Clark's founder and its first president were higher education's odd couple

But from their competing visions, a world-class university was born
April 5, 2012

By Albert B. Southwick '41

Jonas Gilman Clark was born in the hardscrabble town of Hubbardston, Mass., in 1815. Granville Stanley Hall was born about 80 miles west in the hardscrabble town of Ashfield, Mass., in 1845. Their humble beginnings were about the only thing they shared.

Jonas Clark had become wealthy in the shipping trade to California after the 1849 gold rush. He later was in the furniture business in New York. When he retired in 1880, he owned substantial real estate in San Francisco, New York and Worcester. He and his wife moved to Worcester, where he built a large granite house on Elm Street and a substantial five-story office building on Main Street — long rented by Denholms, the big department store — and made plans to endow a college in the city. Worcester at that time had about 85,000 people, thousands of them immigrants who labored in the mills that were transforming the bustling city.

G. Stanley Hall took a much different life path. He was a pioneer in several fields — education, psychology, child development, scientific pedagogy and philosophy. In 1888 he was on the faculty of Johns Hopkins. He had already founded The American Journal of Psychology and was well known in university circles. He was charismatic and a brilliant lecturer. He also was intensely ambitious and could be duplicitous in achieving his goals.

Hall's brilliant conversations and discussions convinced Clark that he was just what was needed to head the new university, and in 1888 Hall was appointed the first president of Clark University, which had been incorporated a year earlier. Jonas Clark thought he and Hall were on the same page in their vision of a new university. But they were not.

Hall had spent several months studying German universities that had impressed him mightily. Back in Worcester, he set about establishing the new Clark Universityon the German lines of research and graduate study. He was not interested in establishing a teaching college.

But a teaching college similar to Harvard or Cornell was what Jonas Clark wanted above all. How he was frustrated time and again by the wily Hall, a fascinating study in human ambition and unscrupulous drive. Clark University folks today might be surprised to learn that some of the school's most impressive achievements were made possible by the sly maneuvering of its first president.

When Jonas Clark realized how he had been conned by Hall, he stopped attending trustee meetings and sent the board an ultimatum: Either get a regular college started or forget about any more financial aid. And make sure that Hall has no connection to it.

The trustees, who had been under the charismatic sway of Dr. Hall, capitulated. Clark College opened its doors in 1902. In 1920, long after Jonas Clark was dead, the University and the College were merged under the presidency of Dr. Wallace Atwood, a geographer.

During those early years, Clark was an amazing place. From its Main South setting emerged ideas that changed the world and established an impression of the new University that still resonates.

In the academic world, Hall was praised and criticized in about equal measure. The non-academic world was equally puzzled and sometimes appalled by what they believed was going on in the handsome building looking out on Main Street. In 1891, the Worcester Telegram began a crusade against Clark for its experiments on animals, telling about "devilish contrivances."

The paper also derided the University for the experiments conducted on the "mutilated remains of Laura Bridgman's brain." The late Laura Bridgman was well known as the first blind and deaf child to gain a significant education in the English language 50 years before the more famous Helen Keller. Bridgman, whose educational success was touted by Charles Dickens, lived to the age of 69, and her brain was the subject of pioneering studies in the Clark labs.

Dr. Hall was never fazed by publicity, good or bad. He lapped it up. He had an uncanny ability to publicize and promote his ideas and his fads. In his study of the illustrious people who established Clark's reputation, former Clark President Richard P. Traina wrote that Hall was "the promoter, the impresario par excellence."

That was impressively shown in 1909, the University's 20th anniversary celebration, when Hall succeeded in attracting an astonishing list of world academic celebrities to Worcester to participate. They included Ernest Rutherford, A.A. Michelson, Franz Boas, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Freud's five lectures at Clark helped establish psychology firmly on American shores. Probably in the audience for those various lectures was a young physicist named Robert Goddard, whose rocketry experiments would change the world. What he thought about any of them is unknown.

Dr. Traina aptly summed up Hall's career: "Under his leadership the University was characterized by high aspiration, intellectual excitement, extraordinary freedom, readiness to challenge the conventional and always hard, hard work." Not a bad heritage.

Albert B. Southwick '41 is the retired editorial page editor of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. He continues to write a regular column about Worcester history for the newspaper.

This story was originally published in CLARK Magazine, Spring 2012.