At ACAD’s fifty-ninth annual meeting held in January 1993, Bernard O’Kelly, then serving as its secretary-treasurer, delivered a speech entitled “Historical Remarks on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the American Conference of Academic Deans.” Of the organization’s founding, he noted:
Creationists affirm that the Conference was created complete at the Claridge Hotel in Atlantic City on the afternoon of January 10, 1945, and that essentially, it has not changed since. Evolutionists know better. The Prime Mover, E. V. Bowers, was then dean of Marshall College, and he knew how to seize time by the forelock. He had noted for many years that liberal arts deans had said they ought to have an annual national meeting of their own; in late 1944, Dean Bowers wrote to some of those deans who habitually attended the annual meeting of the Association of American colleges and some who didn’t, inviting them to talk at last about doing it. Dr. Guy Snavely [Executive Director of the American Association of Colleges from 1937 to 1955]…encouraged the initiative, seeing in it at the least a possibility of maintaining and increasing attendance at the AAC meetings.1
Deans from 43 institutions attended that first meeting. Among the founders was Dean Ruth L. Higgins of Beaver College (now Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania) who represented women’s colleges, became the first secretary-treasurer, and who would be dedicated to serving ACAD for more than two decades. Due to the advocacy of Bowers and Higgins, membership in the new conference grew in the first year alone from 50 to 357 with representation from 44 states.
This article is a biographical sketch of Ruth Higgins, an introduction to the dean’s survey she undertook in 1946, and a tribute to ACAD members who have worked tirelessly to further the professional development of academic leaders.
Ruth Loving Higgins was born on June 21, 1895, in Columbus, Ohio. Like many young professors, she moved several times during her early career. After finishing her Ph.D. in history at Ohio State University in 1924, she taught for one year at Elmira College in Elmira, New York. In 1925, she joined the history faculty at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, for another one-year appointment.
Her southward trek continued in the fall of 1926 when she accepted the position of head of the history department at the Woman’s College of Alabama (now Huntingdon College). On August 1, 1926, the Montgomery Advertiser noted of the new faculty member that, “She is said to have an unusually interesting personality.” While there, Higgins was involved with the League of Women’s Voters and the American Association of University Women. A respected historian, she presented a lecture in Atlanta in April 1933 entitled “Manchuria and the Far East” at the Southeastern Conference on International Relations. The conference featured only three speakers: Sir Herbert Ames, past financial director of the League of Nations; Ernest M. Patterson, President of the American Academy of Political and Social Science; and Ruth Higgins.
After eight years in Alabama, her resignation from Woman’s College was front-page news in the Montgomery Advertiser on September 4, 1934. Entitled “Dr. Higgins Quits College Post Here” it stated in part:
Dr. Ruth L. Higgins, for the past eight years head of the department of history at Woman’s College, has resigned to become academic dean at Beaver College, near Philadelphia…
The new position…is a well-deserved promotion for Dr. Higgins, who has had a vital place in the life of Woman’s College in this city during her stay here. She was largely responsible for the organization of the Brannon Historical Society, the International Relations Club, and the League Forum, three student activities allied with the history department.
Dr. Higgins, one of the most popular members of the faculty with Woman’s College students, was widely known in the educational and social activities of the city. She was in constant demand as lecturer before women’s clubs and other organizations in this city.
There are few newspaper accounts that detail her career during the next five years. A short article with a picture and the headline “Happy Birthday To…” ran on June 21, 1939, and provides further information on her education and continuing professional activities:
Miss Ruth L. Higgins. Dean and professor of history at Beaver College since 1934. Miss Higgins, who was born in Columbus, Ohio, received her A.B., B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees from Ohio State University, and she did post-graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, and at Cambridge, England. From 1935-38, she was a member of the editorial staff of the National Association of Deans of Women, of which she is a member, and at present she is editor-in-chief of the Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Association of Deans of Women. Among her numerous society affiliations are the American Historical Association, Southern Political Science Association, and the American Association of University Professors.
Six years after this story was published, as World War II was drawing to a close and after serving as a professor and administrator for two decades, Higgins would be among the first members of ACAD. It is clear that she never simply joined an organization; rather, she walked in with both sleeves rolled up, ready to work.
At the founding ACAD meeting in Atlantic City in January 1945, E. V. Bowers of Marshall College compiled a list of duties common to deans. The list was discussed and refined at the January 1946 meeting and in September of that year Higgins drafted a survey of 26 open-ended questions, mimeographed them, and mailed 404 copies across the country. In the days before computers and mail merges, this must have taken a considerable amount of time. She soon received responses from 161 ACAD members and the results of the survey were presented in the May 1947 edition of the Bulletin published by the Association of American Colleges.
At less than 2500 words, “The Functions of the Academic Dean,” can be read quickly and offers numerous insights into the deanship in particular and campus structures considered broadly as they existed in the middle of the twentieth century. Of particular interest is the usage in the survey of the word “dean” itself. In the Educational Directory of Federal and State School Officers published in 1947 by the Federal Security Agency, Higgins is listed directly after Raymon M. Kistler, the president of the institution she was then serving. Judging by the results of the survey, many of the deans, like Higgins herself, may have been a provost in all but name—an institutional structure common at the time. The word “provost” doesn’t appear in the article and the 1947 Directory has only two entries with that title: James P. Adams of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Arthur Nest of Wayne University in Detroit. In addition, the subject index of the Directory doesn’t contain the word “provost.” Higgins suggests that at that time the duties of a dean and provost were nearly identical. For example, she stated that “Most deans have frequent, informal conferences with their presidents…” and that “In faculty meetings, the dean presides in the absence of the president…”
Summarizing a dean’s typical schedule, Higgins wrote:
In the dean’s time budget, the order of functions based on the consumption of time is as follows: (1) conferences with students; (2) conferences with faculty members; (3) serving on committees; and (4) teaching. Some of the deans reporting do not engage in teaching at all.
It is doubtful that any dean or academic administrator today would describe their schedule in this manner. Once again, items missing from the survey are telling. While working with budgets is briefly noted in the survey, there isn’t a single reference to fund raising. In a welcome omission, accreditation as it is now known hadn’t yet darkened the administrative doorway.
As we begin to compile the fourth edition of ACAD’s Resource Handbook for Academic Deans, a few notable phrases from the 1947 article puts our current work in perspective. Higgins noted that the survey would explore the “fundamental functions” of a dean. She also makes reference to an administrator’s “zones of authority” and “connections” across campus. In a sense, the first three editions of the ACAD Resource Handbook focused on “fundamental functions” and in those volumes academic leaders helped each other with techniques for facilitating daily administrative work. In the fourth edition, we still seek to aid administrators in their duties but we will also change our focus to more consciously explore “zones of authority,” examining how leaders across campus work together to, as Higgins wrote, “…[help] college machinery run smoothly.”
After twenty-five years as dean, Ruth Higgins retired from Beaver College in the spring of 1960. Highly regarded on campus, she received a silver bowl from the college and was honored by the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Her service to her campus was at an end; her service to ACAD would include one last major project.
Just over two decades after examining the results of the first ACAD survey, the 74-year-old Higgins published The American Conference of Academic Deans: Developments and Abstracts, 1945-1969. In the preface, she described the volume’s inception:
The American Conference of Academic Deans will have been in existence for a quarter century when the twenty-sixth Annual Meeting is opened, January 11, 1970. Therefore it seemed fitting to have in 1969 an historical summary of the developments and the emphases in the programs during the first twenty-five years.
The writer endeavored to include in the abstracts of the addresses the salient ideas of the speakers concerning the assigned themes. It was not easy to eliminate the interesting details of the interpretations and explanations.2
Working from copies of ACAD’s Proceedings, published annually beginning in 1947, Higgins provides overviews of general meetings, synopses of major speeches, summaries of panel discussions, and descriptions of topics discussed at each year’s business meeting. Beyond its historical importance, the volume is invaluable as a research guide by providing page numbers for articles and speeches published in the Proceedings that otherwise would be difficult or impossible to locate. Held in the collections of only a few libraries, Higgins’s compendium remains the most complete historical overview of ACAD ever published.
Ten years after this last service, Ruth L. Higgins passed away on December 27, 1979, at the age of eighty-four in her native Columbus, Ohio. In revisiting the 1947 survey, we pause to honor her significant contributions to ACAD and enduring legacy as an educator.
1. https://acad.org/resource/historical-remarks-on-the-fiftieth-anniversary/ back
2. Higgins, Ruth L. The American Conference of Academic Deans: Developments and Abstracts, 1945-1969. Spahr and Glenn Co.: Columbus, OH (1969): iii. back
Related topics: The Role of the Dean