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Samuel P. Capen

Samuel P. Capen Born: 1878
Death: 1956

Samuel Paul Capen was once described as having a character "rather like that of a stern and rock-bound coast, containing within it many pleasant green pastures as well as majestic mountains.1 He was known by his colleagues to possess a clear, cool head, a dry sense of humor and an ability to transform his concerns for individuals into programs for people. Henry Ten Eyck Perry, a faculty member in the Department of English, once remarked that Samuel Capen lived his life by a creed similar to that of Ralph Waldo Emerson: "plain living and high thinking."2

Born into the academic life as the son of Elmer Hewitt Capen, president of Tufts College (1875 to 1905), Capen literally grew up on a college campus. He enrolled in Tufts as an undergraduate in 1894. Already following in his father's footsteps, he was elected president of his senior class and was one of four chosen to deliver a Commencement address at his graduation in 1898.

In the fall of 1898, Capen entered Harvard University's Graduate School to study modern languages. Two years later he received a Master of Arts degree and was appointed the Harrison Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. After one year of doctoral studies in modern languages with a concentration in German, Capen was granted a one year leave of absence to study at the University of Leipzig, Germany. After receiving his PhD in 1902, he was hired to teach German as one of the founding faculty members of the recently established Clark College in Worcester, Massachusetts.

A favorite of Clark students (they even dedicated the 1911 yearbook to him), Capen often taught comparative literature and drama in addition to his modern language course schedule. At the same time he began taking classes in education and psychology and later became a lecturer in educational administration. In 1908 he was elected both president of the Public Education Association of Worcester and a member of the Worcester School Committee. Although still interested in modern languages, Capen's success in his new field was considerable. In 1914 he came to the attention of the United States Commissioner of Education and was offered the position of specialist in higher education at the Bureau of Education.

While at the Bureau, Capen was asked to conduct numerous fact-gathering surveys on the administration of higher institutions. Very interested in this type of statistical data, Capen had previously surveyed universities and colleges on the methods for supervising university professors back in 1910 while still at Clark College. As Specialist in Higher Education, he surveyed a broad range of institutions and educational systems. Soon the Bureau became flooded with requests for Capen's statistical analyses derived from the surveys. Developing a reputation for being a clinical and objective advisor on the topic of educational reform, his methods for surveying became the standard in the industry.

In 1917 Capen was asked to serve as executive secretary of the recently formed Committee on Education established under the Council of National Defense. This new educational committee, formed at the onset of WWI, worked to coordinate the higher educational interests of the country to further various war-related projects. Capen's work at the Bureau of Education and on the Committee of Education formulated the policies that would eventually help to coalesce the country's higher educational associations.

In 1918 the American Council on Education (ACE) was established to unify the numerous educational associations and the nation's academic institutions for an improvement of higher education. Capen was named the first Director of the Council and was regarded as the "chief designing architect who not only built solidly upon the present but looked into the future... farther than he could see -- but only hope."3  Because of his work at the Bureau of Education and the ACE, there were many universities around the country who courted Capen to lead their institutions and Samuel Capen could have had his pick of any of them. Then in early 1922, the Council of the University of Buffalo contacted him about their need for a Chancellor who could unify the University.

There has always been a governing board known as the Council at the University at Buffalo since its inception in 1846, but the first Chancellors were not appointed from the university community. They were distinguished citizens of Buffalo, lawyers and politicians, whose official function was to represent the University before the public. The deans of the individual schools were separately responsible for their departments' educational and financial affairs. Then in 1920, Chairman of the Council, Walter P. Cooke organized a city-wide financial campaign that enabled them to hire a Chancellor that could bring the University into a new era. The Council looked to Samuel Capen to help them establish a central and solid administration for the University. In 1922 Capen left the American Council on Education to become the first full-time Chancellor at the University of Buffalo.

Until the establishment of the College of Arts and Sciences in 1913, the University of Buffalo had been merely a "collection of professional schools, going their separate ways with little central administration."4  In 1922 the institution was still fractured between the liberal arts and the professional schools. Capen, however, recognized the opportunities the Council had envisioned for the future of the University and for Buffalo itself. He shared their vision to build "a university that should provide complete opportunities for higher education equal to the best anywhere obtainable, that should be a focus for the city's idealism, that should change the current of the city's life."5

In his inaugural speech on October 28, 1922 Capen detailed his philosophy on the role of a university administrator:

"I do not hold with those who would limit the number of college students on the basis of any distinctions of race or sex or creed or social standing. There is but one justifiable basis on which a university in a democratic community such as this can choose those who are to become members of it, the basis of ability. But a university is a place maintained at great expense to foster the philosophic point of view, to stimulate constructive thinking, because this point-of-view and this mode of thinking have been found necessary to the progress of civilized society."

During his twenty-eight years at the University of Buffalo, Capen established many University programs and educational experiments that helped to further the expansion of higher education. He helped to broaden the education of the professional schools, developed standardized curriculums, and personally hand-picked a first-class faculty of full-time, academically trained professors. He also established the Millard Fillmore College for adult education and created the Bureau of Personnel Research, a counseling office, to administer programs that tested the achievements and personalities of students in order to provide better guidance for career choices and help them obtain employment. And the numbers attest to his role as administrator: student enrollment rose from 1,687 in 1922 to over 10,000 by the time of his retirement in 1950.

Capen's experience working on the Bureau of Education and the ACE helped him establish a central and solid administration for the University. He often addressed conferences, commencements, and social clubs on the subject of educational administration and the topic of academic freedom. "I foresee," he once wrote, "the coming of a storm perhaps more severe than any to which our higher institutions have been subjected for years. The forces bent on challenging the intellectual integrity of colleges and universities are gathering." 6

Samuel P. Capen made an impact on the history of the University at Buffalo and brought it into a new era. Louis Jaffe, a former faculty member in the School of Law, best summarized Capen's tenure as Chancellor in a memorial written after Capen's death in 1956:

"[He was] a man whose ideal was the best in education and he set out to build a university and to run it over the years on first class principles with almost no money. This would have been more than most men could stand up to... But Capen, with his stern sense of a duty undertaken and his courage in the face of towering difficulties, not only escaped panic or a settled sense of defeat, but for the most part maintained an attitude of positive confidence in the doing of the job."7


1. Henry Ten Eyck Perry quoted in Park, Julian. "Samuel P. Capen, 1878-1956." The University of Buffalo Studies. vol. 24. no. 1. October 1957. pp51-52

2. Ibid.

3. Park, Julian. "Samuel P. Capen, 1878-1956." The University of Buffalo Studies. vol. 24. no. 1. October 1957. p16

4. Ibid. p19

5. Ibid. p21

6. Samuel P. Capen quoted in Park, Julian. "Samuel P. Capen, 1878-1956." The University of Buffalo Studies. vol. 24. no. 1. October 1957. p46

7. Louis L. Jaffe quoted in Park, Julian. "Samuel P. Capen, 1878-1956." The University of Buffalo Studies. vol. 24. no. 1. October 1957. p24

Affiliation(s): President/Chancellor
Record Group(s): 4
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