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Beardshear, William Miller

Published onJul 30, 2021
Beardshear, William Miller

(November 7, 1850–August 5, 1902)

Quick Facts

United Brethren minister, public school administrator, and college president, Beardshear's administration marked the turning point in the history of Iowa Agricultural College.


Source: University Archives, Iowa State University Library

William Beardshear was born on a farm near Dayton, Ohio, the son of John and Elizabeth (Coleman) Beardshear. He was educated in the Ohio public schools. Described as “big for his age,” he enlisted in the Union army at age 14. Following military service, he graduated from Otterbein University in 1876; while there he married a fellow student, Josephine Mundhenk. He attended Yale Divinity School for two years then held United Brethren pastorates in Arcanum and Dayton, Ohio.

In 1881 Beardshear headed west to Iowa, becoming president of Western College at Toledo, Iowa. In 1889 he was hired as superintendent of the West Des Moines Public Schools and two years later as president of Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University). Forty years old at the time, Beardshear was described as, "impressive in appearance and manner, tall, broad shouldered, with black hair and beard and piercing eyes.” He was known as an excellent orator and a man of great vitality.

William Miller Beardshear, President, Iowa State College, 1891-1902, 1938 by Christian Abrahamsen (Norwegian-American, 1887-1983). Oil on Canvas. Gift of the Class of 1898, Iowa State College. In the Presidential Portrait Collection, Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U82.123

Location: Iowa State University, Parks Library Rotunda

Beardshear became president of Iowa Agricultural College at a crucial point in the young school's history. The passage of the Morrill Act in 1862 provided land to underwrite the new college. Founded by the Iowa General Assembly in 1858, the school opened for classes officially in 1869, but for the next several decades suffered from a shortage of money and faculty. College officials found it difficult to satisfy the state's many different agricultural, educational, and economic interests.

Once in office, Beardshear immediately began dealing with the many problems facing the young college, including lack of support for agricultural programs, financial difficulties, and lack of prestige. In his first report to the college, he stated that officials were responding totally to the needs of the farming industry in Iowa; the college had created new departments of dairying, animal husbandry, and farm crops and developed curricula for veterinary science, engineering, and domestic economy.Beardshear's administration marked the turning point in the history of Iowa Agricultural College. Before 1891, Iowans had limited knowledge of the land grant school, and the legislature's support was inadequate. Beardshear began to publicize the college by taking the college to the people and bringing the people to the college. The president himself traveled the state, delivering commencement addresses and speaking at teachers' institutes and farmer' clubs. He convinced the state's railroads to put on excursion trains at low rates, making it possible for tens of thousands of Iowans to visit the school. Before Beardshear's tenure, the state supported only the physical plant and its upkeep; limited money came from the federal government for the support of the Agricultural Experiment Station. Beardshear persuaded the legislature to provide more money for the school, including support for a major building program. His efforts bore fruit: when he arrived in 1891, there were only a handful of buildings on campus; 11 years later the campus had expanded to 17 buildings including: Morrill Hall (1891), the Campanile (1899), Botany Hall (1892, now Catt Hall), and Margaret Hall (1895). The college had grown from 336 to 1,220 students, and the teaching staff increased from 25 to 78.

Beardshear's contemporaries lauded his ability to relate to students. Drawing on his ministerial background, Beardshear frequently preached at the nightly chapel meetings. His talks reflected both his deeply held religious views and his love of poetry. Beardshear was also in step with the growing interest in college sports. In 1891 he spearheaded the foundation of an athletic association to officially sanction athletic teams. During his administration, the college built a gymnasium and athletic field. And in 1895 the men's basketball team became formally known as the Cyclones.

Beardshear also dealt effectively with the divisive issue of whether to have fraternities on campus. His predecessor, William I. Chamberlain, had favored the presence of fraternity activity. Beardshear decreed that present fraternity members could continue their activities, but no more students could join fraternities, essentially dooming the groups to extinction.

A continuing issue throughout Beardshear's tenure at ISC was curriculum duplication at the three state institutions of higher learning. Because Iowa State Normal School (now University of Northern Iowa) in Cedar Falls had been founded as a teachers' college, the main curriculum conflicts were between Iowa Agricultural College and the State University of Iowa in Iowa City. In his 1898-1899 report to the governing board, Beardshear gave assurances that the goal of the Iowa Agricultural College (that year changing its name to Iowa State College) was to create a major technological institution, not to develop liberal arts courses.

Beardshear was active in numerous state and national organizations. He served on the executive committee of the Iowa State Teachers Association and was director and later president of the National Educational Association, president of the Iowa State Improved Stock Breeders Association, and a member of the U.S. Indian Commission (1897-1902).

Beardshear suffered a heart attack in the spring of 1902 and died that August. He is buried in the Iowa State University Cemetery. He has fittingly been called the "father of Iowa State College." In his honor, Iowa State College's Central Building was renamed Beardshear Hall in 1925.

Reprinted with permission from Schwieder, Dorothy. "Beardshear, William Miller" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 1 June 2017

Selected Sources

William Beardshear Papers, RS 02/05, University Archives, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library, Ames.

For secondary sources, see Isaac A. Loos, "William Miller Beardshear," Iowa Historical Record 18 (1902), 553–86; Dictionary of American Biography vol.1 (1958); and an obituary in the Des Moines Register and Leader, 8/6/1902.

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