The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Jessup, Walter Albert
(August 12, 1877–July 5, 1944)

—educator, president of the State University of Iowa, and president of the Carnegie Corporation and one of its foundations—was born in Richmond, Indiana, a child of Albert Smiley Jessup and Anna (Goodrich) Jessup. He had no siblings who survived infancy. His mother died when he was 11 years old; his father, a farmer, married Gulia E. (Hunnicutt) Jones, a teacher, in 1890. After graduating from high school in 1895, Jessup taught in public schools in Indiana and rose to the rank of principal and superintendent of schools. On June 28, 1898, he married Eleanor Hines, and the couple adopted two children, Richard and Robert Albert. Jessup earned a B.A. from Earlham College in 1903 and, in 1908, an M.A. from Hanover College in Indiana. In 1911 he was awarded the Ph.D. at Teachers College, Columbia University. He collaborated with University of Minnesota president L. D. Coffman in writing a textbook, Supervision of Arithmetic, and himself wrote Social Factors Affecting Supervision of Special Subjects and The Economy of Time in Arithmetic.

    In 1912, following one year as professor and dean of the College of Education at Indiana University, Jessup accepted a similar post at the State University of Iowa. After serving as dean for four years, Jessup was named the 14th president of the university in 1916, a position he held for 18 years. During his tenure, the institution experienced unprecedented growth and innovation: the faculty grew from about 300 to almost 500, the campus grew from 42 to 324 acres, and the student body population more than doubled, from 3,523 to 7,556.

    During Jessup's administration, the university's reputation as a center of creative and intellectual exploration became firmly set. Although the renowned Iowa Writers' Workshop was not founded until two years after Jessup's departure in 1934, its origins may be traced to 1897, when Iowa offered its first course in creative writing, and to 1922, when the university became the first U.S. institution to accept creative work as theses for advanced degrees. Carl Seashore, then dean of the Graduate College, announced the groundbreaking policy with Jessup's endorsement, and, as a consequence, programs in creative writing and the visual and performing arts flourished. Construction of the fine arts campus was begun during the early 1930s. Within the College of Liberal Arts, the university's oldest and largest college, schools in journalism, letters, and the fine arts were established. Other innovations during Jessup's tenure included the School of Religion, established in 1927 as the first such program at a U.S. public university, and a comprehensive program for the study of child behavior and development, begun in 1917. During the 1920s, with Jessup's help, the College of Medicine and the University Hospital received substantial support from the Rockefeller Foundation, laying the foundation for what would eventually become the largest public teaching hospital in the United States.

    Jessup's tenure as president was not without controversy. A scandal involving illegal gifts to student athletes resulted in Iowa's suspension from the Big Ten athletic conference in 1929. One year later Verne Marshall, editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, waged a persistent editorial attack on the Jessup administration, accusing it of financial mismanagement. A subsequent investigation requested by Governor Dan Turner, however, found no conclusive evidence of wrongdoing.

    In 1934 Jessup left the university to become president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in New York. Despite the Great Depression, Jessup was able to secure funds to maintain the foundation's obligations to its teachers' pension fund. In 1941 he also became president of the Carnegie Corporation, a position he held until his death in 1944.
Sources Jessup's correspondence and personal papers are in the University Archives, Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. A biographical note by Vernon Carstensen appears in the Dictionary of American Biography, supp. 3 (1941–1945). See also Stow Persons, The University of Iowa in the Twentieth Century: An Institutional History (1990); and Frederick Gould Davies, "History of the State University of Iowa: The College of Liberal Arts, 1916–34" (Ph.D. diss., State University of Iowa, 1947), as well as the annual reports of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1934–1944, and those of the Carnegie Corporation, 1941–1944. Jessup's obituary appears in the New York Times, 7/8/1944.
Contributor: David Mccartney