G. Bromley Oxnam, 1928-1936
DePauw's Thirteenth President
G. Bromley Oxnam, whom the trustees chose as Murlin's successor, was a quite different sort of college president than any of his predecessors. A graduate of the University of Southern California and the Boston University School of Theology, he had served as pastor of a large Los Angeles church before becoming professor of social ethics at Boston University. A vigorous, charismatic person, with strong convictions and a forceful speaking style, Oxnam was to achieve a high level of national and international recognition and bring DePauw an unprecedented amount of public attention during his presidential term. After taking up residence in Greencastle he not only continued his ardent advocacy of world peace and social reform but also proved to be an activist administrator bent on remolding the university in accordance with his own views.
Shortly after his arrival on campus President Oxnam gave evidence of his own antimilitarist views by issuing an administrative order making participation in R.O.T.C. voluntary rather than compulsory. Both the faculty and the student body had discussed this idea before but without any decision being made. Despite outcries from the American Legion and similar organizations, Oxnam went even farther in 1934, calling upon the trustees to abolish the entire R.O.T.C. program at DePauw. The board quickly complied with his wishes, ending the university's second experience with student military training in peace time. On the whole, both the university and church constituency came to the support of the president in this matter against his many detractors in other quarters.
President Oxnam involved the university in a serious controversy over the issue of academic freedom and faculty tenure by refusing in 1933 to renew the contract of Professor Ralph W. Hufferd, a member of the chemistry department since 1920. Hufferd was a highly respected, though admittedly rather tactless, chemistry teacher, as well as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, who may have been uncomfortable with Oxnam's pacifist pronouncements. At any rate he incurred the president's displeasure by his outspoken criticism of administration policies and his participation in an interdepartmental quarrel with a division chairman. At his request the American Association of University Professors dispatched a committee to Greencastle to investigate the case. Finding the president uncooperative and the methods of faculty appointment, promotion, and dismissal vague and uncertain, the committee decided to look into the whole system of tenure at the university. Its final report to the executive board of the A.A.U.P. not only condemned Hufferd's dismissal on the grounds of unsubstantiated charges and the lack of any hearing process but also severely criticized President Oxnam's wide, unchecked authority in tenure matters.
At its annual meeting in November 1934 the A.A.U.P. voted to remove DePauw University from the "eligible list" of institutions of higher education, a measure amounting to a general censure of the administration. One constructive result of this unfortunate controversy was the adoption by the board of trustees in 1935 of a "Statement of Academic Freedom and Tenure," which belatedly brought the university into compliance with the accepted professional standards of the A.A.U.P. and similar bodies.
Whatever his differences with the faculty, President Oxnam was generally popular with the student body. Many former students have attested to his magnetic personality and interesting chapel addresses, to the air of excitement he brought to the quiet and rather isolated campus. His socially prominent wife and active young family also may have contributed to a more sophisticated image of the contemporary Methodist university presidency.
It is not altogether clear how much Oxnam's progressive ideas on politics and society may have influenced undergraduates. In the fall of 1932 a straw poll revealed that a large majority of students favored the re-election of Herbert Hoover, a result consistent with the prevailing Republican predilection of the DePauw constituency. More surprisingly, 245 students, cast their ballots for Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate who had spoken on campus at the president's invitation. After the election of Franklin Roosevelt and the enactment of his New Deal reform measures, the Oxnam administration worked closely with the federal government to help students find employment opportunities on campus. Hundreds of students took advantage of jobs provided through the National Youth Administration and similar agencies to augment their resources in working their way through college.
President Oxnam, concerned about reports of falling church attendance, inaugurated a special interdenominational vespers service on Sunday evenings that proved popular with students. Daily morning chapel was continued on a voluntary basis, but with religious services only on Wednesday. By 1933 this worship chapel and the Sunday evening vespers were conducted in the sanctuary of Gobin Memorial Church, its ecclesiastical setting and the robed university choir adding much to the dignity and solemnity of the occasion. On other weekdays chapel was held in Meharry Hall, featuring talks by the president, professors, or visiting speakers, with usually a musical program on Friday. President Oxnam himself was a frequent chapel speaker, sometimes choosing controversial topics dealing with contemporary social issues or discussing his summer travels in Europe or the Orient. Through his wide contacts with pacifist and social reform circles he was able to bring to campus leading figures in those movements, including Norman Thomas, Kirby Page, and Sherwood Eddy. One program in 1935 was devoted to a student demonstration for world peace.
A major concern of the Oxnam administration was to strengthen the operations of the library, which did not come up to the standards of institutions with which DePauw liked to compare itself. Until 1931 the titular librarian was Professor Francis J. Tilden of the comparative literature department, who left most of the work of supervising the library in the hands of an assistant, Margaret Gilmore. In that year Vera Southwick Cooper became the first professionally trained librarian to serve the university. She was soon able to increase the book budget and engage additional library staff, though the limitations of physical space in the Carnegie building prevented the enlargement of resources needed to meet the desired standards fully.
DePauw's "apostolic succession" was renewed when Oxnam was elected a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1936, making him the last of six presidents to attain that office. His subsequent long career as a major ecclesiastical leader brought him national and international acclaim. At times he remained a controversial figure, as during his spirited defence of civil liberties in the 1950s. He died in 1963.