadership. A student rally in Hill Auditorium ignited student passions and the campus was "agog with the newly aroused interest in war work."
It was against this background that the October 1942, meeting of the Board of Regents appointed a Regents Committee on War Activities, with Regent Lynch serving as Secretary. The Board committee demanded a complete survey of the activities of the University War Board. The committee joined the Daily in suggesting that the University should adopt an uncompromising "win the war" attitude.
Following the October Regents' meeting a petition was circulated among the faculty. This petition supported the Regents' attitude and condemned the University administration for failing to give wholehearted support to the war effort. Over 150 faculty members signed the petition and when it was presented to President Ruthven he signed it too, saying "any loyal American would be glad to sign it."
President Ruthven remained calm during this hubbub, for he apparently believed that any investigation would reveal a program of full University cooperation with the war effort. The state press, usually sympathetic to Page 4Ruthven, sprang to his defense, and the University War Board drew up a 124-page document detailing its extensive activities. The latter document apparently placated the Regents' War Committee.
Throughout the war students rallied to the cause. A Student War Board was established; it, in turn, established the Manpower Mobilization Corps, which directed war projects for men students. The Corps sponsored groups to pick apple and sugar beet crops, organized scrap salvage drives, and helped the Building and Grounds department dismantle two thirty-five ton steam boilers for shipment to an east coast naval arsenal.
Women students volunteered for service at University Hospital and St. Josephs' Mercy Hospital, sold war stamps and bonds, and made surgical dressings and bandages.
Over 32,000 Michigan students served in the armed forces, and 520 of them died. In all, the Regents granted leaves to 223 faculty members for government service. Much of the classified research at the University was later cited as instrumental in winning the war. At war's end President Ruthven had the satisfaction of knowing that the University had made a major contribution to the national defense, while simultaneously preserving its basic reason for existence.
Compounding President Ruthven's difficulties during the latter half of his presidency were long-standing conflicts with a few student activists. Ruthven, in common with most University administrators of his time, regarded most students with paternalistic affection. When his "children" disobeyed his wishes, he did not hesitate to discipline them. In 1935 he had summarily dismissed from the University four student activists and, in 1940, twelve more student activists were not permitted to re-enroll in the fall term.
In addition to sporadic conflicts with student activists, President Ruthven was frequently nettled by the editors of The Michigan Daily. He made numerous attempts, through the Board in Control of Student Publications, to squelch the Daily's editors but, to his chagrin, he was never able to resolve the "annoying" problem of the Daily.
One major innovation of Ruthven's postwar presidency ended in disarray. In October and November of 1943, Dr. Page 5Ruthven was invited by the British Ministry of Education to visit embattled England. There, he noted, the fighting men would meet regularly to discuss their role in postwar Britain.
Upon his return to Ann Arbor Ruthven urged that the University sponsor a program of adult education aimed at providing courses which would make blue-collar workers better citizens. The University, through Charles Fisher, Director of the Extension Service, and Howard McClusky, who headed the University's adult education program, proposed a "Workers' Education Service." The program, funded initially by a state appropriation, was to be run by the University in conjunction with labor leaders from the Congress of Industrial Organization and the Michigan Federation of Labor.
The Workers' Education Service (WES) was well-received by the workers in industrial Michigan but was opposed by management. Consequently there was a well-orchestrated campaign which discredited the entire WES program and eventually resulted in its demise. It was a sad conclusion to Ruthven's noble experiment. In his "random reminiscences" the Michigan President noted that the University had yielded to external pressures "for the first time in the history of the institution."
The demise of WES came at a time of rapid change on the campus itself. The crises of World War II were over but, as an aging President, Ruthven faced the inevitable postwar adjustments. He found that his administrative team was no longer intact. Retirement claimed Vice-President James Bruce in 1942 and Vice-President Shirley Smith in 1945. Vice-President C. S. Yoakum was asked to devote his full time to being Dean of the Graduate School. E. Blythe Stason, the youngster in the group, expressed his wish to become full-time as Law School Dean and surrender his responsibilities as Provost. At War's end Ruthven was himself sixty-three years old.
The President and the Regents began to search for a younger team. In October, 1944, the Regents formed a special committee to "survey … the administrative structure of the University." The committee proposed that the provost should be the key appointment in a new administrative plan. The committee suggested for that post James Adams, a former Michigan economics professor, and at that time, vice-president of Brown University. The committee also suggested that Law School professor Marvin Page 6Niehuss become Vice-President in Charge of University Relations, and it was agreed that he would be a liaison between the legislature and the University. The Regents' committee thought that this plan, with the addition of a business officer to replace Vice-President Smith, "would leave the President in the position of counseling and directing the efforts of these men. It would leave him time to work on the longer-range programs for developing the University."
President Ruthven concurred with these suggestions, and appeared pleased when Adams, Niehuss, and Robert P. Briggs (Vice-President for Business and Finance) accepted the proffered appointments.
At about the same time two crucial deanships were filled. Hayward Keniston of Romance Languages replaced the retiring dean of the Literary College, Edward Kraus, and physicist Ralph Sawyer replaced C. S. Yoakum, who died very soon after accepting the full-time deanship of the Rackham School of Graduate Studies.
Ruthven felt strongly that the University's enrollment should not exceed 17,000 students. His mind was constantly grappling with the problem of the University's optimum size. Yet, despite the President's desires, the crush of returning veterans, the expanding population, and the growing significance attached to higher education forced student enrollments to almost 28,000 by 1950.
Ruthven was suspicious of government research, for he feared that it would ultimately lead to federal control. Furthermore he foresaw a problem for the University if federal projects were not continuously funded. If projects were discontinued or even temporarily halted, the faculty attracted to Ann Arbor by these projects would have to be assimilated into the regular Michigan faculty. Again, despite the President's reservations, research on the campus blossomed, and by 1951 government and industry were spending over $3.1 million a year on sponsored research at the University of Michigan.
The Regents began to talk of a University fundraising program in the hopes of undertaking special projects which would not be otherwise possible. President Ruthven was skeptical. Nevertheless, a development program was begun, and Ruthven found himself the Honorary Chairman of the Mortimer E. Cooley Foundation and, later, the chief spokesman for the University's Phoenix Project, Page 7a $6.5 million endeavor aimed at exploring the peaceful uses of atomic energy.
Ruthven was a remarkably effective president for the majority of his twenty-two years. He served the University longer than any other president except Angell, and his service spanned what was probably the most trying period in the University's history.
Unquestionably, Michigan progressed during his tenure. In 1929, student enrollment stood at approximately 13,000; by 1951 it was almost 30,000. The libraries in 1929 contained 718,425 volumes; by 1951 the number had increased to 1,472,837. The faculty had grown to over 1,300 by 1951, almost double the 1929 figure of 804. Endowment funds had increased to over $20 million, approximately five times the less than $4 million endowment when Ruthven took office. Ruthven's presidency oversaw construction of the Law Quadrangle, Burton Tower, Rackham Graduate School, Health Service, Administration Building, School of Business Administration, new athletic facilities, and a number of residence halls. Building assets during the Ruthven reign increased from over $30 million to over $90 million. The annual appropriation from the State Legislature was three times as large in 1951 as in 1929. It has been recorded that Ruthven's administration, like that of President Marion Burton, was characterized by unusual financial generosity to the University.
As the Ruthven era at Michigan drew to its conclusion, however, the President appeared more and more the titular leader of the University. Instead of the usual weighty problems of University administration, much of his correspondence dealt with requests for better housing, responses to friends and prospective donors, admission of out-of-state students, and other problems essentially of a public relations nature.
The times were beginning to pass the President by. He was ready for retirement when it came in 1951. His tenure of office had been the second longest in Michigan's history and, upon retirement, he had more years of service than any other active state university president. President Ruthven died on January 19, 1971.