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William Wilburforce Smith

Fourth President of Coe College (1905-1908)

April 22, 1858 in Ontonagon, Michigan
Educational Background:
B.A., Lafayette College, 1880; M.A., Princeton University, 1883; LL.D., Lafayette, 1905
Teaching Experience:
Hill School, Lawrenceville, New Jersey 1880-94
Administrative Experience: 
Head Master of Berkeley School, New York City, 1904-05
Key events/accomplishments during administration:
College debt-free in 1907; Pensions provided for retiring faculty through Carnegie funds
Post-Coe Career:
Director of the School of Commerce and Finance at James Millikan University in Illinois

A Short Administration: William W. Smith at Coe College

Following the resignation of Samuel McCormick as Coe's president, it took over a year to bring a successor to campus.  While the Board sifted through the men recommended for this position, Dean S. W. Stookey assumed the role of acting president, a position he held throughout the 1904-05 academic year.

Among the recommended candidates was William Wilberforce Smith, who was at the time head of the Berkeley School for boys in New York City. Although Smith never visited Iowa, several members of the Board of Trustees visited Smith.  In December of 1904, the Trustees sent a letter inviting him to consider taking the position left vacant by Samuel McCormick's departure. He quickly replied and promised to have a written decision for the gentlemen in a short time. On January 7, 1905, Smith officially accepted the presidency, to begin that fall.

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Smith spent his youth living in small towns in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.  After graduating from high school, he worked at various jobs in Council Bluffs and Omaha before deciding to attend LaFayette College in Pennsylvania, where he graduated as the valedictorian of his class in 1880. He then spent two years at the Princeton Theological Seminary but finished his masters degree at Lafayette.  During the next twenty years, Smith often changed jobs and locations.  He taught and was a principal at schools in New Jersey and then entered the business world in New York.  He was active in local politics, most notably in efforts to defeat a Tammany candidate for mayor.  In 1896 he moved to San Francisco to become president of the Catalog Publishing Company.  In 1904 he accepted the Head Master position at the Berkeley School.  A few months later he resigned to become Coe's 4th president. During the summer prior to arriving on campus, he was granted an LL.D. degree from LaFayette and two months later, at the age of 47, he married Anna Wills Page from New Jersey.

Although Smith was only at Coe for three years, there were several significant accomplishments during his administration. Most notably, funding was obtained for construction of Carnegie Science Building (now Stuart Hall), and the college--as of July 1, 1907--was finally debt-free.  The success of H. H. Maynard's fund-raising efforts were particularly important because this enabled the college to meet the conditions for receiving Carnegie funds which would provide pensions for retiring Coe faculty.

To complement this good financial news, the college also experienced a healthy, sustainable growth in the size of the student body.  In the first year of Smith's administration, there were 190 students enrolled in the college and 89 students in the preparatory academy.  Two years later, the college enrollment had increased to 209, plus an additional 121 academy students.

During this period, the faculty instituted important changes in its organization and practices.  One significant decision was the restructuring of the college into 16 departments, creating a classification of disciplines that has remained fundamentally unchanged for over 90 years: Bible and Moral Philosophy, Education, Philosophy, Psychology and Logic, History, Greek, Latin, German and French, Mathematics and Physics, Chemistry, Zoology, Botany and Geology, Physical Training, Music, Public Speaking, English Language and Literature, and Political Science and Law.

A second enduring faculty decision was to assign faculty as advisors for each class of students.  The faculty were "to instruct their students in regard to college regulations, to advise them in regard to matters which may be subject to petitions and to receive from their students, and on their behalf present to the Faculty their petitions."  These four faculty would soon have the additional responsibility for advising students prior to registration.  The faculty appointed in 1905 to serve as these class officers were Professors Baily (Seniors), Benson (Juniors), Bryant (Sophomores), and Weld (Freshmen).  With the exception of Baily, who died and was replaced by C. T. Hickok in 1917, Benson, Bryant, and Weld all served as class advisors into the 1930s.

Despite the many accomplishments of his administration, significant dissension between Smith and both faculty and trustees quickly developed.  The minutes for the meetings of faculty and trustees do not reveal the reasons for the difficulties, but faculty records do indicate that a faculty committee was chosen for purposes of meeting with the trustees and expressing their grievances.  In June of 1908, less than three years after arriving on campus, Smith graciously resigned from the presidency:

I am happy in the fact that the college is strong, larger and more favorably known than it was three years ago--indeed most prosperous except for unhappy divisions in its two governing bodies.  I have the pleasant consciousness of having sincerely striven for Coe's best interest as I have understood it, and of some highly valued friendships formed among you.  However, I may differ from my associates in the Board and Faculty, I do not question the sincerity of any in his service of the College, and I hope that good counsel will speedily resolve any present difficulties.

By a 12 to 8 vote (perhaps evidence of further discord), the Board of Trustees accepted his resignation.  The following January, William Smith became the Director of the School of Commerce and Finance at James Millikan University in Illinois, a position he held into the 1930s.

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