John Ervin Kirkpatrick and the Rulers of American Colleges

By Timothy Reese Cain and Steven E. Gump

At a special meeting on June 2, 1919, Washburn College president Parley Paul Womer assured his disgruntled faculty that he understood their concerns about his administrative style and his direction of the institution. In announcing forthcoming changes, Womer confirmed that the institution was embarking on a new era of faculty and administrative cooperation—and that faculty must be protected “against wilful and capricious action.” Nine days later, when the Board of Trustees established an advisory committee of faculty and administrators, the board also agreed to appoint a committee to revise the institution’s constitution for the purpose of improving operations and increasing harmony. At the same meeting, without a hearing or faculty consultation, the board dismissed John Ervin Kirkpatrick, a professor of history and political science who was an outspoken critic of the administration. Kirkpatrick’s struggles at Washburn College began a new phase of his academic career—one that resulted in multiple publications critiquing autocratic presidents and external boards of trustees; this career included a second dismissal in violation of his academic freedom and led to his operating Ashland College, an American version of a Danish folk school that allowed him to implement his ideas of resident governance.

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