Remembering Cornelis de Kiewiet
By Joel Seligman
The year 2008 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of our School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, what is now the Simon School of Graduate Business Administration, and what is now the Warner School of Education and Human Development. This is a good time to remember Cornelis de Kiewiet, the fifth president of our University, who served between 1951 and 1961.
Born in the Netherlands, raised in South Africa, de Kiewiet was a professor of modern European history and leading historian of South Africa. Before beginning his presidency here, de Kiewiet had a distinguished academic career at the University of Iowa and Cornell, serving as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, provost, and acting president of Cornell.
De Kiewiet was a structuralist. To University history professor Arthur May, author of A History of the University of Rochester, “the merger of the Colleges for Men and Women into a single College of Arts and Sciences represented the most dramatic, the most far-reaching innovation of the de Kiewiet stewardship.” De Kiewiet acknowledged that there was “considerable anxiety” and “sometimes a very stubborn resistance” to his proposal, but he was strongly committed to it because “[t]here is an enrichment that takes place when a variety of people are brought together in the same environment.” De Kiewiet recognized there were also budgetary and convenience advantages to a single campus.
To de Kiewiet, the merging of the men’s and women’s colleges was a vital step toward “bringing more of the constituent colleges of the institution closer together.” In an oral history after he retired, de Kiewiet expressed the view that “I left with the feeling that perhaps more steps might have been taken . . . for bringing the school of medicine and the school of music more intimately into the life of the institution.”
At the same time, de Kiewiet viewed the nature of the University of Rochester as significantly changed in the post-World War II period with “a distinct notch in the direction of professional education, more graduate education, more of a relationship to the whole phenomenon so much stressed by the Manhattan Project of scientific and intellectual investigation and research.” Not only were three new schools created during de Kiewiet’s time, but new curricular offerings were offered in non-western civilizations and Canada, the number of faculty doubled, sponsored research grew fourfold, and in 1955 an embryonic computing center was established.
His presidency began in the shadow of World War II and was touched by the influence of McCarthyism. He viewed this as the period of “the greatest international activity on the part of the United States” and aspired “to establish more significant, more active, more influential programs . . . that would relate . . . to . . . Asia and Africa.”
De Kiewiet laid the groundwork for much that was subsequently accomplished during the Wallis presidency. He deserves particular credit for strengthening the University’s Board of Trustees, notably by supporting the selection of Joseph Wilson ’31 to be chair in 1959 and helping develop the board-approved Greater University Program in 1959 that sought to raise $49.9 million by 1965, with $28.7 million designed to address 20 capital construction projects.
De Kiewiet played a critical role in creating significant momentum at this University in the period after World War II, and his legacy has proven to be an enduring one. As we celebrate important anniversaries of three of our six schools this year, it is good to remember the University president who inspired their creation.