In the Archives of the University of Cincinnati rests a curious bronze plaque depicting Howard Ayers, UC president from 1899 to 1904. Among this plaque’s curious aspects is an inscription describing Ayers as the “Father of the University of Cincinnati,” which he most certainly was not. Ayers did not found UC, nor fund UC, nor oversee any major transformation of the university. He was not the university’s first president. If anything, Howard Ayers came darn close to pitching the University of Cincinnati into chaos.
Admittedly, Ayers took over a university already in disarray. Throughout the 1890s, UC had no chief executive. The faculty took turns serving as dean, so anytime a dean made an unpopular decision, the faculty would ignore it until next year, when the new dean would repeal it. With everybody in charge, nobody was in charge. Half of the faculty didn’t speak to the other half and the medical faculty operated with disdainful independence. Most of the faculty, despite good salaries (for the time) of $2,500 a year, treated their UC positions as part-time sinecures and invested the bulk of their effort in other endeavors. The City of Cincinnati, for example, employed the physics professor as its consulting electrician.
Ayers was recruited to shake things up. Little did the board suspect how successful he would be. Six months into his presidency, in January 1900, Ayers ignited a citywide dispute by firing almost every professor in UC’s Academic Department. The students erupted. The professors prevailed upon powerful donors to pressure the board. The board, taken by surprise, didn’t know what to say. Donors drew battle lines. The situation exacerbated when Philip Van Ness Myers – one of two professors Ayers hoped to retain – submitted a very public resignation, accusing Ayers of crimes against dignity and morality:
“It is because, as a believer in the eternal justice of God, and as a teacher of the supremacy of the law of righteousness in human life and history, I cannot consent to work with President Ayers, as he has asked me to do, in carrying on the future work of the University, since by so doing, I should be giving approval to the professional assassination—I cannot use a less accusing word—by a comparative stranger, of my colleagues of many years, some of whom I have come to know intimately, and through such knowledge have acquired the right to declare that in their persons has been violated every principle of humanity and justice.”
The Cincinnati Labor Council joined the fight, announcing – even though the faculty were not unionized – their support for a general strike “against the obnoxious Superintendent of the Knowledge Factory in Burnet Woods.” And then, the ultimate blow: A Methodist minister, addressing the Cincinnati Evangelical Alliance announced he had evidence President Ayers was (gasp!) an agnostic!
Somehow, the situation simmered into an uneasy peace. Ayers replaced most of the faculty and took steps to push the professors into conducting more research. (Ayers himself was a reputable biologist.) He initiated evening classes and launched a University Press to publish faculty work, hired the first dean of women and acquired a rare and expensive nugget of radium to be used in scientific experiments.
But Ayers’ relations with the faculty were never good and sometimes boiled over into animosity. It didn’t help that Thaddeus Reamy, a member of UC’s board, was also a professor in the College of Medicine. In 1902, according to Reginald McGrane’s 1963 history of UC, friction with the medical faculty resulted in Ayers storming out of a meeting intended as a peace parley:
“Dr. Reamy later claimed that as the President reached the top steps of the Medical Department at the close of the session he shook his fingers at the members remaining and said, ‘I propose to govern the Medical Department of the University if I have to go to hell to do it, and you gentlemen may as well understand it now as later.’”
The only person the six-foot tall Ayers seemed to get along with was the equally tall Harris Hancock, professor a mathematics. It appears that Ayers and Hancock met every morning for a strenuous bout of fencing in the university gymnasium. Ayers kept a set of swords in his office for this purpose.
After several years of strife, the University’s Board of Directors found the limit of their patience and began to pull in the reins on the president. Ayers resisted mightily, publishing a pamphlet through the University Press attacking the board, in some cases by name. The Cincinnati Post [22 September 1903] reported board member Alfred Benedict’s indignation:
“There is only one question before this board, and that is whether Howard Ayers is fit to be President of the University? A man who has no more sense than to print and circulate such a scurrilous, libelous statement about the board, mentioning two members by name and reflecting upon the entire board, is not fit to be at the head of anything.”
Things went downhill from there. The board hired Charles W. Dabney to replace Ayers after 1 July 1904, but Ayers became so obstreperous that the board fired him outright in April 1904. Ayers, as usual, thundered his objections:
“I want to denounce this action as an outrage. Every one of you men knows in your heart that it is an outrage. If anything has gone wrong at the University in the last year for which I am to blame I would like to know it. This action, I repeat, is an outrage.”
Board Member Benedict told the Cincinnati Post [23 April 1904] that Ayers could have taken an easy way out:
“Mr. Ayers was given a chance to ask for a leave of absence with full pay, and it would have been granted him. But, no; he insisted that the board must throw him out of office to get rid of him. He has brought everything on himself.”
It is interesting that, given his continual controversies, Ayers remained in Cincinnati for the rest of his life. Shortly after he was fired, 76 Cincinnatians, including William Howard Taft and his brother, Times-Star Publisher Charles Taft, along with grocer Barney Kroger, and merchant Stewart Shillito presented Ayers with a purse containing $1,555 in gold. The Reedy Elevator Manufacturing Company offered a vice-presidency and Ayers held that position for the next 20 years. When Ayers retired from business, he spent his last decade conducting zoological research at his home in Avondale.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.