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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MacLean, George Edwin
(August 31, 1850–May 3, 1938)

–literary scholar, educator, and president of the State University of Iowa—was born in Rockville, Connecticut, the oldest of three children of Edwin W. and Julia H. (Ladd) MacLean. His father was a merchant, postmaster, and, later in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a deacon of the Congregational church. MacLean attended Westfield Academy and Williston Seminary in Massachusetts, received an A.B. at Williams College and in 1874 earned a B.D. at Yale Divinity School. That same year, on May 20, he married Clara Stanley Taylor; they had no children. After serving in the ministry for seven years, MacLean returned to academic studies, this time at the Universities of Leipzig and Berlin. In 1883 he was awarded a doctorate from Leipzig, and from 1883 to 1895 he served as professor of English language and literature at the University of Minnesota. His interest in public higher education, a burgeoning field in the late 19th century in the United States, extended from teaching to administration when, in 1895, he accepted the position of chancellor of the University of Nebraska. There he established such programs as summer instruction for educators and schools of agriculture and mechanic arts.

    In 1899 MacLean was appointed the eighth president of the State University of Iowa, a position he held for 12 years. Although trained more than two decades earlier in divinity school and a product of its traditions, MacLean was considered to be a modern administrator who, in many ways, transformed the institution, establishing it among the nation's leading public universities. In 1909 the institution was admitted to the Association of American Universities, and two years later was ranked highly in a national survey of universities conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Education.

    The transformation of the State University of Iowa and its academic reputation was the outcome of numerous initiatives under MacLean's leadership. The Graduate College, the School of Education (now College of Education), and the College of Applied Science (now College of Engineering) were all organized between 1901 and 1907. Admission and academic standards were raised by increasing the number of high school credits required for admission, extending the school year, and encouraging a greater degree of scholarship among undergraduate as well as graduate students. Faculty members were hired to fill newly created roles, such as Charles A. Cumming's appointment as the university's first artist to head the Department of Fine Arts in 1909, and the School of Education's establishment of the nation's first university chair of pedagogy in 1907. More prosaic, but also contributing significantly to Iowa's stature, was MacLean's decision to expand and strengthen the university's administrative structure. He created offices for admissions and registration, and continued a building program that enlarged classroom and laboratory facilities.

    MacLean was not without his critics, however. His desire to make the university a center of academic productivity, requiring faculty to conduct greater research and publication, was increasingly at odds with the goals of political leaders elsewhere in the state, particularly in Ames and Cedar Falls, the homes, respectively, of Iowa State College and Iowa State Normal School. Beginning in 1909, the three institutions were administered under the jurisdiction of a newly organized State Board of Education. Local boards would no longer govern the campuses, and it was hoped that the new central board would help to establish greater unity. The board, believing that MacLean would not be able to serve the purposes of such a reorganization, asked for his resignation in 1911.

    MacLean joined the U.S. Bureau of Education in 1911 as a specialist in higher education, writing two bulletins in 1917: Studies in Higher Education in England and Scotland and Studies in Higher Education in Ireland and Wales. Following the publication of these reports, he served from 1919 to 1923 as director of the British division of the American University Union. Upon retirement, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he lived until his death at age 87.
Sources MacLean's correspondence and personal papers are in the University Archives, Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. See also his 1934 personal memoir, "Jottings: Fragmentary Notes on the MacLean Administration, 1899–1911, of the State University of Iowa," unpublished manuscript, in the Historical Papers Collection in the University Archives. A biographical note by Louise Pound appears in the Dictionary of American Biography, supp. 2 (1936–1940). For a discussion of MacLean's presidency, see Ellen Elizabeth Johnson, "A History of the State University of Iowa: The Administration of President MacLean" (master's thesis, State University of Iowa, 1946); and Stow Persons, The University of Iowa in the Twentieth Century: An Institutional History (1990).
Contributor: David Mccartney