William Watts Folwell was just 36 when he became the University’s first president in the fall of 1869. He was recruited from Hobart College, where he was an alumnus and a faculty member. A Civil War veteran, the multi-talented Folwell was described in James Gray’s history of the University as “a knight errant of the new education…interested in everything from Plato to hog cholera.” An institution with eight faculty members and fewer than 100 students, most of them in the preparatory department, needed Folwell’s energy, vision, and crusading spirit to become, in a real sense, a university. Although the University had received its charter from the Territorial Legislature in 1851, it had only recently reopened after having suspended instruction during the Civil War.
Folwell’s visionary “Minnesota Plan” encompassed all levels of education in Minnesota, from elementary and secondary through higher education, with the University of Minnesota offering college courses as well as graduate and professional programs. Folwell also envisioned the University as a cultural center with museums and a library, “the natural resort for counsel and information.” Although the Board of Regents formally accepted Folwell’s plan in 1870, it would be many decades before major elements of his vision became a reality. Some faculty members were skeptical of Folwell’s belief in graduate and professional education, and preferred a university built on an undergraduate and classical curriculum that emphasized Greek and Latin. An 1879 faculty protest led to a number of resignations. Although disruptive, it created the opportunity for Folwell to find replacements whose views more closely matched his own; among them were James Dodge (chemistry), John Downey (mathematics), William Pike (engineering), and Maria Sanford (rhetoric).
By 1884, after 15 years of Folwell’s service and wearied by ongoing controversies, the regents decided that it was time to seek a new president. The transition took place amicably. Folwell was recognized for his tireless advocacy for a full fledged university and was subsequently honored as a “builder of the institution.” Unofficially referred to as “Uncle Billy,” he was a beloved and respected father figure to generations of students.
Following his resignation as president, Folwell became a professor of political science and continued as the librarian until retiring in 1907. From the 1880s on, he was active in organizations such as the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts, the Minneapolis Park Board, and the Minnesota Historical Society, serving as a board member and a board chair for each. In the 1920s, he completed his four-volume history of the state of Minnesota—a work that is still respected for its scholarship and lively writing. On the 50th anniversary of his inauguration, he was voted president emeritus of the University. Folwell died at the age of 96 in 1929.
Sources: James Gray, The University of Minnesota:1851–1951 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1951), 38- 39, 62-74, and William Watts Folwell, “Memorial Convocation,” February 20, 1930.