Edward Peck Curtis, Sr.

Interviewee: Curtis, Edward Peck, Sr.
Interviewer: End, Jack
Duration: 32 minutes
Date: ca. 1971


Biographical note: Edward Peck Curtis, Sr. (1897-1987) was born in Rochester, NY and attended, but did not graduate from Williams College. In 1917, he joined the American Field Service, and later served in the 95th Aero Squadron. After the conclusion of World War I, Curtis joined the US State Department, then began working for Kodak. By the time he retired from Kodak in 1962, Curtis had become vice president. University President W. Allen Wallis called Curtis "An absolutely remarkable man," who "had at least three whole careers." Curtis was named to the Board of Trustees in 1960, and became a life trustee in 1967. He was active in two major capital campaigns of the sixties and seventies, Curtis helped to bring about the largest single expansion of facilities on the River Campus. He established the Edward Peck Curtis Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1962, to annually recognize the work of a faculty member, and in 1984, a similar award for teaching by graduate students.

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Jack End Mr. Curtis, uh, what were your early impressions of the University as a whole, and the Board of Trustees in particular when you first became a member of that Board?

Edward Peck Curtis, Sr.: Well, actually, I knew very little about the University, uh, except in very general terms. When I first became a member of the Board I'd known, of course, Alan Valentine for years when he was President. And, uh, the University had given me an honorary degree[2] under Alan's, uh, aegis. But I didn't know very much about the University except that, um, it'd always had, I thought, a reasonably good standing academically and otherwise in the community, and I was, um, interested in - I guess honored to be invited to become a trustee. I don't remember that I changed my impressions of the University particularly in the early days that I was a trustee. As far as I can remember I didn't receive any great shocks or surprises after I became a member of the Board. Of course, I knew most of the Board of Trustees, I guess, certainly a very large proportion of 'em. Most of them been friends of mine; I'd known them for years. And my impression of them then, and always was, that, uh, as trustees go they were a reasonably hardworking, conscientious bunch of boys who, uh, did the very best they could for the University. Of course like every organization, uh, some of them were a lot more active than others, some of them were not very active, some of them were far more interested than others, and, um, this was true of the University of Rochester board as true of every board I ever sat on. But I 've said on the whole they were a very conscientious, hardworking group.

JE:JE:When you were a member of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees, uh, what were your duties and what were some of your problems?

EC: Well, of course the duties of the Executive Committee, um, primarily were to represent and act in the absence of the Board. They - the Executive Committee had - I'm sure it still does - far more to do with the day-to-day problems of running the University, uh, than the Board does. The Board only meets about three, four times a year. And the Executive Committee, every month. Our problems so far as I can remember - I'd have to go back and look at the minutes of the Executive Committee when I was on it - but they were certainly very considerably connected with financial problems. How did we, um, get the money to do this or that program? And then not too long after I became a member of the Board, of course, we started on the, um, big, uh, $38 Million Dollar drive[3]. Now the Executive Committee was very largely concerned with that at the time. We didn't have anything like the problems the Executive Committee has had in recent years of student unrest and that type of thing, there was none of that at all as far as I can remember in the days when I was on the Executive Committee. Boys and girls were pretty well behaved. Uh, I would've said that the bulk of our problems involved financial problems. There were certain other university problems but they were not, as I recall, anything like the magnitude that the boys had last two or three years - not last year but two or three years ago when they had major problems and student unrest and - I'm sure the Executive Committee probably saw blood in those days. We didn't have anything like that. What student problems

JE:Why do you think the, uh . . . student attitude changed to the point, uh, there was this unrest in later years, and you didn't have it when you were a member of the Board.

EC: Oh, well I think this was, as far as the University of Rochester was concerned, was just part of a great national manifestation, it was a part of tremendous unrest in the young of that age, uh, about everything. We had the Vietnam War, the establishment, and everything else. 'Course much of it was, as was well known, was at Columbia, for example, Harvard and places like that. It was largely influenced by outside people; it was not a spontaneous student job. Here at the University of Rochester campus, as far as I know, we didn't have too much outside influences - a little but not very much. This was, I sense, sort of a reflection of what was going on in every other campus in the country and, uh, spread over into our campus. But, compared to what happened at many if not most other major institutions, I think, um, the University here got by extremely well; I think they handled the problem well, they were, I felt, perhaps too permissive at the time but they certainly were not nearly as permissive as Columbia and Berkeley, Harvard, places of that kind. I think they handled it pretty well. But I think this was just a reflection of what was going on all over the country. As I say, it had far less outside inspiration here than it did in most big institutions . . . I don't think the Commies were very active on the University of Rochester campus. I guess there were a few but. . .

JE:Not very many.

EC: Not very many. We had, um, [Mark Rosen?][4], people like that, who were at the bottom of these. But the amazing part about it is, I think it was pretty hard to spot the reason for it is - why last year, particularly, was relatively calm, this year is extraordinarily calm on most every campus - whether the boys at Yale decided that this was, uh, just not getting anywhere and wasn't worth doing or, uh, whether they were more reconciled with the operations of the establishment, quote unquote, I wouldn't

JE:Now when you were talking about the, uh, the Executive Committee you may have partially answered my next question. Uh, you also mentioned that the, uh, Board of Trustees meets only three or four times a year. Um, do you think that this gives them enough time to cope with the many problems with which they are faced? Or do you think there should be more frequent meetings?

EC: Oh, I wouldn't know. I think more frequent meetings would work just easy for the birds. I think, uh, well in the first place you have the Executive Committee, which is charged with being more active throughout the whole time but I think the thing that the Board of Trustees needs - always did and I think still does; they're getting it more now than they were - is the kind of contacts with students and faculty that you get through the committees of the Board. Uh, I think the Visiting Committees, if you choose to call them that, are a far better, um, vehicle for acquainting the trustees with what's going on than the actual trustee meetings themselves. The actual meetings of the Board of Trustees are necessarily pretty routine. I've said the, uh, if the Board of Trustees really wants to know what's going on, and they should - they do this I think through other mediums than, um, formal meetings of the Board. They do it by - well, of course if they are in Rochester they have quite a lot of opportunities to meet with students and faculty. And if they're not in Rochester and are on the Board of Trustees they have opportunities at least three times a year and sometimes more to meet in the kind of small groups where they can get far more effective rapport of what's going on in the University than they can at one of these trustee meetings. I wouldn't see any sense in having more trustees meetings.

JE:You once gave a lecture in the Trustees Forum Series at the University of Rochester entitled [laughs], uh, "Is a University Really Necessary?" What were your conclusions in that -

EC: Oh, I didn't have any conclusions, the students were supposed to - the ones that had - the very interesting thing about that, you know, at this time, the students were clamoring for the fact that they wanted to have more contact with the trustees, they never saw a trustee, didn't know what they looked like or what they did. And, uh, Alan Valentine - er, Allen Wallis of course was in that. And they set up this series to meet the trustees and I did the first one[5]. You know how many people showed up? Fifteen. [laughs] I was just talkin' to myself. Of course they didn't have any more interest in talking to the trustees than boo, this was, uh, just one of their frustrations, I guess. That's funny too, there were fifteen people there. So we didn't come to any very - well, I would've to the conclusion as a result of that meeting that universities were completely unnecessary. [laughs] I certainly didn't get much feedback from the student 't there.

JE:Do you really think that the, uh, student body - and the faculty and staff - really understand what the function of the Board of Trustees is?

EC: Well, I'm not sure that the Board of Trustees knows exactly what their function is [laughs]. No, I don't think they - well, some of the faculty do. Uh, very few of the students do, I think. I - generally speaking, the students feel that, uh, the trustees are kind of a necessary evil and if they have any function at all it's raisin' money, period. And that's about it. Uh, this I suppose is partly because they don't have much contact with the trustees, nor the trustees with the students. But I think the only way you're ever going to get over that is on more frequent and more informal contact like the Visiting Committees than, um, you're ever gonna get from, uh, meetings like this silly thing that I was in. Uh, I think the only ad there was - they set up - I forget how many, maybe three or four or half a dozen. I did the first one, after that the whole damn thing died; I don't think they ever had another one. [laughs] That was it.

JE:Do you think that the Board, uh, is working now more actively with the faculty and students than they were then?

EC: Well, I - my impression is they are, yes, 'cause I've done a - I've been off the Board for about six years now - five years, anyhow. Oh, I'm still an emeritus trustee but I don't have very close contact with what's going on. But my impression is they do. I think they have much more contact with the faculty, certainly, than the - I would guess with the students - I think the Visiting Committees that meet in the College of Arts and Sciences and Engineering and the rest of 'em, uh, my impression is they have more contact with students and with faculty than they used to when I was on the Board.

JE:What do you think the, uh, relationship of the Board of Trustees should be to the Chancellor?

EC:. . . Well, it depends entirely on who you got as Chancellor. Obviously, uh, depends to a very large extent on how much the Chancellor wants to get the Board of Trustees. But the Board of Trustees, of course, are obviously responsible for hiring the Chancellor and they're responsible for keepin' 'em there. If they do not, um, approve of the way the Chancellor is running the University, uh, presumably in due course they get rid of 'em. But as far as [unintelligible] they should of course always be available for advice and counsel. They certainly should always have a pretty good look at the overall policies of the University but God forbid the Board of Trustees should tell the Chancellor how to run the University. This I'm against. And I don't think that would ever work. Now when you get a really strong-minded character like Allen Wallis, uh, sure, he's in resonance with what the trustees think but he makes up his own mind; now, if you've got a fairly weak chancellor, uh . . . like we have at some other institutions, I presume might tend to rely much more on the Board of Trustees for, if not making the decisions, at least helping them to make up their minds. But if you get a reasonably strong-minded character who, um, does make up his mind, I think he should be allowed to do it as long as the trustees are satisfied that his decisions on the whole and what he's doing are the best for the University.

JE:As the University expands and changes, do you think that the, uh, function of the Board of Trustees will also change?

EC: I don't think so. It shouldn't very much except that - well, now the University's expanding to the point where it covers a pretty broad spectrum of the field of education. If ya added a law school, for example, or something like that, you might wanna change the complexion of the Board of Trustees some but . . . given the present setup of the University, I don't see a relat - reason the relationship should change very much, no.

JE:In looking back upon, uh, your long association with the University, are there any things which you would've done differently if you had the chance to do it over again?

EC: What, you mean me as an individual?


EC: Oh no, I don't think so. . . You mean would I change my vote or change my opinion about some of the things that happened, I can't think of any specific things, no. I would've said that - well, by and large, uh, I probably would've made more of a contribution to the problem if I had perhaps been more active than I actually was. Of course the time I was a trustee I was awful active in a lot of other things. I probably - I think it was probably true of most trustees they don't devote perhaps as much time as they should or might. It just depends entirely on the degree of their interest. I put in a lot of time when I was chairman of the Medical School Committee. We worked pretty hard on that. But on the general problems of the University, not too much.

JE:Now finally, uh, would you care to, um, take a look in the future and . . . sort of, um, tell us what you think the directions, um, the University will go in and what the future of the University is going to be like?

EC:. . . Well, I think that's influenced probably primarily about what the future of higher education's going to be all around the country; as far as the University itself here is concerned, uh, it has grown tremendously and expanded tremendously and also has improved the quality of the University, I think both students and faculty to an extraordinary degree. And I would hope they go on doing this, I would hope that, um, they wouldn't be obsessed with becoming a bigger university with a lot more money in the endowment fund. But I think the emphasis in the last few years has been exactly where it should've been, which is in upgrading the quality of the student body, upgrading the quality of the faculty. And I think there's lots of evidence to prove that this in fact has been done. And this is what I would hope they would devote their major attention to for the next ten years. And beyond.

JE:Thank you -

EC: This is getting to be really an outstanding educational institution. And I think the reason it has is because they have put the emphasis on just exactly that sort of thing, improving the quality of everything connected with it.

JE:Thank you, Mr. Curtis.

[recording ends]


[1] Date not given but Curtis at one point says he's been off the Board of Trustees for five years.

[2] Doctor of Laws in 1949.

[3] The $38 Million Campaign ran from 1965 to 1968.

[4] Possible reference to Daniel B. Rosen '68, the president of UR's Students for a Democratic Society chapter. In a 1967 interview with a local paper he stated that, "I'm not a Communist but I'm a leftist. I'm a Marxist to a certain extent." Also possibly Mark Rudd: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Rudd.

[5] September 1967.

Edward Peck Curtis, Sr.