A KU doctoral student takes a look at the fact and fiction regarding former Chancellor Franklin Murphy.
The leadership acumen and popularity of the late Kansas University Chancellor Franklin Murphy is legendary.
When Murphy announced plans to leave KU in 1960, about 4,000 students protested against his decision in Allen Fieldhouse.
And to one KU doctoral student, Murphy's armor has picked up little tarnish in 35 years.
"To me, he's God," said Nan Harper, who is completing a book-length dissertation on Murphy's career at the university.
But is such divine praise justified? Are there blemishes beneath the veneer?
That's what a group of KU faculty wanted to know this week when Harper made an oral defense of her Ph.D. work on Murphy.
"I was grateful to read he was a heavy smoker," KU history professor Bill Tuttle told Harper during the two-hour critique.
It was Tuttle's way of conveying concern that Harper's writing did as much to advance the Murphy mythology as separate fact from fiction.
Harper reluctantly offered that Murphy had his share of failures. For example, his plan to integrate Lawrence's restaurants by applying economic pressure on restaurant owners fizzled in the 1950s.
His feud with Gov. George Docking -- something akin to the Hatfields and McCoys -- about funding of higher education bruised KU's stature in political circles, she said.
Murphy imposed authoritarian rule over Faculty Senate and could be characterized as an elitist, Harper said.
"I don't think Murphy felt he was less than perfect," she added.
During oral arguments, Harper stood up for Murphy. She said he made his presence felt far beyond campus.
"He was the ethical leader I set out to find," she said.
After graduating from medical school, Murphy went into the U.S. Army. In the service he helped formulate synthetic quinine, which was used to treat malaria.
"This really saved lives. This was important," Harper said.
At age 32, Murphy became dean of KU's medical school, where he launched an innovative program to attract physicians to rural Kansas. Ahead of his time, he challenged doctors to control health care costs in the late 1940s.
He evoked praise from President Eisenhower for ideas about improving U.S. health care. There was speculation Murphy was destined for high-level government service, perhaps the vice presidency.
He was promoted to KU chancellor in 1951, just 15 years after completing an undergraduate degree at KU.
While KU's chief executive, Murphy prompted integration of the city's movie theaters by threatening to show first-run movies for free on campus.
Harper said KU faculty interviewed for the dissertation viewed the Murphy years as "fun." Those professors said "it has never been as much fun since."
Murphy was a big promoter of the arts and cultural institutions. At one time, he chaired the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in New York.
"All his work with the arts, he deserves every bit of puffery I can lay on him," Harper said.
Murphy's career at KU was brought to a close by an offer to be chancellor at University of California-Los Angeles. He stayed at UCLA until 1968. He resigned to serve as chair of Times Mirror Co. until 1980. In 1994, Murphy died of cancer at the age of 78 in Los Angeles.
Lessons apply today
Harper, who teaches education courses at Bethany College in Lindsborg, said political, social and economic forces that plagued Murphy in the 1950s also confront new KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway in the 1990s.
Then, as now, the chancellor grappled with the state's urban vs. rural division. In both decades state legislators pressured the university to do more with fewer tax dollars, she said.
Harper said Murphy understood the value of public relations. He took his message directly to the people, including the state's leading newspapers.
Hemenway, who vows to visit the state's 105 counties within a couple of years, could rally Kansans to support investment in state universities by following in Murphy's footsteps, she said.
"Get out and talk to people other than fund-raisers," Harper said. "He can make friends all over the state."