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Cyrus Northrop

Cyrus Northrop was the University’s second president. His 27-year term was the longest of any of the presidents. Initially reluctant to come to Minnesota because of the distance from his native New England and his income, he accepted the offer of the presidency contingent upon his salary being at least equal to what he made as professor of rhetoric and English literature at Yale and as collector of the port of New Haven. Historian of the University James Gray reported that the chair of the Board of Regents, John Sargent Pillsbury, rose to the challenge. “We have had to offer Northrop $6,000 [approximately $115,000 in 2000 dollars] a year to come,” he wrote, noting that this amount was almost twice the going rate for college or university presidents in the Midwest.

The new president won the hearts of students, faculty, and people of the state. “His reign was a beneficent monarchy,” E.B. Pierce wrote in Minnesota Alumnus in 1946. “There were not many rules and regulations—only his requests—and those through affection and great regard, became mandates. Never was a president more loved and revered by a student body.” Northrop was called “Prexy,” and on the days when he led chapel, students came en masse. The second stanza of the original version of “Hail, Minnesota!” was a tribute to Northrop: “Hail to thee, our Prexy, sire. Thou has made us all thine own. And our hearts one boon aspire, That our love may be thy throne.”

As Gray noted, Northrop’s strength was as a peacemaker. He served as an ambassador of goodwill for the University. Conway MacMillan, a botany professor and a friend of Northrop, once observed that Northrop’s chief service to the University was that he “sanctified the whole place.”

The Northrop years, if relatively placid and calm in the world of undergraduate education, were a time of innovation and expansion in graduate and professional programs. In 1889, John Sargent Pillsbury, a University regent and former governor, donated funds for a new science building (later named Pillsbury Hall). In addition to existing colleges and departments (e.g., arts, agriculture, engineering), new professional schools were established in education, dentistry, law, medicine, pharmacy, and nursing, as well as new undergraduate programs in home economics (human ecology) and forestry (natural resources). The University’s first doctoral degree was awarded in 1888. Research in agriculture was stimulated by funds appropriated by the Hatch Act funds received through the Experiment Station, and statewide outreach was carried out by the Agricultural Extension Service.

Northrop’s administration relied more on force of personality than on systems and structures. Initially he had no secretary. He had no vice presidents, no administrative assistants, and no formal budget. “His wastebasket was his filing cabinet,” writes historian James Gray. “No copies of letters were kept because, as he said, it was convenient to be the supreme... authority, at any given moment....”

Northrop tried to resign several times after he reached the age of 65, but the regents refused to comply with his request. It was impossible to imagine the University without Northrop. Finally, at age 77 he insisted, and the regents relented. He retired in 1911.

Sources: James Gray, The University of Minnesota: 1851–1951 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1951), 80, 83-84, and 142-44, and E. B. Pierce, Alumni Magazine (April, 1946): 221-222.

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