Born in Iowa, Marion Burton liked to tell student audiences that he had earned his right to an education by selling newspapers on the streets of Minneapolis. He graduated from Carleton College in Northfield and subsequently received a bachelor’s degree in divinity and a Ph.D. from Yale. He also served as a pastor of a Congregational church in Brooklyn, New York. Burton was president of Smith College when he was persuaded to return to Minnesota in the summer of 1917.
World War I was still raging when Burton was formally installed as the University’s fourth president. As a result, an elaborate celebration was deemed inappropriate. Instead, the inauguration was combined with a celebration of the 50 years since the reconstituted University had been reopened in 1868. (It had closed down during the Civil War.) Burton’s inaugural address was four sentences long—not only the shortest acceptance speech in University history, but arguably among the shortest in U.S. history. In addition to his administrative duties, his lectures on the Bible drew overflow crowds to the Armory.
One of the most important issues Burton faced related to alleged pro-German sympathies of several faculty members. This was a period before there was protection for academic freedom. In the fall of 1917, a time of strong anti-German sentiments, William Schaper, a faculty member in political science, was dismissed by the regents. Two other faculty members were questioned, but their appointments were not terminated. Twenty years later, the dismissal was rescinded and the regents apologized to Schaper. This controversy was one of the major factors leading to the establishment of the University Tenure Code, adopted in 1945.
A second challenge to the University was the operation of special training classes for the U.S. Army. With little time to prepare and no previous experience, the University’s best faith efforts fell far short of perfect. Unsystematic selection of candidates for training resulted in low completion rates and poor discipline. After the war, the University learned from these mistakes—faculty members in the psychology department developed a national reputation for basic research that shaped the field of vocational testing.
Burton had great success in persuading legislators to increase funding for both buildings and faculty salaries. “That man will cost the state of Minnesota millions of dollars,” one senator remarked. “Every time he comes down here and asks for anything, all the members of the legislature will tumble all over each other in their efforts to give him what he asks.” Indeed, the legislature provided more than $5 million for a 10-year campus construction plan, the largest facilities appropriation at that time, laying the groundwork for building the central mall on the Twin Cities campus. Burton, who left Minnesota before the buildings he fought for were completed, went on to become president of the University of Michigan, where he was also recognized as a successful advocate for infrastructure.
Sources: James Gray, The University of Minnesota: 1851–1951 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1951), 243-259, and Alumni Weekly (June 24, 1918).