Skip to main content

Parks, W. Robert

Published onOct 11, 2021
Parks, W. Robert

(October 13, 1915 – July 13, 2003)

Quick Facts

­­The eleventh and longest-serving president of Iowa State University, from 1965-1986.

Born in Mulberry, Tennessee, the youngest of seven children, Parks earned a BA (1937) from Berea College in Kentucky, an MA (1938) from the University of Kentucky, and a PhD (1948) from the University of Wisconsin - Madison. All the degrees were awarded in political science, with a minor in economics.

Parks married Ellen Sorge in 1940. That same year she became the first woman to graduate with a PhD in political science from the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

From 1940 to 1948, Parks worked for the Bureau of Agricultural Economics and during World War II, he also served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy.

His academic career began at Iowa State in 1948 where he was a professor of government until 1956. He then moved to the University of Wisconsin to teach agricultural economics before returning to Iowa State as the dean of instruction in 1958. Parks was promoted to vice president of academic affairs in 1961, a role he served in for four years, and was named president of Iowa State in 1965.

Parks was the first social scientist to lead the university. During his inaugural address he shared his philosophy of a “new humanism” and established a goal to integrate human concern with science and technology. He delivered on that goal by greatly expanding the role of the humanities and social sciences within the university; under his leadership, the Colleges of Education, Design, and Business were established, adding 40 undergraduate and 30 graduate majors to the university’s curriculum.

Far right, Parks in the 1960s.

Five years into Parks’ tenure, the nation was rocked by the shooting deaths of four unarmed Kent State students in May 1970. Many colleges and universities across the country abruptly closed their doors, but not Iowa State. During an impromptu speech at a subsequent VEISHEA rally, Parks called on the students to help keep the university open and he commended them for their peace concerns.

A decade later, the farm crisis of the 1980’s weighed heavily on the university’s financial health. Rapid economic decline forced the state to slash higher education funding. From 1979 to 1986, the state cut a total of $20 million from Iowa State’s operating budget base. This resulted in a faculty exodus as professors left for more competitive salaries at other institutions.

Despite these challenges, Parks is credited with elevating Iowa State from a college “to a broad-based, international university.” During his tenure of more than two decades, overall enrollment nearly doubled from 14,000 to 25,500 while the enrollment of women tripled; the research budget soared by 300 percent and several new research and technology transfer programs were launched. The campus landscape also burgeoned with the addition of nearly 40 buildings. Iowa State consistently ranked among the leading institutions for the enrollment of National Merit and National Achievement Scholars. By the time he retired in 1986, Parks had conferred approximately 88,000 degrees; fully two-thirds of all living alumni at the time had earned their degrees during what became known as “The Parks Era.”

Parks was also responsible for a major reorganization of the university’s extension and outreach activities. Under his direction, the dean of extension role was created to oversee four divisions collectively known as University Extension: the ISU Cooperative Extension Service, the Engineering Service, the Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS), and the Agriculture Short Course Office (later renamed the Office of Continuing Education).

During his presidency, Parks served as head of several national organizations, including the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, the Association of American Universities, Council of Presidents, Mid-America State Universities Association and the Association of Iowa College Presidents.

He also served as a member of the board of trustees of the Teachers Insurance and Annuities-College Retirement Equities Fund and was on the board of directors of Northwestern Bell and Central Life Assurance. In 1969, he was named an honorary alumnus of Iowa State, the second person so honored. He also received the first Christian Petersen Design Award for his leadership in the establishment of Iowa State University's College of Design. Parks received honorary degrees from Bear College (1966), Westmar College (Iowa) (1968), Drake University (1968), and the University of Kentucky (1973).

James Hilton and Robert Parks.

Parks was known for his collaborative leadership style: seeking advice from colleagues and showing good judgment and a willingness to compromise.

Perhaps the most enduring and significant representation of Parks’ legacy is the central library building which was renamed the William Robert Parks and Ellen Sorge Parks Library in 1984. Nationally-respected scholars, Parks and his wife were avid users of the Iowa State University Library and spearheaded a major expansion which more than quadrupled the size of the original building. The Iowa State Library has since earned recognition as one of the most outstanding collegiate library facilities in the country with Ellen describing the library as “the essence of the university.”

The Parkses had two daughters, Andrea (Van Howeling) and Cynthia (Hamilton). Parks retired from Iowa State in 1986. He died in 2003 and a public memorial was held in the Memorial Union’s Sun Room. He is interred in the Iowa State University Cemetery.


Selected Sources

W. Robert Parks Papers, RS 2/11, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

From VISIONS magazine, fall 2019, By Douglas Biggs.

W. Robert Parks Installation, ISU Office of the President:

Allison H. Sheridan, ed., The Land Grant Act and the People’s College Iowa State University (2011)

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?