November 04, 2010

Russell Dennis, professor emeritus of education

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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Russell Dennis, a professor emeritus of education who has taught the capstone course "Bucknell of Yesteryear & Today" and is a member of Bucknell's Class of '64, talks about the University's storied past. || Watch the capstone course

Q: What are some of the turning points in Bucknell's history that had a significant impact on the University?

A: There are quite a few of them. One would have been the effort in the late 1850s to move the University at Lewisburg from Lewisburg to Upland, near Philadelphia. It was spearheaded by John P. Crozer, who was then a member of the Board of Trustees. He made a rather generous offer to the University at Lewisburg of $50,000 if they would move it.

At that time, there was a two-party governing system for the University. They had a Board of Trustees, basically absentee people, and then a Board of Curators, who were basically local people. There was a lot of tension between the two. The curators, seeing the economic and cultural advantages of having a university in Lewisburg, resisted the move.

They gave a prize, if you will, the Baptist Theological Department of the University at Lewisburg, to Crozer, which moved to Delaware County and became the Crozer Theological Seminary. Today, it's part of the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y. Had Crozer had his way and won, we wouldn't have the University here. Crozer left the board in the 1860s, and Crozer's son-in-law also left the Board of Trustees. That was William Bucknell.

Q: That wasn't the end of William Bucknell, though, right?

A: In the 1860s, the University got into an awful lot of financial trouble, especially after the end of the Civil War. Amid the trouble, President Justin Loomis, the University's second president, resigned in 1879, and David Hill became president of the University.

Hill, who had been both a student at the University at Lewisburg and a faculty member, was instrumental in getting William Bucknell to come back to the Board of Trustees. He went down to Philadelphia to entice him with an offer, and Bucknell returned to the Board of Trustees and pumped money into the institution at a time when it was in financial trouble. In thanks, the institution was renamed Bucknell University. So, that, too, was another turning point.

Q: You talk about what would have happened if ...

A: Around the time of the Civil War, when they had the Morrill Land Grant Act, there was some sentiment at the University to apply for some of the money. The federal government was giving the western lands to states, and the states would sell the lands. They had to use the money to support an institution of higher education within the state that would teach agriculture and the mechanic arts.

Although the Board of Curators desired a share of this grant, Bucknell didn't receive any money. The upshot of that was that Penn State, which at that time was called the Farmers' High School, got all the money. Bucknell would have become quite a different institution had it received that money.

There, of course, are other things. What would have happened had John D. Rockefeller in the early part of the 20th century accepted the board's offer to join the Board of Trustees? His secretary wrote back to say he didn't have the time to devote to it. Or, what would have happened if Andrew Carnegie had given the $50,000 they had asked for to establish a chair of electro-technics at Bucknell University? Engineering probably would have developed much quicker and earlier than it did at the time.

Q: Do you have another William Bucknell story?

A: William Bucknell was married three times. His first wife was Crozer's daughter. She died; they had no children. Then he married a second time and he had children with the second family. And then she died and he married a third time. That was Emma Bucknell. They had children, but ended up being estranged.

William Bucknell was going to change his will. The way the will stood was that Emma and the children would get just about everything. He was going to change the will so the children of the second wife would get stuff and also that the University would get stuff. But he evidently had a strange thing about doing things. He wanted to wait until his birthday in order to actually change the will. He had all this stuff arranged and drawn up, but didn't sign the will. And he died before his birthday.

So, what happened was that the bulk of the money went to Emma and her children. That's when the physical and chemical laboratory had been built in 1890, and, basically, the University had been depending on William Bucknell for money to equip it and complete the building. Fortunately, the children of the second family stepped up and gave the money anyway.

Emma, of course, went on to be on the Titanic (and survived its sinking).

Q: Is Bucknell in the 21st century significantly different than in prior centuries?

A: One of the things that is most different is the geographical diversity. We've always had people from outside of Pennsylvania, but you didn't have a lot. We were always a good school, but a regional institution. That's one of the big differences.

Now, we're a secular institution. That started around the mid-20th century when there was a conscious severing of the relationship with the Baptists. My class (of 1964) was the last class to have to take ROTC. And mine was the first class that didn't have mandatory chapel. It used to be that you had to go chapel so many times or you wouldn't graduate. 

Another thing is the parity between men and women. For a long period of time, there was a conscious policy at the University to have two-to-one - two men for each woman. The two-to-one policy was reaffirmed by the board after the Second World War. One of the big changes was when that policy was dropped and it was decided to admit other than on the basis of male and female spaces.

New editions of "Ask the Experts" will appear on the Bucknell website on most Thursdays during the fall and spring semesters and on occasion throughout the summer. If you have ideas for future questions or are a faculty or staff member who would like to participate, please contact Sam Alcorn.

To learn more about faculty and staff experts who can speak on a variety of news topics, visit Bucknell's searchable Experts Guide.

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