The regents selected a candidate to follow President Guy Stanton Ford, and they believed they had an acceptance. After a public announcement, however, the appointee declined the position. To solve this problem, they turned to Walter Coffey, the dean of the Department of Agriculture (today the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences). By coincidence, Coffey and the two University presidents who immediately preceded him in that office (Lotus D. Coffman and Guy Stanton Ford) had each attended the University of Illinois. In 1921, Coffey was one of the first people whom Coffman recruited to come to Minnesota.
Coffey grew up in Hartsville, Indiana, and assisted his father in raising Shropshire-Southdown sheep, the foundation of a lifelong interest in animal husbandry. With a two-year degree from Franklin College in hand, he spent the next six years teaching in Indiana schools. When he was 30 years old, he took a position as herdsman at the University of Illinois. Once there, he found that the college needed someone to teach sheep raising. In a move that was to change his life, Coffey offered to teach in the program. He rose through the ranks from student to graduate student to faculty member. He once observed that he had gotten into agriculture “through the barn door.”
Soon after his arrival at the University, Coffey started “on a missionary campaign to justify the ways of the University as a whole to the community as a whole,” historian James Gray wrote of him, noting that long before Coffey became president, “there was probably no figure of the state who was known to more citizens or known to the vast majority of them so favorably.” His interests extended beyond the University, and he served on a number of local and national boards, including the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, the Association of Land Grant Colleges, the Minnesota YMCA, and Hamline University.
Coffey reorganized the office of the president, delegating some responsibilities to two vice presidents, one for academic and the other for business affairs. During his term, moreover, academic governance took a major step forward with the establishment of the faculty tenure code. World War II offered the challenge of overseeing army special training programs that added approximately 5,000 military personnel to campus while continuing to offer regular classes without approximately 800 faculty and staff members who had been called up for military service. Coffey was expected to serve for only three years, “but as the war was still on, it seemed difficult to make a change, and he was doing such a splendid job that the regents by unanimous consent drafted him for another year of service,” wrote E. B. Pierce in the Minnesota Alumnus in 1946.
Sources: James Gray, The University of Minnesota: 1851–1951 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1951), 406-411; “Dr. W.C. Coffey Dies in Florida at 79” Minneapolis Star (February 1, 1956): 1C; and E.B. Pierce, “Presidents of Minnesota,” Minnesota Alumnus (April, 1946): 225.