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5 Ch. 5 - The Sisson Years - 1917 - 1921 by H. G. Merriam

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The following article is an excerpt from The University of Montana - A History, by H. G. Merriam, published in 1970 by the University of Montana Press.


The Sisson Years[1]

1917 – 1921

Richer than any fiscal abundance is the human wealth of the University.

-E. O. Sisson

            Dr. Edward Octavius Sisson was a right type of man to come into disturbed campus conditions and acrimony. The acrimony into which he came had developed from partisanship for and against Dr. Craighead; the disturbance was, of course, World War I. His nature was conciliatory without being compliant. He liked people and cultivated exchange of ideas. In education he believed that the highest type leads a student to think for himself and make a man of himself. A philosopher, he had published a book entitled The Essentials of Character in which he wrote: “Mere knowledge is important for moral ends, but the ideas pointed with emotional warmth and volitional power become ideals that dominate life.” He once said that when seeking new faculty members he was not looking for degrees but for intelligence.

            He was a highly educated and experienced man. He came to Montana in 1917 from a frustrating experience as Commissioner of Education in Idaho. He had taken with honors the B. A. degree in the first graduating class of the University of Chicago, and as a young man had served for seven years as the head of Bradley Institute of Technology, under the friendly eye of President Harper of the University of Chicago. After that administrative work he went to Harvard University and took his Ph.D. degree, headed the Department of Education at the University of Washington for six years, and taught at the newly established Reed College. He was especially welcome to the presidency of the University as a man of the West.[2]

The War and the University

          The United States entered the war, which had begun nearly three years previously, in April, 1917, to “make the world safe for democracy,” or so it was said. After much grumbling about Woodrow Wilson having been elected on the slogan that he had kept us out of the war, the country began to seethe with the passions of a crusade. The war penetrated every aspect of American life. It involved everybody. Youth enlisted for services, women enlisted in nursing and Red Cross work, older men became fire and water guards and sellers of US War bonds. The whole nation was mobilized.

            Hatred for Germans and everything German flamed high. In both schools and colleges the teaching of German was dropped and German books were removed from Library shelves. German university training, so admired and so eagerly sought by American educators in the early nineteen hundreds, became anathema. Anyone urging reason and tolerance toward Germans and the war became suspect as a German sympathizer.

            The war broke out in the time of Professor Scheuch’s presidency and immediately began drawing male students into enlistment in the army or the navy, or the hastily drawn-up draft took them. The draft made a wide sweep, exempting only those male students enrolled in technical studies of military value.

            Dr. Sisson took over presidency in September, six months after war had been declared, when its first impact had passed and the long, hard pull was on. Like many an educator, he had studied in Germany and valued German scholarship. He spoke out for understanding and tolerance. The University set up a public forum at which he and two professors discussed reasonably the war and public relations to it. The community became suspicious and concerned. When a socialist was scheduled to appear at the forum the Missoula County American Defense Society demanded that the forum be discontinued. Rather than precipitate serious trouble for the University the founders closed it. Sometime later a Helena paper ran an editorial under the heading “Soaked in Socialism,” so injuriously attacking the University that the President could not hold his silence. He printed in The Missoulian and published as a pamphlet and distributed a lengthy article defending the University. “Every faculty member is a person,” he wrote, “and a free citizen and may not be nagged, muzzled, or intimidated . . . the University is not and never has been socialistic,” on the contrary, he asserted, like universities everywhere, “this university is conservative in its opinions and its practices.”

            The war of course had been and was heavily upsetting the work and the life of the University. The editor of the 1919 Sentinel thought that on the night of April 6, 1917, the student body became “a group of Americans face to face with a stern reality. No longer could the University be a cloistered and secluded place for retirement . . . without a thought for the future. There were no more nightgown parades, dances, formals, pranks, Singing on the Steps, mandolins and ukuleles, baseball, football.” The rah-rah spirit was gone. In 1917 – 1918, 238 men and 366 women were registered in the University, in the next year 198 men and 326 women. Nearly a dozen faculty men were in war service. Fraternities and sororities became inactive; student activities were either curtailed or turned into war efforts. A student Council of Defense was set up in June, 1918, to assist the State Council in several ways – in increasing agricultural production, in promoting food conservation, in fostering Liberty Loan and War Savings drives, in giving clerical assistance to local Selective Service Boards, in arranging for patriotic addresses and debates, and in maintaining student attendance at the University.

            The Law School was closed from September 1917 to April 1918 – practically every former law student was in active military service and three out of four faculty men were in the military or in civilian government work. The Schools of Pharmacy, Forestry, and Business Administration, which were normally attended by male students, were partially in suspension or were sustained by women students. In 1917 – 1918 Pharmacy enrolled 20 men and 3 women, and in the next year 8 men and 16 women; Forestry dropped to 44 students; Journalism in 1917 – 1918  registered 8 men and 16 women; Law had in the earlier year 59 men and 3 women and in the next year 17 men and 8 women. The study of German was, of course, dropped, and with death of Professor Aber in 1919 Greek and Latin were dropped.[3] The board of Education, economy-minded and thinking to confine instruction to basic fields of study, questioned whether journalism should be taught in a university, but its investigating committee, learning that the school’s purpose was to “make better journalists who will make better newspapers which will better serve the public” reported favorably and journalism was retained. The University community, easily disturbed, was aroused when The Nation was used in a freshman English composition course, but since its liberalism was counterbalanced by use of the conservative Boston Transcript nothing came of its fears.

            The U. S. War Department called on colleges the country over to assist in training men for the army by utilizing their executive and teaching personnel and their physical equipment. The University of Montana responded by throwing its whole energy into the task of setting up the Student Army Training Corps. It was a herculean task. With much difficulty in scraping together of funds[4] a headquarters building for Army officers and two barracks were erected to accommodate 400 students – Simpkins Hall, named after the first student killed in the war, and Marcus Cook Hall, named for the first graduate who lost his life in it.[5] In five months the University spent $120,000 on SATC, more than half its annual budget. Enrolled in SATC were all male students.[6] Under Washington J. McCormick as Commandant setting-up exercises were at seven in the morning, marching drill at four in the afternoon.[7] Every man learned to act as corporal and to use the semaphore and the Morse code.

            When the dreaded influenza epidemic reached the University Simpkins Hall was turned into an infirmary. Regular university work was suspended from October until the first of the next year and students were advised to go home. The faculty helped those students who lived in Missoula or remained on the campus. By the middle of October there were fifty cases of influenza and twenty cases of scarlet fever.

            After the Armistice in 1918 men and women who had seen war service began streaming to the University, either to finish their college work or to begin collegiate study. Their coming necessitated preparation for housing, adjustments in the curricula and addition of courses, the difficult process of fitting these mature students  into university life and work. They who had left the campus as lads returned as men. The president said, “Now we face problems… vast and clouded with doubt, dissensions and manifold complications. Only human intelligence and resolute will can solve them.” He was speaking of the nation’s problems, which were also the problems of students looking toward the future.

            After the Armistice, too, the students energetically began gathering what in campus life had been lost or weakened. By 1921 they had pretty well succeeded. The Sentinel for that year listed the traditions of the University which had been recaptured or revivified, namely, Charter Day, the painting of the “M,” Sneak Day, Aber Day, the tug-of-war over the slough, the May Fete, the ringing of the victory bell, Singing on the Steps. The Interscholastic Meet was also revived. Homecoming was established in 1919. Fraternities and sororities came back to life. A new and able coach, Bernie Bierman, took over football, and though the 1920 team lost to Washington State, Whitman and Idaho it beat Washington 18-14, with Harry Adams the star. The Art Department held an exhibit of 50 paintings by the President’s wife. Drama was stressed with the appointment of Alexander Dean as director and coach.[8] The first production in English anywhere in the world of the Russian Leonid Andreyev’s “He Who Gets Slapped” was produced by the Masquers in the old Liberty Theater with Maurice Browne and Ellen van Valkenburg, of Chicago Little Theater fame, in the leading roles.

            A class in creative writing, opened in the fall of 1919, inaugurated in the following May a literary magazine, supervised by a professor of English. The first issue was entitled “The Montanan”  but the editors began scurrying about for another title when they discovered that the State College annual bore that name, and came up with “The Frontier.” Edited and published by the students of the class, it brought to the University excellent publicity and respect. It bore on its masthead Thoreau’s wise saying, “The frontiers are not east or west, north or south, but wherever a man fronts a fact.”

            In the country from coast to coast the Lawless Decade of the 1920’s was on its way, but reached the campus of the University late. The sheer exuberance of the postwar years that was carrying the actions of the American people to extremes, also came late to the University. Principally, it showed in an attempt of students to act sophisticated. Varsity Vodvil, for instance, staged a social Greenwich Village scene as Montanans thought it was. The fuller effects of the Lawless Decade, however, arrived during the years of Dr. Clapp.

            As other phases of life were running to the excessive so Montana politics were running true to the form, the “Company” (The Anaconda Copper Mining Company, often known as the Amalgamated) pretty much dictating them. The Company owned and of course controlled most of the daily newspapers in the larger towns of the State. Its thought and action, since it was capitalistic, were conservative, at times repressive. Newspaper policy and editorials, therefore, issued from Butte. This Company influence hung over the University administrators and, to a lesser extent, over faculties, and, together with the heavy patriotism of the State Council of Defense and the fevered emotions of the public, made life in those troubled years guarded and insecure. This is not the atmosphere in which a university develops well, but strong men make of such a condition a challenge to independence and through exercise of that quality foster development. Fortunately, there were strong men on the University faculty.

            The administration and the leaders of the faculty experienced the “Company” influence in 1918-1919. Dr. Louis Levine, a professor of Economics at the University, attended a tax conference in Lewistown in March, 1918, where he was scheduled to talk on tax administration. He was asked by the committee of Conference to talk, instead, on mine taxation, which he did. The subject attracted him and he conceived of a series of monographs on taxation, to be published by the University, which appealed to him so strongly in April that he proposed such a project to President Sisson and Chancellor Elliot. Both men approved of the project. Dr. Levine made a study of mine taxation in which it became clear that the mining industries of Montana were not paying their share of taxes in the State. The Chancellor read the study and pronounced it “a conspicuous piece of work.” At a conference of the Chancellor, the President and the Professor it was decided to set the study in type to await the approval of Governor Stewart. If the Governor did not approve, Dr. Levine would publish the study. By November, however, the Chancellor came to doubt the propriety, or the wisdom, of publishing it. The Legislature was to meet in January, 1919, and the people were to vote in November, 1920, on a mill tax for support of the University and on a bond issue for construction of buildings. He stated: “It is untimely and inappropriate for the University to intrude itself into a discussion of the tax problem; such intrusion is bound to be misunderstood by the public and the Legislature.” [Emphasis added/Merriam.] He was, of course, right, that the publication of the manuscript would be misunderstood. On January 29, 1919, Chancellor Elliott, doubtless under pressure from the Company and politicians and fearing that the Legislature then in session and subject to the pressure of lobbyists might cut appropriations for the Greater University, wrote to Dr. Levine suggesting that publication be indefinitely postponed. The Professor replied, pointing out how the study had been undertaken (on approval of both President and Chancellor), how the decision to publish had come about, and stated that he would himself publish the study at his own expense. This he proceeded to do.[9]  The Chancellor suspended Dr. Levine.[10]

            The suspension of the professor was a shock to the University community. The students protested it in a strong resolution to the Chancellor, who replied that the final decision rested with the Board of Education. The alumni also protested. News of the suspension traveled over the country and caused widespread national discussion in Eastern liberal journals. The affair was also reported to the American Association of University Professors, which sent a professor of Economics at Northwestern University to Missoula to investigate. He found the suspension unwarranted and praised highly the dignified and forceful report of the University Service Committee, which had already investigated the situation. Dr. Levine was reinstated. The Board of Education on April 7, 1919, voted to approve the action of the Chancellor in the reinstatement and to pay Dr. Levine back salary. The next year, 1920, Dr. Levine resigned to accept a writing position on a New York newspaper.[11]

            Another happening on the campus which stirred the people of the State was the formation by the faculty in 1920 of a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which was affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, an organization then considered by the public as socialistic if not communistic.[12] At the time of formation of the Union on the campus a sort of credo was adopted in which, among others, these beliefs were stated:

We believe that:

            the schools have failed of their fullest attainment because of undemocratic          administrators, adherence to tradition and lack of responsiveness to the needs of the  community, and that teachers must find the remedy; teachers must live and work in an     atmosphere of freedom and self-respect…. The best interest of the schools of the       people demand an intimate and an effective cooperation between the teachers and the  other workers of the community-upon whom the future of democracy must depend.

Faculty members attended as delegates the annual State conventions of the AF of L and set up a Labor Conference, which has been annually held since that time. Over the intervening years Labor in Montana has consistently supported the University. Nevertheless, the general public considered it unbecoming for the faculty to act with labor – would the faculty strike?

            The life of the Greater University depended in 1920 upon the passage of referred measures No. 18 and No. 19, the first providing for a 1½ mill tax for the support of the four units and the second providing for a bond issue of $5,000,000 for buildings on the four campuses. Fear that the measures might not pass was shared by many people, but through the long and hard work of persons under the direction of Professor W. F. Brewer of the State College the miracle happened. Every ten years since the Greater University has been obliged to go before the people and ask for tax support and never have the people failed to support it.

            As the war dragged on Dr. Sisson found the whole country awakening to the national meaning of higher education. Earlier he had stated: “The world was wonderful before modern science began to turn the telescope and microscope upon it, and apply mathematics to it, but it is far more wonderful now…. In this vast material universe man is a pygmy, but by his mind he comprehends, conquers, and rules it.” Now, in wartime, he realized, as thoughtful men then did, and brought it to the attention of the University community and the people of the State, that the war was calling upon America to think for the world. “Insulation and isolation,” he wrote in the Butte Miner, June 9, 1918, “are past. We are part and parcel of the great world. Let no man lose faith in the potency and the promise of the republic. Only those who believe profoundly, aye, passionately in the invincible truth of our democracy can play their part as citizens and as men and women.” With highmindedness and with devotion to education and to the University the President kept the campus thought, feeling and action sane and steady throughout the difficult years. It was a humanitarian task.

            Dr. Sisson was a thoroughly democratic man. He had no thought toward autocracy in his administration. On the contrary, he suggested to the faculty formation of committees for improvement in many matters and approved faculty actions which tended to increase faculty participation in administration. He appointed in 1919 a committee of five members on Curricula for the College of Arts and Sciences. The faculty, smarting from past indignities and vexations and recognizing sympathy in the President, made suggestions that would not have occurred to them under any of the earlier presidents. Dean Whitlock of the Law School in 1918 announced in a faculty meeting organization of a University Council to consider matters of policy and general welfare; the President responded by asking the faculty to appoint a committee of three to counsel with him in administrative matters. Professors Scheuch, Jesse and Rowe served on it.

            After a meeting of the AAUP chapter in March 1921, H. G. Merriam drew up, on the suggestion of the members, a memorial to President Sisson and Chancellor Elliott which was adopted and presented to the administration. The initiative measures of the previous November had been approved by the people; the time seemed advantageous for a clear statement of policy for development of the University. The memorial suggested a dozen or more matters upon which a clear statement of policy might be wise – such as distribution of revenue among the needs of the University, buildings for the present and the future, the development of professional schools, research, relations between administration and faculty. The Chancellor at a faculty meeting on April 21 discussed matters, but no public statement was issued by him or by the President. A committee, however, was appointed by the AAUP to consider establishing a committee to advise with the President on policies and distribution of budget funds. That committee recommended, with the approval of the President, election by the faculty of a committee on Budget and Policy composed of seven members, two to be elected by each of three fields of study – the  sciences, the arts and the schools - with a member elected at large. On May 31 such a committee was elected. A Budget and Policy committee has served as adviser to the presidents for forty-six years and at present is the executive committee of the Faculty Senate.[13]  By this action the faculty took a firm step in developing the role of the faculty in governance of the University.

            After the Armistice the faculty took hold of university matters with vigor and a sense of importance. [14] New eligibility rules for athletes, debaters and orators, Kaimin and Sentinel managers, and leading actors in Masquer productions were established; a new grading system was adopted; credits for independent work by juniors and seniors were allowed. Responding to the use of tests by the armed forces, four tests were designed to help the faculty understand and handle students better were approved - the performance test (grades), the Army Alpha test of general intelligence, vitality coefficients (for physical condition), and the personality index of will, character, disposition and habits.

            The intelligent collaboration of the Chancellor and the President brought three advantages to the faculty which gave it a feeling that if trouble arose justice could be expected. Tenure was definitely established for professors and associate professors; members whose services were to be discontinued must receive three months notice, and a service committee was stressed with one faculty member appointed by the Chancellor, one by the President, and one elected by the faculty.

            Significant for the welfare of the University was development of a hard core of faculty members through the 1920’s, consisting of able persons of character who had decided to give their all to the University no matter what winds might blow. They liked Missoula and the country about it and were willing to meet the challenges which the University continually threw out. They harbored a devotion to the University which became highly important in the University’s development. As persons they differed from one another in nature and in ways of thought and action, but each subconsciously knew that the others could be depended upon to act in what each considered to be the best interests of the University. No understanding existed among them; the core was no cabal; they did not really sense that they did form a hard core. Year by year it was joined by new persons of character and ability. In spite of frequent changes in the presidency and the chancellorship this core held the University steady and progressive during financial hard times and disrupting circumstances.

            Dr. R. H. Jesse, a man of sound and deliberate judgment thought that 1920 was “the beginning of the transition from small institution to large university.”[15] The judgment was not based on numbers, rather it grew from the thinking he found in the faculty and the attitudes and actions of the students.

            The war and adjustments after it and tight budgets allowed of little expansion during the Sisson years. In building, aside from the barracks, only the New Science Hall “in the maple grove north of Main Hall” was constructed. Of schools the department of Business became the School of Business Administration under S. J. Coon as dean.

            Dr. Sisson was rugged spiritually but not physically. In 1920, he was given leave of absence from January to April to recuperate. He was an educator who loved teaching; he did not care for administration, and the distaste allowed some details which should have remained with him to fall into the willing hands of the Chancellor. By 1921 he had endured pressures and been absent from teaching for eight years. He was tired and eager to return to the classroom. He resigned. In doing so he listed needs of the University – first, increases in faculty salaries, eight new buildings and a new heating plant, but greatest of all “the confidence and energetic support if the people of the State.” The salaries were so low that good men might not be kept; a plant which had been designed to serve 500 students was trying to accommodate 997; the barracks could be fitted up for classroom use if money were available. He also left a note about his four years as president:

            1918-the University engrossed in the war; 1919 - after the Armistice, rapid increase in    enrollment; 1920 - full resumption of University work hampered by insufficient funds  and a worldwide sense of disillusionment; 1921 - the Referendums passed.

            An admirer of Dr. Sisson noted that he could have endured the pressures “many things might have been different” in Montana, meaning, of course, better. Possibly Dr. Sisson’s greatest services were the forwarding of the democratic procedure in administration, stimulus to the dormitory system, and his warm humanism. He left the campus inwardly at peace, less suspect of socialism than it had been, a bit more comfortably thought of by the public. His successor, Charles H. Clapp, in his first report to the Board of Education wrote: “We are free from outward strife and inward turmoil.”

            Edward Octavius Sisson returned to visit the campus with fond regard, once, to receive the honorary degree of Litt.D.[16]


[1] The institution carried from 1895 the name, The University of Montana, until in 1913, when it became State University of Montana. In 1935 the name became Montana State University until 1965, when it reverted to The University of Montana.

[2] Dr. Craig was a Midwesterner; Dr. Duniway was born in Oregon and educated at Cornell and Harvard; Dr. Craighead was a southerner.

[3] These studies were restored when Dr. W. P. Clark came to the faculty in 1921.

[4] To be refunded later by the Government.

[5] These buildings were life-saving for the University for many years. Cook housed Journalism, Simpkins the nursery      school and the Little Theater, the headquarters building the R.O.T.C.

[6] Women students were required to attend six lectures in food, as suggested by the Federal Food Administration.

[7] Mr. McCormick was Representative in Congress, 1921-23, from the First Congressional District of Montana.

[8] At the University 1920-22; later Professor of Drama at Yale University, 1927 until his death in 1939.

[9] Huebsch of New York published it.

[10] President Sisson wrote to the Chancellor: “I cannot express my grief in the apparent difference in our views.” The professor was a scholar whom the University should have retained at all costs.

[11] Later he changed his name to Louis Lorwin.

[12] The N.Y. Times stated that 90 percent of the faculty joined the AF of T; that was an exaggeration.

[13] It has been welcomed and profitably used by Presidents Sisson, Clapp, Melby, McCain and Pantzer. No president has repudiated it and all have consulted it, even if in the spirit of duty-bound. Its first members were Underwood, chairman, Coon, Kirkwood, Leaphart, Merriam, Merrill and Scheuch.

[14] In 1917 the academic year, which had consisted of two semesters, was changed to three quarters. This shift came at an inopportune time and placed much additional work on Deans and Departmental Chairmen and their faculties.

[15] Actually the movement had begun in the Craighead years.

[16] After teaching as Professor of Philosophy at Reed College from 1921 to 1939 Dr. Sisson retired to Carmel, California, where he gave public lectures on education and philosophy until his death in 1949.

Last Updated on Sunday, 07 July 2013 20:33