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Welch, Adonijah Strong
(April 12, 1821–March 14, 1889)

–first president of Iowa State Agricultural College—was born near East Hampton, Connecticut. Upon hearing about the opportunities available at the new state university in Michigan, Welch traveled to Jonesville, Michigan, in 1839. After a few years of preparatory work at the Academy of Romeo, he entered the university in 1843 and graduated in 1846 with a B.A. Welch headed the preparatory department from 1844 until he graduated, earning a strong reputation for organizational skills and as a leading proponent of educational innovation. He studied law at the office of Lothrop and Duffield in Detroit for a year and then returned to Jonesville to organize the Union School, the organization of which highly influenced the state high school system. In 1851 Welch accepted the head position of the state normal school in Ypsilanti, Michigan. After organizing and administering the teacher training school for 15 years, poor health forced him to resign and move to a more temperate climate in Florida.

    In Florida, Welch dabbled in several pursuits, including lumbering and orange growing in Jacksonville. His reputation as an effective leader, a spokesman for progress, and an adamant supporter of Reconstruction politics resulted in his election to the U.S. Senate in 1867. He chose to accept a short two-year term rather than the full six, largely because Iowa leaders had offered him the position of president at the newly established Iowa State Agricultural College. Also at that time, Welch married Mary Beaumont Dudley, a recent widow of a colleague at Ypsilanti.

    Welch's prior experience at organizing, administering, and defending a fledgling college became extremely important as the new land-grant college began its operations in Iowa. As expressed in his inaugural address in March 1869, Welch championed the liberalization of education and the equalization of educational opportunities for women. While his wife organized and conducted domestic economy coursework, Adonijah both administered college affairs and taught regular classes in psychology, political economy, and sociology. He also presented lectures in rhetoric, English literature, German, philosophy of science, normal instruction (teacher training), geology, landscape gardening, and stock breeding.

    Welch's breadth and depth of educational experiences helped him navigate and reconcile the intricacies of combining classical and technical education at an institution charged with teaching "such branches of learning as related to agriculture and mechanic arts... in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life."He brought his urban ideology to a pioneer environment, and his educated, knowledgeable, and social demeanor to a rural setting. Boys and girls who grew up on farms or worked in industrial shops encountered an administrator, teacher, and role model with both exacting social etiquette and humanizing attributes. Welch's ability to maintain a sense of dignity combined with adaptability and an easy sense of humor endeared him to students, teachers, and staff on campus, as well as legislative proponents and opponents. In 1874, following a financial scandal involving the misuse of the college's land appropriations and venomous attacks from the public regarding the usefulness of the college's curriculum, Welch skillfully defended the educational importance of agricultural and mechanical arts training for the future prosperity of Iowa's farming and industrial economies.

    In 1883 Welch accepted an offer from the U.S. secretary of agriculture to tour European agricultural schools. The State Board of Education granted him a one-year leave; during that year, however, dissenting board members and farmer' organizations moved to remove Welch. Welch's and his wife's salaries were cut by $300. To further remove support for Welch and his wife, friendly faculty members had their appointments changed, were pressured to resign, or were placed in undesirable administrative positions. The board officially removed Welch as president in November 1883 despite strong support from the faculty, students, and the Ames community. Welch remained in Germany with friends for a year following his dismissal, but finally returned to Ames and accepted the position of professor of psychology and sociology in December 1884, largely to help stabilize the college community's contentious atmosphere. He continued to hold that position until January 1889, when his declining health forced him to remain at his Pasadena, California, winter residence until he died on March 14. Friends held funeral services a week later in the college chapel, and he was laid to rest in the college cemetery.
Sources include the Aurora 18 (April 1889), 1–2; History and Reminiscences of I.A.C. (1893); Egbert Isbell, A History of Eastern Michigan University 1849–1965 (1971); Earle D. Ross, The Land-Grant Idea at Iowa State College: A Centennial Trial Balance, 1858–1958 (1958); Earle D. Ross, A History of the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (1942); and Dorothy Schwieder and Gretchen Van Houten, eds., A Sesquicentennial History of Iowa State University: Tradition and Transformation (2007).
Contributor: Paul Nienkamp