William Watts Folwell

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Winning Nomination

William Watts Folwell was the University of Minnesota's first president. He pushed for junior colleges and he helped make the University a successful land-grant college. The man did much to enhance state education, obviously. Folwell also served as president of the Minnesota Historical Society for a time. As an historian, I have used his history of the state. It's still a good read.
~Carol Berg, OSB, St. Joseph, MN

Runner-up Nominations

1833-1929 Historian, political scientist and educator.

He was appointed the first president of the University of Minnesota 23 August 1869. He had the vision to see what the university of the future must be. He said the University is essential to the well-being rather than to the being of the state. He left the Presidency in 1884, but continued in the dual role of librarian and professor of political economy, retiring in 1907.

While his dealings with the Legislature were fractious, it is generally acknowledged that the University is indebted to him for his pioneering work, and that today's University has come to be what he invisioned.

He was a user of books and a firm supporter of libraries. He served as University Librarian from 1869 until he retired in 1907. He lobbied the Legislature to obtain funds for what was then a very insignificant library. Today University Libraries is one of the largest research libraries in the country as later librarians built on his early efforts.

He was the author of the four-volume History of Minnesota, which is still the definitive history of the state.

He also was the leader of the Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey in 1872.
~Mary C. Combs, Oakdale, MN




A visionary educator and scholar

William Watts Folwell was just thirty-six years old in 1869, when he was appointed the first president of the University of Minnesota. With eight faculty members and less than one hundred students, and only recently reopened after suspending teaching during the Civil War, the university was in its infancy. But Folwell was confident that it could grow into a valued contributor to Minnesota's culture. In his inaugural address, he described its ultimate purpose. Higher education, he said, "will put bread into no man's mouth directly, nor money in his palm. Neither the rains nor the sunshine do that, but they warm and nourish the spring grass, and ripen the harvest. So higher education, generous culture, scholarship, literature inform, inspire, and elevate communities."

Folwell's "Minnesota Plan" for the university included offering college courses as well as graduate and professional programs. At the time, this idea was met with skepticism by traditionalists, who preferred that the university follow an undergraduate and graduate curriculum that emphasized Greek and Latin. An 1879 faculty protest led to several resignations, allowing Folwell to hire scholars who were in line with his philosophy, including Maria Sanford, the University of Minnesota's first female professor and a beloved, charismatic teacher, and William Pike, an engineer who offered drawing classes to part-time students at times and locations convenient for them.

"Uncle Billy," as Folwell was unofficially known, resigned from the presidency in 1884 but continued as a political science professor and librarian, retiring in 1907. He then went on to make another remarkable contribution to the state by writing a comprehensive, four-volume history of Minnesota that is a lasting example of rigorous scholarship and lively writing. Folwell witnessed firsthand many of the events he chronicled, and he wasn't one to sugarcoat his opinions. On the passage of a 1916 resolution to present a statue of Minnesota politician Henry M. Rice for placement in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, Folwell wrote: "There were abounding eulogies by each of the ten representatives from Minnesota. . . . That departures from historical accuracy, chiefly in details, were numerous was probably due to hasty perusal of secondary authorities for the perfunctory duty."

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