William Oxley Thompson

(1855 - 1933)


Miami University Presidency
Ohio State University Presidency
Time Line

Thompson's Early Years

Muskingum College alumnus William Oxley Thompson was most notably the 5th and most influential president of The Ohio State University, having served from 1899 to 1925. He was born on November 5, 1855 seven miles from the college campus in Cambridge, Ohio. His father, David Glenn Thompson, came to America from Northern Ireland in 1914 as one of eight sibblings. He became a shoemaker, migrated to Cambridge where he and a partner ran a shoe business. Although the enterprise failed, he remained in the shoe business the rest of his life. In 1854, three years before the business closed, he married Agnes Miranda Oxley who gave birth to William a year later, the first of ten children. The family moved to New Concord, then Zanesville, and then to the nearby rural community of Brownsville, Ohio.

When fourteen he began working as a hired hand on a Brownsville farm and a year later entered Muskingum college. He alternated working on the farm, tutoring, serving as a college janitor, and attending college. He later recalled that he lived for a time with the Harpers in their New Concord log cabin.Harper Cabin This is a remarkable coincidence, since William Rainey Harper also went on to become the president of a great university (The University of Chicago). Alternating work and attending college delayed completion of his degree, which eventually was awarded in 1978. He attended Pennsylvania's Western Theological Seminary, graduated in 1881, was ordained, married Rebba J. Allison in 1882 and took a position as a home missionary in Iowa. His wife fell ill and he sought an assignment in a more suitable climate.

In 1885 he moved his family to the Colorado Rockies to accommodate his wife's tuberculosis and became the president of Longmont College and the minister of Longmont's Presbyterian Church, nine miles from Estes Park. Here, his twenty-four year old wife and then their infant, second daughter died in 1886. A year later he remarried. In less than four years his second wife, Starr Brown Thompson, died at the age of twenty-four following the birth of their second son.

Thompson's Miami University Career

In 1890 he was a thirty-five year old widower with three children when he was offered the presidency of Miami University, Ohio's oldest college. Here, took a third wife (Estelle Godfrey Clark, 1894) and developed a solid reputation as an administrator. Miami had an enrollment of sixty undergraduates and sixty-two nontraditional students. For the next eight years he worked to strengthen programs and increase enrollments. Although he did not dramatically increase the numbers of students, he did much to improve the university. Teaching infrequently (political science and history), he spent most of his time promoting the college and recruiting students. As a farmer, he had a natural appeal in the Ohio's rural communities and state legislators, yet he was an effective communicator with academicians. He secured continual funding from the state in the and in 1896 successfully campaigned for passage of a ten year tax levy supporting Ohio and Miami universities, eventualy transforming both institutions into state universities.

Motivated by the fund raising implications, Thompson institutionalized Miami's sports program. He appointed a Miami athletic board of control and endorsed the establishment of the pioneering Ohio Inter-Collegiate Association which included Cincinnati, Denison, Kenyon, Marietta, Miami, Oberlin, OhioThompson, 1900 State, Otterbein, and Wittenberg.

Thompson was instrumental in the development of a science curriculum along with the more traditional course of study. In 1893 the first B.S. degree was offered. On his watch Miami began offering students the additional choice of Greek and modern languages programs of study. And, an honors program was introduced. Departmental honors were available to students who maintained superior grades, passed a comprehensive examination based on collateral reading, and wrote a thesis.

In June 1899 when offered the presidency of The Ohio State University, Miami President Thompson resigned.

Thompson's Ohio State University Career

William Oxley Thompson was elected president of the Ohio State University in 1899. He was OSU's fifth president and held the position for 25 years, presiding over the university's most important changes. Under his watch, OSU was transformed from a mostly agricultural Land Grant College to one of America's great universities. At the start of his tenure 99 students graduated and 1500 received diplomas in 1925, the year President Thompson retired, and the university's annual revenue of a half million was increased to more than six million dollars. In state and national governments he championed public education, generating much support. He was popular with his faculty, the Board of Trustees, the public and with students. It was not uncommon for him to grant students' request that he perform their marriage ceremony.

Thompson's experience as a preacher made him an effective leader and combined with his solid judgment, he became an important national figure. In 1917 with our national involvement in World War I and in the midst of his tenure as OSU president, he was asked to serve on several government commisions. In the spring of 1918 he was sent by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture on a speaking tour in the American Northwest to rally citizens to increase food production in support of the war effort. In the summer of that year, as chairman of the "Agricultural Commision" he journeyed to Europe to complete a special study of the allies' food supply. President Woodrow Wilson appointed him to the "Industrial Commision" to consider labor and capital relations and the "Anthracite Coal Commision" to arbitrate wage and conditions disputes within the anthracite coal industry.

At the end of the war, the University was celebrating it 50th anniversary and Thompson was 65 years old. He submitted his resignation, arguing that the position would be better served by a younger man. The Trustees disagreed and convinced him to remain. For the next several years he embarked on a vigorous, successful campaign to build facilities, most notably Ohio Stadium. He retired in 1925 at the age of 70.

In his memory, the campus houses four portraits and a bronze bust. And, The William Oxley Thompson Memorial Library (built in 1912) is named in his honor. An 11 foot statue of Thompson created by fine arts professor Erwin Frey was dedicated in June, 1930. It is positioned out front, facing the University Oval. Today, the library is linked with 10 departmental libraries and the Health Sciences and Law libraries and holds over 4 million volumes.

Thompson remained active after his resignation, serving on committees, traveling and making presentations. In early November of his 78th year, he returned to Zanesville to make a presentation at a teacher's conference. And, he visited his alma mater in New Concord to give an address to the Muskingum College student body. A month later, he suffered a severe heart attack and four days later died in a Columbus hospital on December 9, 1933.

In 1937 during the William Rainey Harper Memorial Conference held at Muskingum College's centennial celebration, OSU President George W. Rightmire said of Thompson, "It is given to few to have four careers, but Dr. Thompson was eminent as a minister, very successful as a businessman, distinguished as a democratic citizen, and renowned as an educational administrator."

Time Line of Thompson's Life

  • 1855 Born November 5, in Cambridge , Ohio
  • 1870 Enrolled at Muskingum College at age of 15
  • 1878 Graduated from Muskingum College
  • 1882 Graduated from Western Theological Seminary at Allegheny, Pennsylvania and began preaching in Fort Dodge, Iowa
  • 1885 Moved to Colorado, preached at the Longmont Presbyterian Church and became President of the Synodical College of the Synod of Colorado
  • 1891-1899 President of Miami University
  • 1899- Elected president of The Ohio State University
  • 1905 Physics building completed; 1925 renamed for Mendenhall (first professor of physics)
  • 1907 College of Education formed.
  • 1911 Elected president, National Association of State Universities
  • 1913 main library opens
  • 1915-1916 Instumental in drafting and passage of the National Defense Act
  • 1914 Starling-Ohio medical college joins OSU as its college of medicine
  • 1914 School of Dentistry starts.
  • 1914 U Homeopathic Hospital Training School for Nurses; in 1928 becomes the School of Nursing.
  • 1916 Trustees approve plan for College of Business Administration; later known as College of Commerce and Journalism
  • 1918 Chairman, special U.S. agricultural commission
  • 1919 Active supporter of the League of Nations
  • 1919-1920 Appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to serve on the second National Industrial Conference
  • 1917 Department of Agricultural Education established
  • 1922 quarter plan starts; voted by faculty in 1918
  • 1925 Retires OSU presidency on his 70th birthday
  • 1926 Eelected moderator of the U.S.A. Presbyterian Church
  • 1927-1933 Chairman, board of trustees, College of Wooster
  • 1933 Died on December 9th at the age of 78


  • Cope, A. History of The Ohio State University, Volume 1 1970-1910, 1920
  • Pollard, J. E. William Oxley Thompson, Columbus, 1955
  • Havighurst, W. The Miami Years 1809-1984 : http://www.lib.muohio.edu/epub/my/index.html

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