A Man of Discipline
President David Bates Douglass brought a new dimension to the Kenyon experience
In 1841, Major David Bates Douglass swooped down on Gambier like Moses bearing the Ten Commandments from the mountaintop. He was the first layman to assume the presidency of Kenyon College, and he was an old friend of Bishop of Ohio Charles Pettit McIlvaine, from the days when Douglass was a professor and McIlvaine the chaplain at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. For some years the bishop, while president of Kenyon ex officio, had ceded much of the administration of the College to a vice president. McIlvaine had tried to get Douglass to fill that office, but the major, a civil engineer of some repute, was too involved in projects in and around New York City. But now Kenyon had been reorganized, the vice president (the somewhat troublesome Professor William Sparrow) was gone, and the bishop could offer Douglass the office of president.
McIlvaine had struggled through the 1830s to keep the fledgling institutions in Gambier alive while also tending to the affairs of his diocese and raising funds during long trips to the East. Douglass, who had sent two sons to be educated at Kenyon, must have known that all the institutions in Gambier were in financial difficulty, but he may not have realized what a mess awaited him. It wasn't just a matter of physical decay. Even pampered sons of wealthy families might see the fun in the rough circumstances of their daily life. Henry Winter Davis, recalling the winter he spent in a dormitory built of unseasoned wood, wrote, "No fire would keep the room warm; our blankets were hung round the fireplace to break the force of the wind, and vast piles of wood blazed in perpetual sacrifice to the cold god who would not be appeased. . . . Such a life was healthy, and to young men of sixteen not unpleasant." They could look forward to moving into Old Kenyon eventually. There the walls needed replastering and repapering, but at least the wind wouldn't whistle through. The grounds were even more unkempt, for they had never been properly designed in the first place. Paths wound every which way, skirting woodpiles and rubbish heaps.
It was a sad comedown from the natural beauty that had first attracted Philander Chase to the place, and it had its echo in the downward slide of the faculty. Gone were Bache, Buckingham, and Sparrow, the professors of Davis's time "who would have graced any university of Europe." Benjamin F. Bache, professor of chemistry, was a man of great learning who went on to run a laboratory for the U.S. Navy for many years. To replace him, Bishop McIlvaine hired a country doctor from the local area to teach chemistry in his spare time. Similar changes in other departments had seriously undermined the academic atmosphere.
Underenrollment was also a concern; with fifty-plus undergraduates, Kenyon was running far below capacity. Debts to local creditors were piling up, and the diocese had not been able to keep up with the interest payments on a very large loan, much less put anything aside for payment of the principal, which would fall due in a few years.
While they might well wish for more tuition-paying students, faculty members had their hands full with those already in residence. The very isolation that was supposed to serve as a protective moat, guarding young men from evil, made room for mischief that could not have been perpetrated on a more urban campus. Students were allowed to have firearms in their possession as a matter of course, and occasionally a fellow got carried away and did something foolish, like firing his gun inside a College building. The undergraduates delighted in stealing off in the night to start fires in the woods or to pull off some prank involving cows or horses. Such misconduct did not present a serious problem. But a perusal of the faculty minutes, where many infractions are recorded, makes one wonder if a serious problem was developing. Certain names become familiar; some students were censured again and again. If they were so determined to misbehave, why on earth were they at Kenyon, with its exceedingly strict code of behavior? Could it be that the College was gaining a reputation as a good place for parents to send sons who were out of control?
Kenyon students were ambivalent about the man from West Point. "He doubtless means very well in all he attempts, but from an authoritative manner acquired in the army, he is becoming somewhat unpopular among the students," young Rutherford B. Hayes of the Class of 1842 wrote to his mother a few months after Douglass's arrival. "Three foolish freshmen got into a little trouble with him. One was dismissed, and the other two left in disgust, expressing a profound contempt for the president, faculty, and all concerned."
The president soon made it clear that rules were to be obeyed, or else. But there also seemed to be a more sinister change in the air. As Hayes wrote, Douglass was "rather hard [even] on those who are disposed to conduct themselves properly." It began to seem that students were considered guilty until proved innocent.
If the students began to feel that spies were everywhere, the livestock that wandered about were also noticing a change in the atmosphere. Douglass had his eye on those cows and hogs. He got the faculty to back him up in putting pressure on the College agent, and before long the battle was taken all the way up to the trustees. The board resolved that anyone who couldn't keep his animals "from roaming at large on the college grounds" would be removed. This was a serious threat, involving loss of home and livelihood for any villager who didn't comply. The major, among his many talents, had some skill in landscape design. He had a vision for the Kenyon campus, and domestic animals were not in the picture.
Douglass introduced to the College a system of "patronage," which many institutions were adopting at the time. Each student was to be assigned a person to whom "he is at liberty, and is particularly requested, to apply, as to a friend, whenever his inclination or circumstances may lead him to seek advice or information on any subject connected with his academic standing and pursuits, or with his personal welfare." Kenyon would also start awarding honors at graduation, as well as medals to the best scholars in each class.
While students and alumni might best know Douglass as the man who started the Matriculation Book, that was only a refinement of existing policy. For years, all students had been kept on probation for twenty weeks after their arrival. The major added ceremony and gravity to the end of the probationary period. Once a student had signed his name in the matriculation book, if he broke any of the rules to which he had pledged himself he could be downgraded from matriculation. This was to be a new sort of moral restraint, and it was needed.
Despite these innovations, the students seemed to be more rebellious than ever. It was not unusual at that time for a class to petition the faculty, asking to be excused from an examination. The request was sometimes granted, if the class was exceptionally well prepared in the subject. In March 1842, the senior class asked that they be excused from their chemistry exam. For whatever reason, the faculty was not in a forgiving mood. When their request was denied, the seniors responded by not showing up for the exam. The faculty voted to degrade the entire senior class from matriculation. The students must have come around, because the minutes of the faculty meeting one week later record the fact that the seniors had passed their examination in chemistry. This rebellion soon proved to be just a warmup.
That same spring, the board of trustees decided to change the College calendar, reducing the vacation at the Christmas holidays from one week to two days. Their reason for doing this is unclear. It doesn't appear that the faculty requested the change; whether they favored it is a mystery. But there is no mystery about the students' reaction. When the bell rang for the first class on December 26, they simply didn't appear. The faculty came down hard on this insurrection and immediately dismissed one third of the student body.
As it happened, a meeting of the board was imminent. The board endorsed the faculty's action in the Christmas rebellion and also approved a new academic calendar. With this change, which was requested by the faculty, the students would in future enjoy two weeks vacation over the holidays. After New Year's Day 1843, most of the students who had been dismissed were ready to acknowledge their transgression, and they were readmitted.
Douglass's administration had weathered these storms, but clouds still lingered on the horizon. In Kenyon's constitution, the College's president was expressly forbidden to have a seat on the board of trustees. During the first eighteen months of the major's tenure, the board did not once meet in Gambier, and there was very little opportunity for Douglass even to become acquainted with the trustees. He became increasingly frustrated by this lack of access. "As Engineer of a public work I was never a member of the Board of Directors or Commissioners--but they would as soon have thought of transacting business in the street as of doing so without my being present," he wrote to the one board member who was also a friend.
At about this same time, Douglass began to feel that the bishop was becoming less friendly. There had been some unfortunate misunderstandings, and the major was trying hard not to antagonize McIlvaine, who was much distressed by the need to raise money.
Near the end of Douglass's third year, Bishop McIlvaine summoned the trustees for a special meeting to look into financial concerns. The institution--preparatory schools, college, and seminary--had survived the crisis, thanks to the donations the bishop had secured, but enrollment still languished, and in the lower schools which "fed" the College, the numbers were steadily falling. The trend was alarming. The trustees assembled in Gambier, divided into subcommittees, and set about to interview all the officers of the constituent institutions. In a matter of a few hours, they thought they had gotten to the roots of the problem: the fees at the senior preparatory school were too high, and President Douglass was unpopular. The major, who had no idea what was afoot, was stunned when a professor came to him that evening to warn him that the board was preparing to ask for his resignation.
Douglass was not about to leave without a fight. He let the board know that resignation was out of the question, but the trustees proceeded to request it and to offer Douglass the opportunity to defend himself. "When I am called in question for any official misconduct, or impropriety of any kind, I shall be ready to respond to it in a proper manner," the major replied. In the face of Douglass's steadfast refusal to resign, the board passed a resolution dissolving his "connexion" with Kenyon.
Barely able to comprehend what had happened, Douglass packed up his family and his belongings and departed from Gambier. How could he explain the fact that his old friend McIlvaine had not spoken even one word in his defense? The conviction grew in his mind that the bishop had plotted against him, and after some months Douglass published a statement, more than twenty pages long, telling the story of his removal and defending his government of the College. He pointed out that in disciplinary matters he had simply acted as a responsible parent; naturally he had at times been unpopular. He claimed that the well-being of the preparatory schools was no concern of his. If he truly believed this, he was deluding himself. Nonetheless, Douglass succeeded in making it appear that the board might have trumped up the popularity issue because they didn't dare name the real reason for firing him, which was that he had opposed Bishop McIlvaine once too often. The trustees responded with forty-plus pages of their own, often vindictive and highly personal. This elicited another statement from Douglass, which ran to nearly seventy pages.
Douglass's belief that he couldn't be fired for anything short of gross misconduct was probably wrongheaded. And surely he knew that Bishop McIlvaine had always managed to finesse any legal problems when he wanted to clear away professors or trustees who troubled him. The bishop felt that it was his right; in private letters he exulted over his success.
Still, one is left with an uneasy feeling about this whole affair. Douglass may have been fired not because of any defect in his administration but because he had blundered onto the battlefield of high-church/low-church politics. By the 1840s, the Oxford Movement in England had polarized Episcopalians in America. Charles Pettit McIlvaine, long recognized as guardian of the low-church evangelical school, had become a conspicuous leader in the fight over the very soul of the church. In 1843, Douglass was a delegate to the convention of the Diocese of Ohio, and there he had exposed himself as possibly a bit soft on popery. At that convention, the diocese broke new ground when it criticized the bishop of another state. The provocation was this: Bishop Onderdonk of New York had ordained a certain Arthur Carey, even though Carey showed a clear tendency to lean toward the teachings of the Church of Rome. The Ohio convention passed resolutions that were, in effect, a condemnation of Onderdonk.
At this same time, the institutions in Gambier were drowning in debt. McIlvaine attributed his success in raising the funds that averted the financial crisis to the impression the diocese made with that action in 1843. "It was taken for granted that, in a diocese so unanimous against the new form in which Popery is seeking admission among us, the utmost pains would be taken to keep its college and theological seminary free from all taint of that lamentable disease of mind," McIlvaine reported to the convention of 1844. By that time, the president of said college, one of two men who had forced the Carey committee to take a weaker stand for the sake of unanimity, had been fired.
Douglass left Kenyon wounded by his rejection, and yet the physical record of his presence at the College is something that lays a claim on the affections of everyone who visits Gambier. It was he who designed Marriott Park, from Wiggin Street to Old Kenyon. It was he who decreed that there should be a path through the middle of the campus, ten feet wide and lined with trees. He freely gave his own labor to the project and even paid part of the costs from the fees he received as a professor.
There is a touch of irony in this, that what we today call "Middle Path" should bring to mind David Bates Douglass, a man who never hesitated to depart from the middle path in standing firmly for his own beliefs.
Teresa Oden is a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group.
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