Lawrence resident publishes biography about the man some called KU’s best chancellor
Franklin D. Murphy became chancellor of the University of Kansas in 1951, when he was just 35.
When he left KU to lead another university in 1960, 4,000 students — roughly half of KU’s enrollment at the time — protested his resignation.
The years in between, Murphy was “wildly successful” to the degree that some regard him as KU’s best chancellor, said Lawrence resident Nancy Kellogg Harper, who recently published the book, “The Making of a Leader: Franklin D. Murphy, the Kansas Years.”
Harper, 73, earned her doctorate in educational leadership from KU in 1995, and — intrigued by the young, erudite chancellor’s success at Kansas and beyond — wrote her dissertation on Murphy, and interviewed him personally in the process before he died in 1994. Her book, published in 2016 by Jayhawk Ink and available through the KU Bookstore, builds on the dissertation.
Murphy was both scientist and humanist. Known as “the man who brought culture to Los Angeles,” Harper said, Murphy was an avid bibliophile and effective leader who left KU to become chancellor of University of California, Los Angeles and went on to become chairman and CEO of the Times Mirror Company in 1968.
“He was known internationally and he started in Kansas, so I wanted to know what it was that he learned — and how he learned — to be a leader in Kansas,” Harper said.
Themes from Murphy’s leadership aren’t entirely unlike some of those KU faces now, in the midst of a search for the university’s next chancellor.
Harper’s book narrates through Murphy’s upbringing in Kansas City, Mo., his undergraduate years at KU, his graduating first in his class from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and his years on faculty at the KU School of Medicine — where he was tapped as dean at age 32.
“The Making of a Leader” hones in on three signatures from Murphy’s years as KU chancellor: his elevation of KU arts and libraries, his impact on advancing civil rights on campus and across Lawrence, and his navigation of Kansas politics, where battles over money ultimately led to his decision to leave the state.
Notably, Harper said, Murphy’s father was a doctor and KU School of Medicine faculty member, and his mother was a concert pianist and a proponent of the arts.
Upon Murphy being announced as chancellor of KU, many faculty worried about where their disciplines would stand, Harper said. The science types knew Murphy was a doctor but loved opera and art. The liberal arts professors heard that he could read books in Latin but knew his degree was in medicine.
They were all correct.
Murphy was a true polymath, Harper said. “What they learned was that he was really, genuinely interested in everything.”
Murphy’s leadership in civil rights spilled beyond the campus into the greater community, Harper said.
A letter from KU track All-American Ernie Shelby, published in the book, credits a singular “momentous” 1957 meeting between Murphy, himself and three other black KU sports stars including Wilt Chamberlain with opening doors across town to African-Americans, who were still being relegated to balconies at movie theaters and denied service at restaurants and salons.
Shelby said he, Chamberlain and the other athletes threatened to leave KU if the racial discrimination was not “immediately addressed.” Murphy’s reaction, Shelby wrote, “was extremely attentive, accompanied with great understanding and empathy.”
The situation improved, thanks to Murphy’s power of persuasion in the community, Harper said.
Although he never aimed to launch a civil rights movement at KU and didn’t state integration as an overriding goal, it was a constant for Murphy.
In numerous speeches and actions at KU, he articulated distaste for bigotry, according to the book.
“His goal was to teach about and protect the citizenship rights of all, whether African-American, Caucasian, liberal or conservative, Jewish or Christian or agnostic,” according to the book. “Nothing could improve for any of them, he said, unless the university remained a ‘marketplace of free ideas,’ where all could test dogma and theories that were new to them. The chancellor’s primary task, Murphy believed, was to protect that marketplace from the ‘clammy hands’ of those who would suppress the full rights of citizenship.”
As it is now, money was a critical building block for Murphy’s ideas for elevating the university.
Raising it was another thing that set him apart as a leader.
His ability to raise money enabled him to purchase important collections and fund resources for KU Libraries, for example.
“He knew what it would take to make KU the best university between the two coasts, and he believed thoroughly that it could be,” Harper said.
Murphy didn’t create pools of money with no purpose, she said; rather, he tied his fundraising to something that a faculty member needed or wanted, or that the library, art museum or an academic department could benefit from. He forged personal relationships with donors and other stakeholders, found out what they were interested in and matched them with a need at KU.
“Murphy had a knack for fitting the perfect person to every project,” according to the book.
One key figure to state funding who Murphy never won over was then-Gov. George Docking.
“George Docking seriously didn’t like KU, and he didn’t like Franklin Murphy,” Harper said.
As the leader of the state’s flagship institution, Murphy’s job was to speak for higher education in Kansas, Harper said.
Murphy had become accustomed to winning but learned in Kansas politics that he wasn’t going to win every fight, Harper said. Docking was not approving funds Murphy believed KU needed to maintain its stature.
“When it became clear that it wasn’t going to change, and especially because the governor had such animosity for Murphy, he said, ‘When it isn’t fun anymore, you do something else,'” Harper said.
At UCLA, Murphy also made an impact.
The chancellor who succeeded Murphy there wrote, according to the book, “Franklin Murphy is probably the most seminal person across the board in terms of the growth and development of the Los Angeles community into a world leader.”
Reflecting on his leadership at KU and beyond, according to Harper’s book, Murphy himself said, “My job was to share the vision, find the talent, provide the freedom, and secure the funds.”
The University of Kansas Libraries, the KU Alumni Association and author Nancy Kellogg Harper are planning a book signing event for “The Making of a Leader, Franklin D. Murphy, the Kansas Years.”
The event is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. April 12 at the Adams Alumni Center, 1266 Oread Ave.
The event is expected to include comments from individuals who knew Murphy and an opportunity for discussion. Those who plan to attend can RSVP by calling Leah Hallstrom at 785-864-3103 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.