Dr. William Watts Folwell First University President, 1869–1884
Dr. William Watts Folwell 1833 - 1929 U of M Commencement perhaps, 1925 at age 92
Born in Seneca County, New York, Folwell, a Civil War veteran, was encouraged to come to Minnesota by his brother-in-law, the Rev. Gregory Chase. Chase wrote to Folwell in February 1869 of a new and exciting "State University at St. Anthony," that desperately needed qualified professors. Folwell, an adventurous soul who was trained to teach Latin, Greek, mathematics, and engineering, came to the young state a few months later. By August, he had been selected as the first president of the University of Minnesota.
From the start, he advocated for the rights of students, who took to calling 36-year-old Folwell "Uncle Billy." The young president quickly realized that many students were financially and intellectually unprepared for University life. Insisting that it was the "duty of the institution to make it possible for a young person to live on $3 a week," he walked door-to-door with his charges, asking the residents of neighboring houses to take in student boarders for a small fee.
Folwell was president for 15 years, but his impact on the institution can be felt to this day. In his inaugural address, Folwell detailed the Minnesota Plan, a forward-thinking educational philosophy that shaped the state's early schools and continues to guide the University. Folwell's service to the University did not end with his term in the president's office. For many years, he volunteered as the fledgling institution's first librarian, and he taught political science from 1875 until his retirement in 1907. As professor emeritus, he continued to be a mentor and advocate for countless faculty, staff, and students until his death in 1929 at age 96.
Majestic Folwell Hall Built in 1906–07 as a replacement for Old Main, which has been destroyed in a fire, Folwell Hall is considered one of the University's finest structures. Designed by St. Paul architect Clarence H. Johnston, Sr., Folwell Hall cost $410,000 to build. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and can be identified by its ornamented design (a menagerie of sculpted faces and animals–cats, cherubs, rabbits, eagles, and even gophers decorate its exterior) and its distinctive clusters of chimneys–26 in all.
Famous Residents In one form or another, the University's College of Liberal Arts has been represented in Folwell Hall since its construction. Language departments were some of the building's first residents; many continue to reside there today. Other early tenants of Folwell Hall included the alumni magazine, the German museum, the Gopher yearbook, the departments of Pedagogy, Oratory, and Psychology, and the Minnesota Daily.