Finn J.D. John

Offbeat Oregon News

A few years ago, students at the University of Oregon launched a campaign to get two campus buildings renamed. One named after Classics professor Frederick Dunn and one named after the first president of the university’s board of regents Matthew Deady.

Dunn Hall was an easy decision. Frederick Dunn, in the early 1920s, was the boss (or, to use his official title, “exalted cyclops”) of the Eugene cell (“klavern”) of the Ku Klux Klan. Being the leader of a secret terrorist organization was an obvious deal-killer when it came to having a building named after you, especially a dormitory in which African American students are regularly billeted.

Deady Hall was a tougher sell. To date, it has not been stripped of its name. Judge Matthew Deady was, it is true, an open and enthusiastic advocate of slavery. But that was at a time when slavery was legal and university leaders were reluctant to penalize Deady’s legacy for his failure to see the moral bankruptcy of something that was, in his day, common. (There is a limit to this logic, of course. No one would consider naming a building in Germany after Reinhard Heydrich, even though his anti-Jewish attitudes and actions were legal and common at that time. The debate, which continues today, is whether Deady’s advocacy of slavery in Oregon exceeds that limit.)

Deady was, however, rather an ironic Founding Father for the university to claim. He, more than anyone else, was responsible for it having been founded in the 1870s rather than the 1850s.

At Oregon’s constitutional convention in 1857, when the plans were being made for Oregon to apply for admission as a state, it was Matthew Deady who made the motion to strike the provision for a university from the proposed state constitution. This, despite the fact that under the 1850 Donation Land Act, each new state was to be endowed with 72 sections (46,080 acres) of prime land with which to finance a state university.

Deady’s position was that universities were best left to private enterprise and to religious sponsorship. Universities were for the rich, and in his opinion it was not appropriate for the state to subsidize the children of wealth.

Deady’s real concern may well have been with sectarianism. Oregon was predominantly Methodist at that time, and Deady, an Episcopalian, thought the Methodists would dominate any state university through public sentiment.

In any case, he opined, Oregon was a tiny frontier backwater, and higher education wouldn’t help anyone prove up a land claim or build a successful farm or find “color” in a quartz deposit.

The delegates, two-thirds of whom were farmers and miners, voted in agreement, 27 to 15, and asked Congress to let them add the 72 sections of land to the common school fund.

If this request had been granted, the University of Oregon almost certainly never would have been built. But, of course, it was not. In 1859 when statehood was granted, Oregon got its 72 sections just like everyone else. The difference was — it had made no plans to use it.

State officials did get busy selling off the land, though, and playing political Santa Claus with it. Because its purpose was to finance a thing that the state’s founders had expressly disclaimed, there wasn’t much pressure to be good stewards with it. So it was sold for as little as 20 percent of its market value to well-connected buyers. This would turn out to be a big problem when the state did decide to build a university — a fund that should have had $200,000 in it turned out to have $66,000.

But $66,000 was still a healthy kitty and in the early 1870s several religious colleges were very interested in it. Back in 1868, faced with a use-it-or-lose-it deadline from the federal land-grant college program, the state legislature had designated Corvallis College as the official state ag school (changing its name to Corvallis State Agriculture College, this college would later become Oregon State University), despite the college being a Southern Methodist institution. With that precedent set, the other sectarian colleges in the state realized that they, too, had a shot at state funds.

So in the summer of 1872, Thomas Franklin Campbell, the president of Christian College in Monmouth (which today is Western Oregon University), went on a barnstorming trip through the state to drum up support for having his college designated as the state university despite its affiliation with the Disciples of Christ Church.

Campbell had cause to regret this. The Eugene business leaders, after listening to his pitch, recognized the opportunity the state’s dilemma presented them. By August they had formed the Union University Association, with $50,000 in capital stock, and entered the fray with a proposal for a nonsectarian state university to be built in Eugene.

So in September 1872, when the Legislature convened to consider whom to favor with state-university status, there were four options. Christian College in Monmouth, Albany College (a Presbyterian college, which later moved to Portland and is now Lewis and Clark College), Pacific University in Forest Grove (United Church of Christ) and the proposed non-sectarian (but as yet unbuilt) university in Eugene.

By a narrow margin, the Legislature approved the Eugene proposal.

It took two years to get the job done and at several points along the way the plan looked doomed. Money was very tight and business leaders had to make frequent forays out into the surrounding countryside to pass the hat. Lane County farmers must have gotten really tired of the constant soliciting.

In 1873 the building was finished but there was no money left to put a roof on it. The UUA had to ask the Legislature for an extension to get the building finished. Campbell, of Christian College in Monmouth, lobbied strenuously against giving them one but it was granted. The UUA was given until 1877.

It was a very generous extension, and even so, they just barely made it. In August 1876, the state accepted the university — which, of course, consisted merely of the half-finished building that would later be named Deady Hall. Perched atop a low treeless rise, only the first floor was finished — but it was enough.

And, in an ironic twist, Judge Deady, the man who 20 years before had made the motion to strike the provision for a state university from the state constitution claiming state universities were of no use to anyone, was selected as the university board of regents’ first president.

Presumably he had, in the intervening years, changed his mind about that.

(Sources: Force, Rebecca. “Gambling on Higher Education: A History of the Founding of the University of Oregon,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, winter 2001; Schill, Michael. “President Announces Deady Hall Decision, New Cultural Center,” Around the O around.uouregon.edu, 25 Jan 2017)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. For details, see http://finnjohn.com. To contact him or suggest a topic: finn2@offbeatoregon.com or 541-357-2222.

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