UCOP > A Brief History of the University of California > The University Builders >

President Wheeler

The Faculty Revolution

Growth of the Campuses

The Modern University

President Sproul

The Loyalty Oath

Progress and Problems

The Chancellorship

The Multiversity

Achievements of the 1960s


Chapter 9: President Wheeler

Author Irving Stone tells of arriving on the Berkeley campus in 1920, pausing to look up at Wheeler Hall, and being depressed suddenly by the sense that he did not belong there, that he had not enough money to get through the first year, and that he would probably fail in science and mathematics.

"Then as I was about to turn away, feeling lonely, dejected, and unwanted," he relates,

an apparition appeared on the hill above me: a man on horseback, wearing a black hat, a loose black cape. I thought for a moment that the shock of entering the campus had created some kind of hallucination.

As the figure rode slowly toward me, I perceived that it was one of the most beautiful human beings I had ever seen. There was a warm, gentle smile on his face; his cheeks were red, and his expression alive and excited; he was obviously of considerable age.

The figure on horseback swept off his hat, bowed from the saddle, said, "Good evening, sir," and moved on down the road.

I stood there, literally transfixed. No one before had ever called me "sir." It was not only that I had, by the one word, been transformed from a child into an adult, but also that I had been promoted somehow from the lower middle class into a top echelon of gentlemen and scholars.

Stone remained and graduated with the Class of 1923.

The figure was President Emeritus Benjamin Ide Wheeler. He had come to the University in 1899—an eminent scholar, a man of immense vigor—and served as its head for twenty years. They were booming years for the University, and President Wheeler was ideally suited to the times.

When he arrived he found the University woefully underfunded for the tasks he believed it should pursue. Educated at the University of Heidelberg, he was an admirer of research-oriented German education and believed deeply that the University of California would remain an incomplete institution until it incorporated a comprehensive and vigorous research enterprise. He insisted upon having authority for hiring and setting faculty salaries, and the Regents agreed.6

Under his leadership the University made great strides in both research and public service. Graduate work expanded and was formally recognized in the establishment of the Graduate Division. And he recruited top-notch faculty from around the country to improve the University's academic standing and standards.

Wheeler worked hard and successfully to bolster state support for the University. During the Wheeler years, the University acquired its first million-dollar budget. His persuasive fund-raising skills attracted further support, especially for building, from the wealthy and the well born. He recognized the necessity of a great library and systematically built the University's collections.

Students flocked to the University in record numbers during the Wheeler era. When he became President, there were 2,600 students; by the time of his retirement in 1919, that figure had mushroomed to more than 12,000. Self-government by the student body had begun in 1887 when the Associated Students of the College of Letters and Science was organized. Early generations of students were a lively lot, and it was President Wheeler who initiated a system that Wnally proved satisfactory to all. Under "senior rule," the senior class became the real disciplinary and law-making body. So effective did this system prove that the faculty in practice gave up all but an advisory role.

During that period the University began the lateral growth that has accelerated through the years. The University Farm was established at Davis, the Citrus Experiment Station at Riverside, the Scripps Institution for Biological Research (later the Scripps Institution of Oceanography) at La Jolla, and the Hooper Foundation for Medical Research at San Francisco. The "Southern Branch" of the University at Los Angeles
was just beginning to emerge. University Extension, established in 1892, matured rapidly during President Wheeler's administration.

Wheeler had a special feeling for students. "The only thing that is of interest to me in a university," he said, "is men and women." He regarded the University community as a family bound together by love for its alma mater and the primary purpose of education as the formation of character.

In the final years of his tenure, however, Wheeler's health was uncertain and his conflicts with the faculty grew—it is said that a faculty member who did not wear a hat on campus risked a reprimand from the President. His pro-German views in the era of the first World War did nothing to add to his popularity. In 1919, he was forced to resign.7

Today Wheeler is remembered as a great university builder. He is also honored for what he himself regarded as a university's noblest work—educating responsible and enlightened citizens.


6. John Aubrey Douglass, The California Idea and American Higher Education, 1850 to the 1960 Master Plan (Stanford, 2000), p. 105.

7. Douglass, p. 133.



California Hall and the Campanile, soon after its construction in 1917.

Photograph courtesy University Archives.


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The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.
Last updated 09/29/05.