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Joseph Rickelson Williams (November 14, 1808 – June 15, 1861) was an American politician and the first president of the Agricultural College of the U. S. state of Michigan, now Michigan State University.

Early life

Joseph R. Williams, President Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, 1857-1859

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 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.

Politics

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 of 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.

Williams died suddenly of influenza at the age of fifty-two with only 73 days as acting lieutenant governor. President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill the following year.

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
James M. Birney
(acting) Lieutenant Governor of Michigan
April 3 – June 15, 1861
Succeeded by
Henry T. Backus
Academic offices
Preceded by
n/a
President of Agricultural College of the State of Michigan
1857–1859
Succeeded by
Lewis R. Fiske
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