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John W. Oswald

John Wieland Oswald
(1917-1995), 1963-1968

By Rob Parmley, Nancy DeMarcus, and Frank Stanger

John wieland oswald


Dr. John Wieland Oswald served from 1963 to 1968 as president of the University of Kentucky. His administration, although one of the shortest of any UK president, brought with it sweeping changes to the University system and significantly influenced the course of events of the University's history for decades thereafter.

Oswald was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1917 and received his early education in the public schools of LaGrange, Illinois. His undergraduate study was completed at DePauw University, in Greencastle, Indiana, where he received the A.B. degree in 1938 with a major in botany and a minor in history. As an undergraduate he played varsity football, serving as captain of the team in 1937 and lettering in basketball and track. His graduate study, from 1938 to 1942, was done on the Berkeley and Davis campuses of the University of California, and he earned a Ph.D. in plant pathology in the latter year.

Entering the Navy in 1942, he was commissioned the same year and assigned to a motor torpedo boat squadron, serving initially as a PT boat captain and later as a divisional commander. In 1944 he received a Letter of Commendation from the Secretary of the Navy for service in the Mediterranean. He was married in 1945 to Rosanel Owen, of Bessemer, Alabama; three children-two daughters, Elizabeth and Nancy, and a son, John, Jr. ---were born of the marriage.

Returning after World War II to the University of California at Davis as an assistant professor of Plant Pathology, he was promoted to associate professor in 1952 and two years later transferred to the UC Berkeley campus as Chairman of the Plant Pathology Department, which position he held until early 1959. In 1957, after attaining the rank of full professor, he was appointed administrative assistant to the chancellor of the Berkeley campus. His professorial work included extensive published research in subjects such as fungus root rots, plant viral diseases(particularly of cereals and potatoes) and the fundamentals of the serology of plant viruses. In 1951 he was responsible for the discovery of the Barley Yellow Dwarf, since recognized as one of the world's principal cereal diseases.

In 1958 Oswald was appointed academic assistant to the president of the University of California. He became, in turn, assistant vice president of the University in 1959, vice president and executive assistant of the institution in 1961, and vice president for administration the following year. In 1963 he was named president of the University of Kentucky, succeeding Dr. Frank Dickey.

Upon taking office as UK's sixth president, nearly a hundred years after the founding of the Agricultural and Mechanical College, Oswald articulated as the keynote of his administration the challenge of successfully bridging the gap between the University's first and second centuries. "The responsibility," he declared, "is to make sure that the foundations for a strong university, laid during its first century, will be adequately built upon and added to in its second, so that an even stronger university develops."

The Oswald years witnessed dramatic growth in enrollment, attributable in part to substantial increases in student loans, scholarships, and fellowships. In the fall of 1963, 9190 students matriculated on the main campus and 1808 in the Community Colleges. By the fall of 1967 that figure had grown to 14,737 and 5662, respectively. The University's graduate program grew apace. The number of doctoral degrees granted per year increased significantly by 1968, and Ph.D. programs rose in number from 21 to 31 during the same period. At the same time graduate student enrollment grew from 1400 to nearly 2200.

The University's Community College System, in its incipience and infancy in 1963, expanded under Oswald's direction to include colleges in Elizabethtown, Hopkinsville, Prestonsburg, Somerset, and Louisville and a two-year technical institute on the Lexington campus. By the end of his tenure, arrangements had been completed for the opening of three more-in Paducah, Maysville, and Hazard.

Rising salary levels resulted in improved recruitment and retention of faculty; during this time the senior teaching staff increased by about 200. A funded retirement system, stated procedures on appointment, promotion, tenure, and merit, and the institution of ten-month teaching appointments likewise contributed to making the University's hiring position more competitive. Emphasis was placed on enhancing the quality of instruction, with summer teaching improvement fellowships providing incentive in this regard for younger faculty members.

The period of the Oswald administration also saw the establishment of three new colleges-Architecture, Allied Health Professions, and Home Economics. Plans were developed for schools of Natural Resources and Social Work, and a School of Library Science opened in 1968. A controversial innovation-- the institution of systems of rotating departmental chairmanships and regular review of deanship reappointments-- effectively destroyed the career fiefdoms of a number of powerful academics.

Other developments of Oswald's presidency included: a doubling of the operating budget; an impressive expansion of the University's physical plant, including the completion of Agricultural Science, Engineering, Commerce, Education, and Law buildings, a dormitory complex for male and female students, and the beginnings of construction of a high-rise office tower and an Arts and Sciences classroom building; growth in non-state-supported grants for research from $3.4 million to $11 million +, and the establishment of a number of new research programs, institutes, and departments (e.g., the UK Research Foundation, the Tobacco and Health Research Institute, and the Center for Developmental Change); growth in private financial support; the establishment of a development program; the reorganization and expansion of the Cooperative [Agricultural] Extension Service; the opening of the Lincoln School, an experimental program for culturally and economically deprived Kentucky youth; the adoption of a student code; vigorous support by the administration for campus free speech; and the yearlong observance of the University's Centennial in 1965, highlighted by a visit from the President of the United States.

In 1968 Dr. Oswald resigned the presidency of the University amid widespread controversy within the institution's faculty, student, alumni, and Board of Trustees constituencies. Following a brief tenure as executive vice president of the University of California system, he served as president of Penn State University from 1970 until 1983. His retirement years were spent in Philadelphia, where he died of an apparent heart attack in February of 1995.

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