Centennnial History of the University of Nebraska, by Robert Manley

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acquiring a thorough knowledge of the various branches of literature, science and the arts." The University was to consist of six colleges: the College of Ancient and Modern Literature, Mathematics and the Natural Sciences; the College of Agriculture; the College of Law; the College of Medicine; the College of of Practical Science, Civil Engineering and Mechanics; and the College of Fine Arts. The latter, however, was to be established only when the income from the University's endowment reached one hundred thousand dollars annually, Control of the University was placed in the hands of the Board of Regents, whose twelve members included nine elected by the legislature. The remaining three positions were held by the governor, who was president of the Board, the state superintendent of public instruction, and the chancellor of the University. From the first judicial district the governor appointed^2 John C. Elliot of Otoe County, Robert W. Furnas of Nemaha County, and David R. Dungan of Pawnee County. Representatives on the Board from the second district were the Reverend J. B. Maxfield of Cass County. William B. Dale of Platte County, William G. Olinger of Burt County, and F. H. Longley of Washington County represented the third judicial district. Regarding this first group of regents, C. H. Gere commented, "A great weight of responsibility rests upon the shoulders of the Board of regents, and . . . upon their action . . . depends much the future prosperity and the intellectual status of the institution." Editor Gere reminded the people of Nebraska that as yet few state universities had fulfilled the expectations of the people. Most of them in fact lagged far behind private colleges. Diligent care and constant support would be needed if the University of Nebraska was to achieve the intellectual standing which its most outspoken supporters sought for it.

Few of the regents were overly opitimistic. All appeared to understand that a great task lay before them. Of immediate concern was a decision regarding the aims of the University. Among interested Nebraskans a few wanted to stress the practical approach, with a view to producing the professional people so urgently needed by a frontier society. Others believed that the University would do well to concentrate its efforts upon the production of stalwart citizens well versed in the history and traditions of the nation. Some felt that the single most important function of the University was to exist as a beacon to future immigrants. To say the least, these broad and very general ideals did not indicate a well-defined educational policy, but the circumstances which attended the founding of the University left little time for philosophical discussion. There were many, many practical problems at hand that needed immediate attention. The philosophizing would have to wait, and in the meantime the University would be erected upon the guidelines provided in the Charter. The impact of Nebraska's frontier experience would in time bring modifications in the ideas and structure of the University, but these changes could not have been predicted in 1869. In all honesty it must be noted that the larger number of Nebraskans, striving to make a living on the prairies, probably did not even know that the University of Nebraska had been chartered. Those who did may have thought that it would be a long trip for their children from a sod house to the ivy-covered halls of the University.

The Controversy over University Hall

The ease with which the Charter passed through the legislature was not a portent of the University's immediate future. Almost from the outset the insti ________

2: The first Board members, for the years 1869-1871, were appointed by the Governor. The first elected Board of Regents held office from 1871 to 1873. The incumbent governor was always ex officio president until 1876.



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tution faced an uphill fight. In the early 1870s drought and grasshopper plagues brought Nebraska's farmers to the verge of destitution, and there were many Nebraska who felt that public funds should not be spend on a luxury such as a university. A constant barrage of criticism emanated from Omaha, still smarting over the removal of the capital to Lincoln. Because a group of men can seldom speak with a firm voice, the Board of Regents had difficulty justifying the founding of the University and answering criticism. It was most unfortunate that from 1869 to 1871, when the first chancellor was appointed, the University possessed no single spokeman.

Some of the criticism was justified, and it could be argued - as the Omaha newspapers continually did - that the University was unnecessary and premature. The editor of the Omaha World Herald in January, 1871, considered the University "an expensive as well as an empty, luxury"; and he deplored that the residents of Douglas County were expected to contribute $13,488.69 for the "needless educational dance." At this time he said, Nebraska needed a university "about as much as a cat needs two tails." But criticism was not by any means limited to Omaha. In Nemaha City one speaker told a teachers' institute that the University should be converted into a normal school since the state badley needed teachers. It was absurd to contemplate the creation of a university in an undeveloped frontier area. "A state university ought to mean something more than a sham and a waste of money. The Nebraska State Teachers Association shared the view that the University was premature; and during its 1870 convetion, it adopted a resolution that the resources of the state should instead by directed toward the perfection of the lower levels of public education. During the 1871 legislative session, the State Journal reported that some lawmakers "are arguing that the State university should no be opened because there are no students. It is a great oversight of the Regents that they have not collected a few hundred students here prior to electing a faculty and getting ready to ring the first bell."

The criticism would have been much less effective had not the issue been at hand around which all opponents of the University could rally their forces. The circumstances surrounding the contruction of the University building afforded the critics a field day, for Governor Butler and the Comimissioners of Public Buildings clearly exceeded their legal authority in matters pertaining to the building. The legislature had authorized one hundred thousand dollars for the building, the money to be derived from the sale of city lots in Lincoln. The legislature also has said that all plans for the building would have to be approved by the Board of Regents prior to actual construction. While it is impossible to determine what happened, it is apparant that the Commissioners of Public Buildings and Governor Butler allowed the expenditure of a sum in excess of the hundred thousand dollars and countenanced other irregularities. Just where the regents fit into the confused sequence of events cannot be determined. However, we do know that on June 3, 1869, the Board approved the general plan submitted by M.J. McBird of Logansport, Indiana, but suggested "such modification of the external design as may seem to [the architect] desirable." Years later, in 1910, John C. Elliot, a member of the first Board of Regents, recalled that the Board submitted a plan for the building to Governor Butler for his approval, but the approval was "seemingly not forthcoming." Butler presented a radically different plan to the regents, which they rejected. They expected him to use their plan, but "the construction of University hall proceeded according to the plans formulated by Governor Butler and his architects."


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Although state law specified that the construction of the building could not begin until the regents had accepted the final plans, the commissioners let a construction contract before their approval had been secured. These earnest men, who had gone out on a limb so often in the past, were eager to have the building go up as quickly as possible. They feared that the University would not be opened in time to claim the ninety thousand acres of land offered under the Morrill Act. The commissioners also hoped that the construction of a large, ornate university building would stimulate interest in Lincoln and bring about a sharp rise in the value of the town's real estate. On August 18, 1869, the contract for erection of the building was let to Silver and Son for $128,480 - $28,480 beyond the legal maximum. None of the regents seemed troubled, for the commissioners had assured them that the sale of Lincoln lots would undoubtedly exceed one hundred thousand dollars. It was expected that the legislature would approve the additional expenditure, but to be on the safe side the commissioners summoned some leading citizens to Lincoln and explained what had been done. Others, unable to attend the meeting, were consulted by the letter. In the end the Board members assumed they had received popular approval of their actions. Instead, as soon as it was known that the regents and the commissioners had exceeded the appropriation set by the legislature, criticism of the University and all connected with it reached a new intensity. Interestingly enough, the most outspoken critic was Robert W. Furnas, editor of the Nebraska Advertiser and a member of the Board of Regents, who said that the Governor and the other commissioners had clearly exceeded their authority. Responsibility for the nefarious actions rested with the commissioners, Furnas said, although a number of regents had gone along with them without protest. Gere answered Furnas through the editorial columns of the State Journal. He asserted that the Brownville editor was making a mountain out of a molehill; no appropriation for the building had as yet been made by the legislature, so there was no concrete evidence that the hundred-thousand-dollar, yet he insisted that the amount of money spent upon the building was of slight significance. The important thing was to get a building suitable for the use of the University and one which would not have to be "pulled down and built over."

The argument eventually developed into a personal feud between Governor Butler and Furnas, a dispute which enlivened Republican party politics through this hectic period. Butler and Furnas both actively sought the leadership of the state party, and the argument over the University provided a catalyst for a conflict which had been long in the making. Charges and countercharges flew thick and fast. Furnas insisted that at not time had the Board authorized the expenditure of funds in excess of a hundred thousand dollars. In October, 1870, the argument between Butler and Furnas came to a climax. Butler asked Furnas to resign from the Board of Regents, writing to him that "the Educational interests of the State, - in my opinion, - require this, and other changes in the Board." The "other changes" meant the removal of the Reverend J. B. Maxfield, who also had been extremely critical of Butler's actions. Enraged by the Governor's request, Furnas replied that he would not resign and that they only disagreement between them had been on the matter of the University building. He added that Butler, who had received the Republican nomination over Furnas by only three votes, was turning upon the man who had actively supported him in the gubernatorial contest. "Now, as soon as the Governor is fully satisfied of his election," said Furnas in the Nebraska Advertiser, "he offers this insult by asking [me] to resign." Butler's supporters said that Furnas had never given his wholehearted support to the University, and this was true. Many critical editorials appeared in the Nebraska


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Advertiser, and Furnas's paper had not even carried a story about the founding of the University. Repeatedly Furnas made public statements to the effect that he considered the University a bad investment, and he predicted its early demise. However, there is no record that Furnas, at regents' meetings, ever raised any objections to the policies pursued by the Board. It is clear, then, that this was essentially a political quarrel between two ambitious men. In the meanwhile work on the building continued. McBird's plans called for a substantial four-story building, styled in "Franco-Italian" architecture. The cornerstone was laid on September 23, 1869, the ceremonies being conducted under Masonic auspices with Major D. H. Wheeler as master of ceremonies. A brass band from Omaha, which had made the trip to Lincoln in special carriages, enlivened the proceedings. At the grand banquet in the evening--provided by "the good ladies of Lincoln" and "enjoyed by fully a thousand people"--the main address, on the subject of "Popular Education," was given by Attorney General Seth Fuller, and afterward there was a dance that lasted from ten o'clock until four in the morning. Citizens of Lincoln donated nearly two thousand dollars to pay for the band and the banquet. Erection of the building proceeded slowly, for Lincoln was many miles from any major point of supply and no railroads yet entered the city. Lumber had to be carried from Nebraska City over primitive roads. Contractors paid ten dollars a cord for firewood to burn the bricks, and the wood had to be brought twenty miles. Even the job of finding suitable stone for the steps to the main entrance proved difficult until a quarry was located fifteen miles east of Lincoln. But the work progressed. The walls were started on April 7, 1870, and in the following eighty-two working days a million and a half bricks were manufactured and put into place. On January 10, 1871, the Board of Regents visited the building and expressed their entire satisfaction with it. "To us," the regents reported, "the building appears to be well constructed and substantial, and that its general plan, as well as the details, are eminently well fitted to answer the purpose for which the same was erected." Governor Butler, similarly impressed, told the legislature, "Our University building is a source of pride to the citizens of our State, and is a model, not only in architectural beauty, but in its internal arrangement ...." For a frontier community, the building shortly to be named University Hall, was indeed an imposing structure. Built on a low hill to the north of the business heart of the city, it never failed to impress visitors to the capital, especially if they happened to be young people from some rural area about to enroll in the Uni versity. One student, born and reared in a sod house, remembered that "the old red brick main building was as beautiful as the Parthenon, and O Street, though built of wood and sun-dried bricks, could not have been surpassed in attractive ness by the marble palaces of Rome." Another visitor to Lincoln wrote: "The State University building is brick, but is to be painted a beautiful light color, and as the corners and foundations are of brown stone, the cornice and other visible wood-work brown, the building when completed will present a fine appear ance.... It is a large, roomy structure, and worthy the noble purpose for which it is intended." University Hall was three stories high, exclusive of basement and mansard. The chapel was 42 feet by 60 feet, with a gallery; there were twenty recitation rooms; a reading room; rooms for the literacy societies, music, and painting; a cabinet,3 laboratory, and armory; a ladies' reception room; and a printing office.

________________ 3 The name designating the room that housed a collection of geological, botanical, and biological speciments, the forerunner of the natural science museum. The regents had established a museum on June 14, 1871.''


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But its splendid brick facade concealed structural weaknesses. Like many other state buildings, University Hall went up hastily and the materials used were frequently of inferior quality. The historian Albert Watkins has written that all the public buildings in pioneer Nebraska "were remarkable in being of a uniform structural type, all of them had to be propped up or burned down to keep them from falling down." So it is not surprising that in the spring of 1871, even before the building was completed, it was widely rumored that University Hall was unsafe for occupancy. The regents said that "from actual and repeated [personal] examinations" they were fully satisfied that the building was "perfectly safe and substantially constructed"; but to satisfy the people of the state they engaged three professional builders to examine it. The inspectors reported that the building "is entirely safe for the present as it now stands. It will probably continue to be safe for many years to come." The probability could be made a certainty by repairs to the foundation, including replacement of "imperfect materials." The cost of these repairs was $747. With the question of the structural soundness of University Hall momen tarily resolved, the regents expected public criticism to cease, but Robert Furnas chose this moment to launch another attack upon Governor Butler's management of University affairs. The Governor, he charged, had tried to extort ten thousand dollars in cash from Mr. Silver, the contractor, and a like sum from the archi tects. The accusations received a generous play in the state's press, and in 1871 the legislature ordered an investigation of Butler's activities as governor. The Omaha Herald, a Democratic newspaper violently opposed to him, said that the investigation was throwing some light upon the machinations of "Butler and his forty thieves" and revealing the "utter inefficiency, lawlessness and total deprav ity" which had marked Butler's administration. The Herald maintained that every state institution, including the University, had suffered because the Gover nor had not selected the state lands. When the investigation into Butler's conduct in office resulted in impeachment proceedings against him, several references were made in the articles of impeachment to his alleged mishandling of University affairs. While Butler's political foes were trying to remove him from office, matters of the utmost urgency pertaining to the University were ignored. This was called to the attention of the legislature by Charles H. Gere, who urged its members to forget partisan politics long enough to attend to several items of business that should not wait. As yet no provision had been made to select the ninety thousand acres of land due Nebraska under the Morrill Act, and meanwhile the best lands in the state were being taken up. With every passing day the prospect of a mag nificent endowment for the University faded. When his words went unheeded and the attack on Butler intensified, Gere reproved some legislators for their single-mindedness in bringing the Governor to justice when the legislature itself had flouted the law by authorizing the expenditure of seventeen thousand dollars from the University fund for other state purposes. Throughout all the wild political dispute the question of University Hall continued to come up. Periodically cries arose that the building had been found to be unsafe, and invariably they were followed by the demand that the University be permanently closed. Funds which were needed for faculty salaries and for equipment had to be diverted to finance repairs. As a result of a poorly con structed building, in the words of one writer, "the growth of the University was retarded, and its enemies given a weapon of attack in their assaults upon it."


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