Charles W. Dabney: Eleventh President, 1887-1904

On May 21, 1935, a ceremony was held on the University campus to name the recently completed Chemistry Building on "the Hill" as Dabney Hall, after the eleventh president of the University, Charles William Dabney. The initiative for the ceremony had come from a committee of the faculty and two deans; they had petitioned the Board of Trustees the previous December to name the building after Dabney in recognition of his role in reorganizing the University and laying "the foundation on which succeeding Presidents have built." The testimonial was a gross understatement of Dabney's role in the history of the institution he had headed for seventeen years. Professor of Electrical Engineering Charles A. Perkins put it more emphatically in his remarks at the chapel assembly in Alumni Hall: "All the later expansion of the University in size and educational leadership has been based on foundations laid by Dr. Dabney." A later historian of the University was even more perceptive in his evaluation of Dabney's achievement: "No subsequent president ever matched the turn-around that Dabney engineered."

The seventy-nine-year-old Dabney was present at the 1935 dedication of the Chemistry Building to hear himself eulogized, but it is not likely that most of the students and faculty in attendance fully appreciated the extent of the "Dabney Revolution." During his administration, the faculty was virtually replaced and then almost doubled in size; the student body was enlarged almost threefold; library holdings increased from eight thousand to nearly twenty thousand volumes. The military regimen that had prevailed on the campus for forty years was ended. Women were admitted; a dean of women was appointed; a law school was created; so was a summer school which turned out to be both a pioneering effort and the largest such institution for the training of teachers in the entire South. The Preparatory Department, which had enrolled more than half the students on the campus, diminished the institution's image, and diverted its energies to secondary school education, was abolished. Enrollment increased from about 400 students in 1887 to 729 in 1904.

Under Dabney's presidency, the University of Tennessee joined with the University of Maine in 1899 to establish a new national honor society, Phi Kappa Phi. Dabney instituted publication of the UT Record. As a result of Dabney's efforts, the state legislature made the first direct appropriation of funds from the state treasury to the University. Dabney found the University little more than an enlarged classical college limited to a half-dozen buildings in poor physical condition and with property valued at slightly more than $130,000; he left it a research institution with new laboratories, dormitories, a gymnasium, and a library--a physical plant worth almost $900,000. A renamed Chemistry Building seemed little enough tribute to the first president of the University with a Ph.D. degree and one of the outstanding educational leaders of his time.

Dabney was thirty-two years old when he assumed the UT presidency in 1887. The institution had been without a head for four years and had been embroiled in controversy between an "old guard" faculty who sought to maintain a classical, literary curriculum and a Board of Trustees that demanded a change in orientation to make the college the agricultural and mechanical institution the federal Morrill Act of 1862 required. Indeed, the state legislature had admonished the University by an official resolution in 1887 that the University's "leading object" was to teach "those branches which relate to agriculture and the mechanical arts." The legislature reminded the faculty bluntly that "other scientific and classical studies" might be included in the curriculum but were "not essential to the leading object prescribed."

Dabney was just the person to give practical effect to the legislative prescription. Fresh from a doctoral degree in chemistry at the University of Göttingen in Germany, he had served as head of the new agricultural experiment station of North Carolina for the past seven years. A staunch southerner and the son of a Presbyterian minister who had served as a chaplain on the staff of Stonewall Jackson, young Dabney differed from his father in his vision of the New South. Robert L. Dabney was embittered by the Confederacy's defeat and was unsympathetic to efforts to improve the lot of the South's black population. By contrast, his son Charles saw the education of all southern children in free, public schools as the South's only salvation. To those like his father who looked back nostalgically to the antebellum years, Dabney responded that the black man was "in the South to stay . . . and the Southern people must educate him or he will drag them down."

The obverse of Dabney's philosophy of education at the lower levels was his insistence that university schooling must prepare young people for an active, not a contemplative, life. He criticized the University of Tennessee as he found it and all the other "old colleges" as places in which knowledge was imparted to the students. In the new university of Dabney's imagination, students would engage actively in learning and would prepare to be not "country gentlemen" but functioning citizens. Dabney would not discard the classics but would include them in his scientific-utilitarian curriculum: "The perfect education is one which tunes every string on each human instrument."

Dabney moved quickly upon assuming the presidency to put his ideas into effect. Convinced that UT had fallen under the control of an "old-fogy" classical-bound faculty, he replaced virtually all of them. Their replacements included a prominent agricultural specialist from Massachusetts, two Cornell graduates, one from Maine, and one each from the Universities of Virginia and North Carolina. Tennessee's governor complained about the large number of "foreigners" appointed to the faculty, but Dabney stuck to his guns. Dabney's next priority was curricular reorganization. All undergraduate academic offerings were subsumed under a "College of Agriculture, Mechanic Arts and Sciences." The terms "classical" and "liberal arts" were dropped, although classical courses were still offered. The new emphasis, however, was on the sciences and engineering.

The new president now moved to attract the appropriate students to the new university. While a few sub-freshmen remained on the campus after the Preparatory Department was eliminated, the students at the University were now bona fide collegians. Dabney also urged state legislators to nominate the best students, whether in their districts or not, for University scholarships. On a personal level, Dabney went out of his way to assist students who were experiencing academic difficulty. He wrote parents who were concerned about their sons' health. After women were admitted, experimentally in 1892 and on a regular basis in 1893, he created the position of dean of women in 1899 to care for their welfare. By the end of Dabney's presidency, Dean Florence Skeffington could report a doubling of the number of women students in the previous four years, the opening of a new women s dormitory, and enthusiastic support from the women of the state. "I am very hopeful for the future," Dean Skeffington concluded in her 1903 report on the Women's Department.

Concurrent with his reorganization of the University, Dabney worked to improve the agricultural experiment station, a role which he had pioneered while in North Carolina immediately prior to his UT appointment. At the same time, Dabney was establishing a national reputation as an expert on agricultural research policy. President Grover Cleveland recognized Dabney's expertise by naming him assistant secretary of agriculture in late 1893. Dabney secured a partial leave of absence from the University for the next four years, agreeing to continue to manage the University's affairs to the fullest extent possible and to be present on the campus at least four times a year. His absence did not halt the forward progress of the University; it simply made Dabney a more visible national figure.

Dabney returned from his Washington experience in 1897 firmly convinced of the need for advancing scientific education if the South was to progress economically; moreover, he was certain that such forward movement depended on the improvement of schooling at the elementary and secondary levels. Dabney became active in a group called the Conference on Education in the South which sought to arouse public interest in improving education in the region. By 1901, Dabney, like others in the movement, decided that the problem was not apathy but poverty. As he put it in his keynote address to the conference that year, "The schools are poor because the people are poor and the people are poor because the schools are poor." Dabney aroused the delegates by his uncompromising exposure of the deficiencies of southern schools.

The result was the formation of the Southern Education Board, with Dabney himself heading its Bureau of Information, the propaganda arm of the board. Its function was to campaign for free schools for all southern children, black and white. During its existence, the board distributed releases to seventeen hundred southern newspapers and also printed thousands of bulletins, articles, and reports. In this effort, Dabney was allied with leading educators and philanthropists, North and South, including George Forbes Peabody, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Robert Ogden.

As part of his effort to raise educational standards, Dabney suggested a summer school for the in-service training of teachers. He persuaded the UT trustees to allow it to use the Knoxville campus for its sessions, and he brought Philander P. Claxton to the campus to head the University's new Department of Education and the new Summer School of the South, which commenced operation on June 19, 1902.

Claxton, a graduate of the University of Tennessee, had an extensive record of teaching and administration. He had been a superintendent of schools in North Carolina and a professor of education at the North Carolina State Normal College. Like Dabney, Claxton was a staunch advocate of improved public education for whites and blacks. As head of the Southern Education Board's Bureau of Investigation and Information--previously headed by Dabney--Claxton carried the crusade for better schools throughout the state of Tennessee. The Summer School of the South was one of the means Dabney and Claxton employed to achieve their goals. Their success was spectacular. They expected about three hundred students to enroll in the program when it began; more than 2100 individuals from thirty-one states attended. Until its demise in 1918, the Summer School of the South brought advanced instruction in pedagogy and academic subjects to some thirty-two thousand teachers.

Dabney's zealous advocacy of increased expenditures for public education and especially his support for the schooling of black children did not receive universal approval in Tennessee, and the trustees of the University reflected those public attitudes. Indeed, some of the trustees resented Dabney's involvement in educational concerns beyond the limits of the University's presidency. Disappointed, Dabney decided to resign. When the University of Cincinnati offered him its presidency in 1904, at a large increase in salary, he accepted.

Dabney s departure meant the removal from the University of an educational leader of national prominence who had received honorary doctorates from Davidson College, Johns Hopkins University, and Yale University, who had served as vice president of the National Education Association, and who was to acquire additional distinction as president of the University of Cincinnati for sixteen years (1904-1920) and as the author of a major work, Universal Education in the South (1936). The UT faculty were more appreciative of Dabney's achievements, perhaps, than were the trustees. The unanimous resolution of the faculty on June 18, 1904, was one that later generations of UT students, faculty, and administrators might well have seconded:

From an institution of local influence and reputation, the University of Tennessee has assumed the prominence which should rightly be hers, and has acquired a national reputation.
This increase is largely due to the direct or indirect influence of Dr. Dabney, and to his unflagging zeal and wise guidance. The whole result of his labors here has been such as to characterize his administration as a marked success.
In his departure we lose a President who is a leader in the affairs of the University, and in educational movements far beyond our bounds.

Dabney himself once paid tribute to the University of Virginia and to its founder, Thomas Jefferson--whom he regarded as "the greatest seer and prophet the New World ever produced"--by quoting Emerson: "An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man." From 1887 to 1904 and for years beyond at the University of Tennessee, that shadow was Charles W. Dabney.