Quitting Time

UT presidents' historical talent for resignation

The post of President of the University of Tennessee would seem to be a fine place to settle in for a long and distinguished career. To be at the helm of one of the oldest and largest universities east of the Mississippi, with a pretty fair salary, great football tickets, free e-mail, and a lot of friendly assistants with impressive resumes—well, you won't find many jobs like that in the want ads. Like the papacy, there's no term limit. I'd think you'd hang onto a job like that until the Board of Trustees declare you brain dead.

However, there must be things about the job that we don't know. Of the 20 presidents the institution has known in its couple of centuries, more than half of them quit the job.

Wade Gilley's not the first one who quit citing health-related reasons. In 1825, David Sherman resigned due to "poor health" after five years at the helm, but later appeared, apparently feeling better, as the president of Jackson College in Columbia, Tennessee.

Gilley might also be relieved to know he's not the shortest-termed UT president ever. That would be the Rev. James Piper, who became president in 1834. His administration is encapsulated in one sentence in the UT history, To Foster Knowledge: "He tried the post for only a year before resigning in despair."

Nor is Gilley the first to resign suddenly under controversial circumstances. Gilley's two-year term would have fit in snugly during the period just before the Civil War, when the university was chewing up presidents like pork rinds. In the 12 years from 1850 to 1862, the trustees accepted the resignations of five presidents, all of whom came to the Hill well-recommended, with high hopes.

In 1853, George Cooke was a Dartmouth man from New Hampshire who had first moved to Knoxville to be in charge of an academy for girls. As president of the university, he was a progressive leader, introducing foreign languages to the school's curriculum. But he picked the wrong decade to come South.

We'd never had much of a problem with Northerners before, but by the 1850s, Southernness was the new obsession, suddenly important to Tennesseans in a way that it never had been before; Cooke tried to broaden the base of the university's support, but as he did, many Tennesseans fretted that Cooke was neither as Southern nor as devoted to slavery as they would have preferred. Calling Cooke the "Northern Captain" of this academic vessel, one journalist observed that "Southerners were advised not to permit their sons to take passage on that Piratical Craft." Cooke quit in 1857 and escaped Knoxville to the North.

Cooke had been there for four years, the longest term in that pre-war period. One of his successors didn't make it quite as long as Mr. Gilley has. Unlike Cooke, Joseph J. Ridley was a true Southerner and a Confederate sympathizer who by early 1862 was terrified by the prospect of the imminent Union occupation of Knoxville. Ridley quit his job and went home to North Carolina, where things were more predictably Southern. As it worked out, Ridley could have kept his nice office on the Hill for another year and a half before he saw his first bluecoat.

So, one university president quit because there were too many pro-slave Southerners here, and fled to the North. Another quit for fear of Unionists, and fled to the true South. With no non-partisans to run it, the university closed down altogether.

It was a confusing spell, no question. At about the same time Ridley left, Unionist faculty members fled Knoxville for the North, fearing imminent Confederate occupation. Knoxville was a weird place to be in those days. Maybe it still is, and maybe Mr. Gilley discovered that.

I don't know how history will judge Wade Gilley, but his term was historic for one reason the day he accepted the job. Unless you remember, and few of us do, the ephemeral administration of Lamar Alexander, Gilley was the first UT president in nearly 100 years to be recruited from outside of UT's hidebound power structure. Maybe we haven't recognized that fact gratefully enough over the last two years.

The last academic president hired from outside of the system was Brown Ayres, in 1904, who had a long, distinguished and influential career here. Ayres Hall is named for him. His predecessor, Charles Dabney, who was also hired from outside of the UT system, is generally remembered as UT's most dynamic, most progressive, and generally best president. Dabney's administration may be the only UT presidential administration mentioned in national histories of education in America.

I don't know whether Gilley would have been that kind of president. If Gilley's background made him different from recent presidents, there's one respect in which he fit right in.

For nearly a century, UT presidents have been harvested from one tightly predictable group. All have been white males who were, at youngest, on the shady side of middle age; most were eligible for AARP. By my figuring, the average age of a 20th-century UT president, at inauguration, is 55.

But remember Charles Dabney, who was known for his energy and imagination? When Dabney began his prodigious 17-year term as president of UT, he was 32. There are office boys in Andy Holt Tower who are older than that.

As a middle-aged white male myself, I'd be the last to advocate age discrimination, but you wonder if maybe we've worked this patch out. Maybe it's time to try a new variety.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.