By training, John Robert Greene G'83 is a historian of the modern American presidency. A graduate of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, he has written books on the Nixon and Ford presidencies, and the presidential election of 1952. In recent years, he has dedicated an enormous amount of effort to researching and writing the two most recent of five volumes of Syracuse University historySyracuse University: The Tolley Years, 1942-1969; and Syracuse University: The Eggers Years, which was published in 1998 by Syracuse University Press and is excerpted here. Greene, professor of history and communications at Cazenovia College, New York, explains in his introduction to The Eggers Years that, like the previous volumes, this is "a study, a history, not an encyclopedic recitation of every fact that has been a part of the University's growth." |
In working on the last two volumes, he and his research assistants combed through page after page of University archival material and interviewed more than 300 people, including administrators, students, faculty, community leaders, and benefactors. "My goal," he writes, "was to paint as broad a picture of the University's growth as the sources would allow, balancing my narrative of executive decision making with evidence of the political and social forces beyond the executive's control."
Eggers's Baptism of Fire
In February 1971, Chancellor John Corbally informed the University's Board of Trustees that he would leave SU to become chancellor of the University of Illinois system. On March 10, Corbally was on his way to Chicago. That same day, student activists demanded that the new acting Chancellor meet with them to discuss their demands.
Several weeks before, Corbally had informed Melvin Eggers, his provost, of his decision and told him that he would be named acting Chancellor. Eggers had only recently been confirmed by the Board of Trustees, and on the day of Corbally's departure he was not scheduled to take over the office for five more days. However, the students would not be placated. Some 23 years later, the new acting Chancellor-elect remembered his baptism of fire:
"[The students] found out [Corbally] was at the airport on his way to Chicago. So they came over to my office and said, 'You, in the chapel. Now.' I said, 'Look, I'm not the Chancellor.' 'We don't care. You, in the chapel. Now.'... So I went.... It was the absolute right thing to do.... I faced them [approximately 1,300 students had gathered at the chapel] and said, 'I am not prepared to talk with you as the chief officer of this university. I do not take office until the 15th of March. But I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I will meet you on the evening of the 15th of March. Monday evening.' That gave me a chance to do some mobilizing and preparing for that meeting."
Melvin Eggers, acting Chancellor of Syracuse University, began March 15 with a promise to move from "layers" to "community," a pledge he delivered to the community during a radio interview on WAER-FM, the campus radio station. He then went to Hendricks Chapel as promised five days earlier, where he received a rather rigorous grilling. He refused all requestsand there were severalto sign statements to show his support for student demands. He did, however, offer a considerable olive branch to participatory democracy when he offered that he would resign if the University Senate ever desired....
The 34-year-old Eggers came to Syracuse University as a member of the economics department. Eggers later told the Syracuse Record that "when I came I thought I'd be here three or four years." |
Ten years later, he was made chairman of his department; in 1968, he was named chairman of the Agenda
Committee of the University Senate. This man was
clearly no political neophyte that Corbally "plucked from the faculty" to be his vice chancellor for Academic Affairs and provost in 1970.
Melvin A. Eggers was born February 21, 1916, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Despite the fact that his family was particularly hard hit by the Great Depressionhis father lost his job and, for a period of time, the family was on the dole ("I know what it's like to eat salt pork through the courtesy of the county")Eggers was quick to note during a 1994 interview that he nevertheless got some "important breaks." Upon his 1933 graduation from high schoolhardly a good time to be entering the work forcehe concluded that he could not as yet go on to college, but he got a $50 per semester scholarship to Indiana University. This covered all but $25 of a semester's tuition at Indiana University's Fort Wayne extension program. For his first year, Eggers worked in a neighborhood drugstore for 50 cents a night, and $1.25 for all day Sunday. This money was given back to the family. When he lost that job, he became a dispatcher in a local dairy for 10 cents an hour. When it seemed that that job would be phased out, he worked for milk. He then got a job in a local bank, where he worked for four years.|
In 1938, having saved $400 (of which he gave half to his parents), he quit his job at the bank and moved to Bloomington, enrolling at Indiana University as a full-time junior majoring in economics. Two years later, Eggers received his bachelor's degree; the following year he received his master's. Toward the end of that year, on April 5, 1941, Eggers married Mildred Chenowith, whom he met while the two were officers for the local YMCA and YWCA. He did some graduate work at the University of Chicago, but World War II intervened. In 1942, he enlisted in the Navy; he attended the Advanced Naval Intelligence School in New York City, and was then stationed in Washington, D.C., as a Japanese language translator. After the war, he was an economic analyst for the U.S. War Department in Tokyo. He was discharged in 1946 with the rank of lieutenant.
Following his discharge, Eggers enrolled at Yale University, which had offered him an assistantship before the war. Immediately after earning his Ph.D. in 1950 (his dissertation was on the economic development of Japan from 1868 to 1900), the 34-year-old Eggers came to Syracuse University as a member of the economics department. Eggers later told the Syracuse Record that "when I came I thought I'd be here three or four years." Ten years later, he was made chairman of his department; in 1968, he was named chairman of the Agenda Committee of the University Senate....
This man was clearly no political neophyte that Corbally "plucked from the faculty" to be his vice chancellor for Academic Affairs and provost in 1970.... There was no real search for Corbally's immediate successor; as provost, Eggers's elevation to acting Chancellor was virtually automatic. That did not, however, mean that he was a shoo-in to be named the ninth Chancellor. Eggers remembered that "my total administrative experience did not warrant my being appointed Chancellor...[I did not have] any business management experience [of that] magnitude as department chairman, where the nature of administration was to turn in a list of proposals for faculty salary adjustments."...
The minutes of [the search committee's] meetings make it clear that Eggers was at the top of everybody's listthroughout the balloting, he was the only candidate who consistently scored high marks with the entire committee. On June 4, 1971, Eggers was presented to the Board of Trustees as the single, unanimous choice of the search committee....
Why Eggers? His own later speculation on the question is, upon a close reading of the deliberations of the search committee, quite close to the mark: "I was seen as a healer. And I think seen as a person who had made some things happen in spite of being a healer; not just a healer but healing by doing some things."