This essay is the fourth and final in a series about Drexel's presidents, marking the inauguration of John A. Fry.
By Bill Paterson
Dr. Kenneth G. Matheson became the third present of the Drexel Institute in 1921. Thirty years old, Drexel faced problems ranging from lowered enrollment and a related drop in income; a lack of cohesion amongst the faculty and alumni communities; and the great need for updated equipment and facilities. Dr. Matheson took these challenges seriously, establishing and beginning to execute a plan of improvement even before officially taking office. To cure these ills Dr. Matheson reorganized Drexel’s faculty and administrative structure, gave faculty an active voice in administration and reached out to students and alumni. An ardent supporter of the young cooperative education program, Dr. Matheson greatly expanded Drexel’s network of employers in the program to more than eight hundred. It was under Dr. Matheson’s hand that the engineering program was accredited, and became a five year program. Pushing himself until the end, in 1931 Dr. Matheson died of a heart attack, having postponed the health leave the Board of Trustees had voted for him, and leaving a greatly improved, far more solvent Drexel with a significantly expanded campus.
The records of Dr. Matheson’s presidency are housed in the Drexel University Archives. While the scope of their contents is mostly of everyday administrative significance, from time to time one will encounter a document charming in its quaintness; or another that seems paternalistic to our sensibilities or a stark reminder that we are not in Dr. Matheson's century. These papers reward careful inspection, revealing a fascinating window not only on the American past, and more specifically Drexel's past, but also on the very interesting character of the likable Dr. Matheson.
Although Dr. Matheson was concerned with positively engaging students, some of his policies and directives would perhaps be considered onerous by today’s learners, and perhaps were considered so by some of his students. For instance, in a memorandum from September 25, 1922, he discusses with Professor Altmaier researching the way that colleges such as Swarthmore, Haverford and Bucknell regulated student absences, to aid in the Drexel Institute’s instituting such a system. Findings from physical examinations mandated for women students are summarized in a letter to Dr. Matheson from Institute physician Dr. Arnett on October 19, 1926: out of three hundred and two students, one hundred and eighty one were “given instructions for correcting defects,” seventy-four were considered underweight and thirty-three overweight, as well as two found never to have been successfully vaccinated.
Compliance with the Dr. Arnett’s instructions was not considered optional. “The only obstacle thus far is in securing attendance. Thus far only about one half of the girls posted have reported,” reveals a letter from Dr. Arnett to Dr. Matheson from two years earlier, on November 24, 1924. The document outlines the diet, set of exercises, and general course of hygiene for women suffering from anemia, constipation and being overweight. The latter are to avoid bread, butter, potatoes and sweets of all kinds and sleep in a room approximately the same temperature as the outside air. They may wish to exercise with a partner, before a mirror, or with “a good dance record or march played on the talking machine.” The attendance and compliance problem prompted a letter from Dr. Arnett to the parents of the recalcitrant students ending with the entreaty:
Will you not exert your influence or authority to see that your daughter or ward cooperates fully in these measures for her health? It should not be necessary for the school to resort to disciplinary measures to secure such co-operation.
At that time, Drexel took a strong interest indeed in matters of women’s health. An undated manuscript draft of Regulations Regarding Visits to Women Dormitory Students by Outside Physicians, from some time in 1925, stipulates that women living in dorms could not receive outside physicians in their rooms except at the personal invitation of the dormitory physician or by written permission of a parent or guardian. These regulations were approved by the Board of Trustees on June 5, 1925. Like the program for correcting women’s health problems, no similar requirements seem to have existed for Drexel’s male students at the time.
We may find ourselves a little uncomfortable when we see Dr. Matheson close a letter to teaching applicant George M. Carlton on April 18, 1923 with the request, “will you kindly indicate also your church preference, if any, and any other personal data that may prove of service to us?” Likewise, a letter to Dr. Matheson from the Albert Teachers’ Agency from six days later notes of one candidate they are offering, “Although this man is from Russia, he is not a Hebrew, but is known to this office as a man of superior personality with the poise and resourcefulness of a man of the World.” It is hard to imagine these words being so matter-of-factly committed to paper – or email – today.
As noted earlier, Dr. Matheson took an interest in improving Drexel’s campus. From among the many items pertaining to campus improvement, it is fascinating to contemplate the scene that Professor of Civil Engineering H.C. Bowman paints for him in response to his inquiry into the campus’ condition:
I believe that [the Drexel Institute attic] is in extremely hazardous condition. The west end, particularly, is littered with old paint cans, broken seats and desks, old toilets and wash stands, and innumerable other objects which can never be used again. Any building with wooden joist and flooring, together with girders and columns which are not fire proofed, is menace by fire. The attic, in its present condition, needlessly increases that menace.
One the one hand it is odd to picture anything so destitute on Drexel’s grounds, and on the other, perhaps we can relate to the very human reluctance to throw away things that, even if just barely, might be useful in the future.
These are only a handful of the gems contained in the Kenneth G. Matheson Administration Records. The papers shed abundant light on the state of Drexel from 1921-1931, the sweeping improvements that Dr. Matheson brought to Drexel’s financial, academic and physical realms, as well as on the character of the man himself. Dr. Matheson took great pains to correct Drexel’s defects and turn it into a vital, innovative and growing force in the Philadelphia area, which it remains today.