A president’s mixed past

The Marvin Center, which celebrated its 33rd birthday in February, carries the name of one of the University’s most historic and controversial figures.

President Cloyd Heck Marvin’s presidency was a time of great expansion for the University. It was also marked by great turmoil. This year marks the 75th anniversary of his three-decade reign as GW president.

Marvin, president of the University from 1927 to 1959, oversaw an eightfold increase in endowment, tripled faculty size and doubled enrollment. Marvin increased the size of the school by 26 percent in his first seven years alone, while only raising tuition 6 percent. Thirteen buildings on the present campus were built or bought on his watch, including Monroe, Strong and Tompkins halls, as well as Lisner Auditorium.

However, desegregation, tight control over students’ freedom of speech and assembly and frequent clashes with the more liberal members of the student body and faculty characterized Marvin’s tenure.

Students protested at the dedication and naming of the Marvin Center in 1971.

“GW has decided to memorialize its racist heritage” because of Marvin’s segregationist policies, a group of students wrote in a letter printed in The Hatchet.

An iron fist
As president, Marvin exercised personal control over most of the University’s functions.

In 1940 an Alumni Committee released a scathing report of the Marvin administration, citing complaints that he suppressed academic freedom, curbed student self-governance, abetted racial intolerance and denied basic faculty rights.

Marvin was able to exercise tight control over student life in part because most students were commuters from the suburbs and many were adults, often veterans or government workers.

As a result, the campus social scene was limited, students said.

“When we finished our classes, we went home,” said professor emeritus John Boswell, class of 1953. “There wasn’t a lot of student life.”

Cpl. John Graves, a Foggy Bottom resident who graduated from GW in 1951, said he remembers frequent clashes with Marvin. Graves said he remembers Marvin as a “tight-fisted” and “domineering” force on campus. Graves said Marvin personally spoke out against him in two races for student body president.

In February 1950, Congressman Arthur Klein (D-N.Y.) accused Marvin of “religious and racial bigotry” after the University president allegedly attempted to fire Hillel director Irwin Glatstein and bar Hillel from campus because Glatstein espoused support for desegregation.

“I seriously underestimated the depth and the strength of the bigotry of Dr. Marvin’s policies,” Klein said in a past Hatchet article.

Hillel officials quoted in the article, including Glatstein, defended Marvin and denied the entire incident had taken place.

A segregated GW
Marvin consistently supported racial segregation throughout his tenure as GW president. Although some minority students were enrolled in the law and medical schools, they were restricted to night courses in the rest of the University.

Marvin said in 1938 that “students of any race or color perform their best” when they are in a “homogenous group, and the University, in its tradition and social environment, has long preserved this policy.”

“The George Washington University does not register colored students,” he said.

The practice of racial discrimination was hotly debated at GW beginning in the late 1940s, years before the issue would be brought to national prominence.

Lisner Auditorium, a segregated theater, was picketed on opening night in 1946. Several months later, the administration decided it would admit blacks to Lisner but would discontinue performances that might draw a mixed audience.

“GW was a very conservative school. Everything was segregated,” Graves said. “We just never thought of it.”

In 1949, The Hatchet called for an end to campus segregation in a strongly-worded editorial.

Not until September 1954 did GW desegregate, when classes began with no restrictions on minority admissions.

In 1959, Marvin resigned after more than 31 years as president, the longest term in the history of the school.

At the center of controversy
Two years after Marvin’s death in 1969, the administration decided to dedicate the University student center to him, sparking student protests on campus.

At the dedication ceremony, then-GW President Lloyd Elliot concluded by saying Marvin “combined vision with will, patience with tenacity.”

The crowd in the lower level of Lisner Auditorium applauded, but the students seated in the upper level rose and walked out of the auditorium with clenched fists in the air.

On the day the Marvin Center was dedicated, The Hatchet printed an editorial in opposition to the dedication.

“Administrators defend the past bigotries of this institution by saying these bigotries were socially acceptable when they were perpetrated,” The Hatchet staff wrote in a 1971 editorial. “Such a defense is unconscionable.”

Before coming to GW, Marvin was president of the University of Arizona. He was forced to resign after a political scandal that put him in conflict with former Governor George Hunt of Arizona.

GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg defended the University’s position.

“We should repudiate bad behavior not by taking names off buildings” but rather by “the example we set for those who follow us,” he said.

Some aspects of contemporary society will “seem socially inappropriate to our children and our grandchildren,” Trachtenberg said.

Mark Nadler, a former Hatchet reporter, defended the late president, arguing in a 1971 article that research “has failed to produce any substantiation of widely- believed charges (that) Marvin was a racist or an anti-Semite.”

Campus legacy
Marvin has become a campus legend – his name on the student union sneaks it into conversation all over campus. The legacy of Marvin as president is a mixture of scandal and unprecedented University growth.

In 1981 a Hatchet columnist wrote of Marvin, “he is connected with a different era of GW history, one that is nebulous to most of us; yet, his character and policies … continue to affect us today.”

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