Brown Ayres: Twelfth President, 1904-1919

The landmark building on the University of Tennessee-Knoxville campus, Ayres Hall, is named after the twelfth president of the University, Brown Ayres, who made UT a quality university and a true state land-grant institution.

A native Tennessean, Brown Ayres was born in Memphis on May 25, 1856. He received his early education in Memphis and New Orleans and went on to enroll at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. He later transferred to the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, where he received a B.S. in Engineering degree in 1878. Johns Hopkins granted him a fellowship in physics from 1879 to 1880, and by 1888 he had earned his Ph.D. degree from the Stevens Institute.

While in college, Ayres took a special interest in electricity and became personally acquainted with Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. He was offered a position with Bell s infant telephone company but decided to continue his teaching pursuits.

In 1880 Ayres accepted the position of professor of physics and electrical engineering at Tulane University. Shortly afterward, on July 5, 1881, he married Miss Katie A. Anderson, a resident of Lexington, Va. Ayres rose rapidly in rank at Tulane, becoming dean of the College of Technology in 1894 and, in 1900, vice chairman of faculty and dean of the Academic College. In 1904, when elected as the twelfth president of the University of Tennessee, he was serving as acting president of Tulane and had recently declined the presidency of the University of Alabama.

The circumstances surrounding Ayres's appointment are somewhat extraordinary, bordering on the bizarre, and remain a mystery still to today's historians. The offer of the presidency to Brown Ayres was the consequence of the decision by Charles Dabney, UT's president since 1887, to accept the headship of the University of Cincinnati, a decision he announced to the UT Board of Trustees in December 1903. For the next several months, the trustees were busy considering candidates for the vacancy. Among those nominated was Howard Ayers, then president of the University of Cincinnati, whom Dabney was to succeed. The Cincinnatian's name was put forth by two prominent public figures, Judge Horace Lurton, a former justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court and then a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and William Howard Taft, the Secretary of War in Theodore Roosevelt's cabinet. In a curious response to Taft's letter of April 2, 1904, nominating "Dr. Ayers of Cincinnati," Edward T. Sanford, chairman of the UT trustees committee seeking to fill the presidential vacancy, acknowledged receipt of the nomination of Dr. Ayres. Whether this represented a typographical error or whether Sanford confused the two candidates with similar names will never be known. There are no extant trustee records on the subject. That Howard Ayers should not have been given consideration by the trustees after such strong recommendations from Lurton and Taft seems incredible. In any case, on July 20, 1904, a member of the Board of Trustees proposed Brown Ayres for the presidency, and a few weeks later, he was elected unanimously.

To welcome its new president, the University of Tennessee staged its first formal presidential inauguration, complete with parade. Held in Knoxville's Staub Theater in April of 1905, the ceremonies included dignitaries from national, state, and local governments as well as dozens of representatives of universities and colleges.

Presidents Ayres, heading an institution of 729 students and ninety-five faculty (including the medical and dental departments in Nashville), proceeded to make the University of Tennessee a federal land-grant institution and state university in fact as well as in name. Among the many accomplishments of his fifteen-year administration were the following:

1. The College of Liberal Arts was raised in stature to the level of the Agricultural and Engineering Colleges, and the Departments of Law, Medicine, and Dentistry were elevated to colleges.

2. Able faculty and administrators were recruited, including Harcourt A. Morgan to head the Agricultural Experiment Station and later the College of Agriculture.

3. A School of Commerce was created in 1914, headed by Dr. Theodore Glocker.

4. Faculty grew to 312 and the student body to 1,893 by 1918.

5. A separate library building was constructed in 1911, with funds provided by both the state and the Andrew Carnegie Foundation.

6. Academic standards were raised, entrance requirements were stiffened, and the University was recognized by the American Association of Universities and the University of Berlin, demonstrating that a UT degree had attained a level of respectability comparable to that of other universities in the country.

7. The University obtained its first appropriation of approximately $25,000 from the state legislature in 1905.

8. The institution's Board of Trustees, which had previously represented largely East Tennessee, was reorganized to provide for gubernatorial-appointed members from the entire state.

9. Scholarships were provided for each electoral district within the state to attract students outside of the Knoxville area.

10. The Medical and Dental Colleges were merged with the University, removed from Nashville and Knoxville to a permanent campus in Memphis, and given regular appropriations for operation and maintenance.

11. The Agricultural College was strengthened and enlarged to meet the needs of rural families in all parts of Tennessee.

12. The Summer School of the South, which had been initiated in 1902 as a training ground for teachers, became part of the regular University program in 1912.

When Ayres became president, the University was not receiving regular appropriations from the state legislature, and not much was being done by the state to support public education in general. Ayres, working alongside men such as Philander P. Claxton, head of the University's Education Department and soon to become U.S. Commissioner of Education, and Seymour Mynders, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, exerted pressure on legislators to appropriate money for the state university and for all public education, and upon county courts to give local support to their public schools. By 1908, the University was receiving $50,000 annually in state funds.

Perhaps Ayres's most obvious deficiency was in communicating with the people who made up the state legislature. Scholarly and dignified, he lacked the down-to-earth quality necessary to deal with the politicians and the public. Luckily, men like Claxton and Morgan possessed the public relations skills which Ayres lacked and helped produce the results which the University president so ardently sought. With students, faculty, and those in the Knoxville community, however, Ayres was genial and comfortable.

In 1917, the University received its first $1,000,000 state appropriation, and for months Ayres, the trustees, and advisers were busily engaged in planning needed buildings. The construction of a single structure on the summit of "the Hill" was one of Ayres s dreams. This massive new structure would replace three antiquated buildings--West College, Old College, East College--which for almost a century had served as the principal college buildings.

In January 1919, Ayres met with several of the trustees and an architect from Chicago to plan the new buildings, the future Ayres Hall, Morgan Hall, and Jefferson Hall. The actual construction of these buildings, however, was left to others, for Ayres died on January 28, 1919, following a brief illness. His death, due perhaps to a heart attack, at the age of sixty- three was a severe shock to the faculty, students, and Knoxville community.

Ayres acquired many honors during his years of educational service. He received LL.D. degrees from Washington and Lee University (1894), South Carolina College (1905), Tulane University (1905), and the University of Alabama (1916). He served as president of the Association of Colleges and Preparatory Schools of the Southern States (1904-1905), president of the National Association of State Universities (1909-1910), and vice president of the Association of Land-Grant Colleges of the United States (1918), having declined the offer of the presidency. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and he belonged to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, American Physical Society, Association for the Promotion of Engineering Education, Phi Beta Kappa, and Phi Kappa Phi.

Within two years after Ayres's death, the new buildings were finished, and the large new structure on the "Hill," a collegiate Gothic building of brick and cast stone with its clock tower and three-story wings, which Ayres had envisioned, became a reality. Fittingly, the trustees voted to name it "Ayres Hall" in memory of the University s twelfth president. This was done with appropriate ceremony on June 7, 1921. (Ironically, and adding to the confusing circumstances surrounding Ayres's appointment, the dedicatory plaque placed in the building when it opened misspelled Ayres's name as Ayers. The error was rectified on October 14, 1992, when a new plaque with the correct spelling of President Ayres's name was installed and dedicated--in the presence of his family.)

Upon his death, the trustees memorialized his legacy:

For more than fourteen years Dr. Ayres worked unceasingly, with singleminded devotion and greatest success in the task of administering and upbuilding the University. From the beginning he had before his eyes the vision of a great State University, fully equipped in all its departments to minister to the youth of the State according to their several needs, adequately endowed by the State, and serving, in fact as well as in name, as the head of its educational system; and he constantly strove, with all his strength of mind, body, and soul, towards the complete realization of this ideal. Under his wise leadership, and with the aid of the skilled and loyal assistants by whom his hands have been upheld and strengthened, the University has steadily without variableness or shadow of turning, advanced upon its upward path.
[Source: James Riley Montgomery. "The University of Tennessee during the Administration of President Brown Ayres, 1904-1919." M.A. Thesis, University of Tennessee, 1956.]