Frank L. McVey and the University of Kentucky: A Progressive President and the Modernization of a Southern University (review)
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Frank L. McVey and the University of Kentucky: A Progressive President and the Modernization of a Southern University. By Eric A. Moyen. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011. Pp. x, 414. $35.00 cloth)

In its emergence as a research university, the University of Kentucky (UK) stands out as a "late bloomer" among southern flagship universities such as North Carolina or Virginia. Eric Moyen's history of Kentucky President Frank McVey's leadership (1917-40) effectively captures this saga of arrested development along with the personal story of McVey (1869-1953), who led the efforts of the university to modernize. At first glance, Moyen's book complements Gregory Kent Stanley's Before Big Blue: Sports at the University of Kentucky, 1880-1940 (1996) and enriches the framework for analysis provided by the university's existing histories. Moyen's analysis goes beyond this however, tapping into important themes from the larger history of American higher education even as it dwells upon McVey and UK as a case apart from the dominant narrative.

Born in Ohio, Frank McVey grew up in Iowa, graduating from Ohio Wesleyan University and later Yale (1895). He achieved standing as an economist concerned with social and economic reform. He landed a professorial appointment at the emerging University of Minnesota (UM) in 1896 and, while there, he married Mabel Sawyer and began his family. His influence spread as he took leadership of the Minneapolis Associated Charities and the 1904 World's Fair Twin Cities Exhibit, later becoming chair of the state tax commission. Although the latter role interrupted his professorial appointment, it set the stage for his advance to the presidency of the University of North Dakota (UND) in 1909—all before his fortieth birthday. Nine years later, he began his twenty-three-year presidency at UK after a predominantly successful term at UND where he improved state support [End Page 207] for the university, faculty credentials, and graduate education; he also attracted a Phi Beta Kappa chapter among other achievements.

Through careful mining of oral-history interviews and other documents relevant to McVey's term at UK, Moyen convincingly argues that McVey made similar and very dramatic achievements at UK that brought about the expansion of the campus, colleges and academic programs, the construction of new facilities—though often unfunded—and he also redefined faculty work to support the research function and service to the commonwealth. He improved university publicity, attracted national attention, and secured additional state support. In this way, McVey compared to other "progressive" presidents who like Edwin Alderman of Virginia and Charles Dabney of Tennessee enhanced the professional standing and statewide social service mission of their institutions—but in their cases, by the 1920s. Because of his longer term of service and kept in place by the Kentucky roots that belatedly took hold after his marriage to Frances Jewell one year after Mabel's death in 1922, the contours of McVey's biography serve as bookends for this story. They give insight into McVey's demeanor and the interests and relationships that sustained him through personal trials and political battles—such as his protracted, public battle with antievolution forces that culminated in a narrow victory for academic freedom or his long-time difficulties with the alumni association in securing their pledges for athletic facilities that required diversion of dedicated resources to cover costs —that marked and sometimes thwarted his efforts.

McVey's UK presidency covers an understudied and vital period of the history of American higher education between the world wars. Without the largesse from individual and foundation philanthropists made available to a select group of university presidents for university-building at the turn of the twentieth century, McVey's presidency represents the typical experience of university presidents of the era and explains the uneven pace of university development. In such circumstances, real leadership was tested and, thanks to Moyen we know much more about the UK president who passed the test and commenced the university's long march forward. [End Page 208]

Amy E. Wells Dolan

Amy E. Wells Dolan teaches the history of higher education at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi. She currently...


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