A New Direction for Trinity


John Franklin Crowell, 1897In the last decades of the nineteenth century Trinity College was led by one of its most significant presidents, John Franklin Crowell. He was our first modern or "twentieth century" president, even though he served from 1887 to 1894. If cited at all today, he usually is mentioned only for being the one responsible for moving the college to Durham. However, Crowell was far from a one-dimensional president.

In the mid-1880s, the college floundered after the death of Braxton Craven, who had presided over the school for forty-two years. Saved from extinction by a Committee of Management of three wealthy Methodist businessmen (Julian S. Carr of Durham and James A. Gray and John W. Alspaugh of Winston), the college truly was at a crossroads. The poverty of war and reconstruction had dealt a severe blow to higher education in the South and as the traditional private colleges and state universities struggled to, in effect, begin anew, they faced competition from a new kind of institution with a decidedly practical emphasis. In North Carolina, for Trinity and the University of North Carolina, the new competition came from the Agricultural and Mechanical College in Raleigh (now NCSU), the Normal and Industrial College for Women (now UNC-Greensboro) and several teacher-training institutions scattered across the state. In selecting a new president for Trinity, the Methodists, one perceptive observer noted, had to choose between the traditional path of "a favorite clergyman of proved piety and conservatism, or a young man trained in the study of economic and social needs of the day." Perhaps to the surprise of many, the selection committee took the chance of a new direction.

The trustees offered the presidency to Crowell, a young man aged 29 with scant experience, who was a northerner by birth and training and, although a minister, not a Methodist. The unlikely candidate was the boxing partner at Yale of Horace Williams of Chapel Hill who recommended him to his father-in-law, Julian S. Carr, chairman of the trustee search committee. Born in York, Pennsylvania, Crowell attended Dartmouth College before transferring to Yale where he earned a B.A. degree in 1883. After serving as principal of Schuylkill Seminary in Pennsylvania, Crowell returned to Yale for study in both the Divinity and Graduate Schools. While ordained in the Evangelical Church, his interests were in the study of the relatively new disciplines of economics and sociology. Crowell's first publication, a copy of which he mailed to Carr, was a study of the rapidly-growing industrial employment of children published in the Andover Review in 1885. The farsighted trustees saw in Crowell the type of progressive educator that was needed to lead the college in a new era.

Crowell first saw Trinity when he began his presidency at Commencement exercises in 1887. In truth, he confided in his diary, he almost resigned and returned north. However, the impression he made was positive. One gentleman liked him because "he didn't try to tell them everything he knew." One thing he wisely did not tell immediately was that he noticed incorrect Latin on the college seal presented to him as his badge of office.

President Crowell and Professor Joseph L. Armstrong, who was hired at the same time, immediately set out to establish a new curriculum at Trinity. Armstrong had studied at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Leipzig. Together they had attended prestigious universities then undergoing curriculum reform themselves.

Basically they sought to replace the 19th century model based on memorization with the developing German university model of learning based on research and independent thought. Recitations continued where mastery of details were necessary but oral and written examinations on general principles greatly increased. Investigations in primary sources such as public laws and documents, journals and newspapers were required and the practices of note taking, classroom discussion, and collateral reading became commonplace. To support the new emphasis on research Crowell persuaded the competitive debating societies to merge their separate closed libraries into the college's first general library. Crowell personally catalogued the books and served selected hours as reference librarian to encourage and instruct the students in proper research methods.

The lively academic activity resulted in increased visiting lecturers and public discussion of current topics including the publication of a series of pamphlets as Trinity College Publications which often addressed issues before the state legislature. The students began their own literary magazine, The Archive, credited today as the second oldest such publication in the country. Other student initiatives included the founding of a Trinity College Historical Society which gave impetus to the beginning of a manuscript collection in the library and a select honorary society called 9019, a precursor of Phi Beta Kappa.

All of Crowell's emphasis was not academic. He strongly believed in physical fitness and he encouraged intramural competition in baseball, tennis, and lacrosse. When students sought his assistance in beginning intercollegiate competition in football he readily agreed, actually coaching the team for several years. Crowell had detected an economic and geographic division on campus between eastern and up-country or supposed richer and poorer students. He seized upon football as the best way to unite the student body as well as a way to challenge the prestige of the state university in Chapel Hill. When Trinity triumphed over UNC 16-0 in their first football encounter on Thanksgiving Day in 1888, Crowell, the college community, and its alumni basked in the attention given them by the state's press.

While principal of Schuylkill Seminary Crowell had witnessed its removal from an urban setting in Reading to a rural one in Fredericksburg, a move he considered detrimental to the school. At Trinity, he believed the changes set in motion could be sustained only in a progressive city in the then popular image of the New South. Again, much to the surprise of many, the trustees agreed with Crowell and put the relocation of the college up for bids. Raleigh was selected initially as the favored site but Durham topped Raleigh's bid with the financial backing of Washington Duke and donation of land by Julian S. Carr. When plans were made to open a new campus in Durham in September 1891 Crowell's transformation of the school seemed complete.

However, fate was to deal unkindly with Crowell. The tower of the new main building collapsed shortly before school was to open postponing the removal one year until 1892. Then the most severe economic depression in the history of the country further dealt a blow to his expansionist dreams. Disgruntled faculty resigned as promises of salary increases failed to materialize and opposition within the church surfaced, some of it attributed to latent antipathy to his northern background.

Crowell resigned as president in 1894. He served as head of the Department of Economics and Sociology at Smith College before studying at the University of Berlin and earning his Ph.D. degree from Columbia University in 1897. Then he began a second distinguished career as an economist, associate editor of the Wall Street Journal, and statistician in several positions in Washington, D. C. and New York. In 1917, Trinity College awarded him an honorary LL.D. degree. He lived until 1931, proudly observing the dramatic transformation of Trinity College into Duke University, a process he launched in no small measure himself.

Related Resources

© 1990. William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002.
This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.