Hibben, John Grier

Hibben, John Grier (1861-1933), fourteenth president of Princeton, was born on April 19, 1861, in Peoria, Illinois. He entered Princeton with the Class of 1882 and at graduation was both class president and valedictorian. Following a year of study in Berlin, he attended Princeton Theological Seminary. On November 8, 1887, he married Jenny Davidson of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Ordained in the same year, he served Presbyterian churches in St. Louis and Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, until a throat ailment cut short his career in the church and turned him toward graduate studies in philosophy at Princeton where he became an instructor in logic in 1891 and received his Ph.D. in 1893. Four years later, he was named Stuart Professor of Logic, a subject he continued to teach, along with psychology and the Bible, until his election to the presidency on January 11, 1912.

The search for a successor to Woodrow Wilson had lasted for fifteen months. Hibben's nomination and election came at the hands of those trustees who had most resisted Wilson's reforms, and this posed a special problem for the new president, whose warm friendship with Wilson had rapidly cooled after Hibben had joined forces with Wilson's principal opponents in the Graduate School controversy, Moses Taylor Pyne and Dean Andrew F. West. The University had become sharply divided during the controversy, and Hibben felt that his most urgent task was to bring the factions together. At his first public appearance after the election, he set the tone for his entire administration. ``If I am to prove myself worthy in some small way of the confidence reposed in me,'' he told the alumni of Orange, New Jersey, ``my administration must make for peace. I wish to say to the alumni that which I said to the board of trustees on the day of election to this high office, and later to the faculty, that I represent no group or set of men, no party, no faction, no past allegiance or affiliation -- but one united Princeton!''

Hibben's actions proved his words. One of his first acts as president was to seek out several faculty members of the Wilson faction and urge them to cooperate with him in continuing the work begun by Wilson. Many had feared, according to Professor William Berryman Scott, that the election of Hibben ``signified the triumph of Wilson's enemies on the board as well as in the faculty.'' But Scott acknowledged, ``I was entirely mistaken,'' for Hibben's ``genial and kindly nature'' soon healed the breach, and even Wilson's strongest supporter, Professor Henry B. Fine, came in time to feel that Hibben was a ``singularly happy choice.''

Hibben's style in office was more that of the coordinator and mediator than of the dynamic, innovative leader. ``Temperate yet effective,'' ``tolerant, candid and fair,'' are the kind of comments that recur in the observations of colleagues, alumni, and trustees. His popularity as a teacher and his reputation for fair-mindedness~ -- celebrated by more than twenty-five successive classes in the faculty song: ``Here's to Hibben, we call him Jack / The whitest man in all the Fac'' -- followed him into Prospect.

In the fall of 1913, Hibben presided over elaborate ceremonies attending the formal opening of the impressive new Graduate College. Former President Taft and Dean West gave the principal addresses. Set apart on a hill about a half mile from the heart of the campus, the College represented the triumph of the work and ideas of Dean West and trustee Pyne. As dean of the Graduate School under Presidents Patton and Wilson, West had exercised nearly autonomous powers. However, within a year, those powers were to be severely reduced by the trustees when they wrote new bylaws making the Graduate School in every aspect of its administration subject to President Hibben and the standing committees of the trustees and faculty. A possible future source of difficulty for Hibben's leadership was thus removed at the outset.

The outbreak of the European War in 1914 brought new problems for the University as for the nation. President Hibben was a strong advocate of preparedness and of intervention on the side of the Allies. When America entered in 1917, he lost no time in placing the University's resources at the disposal of the government. Army, navy, and aviation training schools were soon busily functioning on campus, and many buildings, laboratories, and other facilities were made available to various research and operational programs. As the University donned khaki, Princeton men, too, flocked to the colors. By September 1918, there were only sixty undergraduates not in service. In all, more than six thousand Princetonians -- faculty, alumni, graduate and undergraduate students -- served in some branch of the armed forces. Of these, 151 made the supreme sacrifice. Hibben spoke out frequently in support of the war effort and was honored by President Lowell as a ``leader in patriotic thought'' upon the presentation of a Harvard LL.D.

As a cleric as well as an educator, Hibben was distressed by the extent to which secular forces seemed to hold sway over undergraduate minds and habits during the postwar period. These tendencies had been, he thought, ``largely affected by the hypocrisy attending the Eighteenth Amendment, by false standards of living growing out of our period of fictitious prosperity and by a skepticism toward old concepts of morals and religion following the World War.'' All this had resulted in a greater emphasis on social activities, he reported, a more luxurious style of living, particularly in the eating clubs, and the development of ``week-ending'' as more undergraduates sought diversion away from Princeton -- usually in the city. Among Hibben's remedies for these unhappy influences was the building of eight new dormitories -- Pyne, Henry, Foulke, Laughlin, 1901, Lockhart, 1903, and Walker Halls -- which permitted the housing of some 82 percent of the 2,200 undergraduates, a 28 percent increase over the situation immediately following the war. Also, the eating clubs, viewed as a ``vexing problem'' by Hibben no less than by his predecessor, were brought under new regulations regarding membership eligibility and self-government. Another restriction, which involved what Hibben considered one of the ``most serious enemies'' of the residential life of Princeton, came in 1927 when, with the President's concerned approval, the trustees prohibited the operation of cars by undergraduates except in special cases. Hibben's plans for countering these centrifugal impulses of social life also included the establishment of a student center as a focal point for the meeting and interaction of all members of the community. These plans were well advanced when the onset of the great depression forced their postponement. But, over the years, perhaps none of these physical structures has had as much effect in drawing together the various elements of student life as Hibben's appointment, in 1930, of the Council on Undergraduate Life, which has served to the present day as a most helpful sounding board and clearinghouse for undergraduate problems and concerns.

The special quality of Hibben's leadership emerged slowly over the years. It was his practice to look to the faculty for initiative in new programs, and he was invariably rewarded with the cooperation of leading members, many of whom had been recruited during the Wilson years. The preceptorial system was further developed and extended to sophomore courses, but the most significant curriculum reform under Hibben's stewardship came in 1923 with the inauguration of the ``four course plan,'' or more formally, the ``Upperclass Plan of Study.'' As Hibben reported to the trustees, this plan sought ``to elevate the plane of endeavor and attainment of the whole undergraduate body'' rather than that of a few students as provided by the old Honors Course program. The idea was to give the student more freedom during the upperclass years for independent reading in a particular subject in lieu of taking a fifth course. It all culminated in a senior thesis and a comprehensive examination period. Despite some initial doubts, the program quickly proved successful and was much emulated elsewhere. Professor Eisenhart as chairman of the Committee on the Course of Study had responsibility for organizing the new program and his efforts were the major ingredient in its continuing success. The plan endures in substance to this day in the Princeton program.

Hibben sought persistently to draw the faculty into closer relation with the president and trustees in the conduct of University affairs. His greatest success in this regard was the creation of a Committee on Appointments and Advancements consisting of three members of the faculty chosen by that body and charged with conferring with the president regarding his recommendations to the trustees. The ``Committee of Three,'' later enlarged, became one of the most important liaison groups on campus. In the same direction, more members of the faculty were named to trustee committees to establish a better working relationship on university matters of joint interest. The faculty also benefited from the successful fund drive by the Graduate Council to raise salaries, and with an improved salary scale came a new system of retirement, pensions, and insurance.

The years after the war also brought a vast increase in the University's facilities for instruction and research. ``Never in all her history,'' recalled one member of the faculty, ``was Princeton the scene of such Aladdin magic as unfolded itself during the last twelve years of the Hibben administration.'' A Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures was established in 1922, and three new schools were created: in 1919, the School of Architecture; in 1921, the School of Engineering; and in 1930, the School of Public and International Affairs, founded to carry forward the Princeton tradition for public service and later appropriately named for Woodrow Wilson. Significant support for faculty research also came with the establishment in 1922 of the Industrial Relations Section; in 1928, of the International Finance Section; and in 1929, of a $3 million Foundation for Scientific Research made possible by a General Education Board grant, supplemented by gifts of alumni and other friends.

The endowment fund rose dramatically under Hibben and by the end of his administration topped more than $24 million, a 374 percent increase. The University benefited from the burgeoning national economy and grew in step through the loyal support of the alumni. The remarkable increase in the general endowment was paralleled by numerous generous gifts in the form of new buildings. Besides the eight dormitories already mentioned, the list included two other dormitories, Cuyler and Joline Halls; the North Court quadrangle at the Graduate College and five new undergraduate dining halls; six new buildings for instruction and research -- McCormick, Eno, Green, Frick, Dickinson, and Fine Halls -- Palmer Stadium, Baker Rink, McCosh Infirmary, McCarter Theater, faculty apartments on Prospect Avenue and College Road, and the magnificent new University Chapel, whose nave was named for Hibben by the trustees in recognition of his personal efforts to make the chapel a reality. In all, some thirty buildings were constructed during Hibben's administration while the total area of the campus doubled in size.

Growth of the faculty was also impressiv~e -- in quality as well as quantity -- as the teaching force expanded some 73 percent under Hibben, who managed to retain most of the luminaries of the Wilson era and to add other accomplished or promising scholars. At the same time, the student body increased by nearly a thousand, even though a policy of limited enrollment and selective admission had been adopted in 1922.

In 1932, when Hibben retired, the University was by more than a full turn larger and, on every level, more advanced than it had been in 1912. Perhaps Professor Charles G. Osgood, a Wilson appointee, who went the distance under Hibben's temperate, wise, and corporate leadership, said it best when he characterized Hibben's administration as the ``flowering and harvest of Wilson's plantings.'' Certainly few could match the service and devotion Hibben gave to the University and its constituents for more than forty years. ``Princeton was Dr. Hibben's entire life,'' said one of his colleagues. ``He was a man of warm and generous instincts,'' added Professor Osgood, ``concerned with the individual case of every member of the Princeton household.'' The University was his ``parish.''

Hibben retired at the end of the school year in 1932, and a year later died in a tragic automobile accident that also fatally injured Mrs. Hibben. ``He had a profound sense of fairness and justice,'' observed the trustees in their memorial minute, ``and the wounds of time were healed by it.''

David W. Hirst


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

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