When Democratic delegates descend on Philadelphia in 2016, it won’t be the first time the City of Brotherly Love has hosted presidential hopefuls.
In fact, the Democrats have twice before nominated their candidate for president in Philadelphia, including in 1936, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt accepted his party’s nomination for reelection with a speech at Franklin Field. The Republican Party, on the other hand, has held their convention in Philadelphia six times, including in 1948 at Municipal Auditorium — now the site of the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine adjacent to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
While the Municipal Auditorium held five conventions between both parties, it was the 1948 Republican National Convention that was most consequential for Penn.
“The Republicans had their convention in 1948 right there and the delegates stayed in frat houses and various West Philadelphia hotels,” Director of the University Archives and Records Center Mark Frazier Lloyd said. “Penn was right at the center of all the action.”
Heading into the primary season that year, the favorite to top the Republican ticket was former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen, who had also been appointed to the delegation that wrote the United Nations charter in 1945. Stassen, however, lost the nomination to New York Governor Thomas Dewey, who in turn lost the general election to President Harry Truman. While Stassen didn’t walk away with his party’s nomination, he was offered something else: the presidency of the University of Pennsylvania.
“At that time, Penn’s trustees were active Republicans” — including former senators and a former Supreme Court Justice — “and some of them wanted positions in the national government,” Lloyd explained. “Several Penn Trustees right away predicted privately that Dewey would lose to Truman and they befriended Stassen and said, ‘Would you like to be president of the University of Pennsylvania, which will give you a powerful position on the East Coast?’”
In what Lloyd described as a behind-closed-doors agreement, Thomas Gates Jr. — whose father had been the first president of the University — led the effort to recruit Stassen, and at the same time encouraged then-president, George William McClelland to retire. Stassen’s appointment was mutually beneficial, providing Stassen with a powerful position to hold until his next election attempt, while also giving the Republican trustees an ear with a presidential contender.
Kathleen Stassen Berger, one of Stassen’s two children, vividly remembers moving to Philadelphia at age six and didn’t think much of her father’s career change at the time. In the years since then, she has spent considerable time wondering why he, with his supporters in Minnesota and strong political ambitions, would take the job at Penn.
“I think it might have been because of his commitment to education,” Berger said, adding that her father had always emphasized the importance of a good education. In fact, Stassen graduated from high school at age fourteen and was the only one of his five siblings to graduate from college.
Stassen’s tenure at Penn did see some significant changes for the University. He is credited with positioning Penn to become a member of the Ivy League when it was founded in 1954 and developing Locust Walk as the main artery of the school’s campus.
According to Berger, her father was also behind the integration of both Penn’s football team and the medical school. She described a family tale in which Stassen called the head football coach to find out why the team was all white and was not pleased with the response he received.
“My father said, ‘Well, by next September, there should be at least one black player, or we’ll have another coach,’” she said.
Despite these accomplishments, Stassen was heavily criticized during his tenure for being an absentee leader of the University, as he had his eyes set on the 1952 presidential elections. Stassen was known as a perennial candidate for various offices, including nine unsuccessful runs for the Republican nomination for president, earning him the nickname “The Grand Old Party’s Grand Old Loser.”
“He was often on the road,” Lloyd said. “Three or four times, the Trustees had to appoint an Acting President in Stassen’s absence because they knew he was going to be gone so long that they needed somebody to make decisions.”
Stassen’s political ambitions took him on a speaking tour across the United States and even to Asia. The faculty was especially aggravated by Stassen’s absence and were even more frustrated with the seemingly authoritarian leadership of the Acting President, William Hagan DuBarry. It was this disappointment that led Penn’s faculty to lay the groundwork for what would later become the Faculty Senate and ensure that all future presidents be “academically credentialed members of the faculty,” Lloyd said.
“My sincere regret that my decision, which appears to be right in this national matter, should interrupt my service to the University of Pennsylvania for which I have developed a deep affection,” Stassen told The Daily Pennsylvanian in January 1952, after embarking on another presidential run.
Shortly after, following endless pulling from both parties, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower — then-President of Columbia University — threw his hat in the race as a Republican. Viewing Eisenhower as an unstoppable force, Stassen dropped out of the race. Previously, President Woodrow Wilson had been the only Ivy League president to ascend to the White House after leading Princeton University from 1902 to 1910.
Upon dropping out of the race, Stassen released his delegates to Eisenhower, which contributed to his future victory. Eisenhower later appointed Stassen to serve in his cabinet as the first and only Director of the United States Foreign Operations Administration. On Jan. 19, 1953, Stassen submitted a letter to Penn’s Board of Trustees in which he cited “the current world condition in which our country is involved, and my very high regard for President Eisenhower” among his most pressing reasons for leaving the University for Washington.
“Stassen didn’t get to be president, but he got what he wanted — a powerful position in Washington,” Lloyd said.
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