Joseph R. Williams
Joseph Rickelson Williams (November 14, 1808 – June 15, 1861) was an American politician and the first president for the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, the first Land-Grant Institution to be established in the United States and now one of the largest universities in the United States, Michigan State University.
Williams was born in Taunton, Massachusetts and graduated at Harvard University Phi Beta Kappa. He studied law with John Davis in Worcester, was admitted to the bar and practiced in New Bedford. In 1839, he moved to Constantine, Michigan where he resided for the rest of his life. On May 28, 1844, he married Sarah Rowland Langdon in Buffalo, New York.
Williams was a self-made gentleman farmer, and a prominent lawyer and politician. He was a charismatic and passionate promoter of higher education for the farming and working classes. In accord with Williams' philosophy, the College offered a unique blending of practical and theoretical academics. Williams' curriculum balanced liberal arts, science and practical vocational studies. However, Williams excluded Latin and Greek studies from the early curriculum, which meant that these classical languages were not tested for admission given the College's overwhelmingly rural applicant base. Nevertheless, under Williams the College did require three hours of daily manual labor. The labor requirement helped students defray expenses, and cheaply clear and develop the campus while learning scientific principles from faculty-supervisors.
Despite these innovations, Williams ran into conflict with the State Board of Education, which managed the College at the time. The Board saw the College as being elitist and extravagant, despite William's eloquent defense of higher education for the masses. Indeed, many farmers began protesting against the College and calling for its dissolution. They saw the Agricultural College's strong scientific curriculum as educating boys away from the farm. After just two years at the helm, Williams resigned in 1859 under pressure, and the Board reduced the curriculum to a two-year, vocation-oriented farming program.
In 1860, Williams was elected as a Republican to the Michigan Senate and chosen as president pro tempore of the state senate when he took office in 1861. After the resignation of Lieutenant Governor of Michigan James M. Birney, Williams took on the duties as the 14th Lieutenant Governor under Austin Blair.
During his brief time in office he helped pass the Reorganization Act of 1861. Williams' law mandated that the College return to a four-year curriculum and, additionally, have the power to grant degrees comparable to those of the University of Michigan — that is, master's degrees (and much later, doctoral degrees). Under the act, a newly created body known as the State Board of Agriculture took over from the State Board of Education in running the institution, giving the College the autonomy that it retains to this day. With the College's future secure, Williams went to Washington D. C. to lobby for the passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act, which would make the Agricultural College a national model for institutions across America.
Eight years after his death, Joseph Williams was memorialized on the campus of State Agricultural College with the 1869 construction of Williams Hall, a men's dormitory. The building burned on January 1, 1919. The university replaced it with the current Williams Hall in 1937 as a women's dormitory named for his wife Sarah.
- Campaign for MSU – Joseph R. Williams Society
- Biographical Information Michigan State University Archives
- Bingham, Stephen D. (2005) . "s.v. Joseph R. Williams". Early history of Michigan, with biographies of state officers, members of Congress, judges and legislators. Pub. purusuant to act 59, 1887. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Library. p. 699. Retrieved 2007-07-30.
James M. Birney
|(acting) Lieutenant Governor of Michigan
April 3 – June 15, 1861
Henry T. Backus
|President of Agricultural College of the State of Michigan
Lewis R. Fiske