Herman Lee Donovan served as President of the University of Kentucky
for fifteen years-- from 1941 until 1956. Donovan, an educator by
training and profession, guided the University through the crises of
racial integration and of World War II and its aftermath. Like his
predecessors, he fought vigorously to extend faculty rights and to
improve salaries for his professors. He also sought to enhance the
status and image of the University, by recruiting exceptional young
talent and increasing the number of Extension services offered in the
Central Kentucky region.
Donovan was born in 1887, in Mason County, Kentucky. Graduating from
Western Kentucky State Normal School (now Western Kentucky University)
in 1908, he was married to Nell James Stuart of Pembroke, Kentucky in
1909. He earned an A.B. degree from State University (University of
Kentucky) in 1914, an M.A.in 1920 from Columbia Teachers College
(later, Columbia University), and a Ph.D.from George Peabody College
for Teachers, in Nashville, in 1925. In 1921 Donovan took a
professorial position at Eastern Kentucky State Normal School (later,
Eastern Kentucky University) and in 1928 became president of that
institution. Upon the retirement of President Frank McVey, he was
selected as the University of Kentucky's fourth president in 1941.
The first problem confronting the Donovan administration was the
effect on the campus of the Second World War, which the United States
entered late in the new president's inaugural year. The U.S.
declaration of war against the Axis powers resulted in the departure of
male students from the campus and a general decrease in the enrollment
of men. To alleviate the demographic pressures created by this
situation, the University made available early graduate programs to
R.O.T.C. enlistees and to students drafted into the armed forces. It
directly assisted the war effort by placing its facilities at the
disposal of the Army Specialized Training Program, which provided for
the training of officers serving in the Army Corps of Engineers.
The conclusion of the war brought a massive influx of veterans onto
the campus, who qualified for the higher education benefit of the
General Issue (G.I.) Bill. To provide for badly needed student housing,
Donovan procured funds from the federal government for the purchase of
prefabricated student living quarters, resulting in the construction of
the residential "village" of Cooperstown to house the veterans and
The abolition of the University Senate, established by his
predecessor, and its replacement by a body composed only of
administrative staff, dealt Donovan a heavy political blow. As a result
of this action by the Board of Trustees at the outset of his
administration, University faculty lost the ability to control certain
aspects of their curriculum, as well as the right to recommend degree
candidates to the Board of Trustees for final approval. Consequently,
state law now mandates the granting of degrees only "upon the
recommendation of the faculty of the University". Two years later a
body composed of representative, elected faculty members-the precursor
of today's University Senate-was established to again engage in the
nomination of degree candidates and in educational policymaking in
Another area of conflict involved the faculty payroll. The
Legislature's cap on professors' salaries-at $5000 per year--- resulted
in the loss of many talented faculty to higher paying jobs at other
institutions. Donovan's solution to the problem was threefold: 1) able
young professors, who could be hired at lower rates of pay, were
recruited- which served as only a temporary expedient, as in time,
these were drawn to more lucrative positions elsewhere, monetarily
commensurate with their accrued experience and expertise; 2) salary
subsidies were offered through the Keeneland Foundation, absent
legislative authorization to increase professorial pay; 3) the
Legislature was lobbied vigorously and continually for pay raises, with
the result that additional funds were finally allocated to increase
faculty salaries in 1948.
Donovan staunchly defended the principle of academic freedom,
opposing attempts in 1951 to bring the University under the control of
the State Department of Education in curricular matters, as well as
proposals by legislators and religious leaders a year later to require
a loyalty oath on the part of University employees.
The year 1949 witnessed the beginnings of the successful racial
integration of the University of Kentucky. Lyman T. Johnson's
application for admission to the Graduate School, at first denied on
the basis of Kentucky's segregationist Day Law, was subsequently
ordered approved by court action and Johnson was admitted, albeit
off-campus, to the graduate program in history that year. With the
matriculation of the first "class" of African-Americans in the fall of
1954, the official academic segregation of the campus was effectively
ended. Donovan's approach to the issue, essentially cautious and
low-key throughout, resulted in a continuance for years to come, of a
de facto separation of the races in classrooms and campus social
Positive developments on the campus were evidenced in a number of
other areas. The President encouraged faculty members to communicate
with and establish professional relationships with their academic
counterparts in other institutions of higher learning. In order to
attract new students, he pushed for the opening in 1955 of a northern
Extension center in Covington. Moreover, a new Department of Geography
and a College of Pharmacy were established in 1944 and 1957,
respectively, and impetus was given the preliminary development of a
Medical School in 1955.
Major team sports flourished during this time. The hiring of Paul
("Bear") Bryant in 1946 as football coach resulted in a string of
lucrative winning seasons. Basketball, however, maintained its
dominance and produced a number of championship teams, despite setbacks
to its reputation occasioned in 1951 by the emergence of a
point-shaving scandal implicating several of the 1948-49 players.
In 1956 Donovan stepped down as president of the institution he
had led through a world war and into a post-war period of unprecedented
growth and affluence. For him retirement brought a variety of
avocational pursuits. Always a prolific essayist and pamphleteer, he
continued writing articles, and produced a book-his literary magnus
opus--Keeping the University Free and Growing (1959), and served as
director of the Lexington Chamber of Commerce, the Henry Clay Memorial
Foundation, and the Kentucky Home Mutual Life Insurance Company. He
died in Lexington on November 21, 1964.
(March 31, 2016) The UK Libraries Special Collections Research Center has initiated a new online requests system allowing all our faculty, students, patrons, and visiting researchers to submit requests for materials, schedule a visit, or place digital reproduction and oral history orders through a custom web-based interface.
Create an account to get started. All researchers visiting after March 31st will need to complete registration in their new account.
UK community members can login using their LinkBlue IDs while visitors can create their own login username and password. For more information, visit our FAQ.
The mission of the Special Collections Research Center is to locate and preserve materials documenting the social, cultural, economic, and political history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Materials are acquired regardless of format and include both primary and secondary sources; Kentuckiana is collected comprehensively. Special Collections maintains the records management program for all records generated by the University and serves as its archival repository for permanent records. As part of the mission, the Special Collections Research Center advances and supports the research, teaching, and scholarship of the University and beyond by preserving and providing access to its holdings.