‘The Reign of Terror’

Kristine Gill

After secret meeting, first president fired

They met in secret.

After six months of inactivity, the Board of Trustees members gathered to discuss and enact three items on their agenda. The first, to review a critical report about the state of the university. The second, to fire Kent Normal School’s first president, John McGilvrey. The third, to make up some excuse for it all.

“They met secretly and maneuvered to fire him before they even told him they were going to fire him,” said William Hildebrand, author of the university history book “A Most Noble Enterprise: The Story of Kent State University 1910-2010.” “They waited until he was out of the country like cowards.”

It was 1926, and mounting tension between board members David Rockwell, William Cluff and William Coursen and McGilvrey had culminated in the trustees’ shocking decision to fire the president; a decision that made headlines in newspapers across the nation, including The New York Times. After 15 years at the helm, the members remaining on the board wanted the president gone.

“They thought he’d served long enough and it was time to have him retire,” said Phillip Shriver, author of “The Years of Youth,” a book chronicling the university’s first 50 years. “They put something together and that would be the reason they fired him.”


• Student newspaper: The Searchlight

• Student fee: $10 per month

• Most common boys’ names: Robert, James, John

• Most common girls’ names: Mary, Betty, Dorothy

• Kent State’s president’s salary: $7,500

Source: Infoplease.com and

“A Most Noble Enterprise”

The board had enlisted the help of Vernon Riegel, superintendent of public instruction for the state, who drafted a report detailing a list of problem areas at the university that didn’t meet state standards. Hildebrand wrote that the Board traced all of the issues back to “McGilvrey spending his energies on summer tours rather than on the school’s primary mission.”

They accused the president of leaving for Europe without first telling the board or gaining their approval, claims that McGilvrey would later deny. He was overseas working out the details of a four-year exchange program with Cambridge University.

“They cobbled together reasons,” Hildebrand said. “Almost none of them had any substance to them.”

Hildebrand wrote that the report was “a catchall of complaints and quibbles ranging from teachers not knowing how to take attendance or not caring about their students or not knowing their names or doing too much talking and not enough listening or not giving enough failing grades to classes being taught by unqualified staff, noisy construction interfering with learning, poor equipment in the training room, and Latin (a keystone of liberal arts education) offered as an alternative to manual training or home economics.”

Shriver remembers feeling awestruck at the circumstances of McGilvrey’s ousting.

“I thought, ‘My heavens, that’s not a very good reason to remove him,’” Shriver said.

And to top it off, they established, what Hildebrand called, a crackbrained and unenforceable policy which stated the board could fire any school employee “who may be subject to the least criticism by the general public, departments or officers of the State of Ohio, or members of the Board of Trustees, or the faculty of the school, or students thereof.”

Such a policy no longer exists in the current university register.

James Hardy, a special assistant to President Lester Lefton’s office, said it doesn’t exist in the trustees’ online records, which date back to 1960.

“We looked through the policy register, those are the governing documents of the boards,” he said “And we didn’t see any reference to the firing of a president.”

And Charlene Reed, secretary to the current Board of Trustees, said it’s probably a good thing.

“Definitely not practical today with the Internet and blogs,” she said. “I think with the mentality out there, what people expect for service is much different. People today feel free to freely, loudly, and quickly share their dissatisfaction. A policy like that would not be appropriate.”

Reed said that while the online archives only date back to 1960, it is likely that the detailed archives would indicate that the policy, if it truly was an official one, was overturned at some point.

So while today’s university presidents are safe from immediate danger from public criticism, McGilvrey was not.

The former president learned of his firing at the Pennsylvania train station in Ravenna the day of his return to the United States. His son, a representative of The Kent Tribune and several supportive students, met him that day with the news.

“I’m sorry for the faculty,” McGilvrey said to the crowd, as quoted in a Jan. 28, 1926, Tribune article. “Those cheers from the students sound good.”

Despite their support and encouragement, McGilvrey had no plans to challenge the board.

“There will be no fight for a return to the school,” he said. “No state board can go back on its action.”

Howard Winters stood in as acting president until the board could decide on a new man for the job. That man turned out to be David Anderson, a graduate of the State University of Iowa.

The Kent Tribune was sure Anderson could do the job.

A Tribune article dated Aug. 5, 1926, read, “The Tribune congratulates Dr. Anderson and the school on the hill. It is a wonderful institution and the Tribune wants to see it kept so. That the new president will do it we have no doubt.”

And President of the Board of Trustees, Rockwell said in a Jan. 21, 1926, statement printed in the Tribune that while he regretted having to fire McGilvrey, he thought it was best for the university.

Many students had doubts about their school’s new leader.

“While the present body of students have given no organized expression on the matter, it is known that the majority are resentful of the dismissal (of McGilvrey),” a Jan. 21, 1926, Tribune article read. “If expressions of individuals can mean anything.”

Even the president himself had doubts about his position.

“He had the fear that everybody was out for his job,” Hildebrand said. “He couldn’t stand rivals even if they weren’t real rivals, even if they were just imagined.”

His suspicions led to several firings. Anderson would fire faculty and staff at will and without explanation. He once went after a beloved groundskeeper, Alexander Whyte.

“He said, ‘Well, he didn’t lock the doors,’ or something,” Hildebrand said. The trustees cried foul and Whyte was permitted to stay.

Anderson left after just two years in charge and in much the same way as McGilvery. The Board of Trustees met and made a list of 140 offenses the president was said to have committed. After a trial that lasted over a month, he was permitted to resign.

“He was very difficult,” Hildebrand said. “And nobody wept when he left.”

James Engleman was named president in 1928.

“He was a big, slow-speaking, kindly, gentle man. He loved literature. He loved poetry,” Hildebrand said. “Engleman came in, and he was a breath of fresh air.”

Contact enterprise reporter

Kristine Gill at [email protected].

The Searchlight


Boys start fire at Merrill

Last Tuesday morning two boys started a fire in one of the classrooms in Merrill Hall.

All indications point to the fact that the boys did the act deliberately.

It seems that they at first tried to set fire to the things contained in the teacher’s desk. This not being possible — on account of the fire being smothered when the drawer was closed –they then proceeded to try the pupil’s desks. The consequence was that four of the desks were ruined.

A teacher, noticing the smoke, looked into the room and saw the flames. Grabbing a waste paper can she ran to the nearest water faucet, filled the can, rushed back into the room, and succeeded in keeping the flames down.

The fire department promptly arrived on the scene and soon quenched the blaze.

If sufficient proof can be secured the suspects will probably be brought into court.