Dodds, Harold Willis

Dodds, Harold Willis (1889- ) fifteenth president of Princeton, was born in Utica, Pennsylvania, on June 28, 1889. His father, a Presbyterian minister, was professor of Bible at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, and Harold Dodds spent most of his youth on or near the college campus. He graduated from Grove City in 1909 and, after teaching school for two years, did graduate work in politics at Princeton (M.A. 1914) and Pennsylvania (Ph.D. 1917). He celebrated his doctorate by marrying Margaret Murray of Halifax on Christmas Day, 1917. During the war he served in the Food Administration, and then (1919-1920) taught at Western Reserve. He had already gained a reputation as an expert on problems of local government, and in 1920 he became secretary of the National Municipal League, a post he held until 1928.

The president of the league was the secretary of state, Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes formed a high opinion of his young executive officer and got him involved in the electoral problems of Latin America. As adviser to the president of Nicaragua, Dodds drafted the Nicaraguan electoral law of 1923 and helped supervise the remarkably peaceful and honest elections of 1928. In between, he was advisor to the commission that vainly sought to arrange a plebiscite that would end the long dispute between Chile and Peru over the provinces of Tacna and Arica.

During this period, Dodds gave lecture courses at various eastern colleges. In 1925 he joined the Princeton Faculty. He was promoted to full professor in 1927, and in 1930 was appointed chairman of the newly established School of Public Affairs (now the Woodrow Wilson School). During his chairmanship, he and his colleagues made an intensive survey of the government of New Jersey. They found much room for improvement in the administration of the state, and some of their recommendations were actually put into effect -- an unusual event in the history of such reports.

Thus when the trustees chose Harold Dodds as president of Princeton in 1933, they were selecting a scholar who had had wide experience in administration and in public and international affairs. They were also selecting the youngest president of Princeton in over a century, which was just as well, considering the problems that had to be met during the next two decades. The Great Depression, the Second World War, and the postwar period of readjustment put severe and continuing strains on the University and its president. Not until 1950 did Princeton have what might be called a normal year, with adequate income, a large enough faculty, and neither too few nor too many students.

Just to have kept the University going during these troubled times would have seemed a satisfactory achievement to many men. Dodds did far more. The intellectual level of the University and the breadth of its interests increased steadily during his presidency. He had a remarkable talent for recognizing excellence. Bright young men were quickly promoted; first-rate scholars were attracted from other institutions; new departments and programs were created. He depended heavily, of course, on the advice of deans and department chairmen, but they gave him good advice because they knew that he would back them to the limit when they had good candidates, and that he had a sure instinct for detecting mediocrity. He could help lure a Jacob Viner from Chicago to strengthen the Department of Economics, and he could also see why Classics needed to promote a young instructor named Robert Goheen.

The creation of new departments and programs and the growth of a professional staff made it especially important to pay careful attention to appointments and promotions. The development of the Music Department (1934), the Office of Population Research (1936), the Creative Arts Program (1939), the Departments of Religion (1940), Aeronautical Engineering (1941), and Near Eastern Studies (1947), the great postwar expansion of the Woodrow Wilson School and of sponsored research programs vastly increased the size of the faculty and professional staff. A few figures will show the rate of growth:

1933 1941 1946 1956

Faculty 327 391 514 582

Professional
staff 237

Total 819

Undergraduates 2309 2434 3428 2948

Graduate students
293 267 514 636

Total 2602 2701 3942 3584

It should also be noticed that the ratio of teachers to students increased steadily (except for the postwar bulge of 1946).

The war years were especially difficult. Princeton adopted an accelerated program to give its students an opportunity to graduate before they entered the armed services. At the same time the army and navy sent hundreds of young men to the campus for general or specialized training. The number of students fluctuated widely from month to month. A faculty depleted by enlistments or calls to government service had to teach unfamiliar subjects at break-neck speed. Yet the basic ideals of a Princeton education were maintained and a remarkably high percentage of undergraduates who had left the University for military service returned after the war.

During all this turmoil Dodds remained steadfast in his belief in the value of liberal studies, and his conviction helped to steady the University. He made an effort to keep in touch with students in the services and strengthened their desire to return to college. At the end of the war he set up the Princeton Program for Servicemen, which made it easy for men to resume their education almost as soon as they were discharged.

Just as the University was adjusting to the return of students and faculty from the war, came the two-hundredth anniversary of the founding of Princeton. The year 1946-1947 was celebrated by an almost continuous series of scholarly conferences and three major convocations. Over a thousand scholars and men of affairs from all parts of the world attended these meetings. They helped to renew bonds broken by the war and to indicate the tasks to be undertaken by the new generation of scholars. As a continuing memorial of the anniversary, Bicentennial Preceptorships were established to give the most promising young assistant professors a year of free time for research.

Increasing the size and quality of the faculty was expensive. Improving retirement benefits and building new housing for the faculty was also expensive. Even more costly were badly needed additions to the physical plant. The Dillon Gymnasium (1947) replaced the old gym, destroyed in a disastrous fire. The Firestone Library (1948) gave students in the humanities and the social sciences an almost ideal place to do their work. The acquisition of the Forrestal Campus (formerly part of the Rockefeller Center for Medical Research) in 1941 gave engineering and nuclear physics badly needed space. Woodrow Wilson Hall (now Corwin Hall) provided a home for the Woodrow Wilson School. New dormitories took care of the growing student population.

To meet these expenses a constant search for money was required. Annual Giving started modestly in 1941 but soon became a major source of income ($80,000 in 1941, $1,281,000 in 1957). Dodds's request in 1938 for an increase in the number of endowed professorships was remarkably successful. Thirty new endowed professorships were established during his administration, almost doubling the number and more than doubling the income from this source. The windfall of the Higgins Trust (shared with Yale, Harvard, and Columbia) took some of the strain off the budget for the science departments. But, as always, it was the loyal support of alumni and friends who believed in the aims and achievements of the University that carried Princeton through a period of inflation and growing expenditures.

As Princeton grew, both physically and in intellectual stature, the task of administering the University became more complicated. Harold Dodds grew with the job; he was never overwhelmed by new problems or new responsibilities. He saw opportunities, not threats, in changes in American life, as he made clear in his little book Out of This Nettle, Danger . . . (Princeton 1943). His quiet confidence gave confidence to others, and his sense of humor kept him from becoming dogmatic and inflexible. He could say of the alumni that their tradition of pressing advice on the president began when Benjamin Rush (1760) told Witherspoon what to do, of the faculty that in their relations with him they had displayed a ``tolerance that often rose to the level of true Christian charity,'' of the students ``that when young people start to think for themselves they always cause pain to their elders.'' Few university presidents of his generation had his stamina and his experience. It was fitting that after his retirement the Carnegie Foundation asked him to undertake a study which produced the book The Academic President -- Educator or Caretaker?

Harold Dodds stated his beliefs about the role of the University most clearly at the final Bicentennial Convocation on June 17, 1947:

``Princeton enters her third century with certain convictions as to what she wants her future to be. We shall uphold the banner of the general as the only safe foundation for the particular. We shall strive for quality rather than quantity; we have no illusions of grandeur that bigness will satisfy. As a residential university, we shall emphasize the community of students and teachers, believing that the life of the campus is a potent supplement to formal study and instruction. We shall always see to it that our students represent a democratic cross-section of American youth, geographically and with respect to economic circumstance. We shall strive to develop mental proficiency, and to this end work to maintain the highest scholastic standards, but we shall not forget that moral proficiency must be cultivated as well. We shall seek to advance learning as well as disseminate it. We shall remember that we were founded by God-fearing men and we shall strive to communicate to our students the sense of duty that made our forebears strong.

``As she crosses the threshold of a new and fateful age, Princeton will strive to meet any challenge, to dare any adventure to preserve her integrity and to further her enduring purpose. Proud as we are of our history and grateful for the strength our heritage brings to us, we know that to rest on it can lead only to decay and destruction. We intend to be the progenitors of a stronger Princeton, not merely the beneficiaries of generations that went before us.''

To sum up, the Dodds years were the years in which Princeton became a real university, a major contributor to knowledge and understanding throughout the world. They were also years in which teaching, and especially the teaching of undergraduates, reached new levels of excellence. Departmental and interdepartmental programs became broader, deeper, and more flexible. Wilson had set the goal of combining high scholarship and first-rate teaching. When he retired in June 1957, Harold Dodds had come nearer to realizing this difficult combination than any of his predecessors. As the faculty said in an address to the president, read at the last faculty meeting over which he presided:

``You have steadfastly adhered to the belief that the ideal member of the Faculty is one who can both communicate and add to the knowledge of his subject. In maintaining this principle you have helped us to create a community of teacher-scholars which is the envy of other institutions. Princeton has grown, during your Presidency, in all the things which make a university -- in intellectual eminence and in influence on our society. It is a better place for scholars to do their work than it was when you became President, and we are grateful for all that you have done to make it so. The years of your administration will long be remembered as a great period in the history of Princeton.''

Joseph R. Strayer


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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