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Guide to the Administrative Papers of the Chancellor Harry Woodburn Chase

New York University Archives

Collection processed by Phyllis A. Klein, 1978. Finding aid amended by Nancy Greenberg, 2007.

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on January 18, 2022
Finding aid written in English

Biographical Note

Harry Woodburn Chase's life is most notable for the more than thirty years he spent at the helm of academic institutions; the University of North Carolina (UNC) 1919 – 1930, the University of Illinois (UI) 1930 – 1933, and New York University (NYU) 1933 – 1951. UNC and UI, both publicly funded, state institutions readying for growth and reorganization after the pressures of World War I, provided the terrain where President Chase honed his diplomatic and administrative skills on legislators and taxpayers in addition to faculty and students.

Called in 1933 to privately organized and funded NYU as Chancellor (the university's then-title for head of the institution) Chase arrived in New York at a time of turmoil in the world. His era at NYU was to be defined successively by world-wide depression and the political and social instability it generated, next by epic world war and post-war readjustment as Europe emerged from its takeover by Nazi Germany and the colonial structure in much of Asia and Africa began to collapse, closing with a period of renewed international tensions and the outbreak of the Korean War.

At NYU, Chase succeeded Elmer Ellsworth Brown (1911 – 1933). In his inaugural address to the faculty in October 1933 he declared that "the campus is no longer a cloister, nor is the university any more a retreat from the world. It is in the world and of the world…(It) must draw upon the past for its illumination, but (it) must do this as a means to the understanding of life today." In furtherance of this thought, Chase in 1934 established the Division of Continuing Education and the Center for Research and Graduate Education and in 1938 the School of Public Service, making concrete his beliefs in and about education in addressing the University's need to maintain enrollment in those depression years. Within this same time period he presented his thinking in a wider context when, in a speech delivered in 1934 at Madison Square Garden under the auspices of the American Jewish Congress titled Civilization against Hitlerism, he opened his remarks as follows: "The offenses of the Hitler regime against education during these last twelve months involves not only racial persecution, they involved a wholesale attack upon that freedom of the human intellect which is an essential condition of the progress of civilization…"

During World War I, Chancellor Brown had, in an effort to keep NYU financially solvent, introduced military training. Upon the country's entry into World War II in 1941 NYU again opened its doors to governmental defense activities. Enrollment of first and second year students at the University Heights campus was limited to make space for military trainees needing to enroll in engineering courses. Two programs in particular were established, a Navy College Training Program ((V-12) and an Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). A similar program was established at the Colleges of Medicine and of Dentistry. Faculty members with knowledge of appropriate subject matter were transferred to the College of Engineering's federally supported Engineering, Science and Management War Training Division. The impact of these programs was that the Heights campus was largely militarized while liberal arts education and language training for Army officers were offered at Washington Square, where enrollment was almost 50% women. Collaboration between the military and the university was not always easy but the programs were effective.

Chase's ongoing extramural activities on behalf of higher education matters brought great visibility to NYU. His participation on the national scene as a player in higher education/national defense affairs in the pre-war (1940 – 1941) and ensuing war years, "representing colleges and universities at large" was integral to the national effort to raise and train an army of millions of young men. In NYU Vice Chancellor Harold O. Voorhees' words "…he had much to do with the mobilization of educational resources of the nation toward the successful prosecution of the war…spend(ing) no little time in Washington on the Joint Army and Navy Committee on Welfare and Education and the Committee on the Relationship of Higher Education to the Federal Government." Associated with him in these efforts was Dr. Francis J. Brown, Professor, New York University School of Education, on leave 1940 – 1945, employed in Washington as consultant to the American Council on Education (ACE) and acting as liaison between ACE and various federal agencies in connection with the National Defense Program.

Along with the foregoing, Chase shared his problem-solving and negotiating skills with a cross-section of New York City's civic and cultural foundations and institutions. With some, he served over significant time periods, in particular as board member of the Metropolitan Opera Association (1940 – 1950) and Memorial Hospital (1945 – 1949), and as President of the Lotos Club (1936 – 1946). In these instances, which covered periods of major organizational change, he provided informed advice and counsel to committees charged with accomplishing desired changes. At least in part, these assignments involved real estate matters – a new opera house, a new hospital, a new club home - seemingly a specialty of his.

Following the war years NYU attracted the largest contingent of returning veterans in the nation, pushing enrollment back up to pre-War levels and beyond. In his Chancellor's Report for 1945 – 1946 Chase commented that "an empty seat in a classroom has become a rarity, an empty classroom a mirage." The schools of Arts and Science, Engineering, and Law grew dramatically, the many libraries were brought under a single head, and both the budgeting and admissions processes were reorganized.

Harry Woodburn Chase died in the fourth year of his retirement, April 20, 1955. In a subsequently published (by the UNC Press), appreciation of Chase's professional accomplishments, former UNC colleague Louis R. Wilson noted that during his tenure at UNC and at NYU each university was admitted to membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU), the organization representing North America's premier research universities, in 1922 and 1949 respectively. His legacy as education statesman endures.