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Frank L. McVey and the University of Kentucky

A Progressive President and the Modernization of a Southern University

Eric Moyen

Publication Year: 2011

In 1917, fifty-two years after its founding, the University of Kentucky faced stagnation, financial troubles, and disturbing reports of nepotism, resulting in a leadership crisis. A special committee investigated the institution and issued a report calling for a massive transformation of the university, including the hiring of a new president who could execute the report’s suggested initiatives. The Board of Trustees hired Frank L. McVey. McVey labored tirelessly for more than two decades to establish Kentucky as one of the nation’s most respected institutions of higher learning, which brought him recognition as one of the leading progressive educators in the South. In Frank L. McVey and the University of Kentucky, Eric A. Moyen chronicles McVey’s triumphs and challenges as the president sought to transform the university from a small state college into the state’s flagship institution. McVey recruited an exceptional faculty, expanded graduate programs, promoted research, oversaw booming enrollments and campus construction, and defended academic freedom during the nation’s first major antievolution controversy. Yet he faced challenges related to the development of modern collegiate athletics, a populace suspicious of his remarkable new conception of a state university, and the Great Depression. This authoritative biography not only details an important period in the history of the university and the commonwealth, but also tells the story of the advancement of education reform in early-twentieth-century America.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Front Cover

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Series Page

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p. ii-ii

This series is dedicated to the memory and example of Thomas D. Clark (1903–2004). Th e breadth and variety of Dr. Clark’s contributions to historical understanding in the Commonwealth are unmatched, and he was a tireless advocate for the improvement of public education...

Title Page

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p. iii-iii

Copyright Page

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p. iv-iv


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p. v-v

Contents Page

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p. vii-vii

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Series Editor's Foreword

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pp. ix-xii

If anyone opposed the nomination of Frank L. McVey as the University of Kentucky’s new president in the summer of 1917, it has gone unrecorded. Th e Board of Trustees, like the search committee, was unanimous in its enthusiasm. And as Eric Moyen notes in this long-awaited and meticulously researched biography, once the off er was made official, the “normally prudent” McVey accepted “with uncharacteristic haste.”...

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pp. xii-xv

Long before my academic interest in Frank McVey and his role at the University of Kentucky, I had developed a personal affinity for the institution on an entirely different level. I grew up in a neighborhood bordering the southern edge of UK’s campus, and my boyhood summers were spent traipsing across the rolling hills and through the woodlands that comprised...

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pp. 1-8

Once a prominent figure in American higher education, Frank LeRond McVey has become a rarely remembered former president of an aspiring state university. At the University of Kentucky (UK) he is most often remembered as the husband of Frances Jewell McVey or as the president who guided the university through the Great Depression. McVey has...

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Chapter 1: The Making of a Progressive President 1869–1917

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pp. 9-57

Frank LeRond McVey was an Ohio Buckeye by birth. His lengthy career as president of a southern state university and a nationally prominent figure in higher education would prove far more noteworthy than his birthplace and the events of his youth. However, his upbringing in a progressive Republican family in the Midwest left indelible marks upon his worldview...

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Chapter 2: A Southern University and a Northern Progressive 1917–1920

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pp. 58-99

Th e normally prudent Frank McVey accepted the presidency of the University of Kentucky with uncharacteristic haste, suggesting desperation on his part to extricate himself from an increasingly tense situation in North Dakota. On 25 July 1917 McVey received a telegram from Abraham Flexner, a Kentucky native serving as secretary of the General Education...

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Chapter 3: McVey’s Darkest Days 1920–1922

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pp. 100-131

As the new decade began, Frank McVey’s infl uence was evident to concerned citizens in Kentucky and throughout American higher education. Nearly all his reforms, however, focused on internal renovations, restructuring, governance, faculty issues, and increased presence across the commonwealth. To be sure, the impact on the psyche of the state was apparent...

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Chapter 4: McVey’s Era of Great Aspirations 1922–1931

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pp. 132-186

The personal and professional low point McVey faced in 1922 could have been enough to lead him away from the University of Kentucky. Having struggled for years to pull the university forward, he had failed to capture the imagination of the commonwealth’s citizens or the legislature. Nevertheless, he remained at the...

Photo Section

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Chapter 5: Surviving the Great Depression and Reforming the South 1932–1936

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pp. 187-234

As the 1932 Kentucky General Assembly neared, the nation’s economic crisis finally began to exert its full negative impact on the commonwealth’s already struggling agricultural-based economy. McVey desperately worked to assure that his university received its share from the depleted state coffers. The first day of January 1932 found McVey at Louisville’s Seelbach...

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Chapter 6: Building a Legacy 1936–1940

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pp. 235-286

The commonwealth required that all state employees retire by age seventy, and President McVey, who would reach that milestone in the fall of 1939, was no exception. He hoped that the worst of the Depression had passed, which would allow him to reach his goal of being the true builder of the University of Kentucky...

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Chapter 7: Turning the Page 1940–1953

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pp. 287-315

Turning the page meant leaving Maxwell Place, McVey’s home for nearly a quarter of a century. It was the home where he had raised his children; held his wife’s funeral; celebrated his second marriage; and entertained intellectuals, politicians, and celebrities from around the world. Frances McVey had made Maxwell Place ground zero for...

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Conclusion: McVey in Retrospect

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pp. 316-325

Frank L. McVey was a man of exceptional vision who possessed remarkable leadership capability. Commenting on the accomplishments of leaders like McVey, Thorstein Veblen quipped, “What such a man, so placed, will do with the powers and opportunities that so devolve on him is a difficult question that can be answered only in terms of the compulsion of the circumstances in which he is placed.” In a posthumous tribute...


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pp. 327-358


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pp. 359-362


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pp. 363-382

E-ISBN-13: 9780813129938
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813129839

Page Count: 416
Publication Year: 2011