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President Marion Le Roy Burton

President Marion Le Roy Burton

Marion LeRoy Burton, President 1910-1917

Marion LeRoy Burton, President 1910-1917

Marion Le Roy Burton, the second president of Smith College, was born in Brooklyn, Iowa on August 30, 1874, the youngest child of Ira and Jane Simmons Burton. The family moved to Minneapolis when Burton was very young. A short time later Ira Burton died after suffering financial reverses. Jane Burton worked extremely hard to support her family and her sons took jobs after school to ease the strain of their mother. Burton’s early jobs included selling newspapers and raising pigeons.

The day after his 1900 graduation from Carlton College, Burton married classmate Nina L. Moses, and they went to Minnesota’s Windom Institute to gain teaching experience. By this time, he had decided that a college presidency was the job for him and would let nothing draw him from that path. With this goal in mind and the knowledge that all college presidents of the day were clergymen, Burton attended Yale University to study Theology and earn his Ph.D. in Philosophy. He graduated summa cum laude. Leaving Yale in 1908, having taught there after his graduation, Burton went to preach at the historic Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn, New York. The following year, Smith offered him the presidency and he was inaugurated in 1910.

The institution Burton came to lead in 1910 was in a precarious position. Though the original endowment had been shrewdly managed and substantially enlarged, it was not enough to provide for the vast improvements the College desperately needed. These included a new gymnasium, two laboratories, more student housing and a much larger campus. To pay for these improvements, Burton announced a million-dollar fundraising campaign. Such an ambitious campaign had not been embarked on before and, despite the doubts of many, it succeeded. During his seven years at Smith, Burton encouraged changes in the curriculum designed to meet more of the challenges students would be facing in the outside world and significantly altered the admissions procedure to a more comprehensible examination of the student’s abilities, achievements, interests and character. One of Burton’s greatest dreams for Smith was a vast enlargement of the campus to provide for semi-separate schools devoted to different areas of study, resulting in Smith College changing into Sophia Smith University. The plan was received relatively well and plans were made to acquire the necessary land, but Burton left Smith before much could be accomplished and without his energy behind the project, it fell through.

In 1917, Burton resigned from Smith, to become president of the University of Minnesota. His time at the University of Minnesota was very brief, only three years. In 1920, Burton accepted the presidency of the University of Michigan and threw himself into the school’s campaign for more and much-needed buildings and brought greater organization to the large and complicated university. When he died suddenly from pneumonia on February 18, 1925, many at the University of Michigan lamented that he had only just begun to bring marvelous change.

Burton was mourned deeply at the schools he had headed. Following his death, the Smith College Alumnae Association, noting his interest in the cause of eager students of limited means, began raising money for a scholarship in his name devoted to that cause.

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