UB Libraries celebrates 100th anniversary of Capen’s inauguration

Samuel P. Capen pictured in his office.

Samuel P. Capen pictured in his office. Image: Courtesy of University Archives.

Release Date: October 25, 2022


BUFFALO, N.Y. – University Libraries will recognize the centenary of Samuel P. Capen’s inauguration as the University at Buffalo’s first full-time chancellor with a special popup exhibit from 10 a.m. to noon on Oct. 28 outside the Buffalo Room on the ground floor of the building that today bears his name.

The exhibit in Capen Hall, staffed by library archivists, will feature artifacts, photos and other items associated with Capen’s legacy and leadership during the formative years that moved UB from a loose conglomeration of affiliated professional schools and colleges into the modern conception of what was then the University of Buffalo.

“We’re so proud of our history at UB and the resources we have within University Archives that can help illuminate that past,” says Marie Elia, interim co-archivist, who will staff the exhibit along with William Offhaus, reference archivist. “This exhibit allows us to connect with students and other members of the university community so we can introduce them to the person who began the journey responsible for making UB into the university that it is today.”

Capen was the favored choice of the UB Council, a board of trustees overseeing university operations with a chancellor serving part-time as a board chair. But peer institutions responded almost unanimously, when the council shared its list of hopefuls, that Capen was reluctant to leave his position with the American Council on Education, where he had been director since 1919 after working for the U.S. Bureau of Education beginning in 1914. In fact, he had previously turned down similar job offers from two other universities.

“I don’t have direct evidence to the point, but I have to wonder if the council was soft-selling Capen when in 1922 they invited him here — not as a job candidate, but as a consultant,” says Offhaus, who has written an extensive Capen research guide  available through University Libraries. “What Capen didn’t realize during that first visit is that the council had already ‘selected’ him.

“It was during a second visit that Capen was offered and accepted the position.”

The irony of Capen’s campus visit is that UB needed both a consultant and a chancellor, the latter of which was the title of the university’s top administrator until UB joined SUNY in 1962 and president became the position’s new official title.

In Capen, it had both.

No one with a background in education had previously served as UB chancellor. Capen’s part-time predecessors were all civic leaders who came from the business world or legal community.

Capen represented a new leadership reality for UB: an educator who would serve as the university’s full-time administrative authority.

He began his career teaching German at Clarke College from 1902-11 after obtaining undergraduate and graduate degrees in the study of German from Tufts College, where his father, Elmer Hewitt Capen, had served as president. But the younger Capen would soon shift the focus of his scholarship toward higher education administration, earning a second master’s degree from Harvard University in 1900 and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1902, becoming one of the country’s leading authorities on higher education administration and an early proponent of diversity.

“I do not hold with those who would limit the number of college students on the basis of any distinctions of race or sex or creed or social standing,” Capen wrote in a January 1922 article in The Educational Record, a leading academic journal where he served as editor. “There is but one justifiable basis on which a university in a democratic community such as this can choose those who are to become members of it, the basis of ability.”

Capen would later use those words verbatim in his UB inaugural address.

As a leading higher education innovator, Capen was well prepared to complete an effort that began developing within UB to move the university forward, a mission embodied in a campaign bannered as “A Greater University of Buffalo.”

That effort included a 1909 land purchase to relocate the medical, law, pharmacy and dental schools from their various downtown Buffalo locations to the site of the former Erie County Almshouse, today the site of the South Campus. In 1913, money was raised to establish the College of Arts and Sciences. And a 1920 endowment campaign raised $5 million ($75 million adjusted for inflation) from 24,000 donors.

“These successes impressed Capen and made the prospect of the chancellor’s role very tempting to him,” Offhaus says. “But he had three conditions that he required in accepting the position.”

These included a guarantee of complete academic freedom for faculty and students. This was a central tenet of his education philosophy.

“Complete academic freedom was non-negotiable for Capen,” Offhaus notes. “But he was willing to be flexible regarding the two other conditions.”

He did not want to be responsible for fundraising. This would allow him to focus on his duties as chancellor.

“Capen wanted to concentrate on the administration of the university,”

He also wanted to continue his work in the field of higher education, and as his duties as chancellor allowed, continue consulting with other universities and maintaining memberships in higher education organizations.

“He liked that UB at the time had no existing traditions that might inhibit its future growth. Capen wanted to set a new direction for the university,” Offhaus says. “UB presented him with that opportunity, since the separate professional schools and the College of Arts and Sciences were not tightly bound to a unified vision.

“Their daily operations were left to individual deans before Capen was chancellor.”

Capen’s duties became official on Oct. 28, 1922, when he was installed as chancellor.

A reserved personality, Capen hardly basked in the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony, held at the Teck Theater at Main and Edward streets in Buffalo, since the university at the time had no auditorium large enough to accommodate an audience of that size. He was remembered to have said in the days following the event words to the effect, “I’m told it was a nice party, but lord preserve me from ever having to go through such a thing again.”

Capen served in that capacity until 1950, leading the university through the early half of the 20th century while simultaneously guiding UB through the challenges of the Great Depression and U.S. entry in WWII.

Every year of Capen’s service was by his own admission a step toward progress.

“He said at the 20th anniversary of his inauguration that his tenure at UB was only a part of university history. It was not the be all and end all,” Offhaus says. “But if he could see the university today, I think he’d be pleased because Capen saw his time at UB as a step along the way.

“It has been an extraordinary journey.”

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