The Canadian accent may have seemed out of place among the state's rural farm people, but the charismatic sermons on soil erosion and man's responsibility to nature never failed to inspire Tennesseans to heed the exhortations and warnings of Harcourt A. Morgan, who served UT first as director of the Agricultural Experiment Station, then as dean of the College of Agriculture, and later as thirteenth president of the University. Morgan's tenure at the Experiment Station followed the departure of Charles Dabney and continued the former president's legacy of strengthening UT's position among the state's population and within the state's political establishment.
Born August 31, 1867, in Kerwood, Ontario, Canada, John Harcourt Alexander Morgan received his B.S. degree from the Ontario Agricultural College at Guelph in 1889 and later did graduate work during the summers at Cornell University and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. After graduation Morgan moved south to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to become professor of entomology and horticulture at Louisiana State University. Any reservations southerners may have held about this "foreigner" in their midst were put to rest soon enough when he tackled the farm evils of cattle tick and boll weevil. His experiments with cotton cultivation enabled agricultural scientists to determine how the boll weevil migrated and pointed toward eventual solutions like crop dusting and planting early varieties of cotton.
In 1904 UT elected Brown Ayres to succeed Dabney as president. Ayres moved to Knoxville from Tulane University in New Orleans, where he had become familiar with Morgan's work in attacking Louisiana's farm problems. In late 1904, the Canadian-turned- adopted-southerner accepted a position as professor of entomology and zoology and director of Tennessee's Agricultural Experiment Station, later recalling that he came because he was impressed with Ayres's vision of UT's role as the state university. Morgan found himself in a state divided politically along lines solidified during the Civil War. Descendants of West and Middle Tennessee cotton planters still resented eastern hill farmers who had eschewed the Confederate cause and remained loyal to the Union. The division had grown so bad that some West and Middle Tennesseans had demanded the relocation of either the University or the College of Agriculture to Nashville. Ayres and Morgan agreed that UT should take responsibility for blunting these political boundaries and bringing the state together, with Morgan serving as the point man in UT's efforts.
Before the establishment of the Agricultural Extension Service in 1914, the primary contact between the state and its farmers was Tennessee's commissioner of agriculture, who held regular "farmers' institutes," in which experiment station and UT agricultural college staff played a large role. In addition to these institutes, Morgan and Ayres also organized their own tours, offered short courses for farmers, and produced exhibits that included special crops, purebred dairy and beef cattle, Percheron draft horses, and registered swine.
Morgan utilized local politics to benefit UT's cause, selecting county seats for these tours and short courses. Local officials were allowed to take credit for the agricultural exhibits, which proved increasingly popular with farmers. In turn, those same officials began to look more favorably on the University. Within two years of Morgan's arrival in the state in 1905, West Tennessee farmers demanded and won legislative approval for their own branch experiment station. Governor Malcolm Patterson asked Morgan to help select a site, and the first station outside of Knoxville opened near Jackson in 1907.
Morgan felt most at home among farmers, all of whom came to respect and admire, if not love, this scholar who dressed as they did and talked their language and who always seemed to have their best interests at heart. At times, he acted almost like a tent-meeting revival evangelist, with his arms waving and his message captivating his listeners, Morgan's sermons stressed man's duty to protect the land, to save the environment for future generations, and to realize the interrelationship and unity possible amid the diversity found in humankind and in nature. This concept of "oneness of the universe" became known as Morgan's "common mooring" philosophy, which was to help man "understand his place, feel his responsibilities, and know his importance in the eternal plan." If one part of nature were overemphasized, an unnatural imbalance would occur, thus creating the possibility of disaster.
Morgan's "lessons" also stressed the need to make farming profitable in the present. To protect against potential environmental disaster, Morgan urged hill farmers not to plant corn on slopes and to improve gullied and eroded pastures with lime and phosphate. He showed them how winter cover crops and grasses, clovers, and legumes could prevent the damage caused by soil erosion. With an amazing array of charts and diagrams, he showed how Tennessee's fifty-two inches of rainfall a year tore away topsoil and moved it down slopes and into nearby streams. Such a downpour represented six thousand tons of water drenching each acre of unprotected land. To one of Morgan's former students this agricultural philosophy was "nothing but agronomic horse sense, but it sound[ed] like religion when the Doc talk[ed] it and the farmers ate it up."
Tennessee's farmers admired Morgan for his selfless concern for their interests. On one occasion, a group of farmers got together and bought him a Model T so Morgan could visit in the field more often and more easily. He declined the well-intentioned but expensive gift. Later, he refused to allow himself to be nominated for governor of Tennessee, even though the state's farmers surely would have sent him to the capitol as their man. "Why, I'd rather have gotten me a tin bill and pecked dirt with the chickens the rest of my life," he responded. "If I'd accepted, they'd have said, `So that is what he's been playing for all the time. Just another educator-politician.'"
Even though he did not become a candidate himself, Morgan was not without political influence. As early as 1915, supporters of the University urged UT to ask the state for the school's first $1 million appropriation. President Ayres balked at the certain formidable opposition, but Morgan, then dean of the College of Agriculture, took it upon himself to convince a skeptical Governor Tom Rye of the need for the money. In 1917 Morgan entered Rye's office and locked the door behind him. Morgan persuaded the governor with assurances of the political prestige such legislation would lend to Rye's administration. Later that year, an enthusiastic governor signed legislation that authorized a $1 million bond issue for construction at UT and a permanent property tax.
Morgan also found his powers of political persuasion useful after he succeeded Ayres as UT president in 1919. Upon hearing a campaign speech unfavorable to UT from gubernatorial candidate Austin Peay, Morgan invited Peay to campus hoping to change his mind. Before his visit, Peay had been coached and prompted by an unfriendly University critic. The candidate entered the president's office, announced that he had but twenty minutes, and rattled off a series of questions irrelevant to UT's present or future status. Morgan interrupted the would-be governor and called Peay's hand, "Mr. Peay, have you a typewritten copy of these questions?" Flustered by the implicit accusation, Peay's manner softened and Morgan was able to sell him on UT. Peay stayed all day and finally left a converted man. He announced to the president, "I have made three speeches in three counties. I am going to return to those counties and change my statement with reference to the University." Peay and Morgan remained lifelong friends, and Peay as governor became one of UT's strongest supporters.
As president, Morgan repeatedly emphasized UT's role in statewide affairs. In his first report to the trustees on July 21, 1919, Morgan pointed out that the extension work of the University had become so widespread and so important that it rivaled the resident teaching mission of the institution. Coining a phrase that he was to use often thereafter (with only some variant language), Morgan argued that "the entire state is its campus," with farms, factories, schools, and homes included in the University's services and responsibilities. Ten years later he was still preaching the message that "The Campus is the State" and that the University existed to serve the citizens and the government of Tennessee. The logical corollary of this proposition was that UT could not fulfill its role as "the vital center of the state's prosperity" until it received additional funds and continued to expand.
As governor, Peay proved to be a helpful ally. In 1925 he persuaded the legislature to appropriate over $1 million for capital expenditures at the University, and two years later, he managed to get $2.5 million more for similar purposes. The money made possible the construction of eleven new buildings, six of them on the Knoxville campus. The University continued to receive generous support for construction under Peay's successor, Henry Horton, but the stock market crash of 1929 and the depression that followed ended the state's bounty. However, before Morgan's term as president ended, the Knoxville campus had also added an engineering building and two women's dormitories, as well as Shields-Watkins football field.
Morgan's political savvy and concern for the financial fortunes of the University led him to exercise caution with respect to those issues which he publicly supported or opposed. In 1925 the Tennessee legislature passed a bill forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools. Many people believed that because of his statewide popularity, UT's president could have influenced the debate and prevented the act from becoming law. Morgan feared, however, that a public stance one way or the other would jeopardize legislative funding for the University. In fact, despite his personal reservations about the legislation, Morgan decline to take a public stand in order to protect Peay's educational legislative agenda, an important provision of which provided more than $1 million for UT. Two years earlier, Morgan had declined to intervene in the dismissal of seven UT faculty members, despite his own reservations about the propriety of the actions, because he did not want to come into open conflict with the deans who had recommended the action.
In May 1933, as part of his New Deal program, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Roosevelt appointed Arthur E. Morgan as the agency's first chairman and stipulated that the other board members should include one person familiar with electric power and another with southern agriculture. Harcourt Morgan's experience in the region gave him a clear vision of what the Tennessee Valley's farmers needed from TVA and made him the logical choice to fill the seat designated for the agricultural specialist. As dean of the College of Agriculture and UT president, he had become extraordinarily popular with the state's agricultural population. In addition, he was the consensus choice of many officials nationwide. During World War I he had served as Tennessee's Food Administrator, and in 1927 he had been elected president of the Association of Land Grant Colleges and Universities.
Morgan took a leave of absence from UT in 1933, but a year later he resigned in order to remain with TVA. During his fifteen years on TVA's board, three as chairman, Morgan never forgot the importance of "resources, both natural and human, in their ecological relationships." His "grass roots" struggle always was to protect the land and those people who depended on it for their livelihoods. While at TVA, he emphasized the need for the federal agency to work closely with local and state organizations and assumed primary responsibility for assuring Tennessee farmers that the authority would be a blessing and not a bane. He also continued to carry the message of scientific agriculture to the region's farmers, seeking to persuade them that soil-enriching legumes were more important to the land than cash crops like tobacco and cotton.
In 1937 the University of Tennessee paid tribute to the man who had wheedled large sums of money from a usually tight-fisted legislature and who had strengthened the bonds between the University and the state's farmers. The trustees renamed the main building on the agricultural campus in Morgan's honor. On this occasion, no less a figure than the president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, praised Morgan for the "rare vision . . . energy, enthusiasm and great capacity for work" that made him "one of the most useful of our public servants." Roosevelt predicted that "generations yet unborn will reap the harvest of your sowing."
Morgan died on August 25, 1950, a little more than three years after retiring from TVA. Newspapers from the New York Times to the Knoxville Journal echoed Roosevelt's sentiments and lauded Morgan for his "one great ambition . . . to make the land of the Tennessee Valley green and fruitful, producing better and more abundant harvests and more happiness for the people who live in it." At UT, Morgan Hall remains a tribute to the thirteenth president's career, but so does the continuing concept that the state is the University's campus, an idea which Harcourt A. Morgan made a centerpiece of his administration.