16. William Oxley Thompson and Popular Education, Social Justice, and Social Control in Progressive Era Ohio
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16 HEN WILLIAM Oxley Thompson became president of Ohio State University on September 21, 1899, he could not have imagined what the next quarter century had in store for him and this relatively new state university. Upon arrival in Columbus from Miami University, where he had served as president since 1891, he found a relatively small campus nestled on just over 330 acres. The first class to graduate under his tenure numbered only ninety-nine. Total enrollment that year was 1,268. By the time Thompson retired in 1925, the typical graduating class outnumbered the total enrollment of his early days as president. Moreover, the annual budget of the school had skyrocketed from a little more than $300,000 in 1899 to well over $6 million, and the grounds of the university had expanded to over one thousand acres. Thompson’s importance to the history of Ohio State University cannot be denied. As its longest serving president, he presided over the most significant changes in the birth of this modern university. Throughout his presidency, he was also a prominent public figure whose influence extended far beyond the walls of the university and even the borders of his home state. As the head of a growing midwestern land-grant university, Thompson became a spokesman for expanding opportunities in higher education—the very symbol of which was the state university. Thompson’s service at Ohio State, moreover, corresponds roughly with the turn-of-the-century Progressive reform movement. Although historians have been frustrated in their attempts to advance a definitive 207 William Oxley Thompson and Popular Education, Social Justice, and Social Control in Progressive Era Ohio W AMY FANCELLI ZALIMAS  vantne_3rd_chap16.qxd 11/10/2003 3:32 PM Page 207 208 BUILDERS OF OHIO and coherent analysis of the Progressive movement, most agree with Arthur S. Link and Richard L. McCormick that “for almost every social problem of the early twentieth century, somebody offered a solution which focused on the schools.” One of the central features of the historiographical debate over progressivism has been the extent to which it, in its varied incarnations, represented an effort to democratize the nation’s institutions, including its educational system. The relationship between racism and Progressive reform has also interested historians. The traditional view held that racism was out of step with the spirit of progressivism. Cooperation, not racial conflict, was the hallmark of the true progressive. That the South continued to languish under the weight of Jim Crow and that many in the North displayed a seeming lack of interest in the plight of African Americans was explained away, as Link and McCormick put it, as “a blind spot . . . an anomaly, a deviation from the essence of progressivism .” On the other hand, historians like David W. Southern and Jack Temple Kirby have emphasized the close relationship between racism and Progressive reform. Kirby has argued that segregation FIG. 12 William Oxley Thompson. Courtesy of The Ohio State University Archives. vantne_3rd_chap16.qxd 11/10/2003 3:32 PM Page 208 209 WILLIAM OXLEY THOMPSON was itself a “progressive” reform in the South, while Southern has argued that there was little substantial difference in the North where “progressivism and racism rode in on the same horse.” For those who hold the latter view, the Progressive Era is often interpreted not as a forward-looking, inclusive movement but rather as a backward-looking attempt to maintain “traditional” American values. Social control, not democratic reform, was the hallmark of this brand of progressivism that sought to protect a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant society from the harmful influence of African Americans, newly arrived immigrants, and other undesirables. The elusive, and often contradictory, nature of progressivism has been well recognized; historians have long been wary of labeling the varied reforms as any kind of unified “movement.” Moreover, these inconsistencies existed not only among the various reform agendas of the time but within individuals as well. William Oxley Thompson’s lifetime of public service reveals a man who struggled, often against himself, with some of the most pressing issues of his day, not the least of which was the race question. His life embodied the same inconsistencies that historians see in the Progressive movement. At times he was a racial egalitarian, while at others an ardent segregationist. He could speak of the democratizing influence of public education, yet support a two-tiered university system. Born on November 5, 1855, in Cambridge, Ohio, to a family of Scotch-Irish descent, Thompson was reared in...