Depression, War, & Cold War | 1930-1953

During the tumultuous years of the Depression, World War II, and the early Cold War, the University went through a roller-coaster ride of change: fluctuating enrollments and appropriations, liberal and conservative administrations.

The period began with President Harry Woodburn Chase offering a “new deal” to U of I students and faculty and ended with the untimely ouster of George Dinsmore Stoddard, another psychologist and another liberal. Stoddard had made strides toward awakening “the sleeping giant” that was the University of Illinois. It would be left to his successors to complete this task.

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Arriving in 1930, President Harry Chase relaxed rigid student regulations and put faculty in charge of discipline. Unfortunately, the Depression almost immediately sank enrollment 12%, leading to large staff and salary cuts. Chase left in 1933. Successors Arthur Daniels and Arthur Willard also struggled with the Depression, but Willard secured federal funds to build multiple campus buildings including the Illini Union and Gregory Hall.

George Stoddard replaced Willard in 1946 and immediately began hiring top academics as faculty and administrators. The GI Bill swelled enrollment to nearly 20,000, necessitating new housing and two new university branches. Unfortunately, McCarthyism and local political spite led in 1953 to his ouster by the Board of Trustees in a midnight coup.

“Freedom from interferences with academic affairs is necessary to the maintenance of that spirit of critical inquiry which is essential in a great teaching and research institution.”


“By the turn of the twentieth century, it was clear that the University of Illinois would be an engine of innovation, a place where faculty, students, and campus leaders would stimulate and nurture new ideas that could change the world.”

By 1930, too much red tape caused the University to fall behind its peers. New President Harry Chase (1930-33) gave faculty more independence, but his two successors (Arthur Daniels, Arthur Willard) largely maintained the status quo. In 1946, George Stoddard, a former New York education commissioner, was hired to change that trajectory. He created seven new institutes and curricula, and supported creation of public WILL-TV. Newly invigorated faculty created the fastest betatron machine, the ILLIAC-1 computer, and grew the Library to over 2 million books.

McCarthyism, however, created problems, particularly against Keynsian economist Howard Bowen, dean of the commerce college. Despite Stoddard’s support, he was forced to resign. Politics eventually claimed Stoddard himself.

Campus Architecture & Planning

  • Funds for new construction dwindled to merely $50,000 during the early 1930s until, in 1937, a ceiling collapsed in University Hall. Gov. Horner, a foe of construction, then released funds to help build its replacement, Gregory Hall.

    University Hall’s demise opened space for the new Illini Union, financed through the New Deal and a loan. Construction of the Natural Resources Building and Men’s Residence Hall soon followed, plus additions to the Library and McKinley Hospital.

    After a moratorium during the war, building began again in the late 1940s. Aside from the “carboard villages” erected for returning GIs, new buildings included Lincoln Avenue Residence Hall, and the Veterinary Medicine, Electrical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering buildings.

  • Footage of Campus from the Louis and Ruth Wright Papers

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Enrollment plummeted during the Depression and World War II, particularly for foreign and African American students. From a high of 151 in 1929, foreign enrollment dropped to only 57 by 1946 before climbing to 570 in 1954. And while the GI Bill swelled the numbers of Americans enrolling at the U of I, African American enrollment dropped from 138 in 1929 to only 55 in 1953.

As early as the mid-1930s, however, African Americans actively fought discrimination in housing and restaurants, including a successful three month picketing campaign in 1946. Jewish students also faced discrimination from local landlords, with the newish West Hall (now Evans Hall) almost their only option. This apparently made the non-Jewish residents want to move, according to the head of the Physical Plant department.


Student Activities

The 1920s “country club” atmosphere on campus quickly disappeared during the Great Depression as money became scarce. By 1934, 26 fraternities either disbanded or merged. Independent students now increased their roles in athletics, publications, student government, and politics. Fun involved dating, dancing, and five-cent Cokes—in other words, whatever was cheap. Local vice, however, remained a problem, particularly from brothels on Walnut Street.

The influx in the late 1940s of GI Bill students, many with families, reinforced the serious atmosphere, though some rules were relaxed for them. By the early 1950s, the Greek system began to flourish again, and “rowdyism” returned with a vengeance, with panty raids and destructive snowball fights becoming common.

Dean of Men Thomas Arkle Clark puritanical reign ended with the arrival of President Chase. Chase shrank the number of student rules from 138 to 39, strengthened faculty independence in regulating their own colleges, and most importantly, gave faculty control over educational policy and student discipline.

After Chase left in 1933, Dean of Men Fred Turner lobbied new President Willard to create a more paternalistic office to regulate student affairs. This he achieved in 1943 and was named Dean of Students. In 1947, he created a Security Office. Staffed by a former Army intelligence officer, it was intended to police unauthorized drinking, etc., but in the 1950s it started surveilling alleged “subversives.” This became a big issue in the 1960s.

Traditions & Sports

Homecoming Queen Clarice Davis with members of the Homecoming Court, 1951

This era saw several old traditions die. Freshman cap-burning was abolished in 1931 after students—some naked—vandalized local properties. The bawdy, costumed Axe-Grinder’s Ball ended in 1935, and in 1940, the long-running Interscholastic Circus, which used to draw a thousand performers, finally petered out with only 50 participants.

Homecoming, however, crowned its first Queen in 1936; the 1951 Queen was the country’s first African American title-holder. In football, the hiring of Ray Eliot in 1941 brought the team 11 Big Ten titles and a Rose Bowl trip.

Basketball also flourished. Under coaches Douglas Mills and, later, Harry Combes, the “Whiz Kids” and their successors regularly broke records, won five Big Ten titles, and advanced to the first-ever Final Four.

World War II

The U of I became a women’s world of enrolled students during World War II as men went off to war. Women controlled the newspaper, yearbook, and many campus organizations. Men, however, flooded the campus when the University provided specialized training for the Army and Navy. Between 1942 and 1945, over 100,000 soldiers and sailors attended programs in Navy signals, diesel engine repair, medical and dental training, even cooking.

Secret work also took place among faculty. Nineteen physicists participated in the Manhattan Project. Professors created new types of synthetic rubber, an anti-malarial drug, water purity kits, and more. Unbeknownst to students, there was also a top-secret munitions lab on campus.