Back to May/June obituaries | May/June Contents | Gazette home



Harold Stassen, 1907-2001

By Mark F. Bernstein

National obituaries for the Honorable Harold E. Stassen Hon’48, who died on March 4 at the age of 93, made much of his many bids for public office. Known as the perennial candidate, among other offices, he ran for president of the United States nine times, governor of Minnesota four times, governor of Pennsylvania twice, the U.S. Senate twice, and mayor of Philadelphia once. Often overlooked among the tributes was the one presidency Stassen did attain—that of the University of Pennsylvania, which he led from 1948 to 1953.
Few university presidents have ever boasted a more impressive resume. Stassen was first elected governor of Minnesota when he was only 31 and delivered the keynote address at the 1940 Republican convention, where he helped clinch the nomination for Wendell Willkie. Reelected twice, he resigned in 1943 to go on active duty in the Navy, serving as chief of staff to Admiral William Halsey in the South Pacific. President Franklin Roosevelt named Stassen to the American delegation to the first United Nations conference in San Francisco, where he helped write the UN Charter and was voted the most effective delegate.
In 1948 Stassen made his first and strongest bid for the White House. After a series of upset victories in the early primaries, polls showed him the favorite of convention delegates and indicated that he would beat President Harry Truman in a head-to-head race. He became a hero to many young Republicans, including Richard Nixon, Joseph McCarthy, and future Chief Justice Warren Burger. When Stassen fell short of victory at the GOP convention in Philadelphia that summer, Penn pounced.
Though Stassen was not the only politician-president in the Ivy League at that time—Dwight Eisenhower had just taken over at Columbia—many questioned the selection of a man who had no ties to Penn or experience as an academic administrator. In several respects, though, his tenure was successful. Penn was in the middle of a more-or-less perpetual financial crunch and Stassen’s skill as a fundraiser was put to good use. He succeeded in raising money and cutting costs, choosing to focus limited resources on a few prestige departments at the expense of others. In 1951, he bravely spoke out against a bill in the Pennsylvania legislature that would have required loyalty oaths from professors.
He also sought to maximize the exposure of Penn’s nationally successful football teams. Proclaiming that the University’s goal was “victory with honor,” Stassen replaced longtime athletic director H. Jamison Swarts with brash young Francis T. “Franny” Murray and added Notre Dame and other national powerhouses to the schedule. Coming as he did from the Big Ten, Stassen argued that academic excellence was not incompatible with gridiron success, but Penn’s Ivy rivals, who had grown tired of losing to the Quakers and had no desire to keep up with a big-time program, dropped the team from their schedules. Eventually, Stassen was forced to curb Penn’s football aspirations as the price of securing membership in the Ivy League.
Football was at the center of the other major controversy of Stassen’s presidency: his fight with the NCAA over televising Quaker home games. By the late 1940s Penn was one of only two colleges in the country with a national TV contract, a considerable source of
revenue for a cash-strapped university. When the NCAA voted to restrict the number of televised games in order to stop the slide in gate attendance, Stassen defied the order and signed a $200,000 contract with ABC. Forced to back down when the NCAA threatened
to expel the Quakers, the incident unnecessarily damaged Penn’s national reputation and further soured relations with the other Ivy colleges.

Whatever his successes or failures, it was hard to shake the suspicion that Stassen prized Penn chiefly as a staging ground for his next assault on the White House. In his letter of acceptance to the trustees, he noted that he would take office, “subject to the fulfillment of my speaking duties” on behalf of Governor Thomas E. Dewey, the 1948 Republican nominee. That was a sign of things to come, for in just over four years in office Stassen took two leaves of absence, to make an extended speaking tour in Asia and to campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1952.
In all, Stassen’s tenure was not a particularly rewarding one, either for him or for Penn, and it was clear when he resigned to take a post in the Eisenhower Administration that he and the trustees were relieved to be rid of each other. Stassen kept few ties to the University after his term ended, but went on to build a successful law practice and continued to dabble in politics. In 1963, as president of the American Baptist Convention, he joined the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the march on Washington. And every four years, it seemed, he would seek his party’s nomination for president, earning a brief, increasingly dismissive paragraph in the newspapers.
At his 90th birthday party three years ago, Stassen received tributes from Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, among others, while the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously urged President Clinton to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Though living in a nursing home, Stassen was still busily promoting a 129-page proposal to revise the United Nations Charter and filing yet again for the Minnesota gubernatorial race that Jesse Ventura, a very different sort of maverick, eventually won.
Even in old age, there was something Stassen found vital in tilting at windmills, something that lent his lonely career an odd sort of gallantry. It was fitting that his favorite lines of poetry came from Robert Browning:

    Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?

Mark Bernstein has written for the Gazette on a Penn-Princeton football game played at the Academy of Music in 1889 [December 1997] and math professor Herbert S. Wilf [May 1998]. His book on Ivy League football will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press this fall, and he is at work on a biography of Harold Stassen.

Previous issue's obituaries | May/June Contents | Gazette home

Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 5/2/01