Book Review: UNL, The Campus History Series

January, 2018

Lincoln -- In a recent "All About Books" podcast, Pat Leach introduced listeners to a new book about the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. The book, by on-air guest Kay Logan-Peters, is mostly a collection of photos from the university's archives, organized chronologically with explanatory text.

Both the photos and the text are noteworthy. Some of the photos have never appeared in other such works. The text, to its credit, does not shy away from controversy and even ventures opinions worthy of a raised eyebrow or two.

One photo I liked especially, p. 55, was from the 1890s, taken by Erwin Barbour, the paleontologist, of women students playing basketball on campus. The caption says Louise Pound coached the team from 1901 to 1908, but she seems not to be in the picture. She may have been off getting her doctorate at Heidelberg, because that degree was not available to women at the university at that time. But look who is in the picture (not identified), in the middle guarding the woman catching the ball: Edith Schwartz Clements, the woman who in 1904 would be the first to receive a doctorate from the university and a founder of the discipline of plant ecology.

Another photo of special note, p. 34, is of General John J. Pershing, pictured with "a small group of cadets" in 1894. Again, look who is in the picture (but not identified) standing second from left: Frank D. Eager, a protégé of Pershing who went on to earn a Silver Star in the Philippine American War, earned a law degree and became clerk of the Nebraska House of Representatives, published the leading populist newspaper of its era, The Independent, developed Lincoln's P Street with hotels and movie theaters, and led the statewide referendum to keep the main university campus downtown rather than moving it to The Farm (now the East Campus). Part of this story is told on p. 57, but it omits mention of who was behind the referendum, Frank Eager. He was also the man behind raising funds for the eastward expansion of the downtown campus.

Some photos just beg for more identification of those in them. Who is that man in the photo, p. 101, with John Neihardt, Mari Sandoz, Frank Morrison, and Clifford Hardin? Surely somebody knows. There is one person, p. 94, who is listed as "unidentified," but it is clearly Vice Chancellor G. Robert Ross, sitting along with the other vice-chancellors of the time.

The book's text follows Robert Knoll's Prairie University closely, which is good. Knoll wrote the definitive work on the history of the institution two decades ago. Gently, he spared no one. This book does likewise when it comes to naming which chancellors were failures. Current and future university leaders: take note and learn from your predecessors' mistakes.

Which is not to say I am always in agreement with the judgments of Knoll and Logan-Peters. I think it's a stretch to imply that chancellors James Zumberge and Roy Young were weak because they were "hampered by inadequate resources," p. 108. Measured how, exactly? Nebraska's state tax support for higher education has been relatively high for decades, and compared to what other chancellors faced in truly dire times, their resources problem was minor. Rather, in my opinion, those two chancellors were victims of chancellor-turned-president Durward (Woody) Varner, an outsized personality who over-shadowed the chancellors and presided over a shift of resources from Lincoln to Omaha. That shift, incidentally, was less to UNO than it was to UNMC, the Omaha-based medical center. You can look it up in the budget history of the university. It was also Woody Varner's re-organization of the university that diminished UNL such that it eventually lost its membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities. That was a blow from which UNL struggles to recover. Woody Varner did better as head of the NU Foundation than he did as president, at least as I witnessed it.

Those are minor quibbles with the book. I applaud the author for making bold statements, all the better to stimulate a second look at the university's history.

To me, the biggest shortcoming of the book is that there are too many pictures and mentions of the Pounds, Geres, and the like. Given the limited space in this thin volume, it would have been better to identify all the members of the Sem Bot, p. 23, as each was a remarkable person, rather than showing us a second and third portrait of Roscoe Pound. And the text for the Pound portraits is not what it might be. It was not Pound who went on to international recognition in botany, but Frederic Clements who dominated the field world-wide for the next four decades. Seldom is it mentioned, but Roscoe Pound in 1934 accepted academic honors from a Nazi controlled university and reported that there was no persecution of Jewish scholars in Germany. That alone should cut him down to one portrait in this history; the other might be replaced with a portrait of a university student and scholar who risked is life to save Jewish scholars from the Nazis, the great Alvin Johnson.

For all the above reasons, the superb photos and the accompanying commentary, this book belongs on the bookshelves of all who care about the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Kay Logan-Peters has given us a book worthy of our closest attention.