William Watts Folwell
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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