Whitney Hale


College: Libraries

Sesquicentennial Series: The Golden Era of McVey

Published: Nov 30, 2012

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Nov. 30, 2012) — In celebration of the University of Kentucky's upcoming sesquicentennial in 2015, the 34th of 150 weekly installments on the university remembers the accomplishments of President Frank L. McVey.


Frank LeRond McVey served as president of UK for 23 years, from 1917 to 1940. Through his visionary commitment to academic excellence, McVey transformed the university into a modern, multifaceted, 20th-century institution of higher education.


McVey was born in Wilmington, Ohio, in 1869. In 1893, he received his bachelor's degree from Wesleyan University (Ohio), and in 1895, his doctoral degree in economics from Yale University. In 1898 he was married to Mabel Moore Sawyer of Minneapolis; they had three children.


After completing his education, McVey held teaching positions at Columbia Teachers College and the University of Minnesota. He served as chairman of the Minnesota Tax Commission from 1907 to 1909, before being elected president of the University of North Dakota for a term lasting until 1917. That year he was offered and accepted the presidency of the University of Kentucky, succeeding Henry Sites Barker in that post.


In 1923, following the death of his wife a year earlier, he married Mary Frances Jewell, of Harrison and Jessamine Counties in Kentucky, a former UK professor of English and, since 1921, dean of women at the university.


McVey, himself a noted economic historian and the author of several books on economics and economic history, stressed the importance of a sound education and felt the university needed to attract and retain talented scholars. To this end he hired as teachers, many of them as heads of existing or new academic departments, nationally recognized specialists; increased professors' salaries; initiated faculty sabbaticals to aid in and encourage research; and facilitated the writing of a constitution providing for faculty control over curriculum.


Faculty involvement in local and national professional societies and organizations was also a priority to McVey. Leading by example, he served as president of the Southeastern Athletics Conference (now Southeastern Conference), Southern Association of Schools and Colleges, National Association of Land Grant Colleges and Universities, and the National Association of State Universities. Faculty members followed suit, and the number of professors who joined and held offices in such organizations and published scientific and scholarly works dramatically increased.


Continuing in the tradition of Judge Barker, McVey sought to increase public awareness of UK and establish good relations between the institution and its constituency in the state at large. He established a University Extension program which set up correspondence classes and provided radio-transmitted instruction to people in remote, rural areas of Kentucky. In addition, he advertised the school through speeches to civic clubs and organizations such as the Young Men's Christian Association.


The university emerged essentially intact from the effects of a potentially debilitating national economic depression, thanks in large measure to the sound and prudent fiscal policies of the McVey administration. As public support for the institution grew, enrollments swelled. To accommodate this upswing, the president embarked on an ambitious campus building program which bore fruit in the erection of such edifices, venerable to the present day, as Alumni Gym (1924), Memorial Hall (1929), the Margaret I. King Library (1931), and Boyd and Jewell dormitories (1925 and 1939, respectively).


The curriculum also expanded during McVey's tenure. Departments of Music (now School of Music) (1919), Anthropology and Archaeology (now Department of Anthropology) (1927) and Library Science (now School of Library and Information Science) (1932) were set up in the College of Arts and Sciences, and the College of Commerce (now Gatton College of Business and Economics) opened in 1925. In 1923, the College of Education was established, and the University School, an experimental laboratory elementary and high school under its auspices, commenced operations two years later.


McVey retired in 1940 but maintained a close association with UK and its host community, in which he resided until his death in early 1953. He continued to give lectures on topics ranging from education to foreign policy at the university and at social functions and served on several commissions on behalf of Louisiana State University, the College of William and Mary, and Rhode Island State College. During this time, McVey authored, among others, two noteworthy tomes — "The Gates Open Slowly: A History of Education in Kentucky" (1949) and "Problems of Administration in Higher Education" (1952). He also indulged in two of his favorite pastimes — painting and drawing.


This story on UK's history is presented by UK Special Collections. Special Collections is home to UK Libraries' collection of rare books, Kentuckiana, the Archives, the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, the King Library Press and the Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Research Center. The mission of Special Collections is to locate and preserve materials documenting the social, cultural, economic and political history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.



MEDIA CONTACT: Whitney Hale, (859) 257-8716 or whitney.hale@uky.edu

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