UW-Stout History: The Lean Years

The names of the Stout Institute and Lorenzo Dow Harvey had been linked for so long, that at Harvey's death, many people wondered if a replacement could be found. Stout was a unique institution, and there was no pool of experienced educational leaders in the field to draw from. Fortunately, while conducting the search for Harvey's replacement, the Stout Institute Board of Trustees selected an able interim administrator in Clyde Bowman.

Bowman, a Stout graduate, joined the institute's facility in 1919 to become the first dean of industrial education. As acting president, Bowman was popular with the faculty and an attempt was made to have him retained as Stout's second president. However, due to political maneuvering and perhaps because he did not have an advanced degree, Bowman was passed over. He remained at Stout as the dean of industrial education until his retirement in 1953.

Burton E. NelsonAfter nearly a year of debate, the Board of Trustees selected Burton E. Nelson as the second president of the Stout Institute. He began his duties in April 1923.

Nelson was born on a farm near Bedford, Pennsylvania, in 1867. At the age of nine, he was sent to the Pennsylvania Military Academy. Later, he attended the State Normal School at Millersville and Western Normal College in Illinois, where he received bachelor of science and master of arts degrees.

Although Nelson was making a fine record for himself in education, it wasn't until he became the superintendent of schools at Racine that he came to the attention of Stout administrators. Under his guidance, the first part-time vocational school in the country was organized.

One of Nelson's first decisions as Stout's president was to form the Stout Student Association. The association scheduled student activities, distributed activity fees and organized homecoming and commencement. Three years later, the Stout Student Council was created with members from the Stout Student Association as well as a representative from each of the four classes.

Stout Student AssociationThroughout his tenure, Nelson fought a continuing battle for the accreditation of the Stout Institute. In 1921, Stout applied for accreditation by the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, as well as the American Association of University Women. Accrediting teams, used to the needs of liberal arts colleges, had difficulty in approving some aspects of Stout, particularly the library and limited liberal studies offerings. Several years later, after much effort and expense, Nelson and his staff were able to get the institute accredited by North Central and other associations.


Early in his administration, Nelson faced a major crisis that reaffirmed the powers of the presidency that had been established under Harvey. The crisis began in 1927, with a bus trip to a basketball game at River Falls. When one of the busses failed to arrive, students were forced to cram into the two remaining buses - the first of many small disasters that occurred on the trip. The Stoutonia was quick to blame the chaperons for the trip's problems and the head of the household arts department, Daisy Kugel, in particular. Daisy KugelKugel and several of her faculty members threatened to resign unless Nelson forced the paper to offer an acceptable apology. Nelson, who was called back from his honeymoon to face the crisis, accepted the resignations of about a third of the faculty and did not interfere with the Stoutonia's content. 

Many important student activities and traditions began in the 1920's, including growth in the number and sophistication of clubs. Phi Omega Beta became the first fraternity on campus in 1927. The first homecoming held in conjunction with a football game took place in 1922.

By the end of the 1920's, Nelson and his staff had done much to improve the Stout Institute. Positive steps had been taken to improve the library and the educational level of the faculty. Student life also improved as regulations on dress and dorm hours were relaxed. Unfortunately, the positive attitude that had taken hold on both the campus and the nation was about to come crashing down with the stock market.

The Great Depression was a difficult test for Nelson and the staff of the institute. Faculty members were forced to take pay cuts and building projects came to a halt. Enrollment dropped to a low of 400 in 1934. On the positive side, Stout received thousands of dollars from the Work Projects Administration for building maintenance and support personnel.

In spite of the financial difficulties imposed on the school by the Depression, Stout's academic reputation continued to grow. In 1932, Stout received full college rank and recognition. Three years later, a graduate program was introduced.

Alumni were largely responsible for the development of the graduate program. Stout graduates often found that they needed master's degrees for promotions. They asked Stout to develop a curriculum. A committee consisting of Clyde Bowman, Arthur Brown, Harry Good and Ray Wigen (known as the four horsemen) worked together to overcome accreditation problems and efforts by other institutions to restrict the program. In addition, they had no funds for extra staff and equipment. Despite the hardships, the graduate school opened in 1935, with master's degrees offered in the areas of home economics education, industrial education and vocational education. Ray Wigen served as the first dean of the Graduate School.

In 1938, Nelson introduced plans that would eventually lead to significant changes in the administration of the institute. Since its founding, the decision-making process at Stout had been in the hands of the president. The president had the final say on issues as diverse as hiring faculty members and scheduling lyceum appearances. As the institute expanded, the job became too time consuming and Nelson appointed several faculty committees to share these responsibilities. It is important to note, though, that Nelson retained the power to accept or reject faculty recommendations. The first committees dealt with student relations, student employment, loans, publications, publicity, lyceum, library, health, physical education, athletics, admissions, credits and curriculum.

The student body at Stout began to grow slowly as the Depression eased its grip. In 1939, the institute enrolled 656 students. That year, at age 72, Nelson seriously considered the possibility of retiring. He had been Stout's president for nearly two decades and had seen it through the nation's worst economic crisis. Before he could decide however, the United States entered World War II. In his diary, Nelson wrote: "I quit when Hitler does."

The war had a significant impact on Stout. Large numbers of the institute's faculty and students joined the military. Many did not return. Students who remained at Stout also participated in such wartime activities as the pilot training program and nursing. By 1943, intercollegiate athletics came to a halt due to a lack of male students (44 in 1943). In that year and the next, the traditional homecoming football games were replaced by kittenball and picnics.

Nelson tendered his resignation in June 1945, one month after the end of the war in Europe. He retired that fall.

Louis Smith Tainter House
Louis Smith Tainter House

The Nelson presidency has been criticized as being a stagnant period in Stout's history. Enrollment actually dropped during his administration and only Lynwood Hall, Nelson Field, and the Louis Smith Tainter House (known then as Eichelberger Hall) were added to the campus. Generally, the criticism fails to take into consideration the difficulties under which Nelson had to operate. There were the obvious factors such as the Depression and World War II, but Nelson also had to deal with a Board of Trustees from eastern Wisconsin. Some of the trustees had never visited the Stout campus. In a sense, they were unable to determine the needs of the institution. Perhaps Nelson should best be remembered for his efforts to get Stout accredited and recognized as an institution of higher education that was on a par with other colleges, while retaining its uniqueness.

--Kevin Thorie 

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