In 1960 Professor A. N. Johnson, who served the College as a Professor of Animal Science and as the Farm Manager from 1919 until his retirement in 1960, prepared an illuminating and highly interesting monograph entitled “History of the School of Agriculture, River Falls State College”. Johnson’s history was widely distributed among the university faculty and administrators, and it is included in unedited form as an appendix to this work.

In 2002 a small group of faculty, emeriti, and alumni from the College began the present project with the view of honoring the memory of Professor Johnson and continuing his work to provide an historical account of the years from 1960 to present. Those involved in this work were Ron Zirbel (class of 1958), who served as Chair of the group, Stephen Ridley, Louis Greub (class of 1963), Jim Hogan (class of 1999), Gary Rohde (class of 1966), Philip George and several others.

At the time of this writing, the College had seen considerable growth and many changes since Dr. Johnson’s time. An overview of growth and change was summarized by former Vice Chancellor and College Dean, Richard Delorit, in an address to the AASCARR organization (American Association of State Colleges of Agriculture and Renewable Resources) in 1988. In his address Delorit, who had recently retired from the university, provided several observations on the history of the College of Agriculture in River Falls, recognizing three significant periods
of development.

According to Delorit, the first period from 1912 to 1951 was characterized by “austerity, establishment and developing excellence”. The Director of the Division of Agriculture, as it was known during this period, was John M. May, who spent his entire professional career at River Falls. May was well known for his work with agricultural cooperatives and is remembered as the administrator who guided and nurtured the agriculture program through difficult times. During this period the only degree offered was in Agricultural Education and practically every graduate started his (most if not all students during this time were men) career by teaching agriculture in the state’s secondary schools. The resources of the program were meager, but the program became recognized in the region for its excellence, much to the credit of deeply committed professors, some of whom signed personal notes at the local bank to obtain funds to buy supplies and equipment for their classes.

Delorit referred to the second period from 1951 to 1966 as “a period of limitation, development and finally breakout”. In 1951 the institution was authorized to offer non-teaching degrees, but there was widespread apathy for this on the part of the older faculty and staff members who by that time were suffering from severe burnout. Likewise, the institution’s chronic limited resource problems did little to stimulate new program development. By 1957 agriculture in Wisconsin was in economic distress, and high school counselors were advising students not to pursue careers in this area. University recruiters were advising students planning to enroll in an agriculture major that, “although River Falls had an excellent program in the agricultural sciences, it would be a mistake to enter a dying field”. Some faculty members at the university provided the same advice.

The Student Agrifallian Society in 1929
The Student Agrifallian Society in 1929

Delorit further recalled these dark days by stating that the President of the University directed the School of Agriculture to refrain from recruiting because the school’s reputation overshadowed other areas of the University. He was careful to note that he did not consider the President of the University to be an ogre. Indeed the President was a dedicated, skilled administrator who felt that if the reputation of the agricultural sciences were deemphasized, perhaps departments in the other schools would grow and prosper. To his credit, President Kleinpell later became instrumental in the growth of the College of Agriculture, but at that time program descriptions for the agricultural sciences were relegated to the back of the university catalog and all brochures from the university failed to emphasize its agriculture programs.

During that time all faculty members were required to carry 16 hour teaching loads – very heavy by today’s standards. The one bright spot, according to Delorit, was that plans for a new college farm had been developed and farm construction would begin soon. The decision to build a new farm facility was made primarily to make room for new academic buildings and not necessarily to benefit the besieged agriculture program.

In the fall on 1957 the agriculture staff held a meeting to assess its plight. Perhaps the most significant outcome of this meeting was a unanimous agreement that regardless of how much individual faculty members disagreed on specific issues, the entire faculty would support the final decision and present a unified front. Divided departments or colleges are never able to accomplish much. There followed further planning meetings, which produced a set of goals or
working principles.

It was decided to further the excellence which had been attained in training Smith-Hughes vocational agriculture teachers. It was felt that the college should lead from its strength. It was also decided that although the college’s reputation for excellence was the reason for deemphasizing agriculture, this was not an appropriate reason to apologize for a position that should be considered enviable. Indeed, de-emphasis of this program had unwittingly become the price of excellence.

It was agreed that although limitations had been placed on the college, it would continue to hold its students to high standards. The faculty was convinced that lowering standards would in the long run turn away rather than attract high quality students.

Each faculty member agreed to give the college increased exposure by addressing FFA banquets and farmer organizations, and by judging at county fairs, etc. It was further agreed that new majors would be implemented only after the faculty agreed that it had or could acquire the necessary expertise and staff to provide high quality programs.

During the ensuing years, the state’s agricultural economy slowly improved and negative publicity waned. Statewide interest in the School of Agriculture improved. A $20,000 grant was obtained from the Wisconsin Electrical Cooperatives organization to enhance the electrification of the new laboratory farm. Several years later the National Science Foundation awarded a $40,000 grant to help upgrade agriculture teachers in the life sciences. This program was renewed nine times over the next ten years and provided a total of $500,000 to the institution.

In the fall of 1963 President Kleinpell became disenchanted with the decision to hold back on recruiting for the College, and reversed his decision. Student enrollment in the college doubled the following year.

Delorit also commented on some of the difficulties that can accompany successful growth. Inevitably new majors began to be added to the curriculum, and new faculty members had to be hired to teach in specialized areas. At the time it was accepted that a minimum of three full time faculty members was needed to staff a stand-alone major. At River Falls faculty members were generally required to adhere to a 275-300 student quarter credit hour workload. If faculty members had to depend primarily on their own majors for their credit production, as is the case with most academic programs, it would be necessary for a three person department to have over 200 students to enable the faculty members to reach the accepted target. This was and clearly still is impossible. It is hardly surprising that the politics of the campus came into play and that disputes developed over the matter of faculty work loads. This situation remains little changed today.

The third period in the history of the college dates from 1966, according to Delorit, and was characterized by “rapid expansion, consolidation and, maturation”. Largely through the leadership of James Dollahon, who became Dean in 1964, the College began to provide numerous scholarships for students. Dollahon was a strong believer in cooperative education and internships to provide opportunities for students to obtain practical experience in their fields. Dollahon worked tirelessly to obtain funds for this program, which later became one of the largest in the United States.

In the early 1970’s state funds were obtained for applied faculty research. The Cooperative Research Program required faculty members to team up with a faculty colleague from the Madison campus. Grants for research projects were awarded by a committee of the Deans from the Madison, River Falls, Platteville, and Stevens Point campuses. Also during Dollahon’s tenure, the College was selected to implement the Extended Degree program in Agriculture, and its programs of public service and extension were expanded.

By the mid-1980’s enrollments increased to more than 1600 students, a six-fold increase over that of the early 1960’s. Those faculty members in the College who were around when students were discouraged from entering the field of agriculture because it was said to be a dying business recalled the experience as “the most pleasant death they had ever experienced”.

Delorit wisely concluded his remarks to the AASCARR by noting that it takes many years of planning, hard work, and personal commitment by faculty and administrators to achieve excellence. Unfortunately excellence can be lost very quickly if the environment is not sufficiently conducive to protect it. In many ways the problems faced by the College today in the early 21st century are really not very different from those encountered by our forebears in 1957. Whether the College will be able to as successfully cope with these problems will be for history to decide.

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