Though the controversy surrounding former American University President Ben Lander has played in the headlines this fall, throughout most of the mid-20th century GW was enthralled in one presidential controversy after another.
On Saturday, 2005 GW graduate and former Hatchet editor Andrew Novak spoke about former GW President Cloyd Heck Marvin at the annual D.C. Historical Studies Conference, where he described Marvin as “the longest-serving and most controversial president” in the school’s history.
At the conference, held in the downtown Martin Luther King Jr. Library, Novak discussed how Marvin involved himself in countless scandals during his presidency from 1927 to 1959, including bad relationships with professors, racial segregation and more – yet he contributed to GW’s overall growth and improvement.
With the mantra of “rabid reorganization followed by rabid expansion,” Marvin doubled the student enrollment, tripled the number of faculty and increased the endowment nine-fold, Novak said. The campus expanded from a mere three blocks to 12 blocks and added a medical school.
While under Marvin’s rule the faculty may have grown larger, Novak said that they were never assured tenure or academic freedom. In his first 15 years, more than 100 professors presented cases to the American Association of University Professors, calling for an immediate investigation into the “purges” of the faculty, in which Marvin fired numerous professors in short periods of time.
Novak said that when a popular professor resigned under Marvin’s rule, stating she had been “met with great injustice” at GW, the controversy of his presidency became defined.
“She declared that democratic process is a pantomime here. This school is a one-man show. That one man is a ruthless tyrant,” Novak said.
The Washington Post followed the professor’s story for three weeks, with stories often appearing on the front page. Novak added that the student and alumni response was dramatic.
During the professor fiasco, students likened Marvin to Hitler, and they created a student association (not a predecessor to the one today) to promote the need for a democratic university. Novak said this was when “the students finally came to age.”
The student body also started a student union as a forum for debate, but Marvin disliked their leftist leanings and invoked a rarely used rule to disband the group.
Marvin also fought with other student groups, including The Hatchet. In 1947 Marvin and the SA “opened a communist investigation to look into The GW Hatchet” because of its reporting about the professor’s resignation.
In 1949, The Hatchet wrote an editorial declaring “the time is now” to end GW’s policy of racial segregation. Hillel also fought against segregation, so Marvin “threatened to kick (Hillel) off campus and fire the director,” Novak said.
GW was the last school in D.C. to keep a whites-only admissions stance. In 1950, Congress condemned Marvin of racial and religious bigotry, and for fear of losing accreditation, GW’s Board of Trustees voted to change the admissions procedure in 1954.
“Marvin’s tight grip on the University began to weaken,” Novak said. “Because of the sheer size of the University he could not keep control.”
Novak said that despite the time gap, there are some similarities between American’s Ladner and GW’s Marvin. Like Marvin, Ladner’s effective years as a university leader have been marred by controversial issues, Novak said.
Last month, an audit committee revealed that Ladner misused $500,000 of school funds for personal expenses, and he recently resigned, accepting a nearly $3.75 million departure package.
But, Novak noted, “It would have been unthinkable that what happened to Ladner would’ve happened to Marvin. Marvin ruled the University with an iron fist. There was little successful student dissent. The Board of Trustees never criticized Marvin.”
Novak’s speech was part of the “Leaders and Their Legacies in Two Washington Universities” segment, which also featured a talk on the first dean of women at Howard University. For the talk, Novak flew to Washington from the University of London, where he is studying African politics.