Harold E. Stassen graduated high school one year early, founded and led the Minnesota Young Republican League while a student at the University of Minnesota, earned a law degree, was elected governor of the state at age 31, served as chief of staff to Admiral William Halsey during World War II, helped write the United Nations charter as part of the American delegation to the first UN conference, and saw his promising run for the Republican presidential nomination fall just short, to Thomas Dewey, in 1948.
Remarkably, Stassen achieved all of this before beginning his academic career as President of Penn. He would go on to be one of the most controversial leaders in the University’s history before returning to politics—and political ignominy. Stassen came to Penn in 1948, at a time when the University was facing a serious financial crisis. By cutting costs and stepping up fundraising efforts, Stassen was able to right the ship. It was to be the greatest achievement of his presidency.
Soon after, Stassen put into motion his plan to leverage Penn’s football team to generate national exposure for the University. He ended up engaging in a long battle with the NCAA over Penn’s national television contract, which was one of only two in the nation at the time. The NCAA sought to restrict such deals to ensure that attendance at college games remained strong; Stassen basically ignored the NCAA, lining up a $200,000 broadcast deal for Penn with ABC. It was a costly decision. The NCAA fought back, threatened to kick Penn out of college sports, and Stassen backed down.
The battle with the NCAA didn’t make Stassen popular either with his fellow University presidents or the Penn community—nor did his decision to campaign for the presidency once again in 1952, leaving campus for long periods at a time. By 1953, Stassen had left Penn for good to take a position with the American foreign aid administration. He had little contact with Penn afterward and became most famous, fairly or not, for his many failed campaigns for president—nine in total between 1948 and 1992.
For more on this and other notable moments in Penn history, go to the University Archives web site at www.archives.upenn.edu.
Originally published on May 8, 2008