Burton, Marion Le Roy, 1874-1925

Alternative names
Birth 1874-08-30
Death 1925-02-18

Biographical notes:

President of University of Michigan, 1920-1925.

From the description of Marion LeRoy Burton papers, 1895-1925. (University of Michigan). WorldCat record id: 80711269

From the description of Marion LeRoy Burton papers, 1901-1925. (University of Michigan). WorldCat record id: 34422205

M. L. Burton was president of the University of Minnesota from 1917 to 1920.

From the description of M.L. Burton papers, 1917-1920. (University of Minnesota, Minneapolis). WorldCat record id: 63301002

Smith College President (second), 1910-1917. Carleton College, A.B., 1900. Yale University, B.D., 1906; Ph. D., 1907. Pastor, Church of the Pilgrims, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1908-1910. President, University of Minnesota, 1917-1920; University of Michigan, 1920-1925.

From the description of Office of the President Marion Le Roy Burton records, 1910-1917. (Smith College). WorldCat record id: 51231650

Marion Le Roy Burton, the second president of Smith College, was born in Brooklyn, Iowa on 30 August 1874, the youngest child of Ira and Jane Simmons Burton. The family moved to Minneapolis when Burton was very young. A short time later Ira Burton died after suffering financial reverses. Jane Burton worked extremely hard to support her family and her sons took jobs after school to ease the strain of their mother. Burton's early jobs included selling newspapers and raising pigeons.

The day after his 1900 graduation from Carlton College, Burton married classmate Nina L. Moses, and they went to Minnesota's Windom Institute to gain teaching experience. By this time, he had decided that a college presidency was the job for him and would let nothing draw him from that path. With his goal in mind and the knowledge that all college presidents of the day were clergymen, Burton went to Yale University to study Theology and earn his Ph.D. in Philosophy. He graduated summa cum laude in. Leaving Yale in 1908, having taught there after his graduation, Burton went to preach at the historic Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn, New York. The following year, Smith offered him the presidency and he was inaugurated in 1910.

The institution Burton came to lead in 1910 was in a precarious position. Though the original endowment had been shrewdly managed and substantially enlarged, it was not enough to provide for the vast improvements the College desperately needed. These included a new gymnasium, two laboratories, more student housing and a much larger campus. To pay for these improvements, Burton announced a million-dollar fundraising campaign. Such an ambitious campaign had not been embarked on before and, despite the doubts of many, succeeded. During his seven years at Smith, Burton encouraged changes in the curriculum designed to meet more of the challenges students would be facing in the outside world and significantly altered the admissions procedure to a more comprehensible examination of the student's abilities, achievements, interests and character. One of Burton's greatest dreams for Smith was a vast enlargement of the campus to provide for semi-separate schools devoted to different areas of study, resulting in Smith College changing into Sophia Smith University. The plan was received relatively well and plans were made to acquire the necessary land, but Burton left Smith before much could be accomplished and without his energy behind the project, it fell through.

In 1917, Burton resigned from Smith, to the great despair of the entire college community, to become president of the University of Minnesota. His time at the University of Minnesota was very brief, only three years, but he is credited with keeping the students' morale up during the difficult war years. In 1920, Burton accepted the presidency of the University of Michigan and threw himself into the school's campaign for more and much-needed buildings and brought greater organization to the large and complicated university. When he died suddenly from pneumonia on 18 February 1925, many at the University of Michigan lamented that he had only just begun to bring marvelous change.

Burton was mourned deeply at the schools he had headed. Following his death, the Smith College Alumnae Association, noting his interest in the cause of eager students of limited means, began raising money for a scholarship in his name devoted to that cause.

From the guide to the Office of the President Marion Le Roy Burton Files RG 32., 1910-1917, (Smith College Archives)

Marion Le Roy Burton grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to which his family had moved from Brooklyn, Iowa, soon after his birth on August 30, 1874. Although he had to go to work after only one year of high school, he later completed his preparation at Carleton Academy, and graduated from Carleton College in 1900. He married Nina Moses the same year. Burton earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Yale in 1906, and a Ph.D. in 1907. After teaching theology at Yale and serving as pastor of a church for several years, Burton was elected president of Smith College, where he remained until he became president of the University of Minnesota in 1910. In the spring of 1920 he was chosen to become the sixth president of the University of Michigan, and served from September 1920 until his death in February 1925.

President Burton was known for his warm personality, organizational ability, and the power of his oratory, which was used to good effect to convince the Michigan Legislature of the university's great need for new buildings and increased funding for educational programs. He lent his talents to the national political scene when he gave the speech nominating Calvin Coolidge as the Republican Party's presidential candidate in 1924. Respected and well-liked by his colleagues, he worked tirelessly to carry out his broad vision of education. During his regrettably short tenure, he laid a solid foundation for the growth of the university, both academically and physically, between the two world wars.

When Marion L. Burton became president in October 1920, he immediately faced the need to accommodate a greatly increased student population through the expansion of departments, and the addition of new subject areas. The pressing need for more physical space resulted in an extensive building program, and the changing academic needs led to departmental additions and re-organizations. This rapid expansion of the university following World War I also necessitated various administrative changes.

The most visible accomplishment of the Burton Administration was the expansion of the physical facilities of the campus. Following a campus-wide survey of needs, President Burton and the regents devoted their energies and attention to securing a multi-million dollar appropriation from the state legislature. When this was successfully accomplished, a comprehensive building program was adopted. With regental approval, it was put under the jurisdiction of the Committee of Five, consisting of the president and secretary of the university, Regent William L. Clements, Albert Kahn, consulting architect of the project, and Psychology Professor John F. Shepard, who acted as supervisor of plans. In June 1921, the regents decided to start the program with an addition to the Dental Clinic, completion of the University Hospital, and the construction of East Engineering, East Physics, and University High School buildings. In addition, generous private donations provided for the building of Clements Library, and the Lawyers' Club group. President Burton's untimely death in February 1925 denied him the opportunity to see all these plans completed.

Perhaps the most vexing question of the many problems faced by President Burton in the early years of his tenure was that of the Homeopathic Medical School and Hospital. The action of the state legislature in cutting off funding for a separate school and hospital drew the attention of homeopathic doctors in the state and nation resulting in a blizzard of letters and editorials protesting any move to change the school or hospital. Nevertheless the unit was disbanded in 1921-22, when homeopathic teaching and medical care were incorporated into the University Medical School and Hospital.

This was also a period of turbulence and re-organization in the Medical School and Hospital apart from the issues raised by the closing of the Homeopathic School and Hospital. Some major issues were whether faculty should be "full-time" or allowed to treat and receive fees from outside patients; the obligation of the hospital to treat indigent patients; the administrative relationship of the Hospital to the Medical School; the need for a separate Nursing School; and whether the Hospital should be self-supporting or funded by the Medical School since patients were used for teaching.

The period 1920-25 saw the establishment of a number of academic units as separate schools, and changes and additions to the curriculum of others. The School of Education was established by the Board of Regents in May 1921, and Allen S. Whitney, who had held the chair of Pedagogy in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, was appointed dean. Under his leadership a university high school and an elementary school were established in 1922 and 1927 respectively, to meet the needs of the practical aspects of teacher training. A growing public awareness of the desirability of teaching health and hygiene in the public schools led to the development of the Department of Physical Education in the School of Education. In 1923-24, Dr. Margaret Bell became Associate Professor of Women's Physical Education but this work was felt to be more appropriate under the University Health Service. In further recognition of its public health obligations, the university organized a Division of Hygiene and Public Health in 1921. In the beginning this encompassed work in public health, physical education, intramural sports, and was closely related to the University Health Service. Eventually, these areas were divided into separate units.

President Burton's belief that a creative artist on campus would be an inspiration to the whole university community, persuaded the regents to raise funds and authorize a Fellowship in Creative Art. Former Governor Chase S. Osborn donated funds for the first year, and Robert Frost accepted the fellowship for 1921-22. He was also on campus for the better part of following year.

Social workers throughout the state wanted better training for their profession and their efforts led to the development of a curriculum in social work in May 1921. The Department of Industrial Research became the Department of Engineering Research in October 1920 and included the Industrial Research Laboratory which undertook research projects for Michigan's growing manufacturing industries.

Although not formally established until 1926, plans were under way to set up a Department of Library Science. Considerable attention was given to separating the study of architecture from the School of Engineering and to incorporating an already existing correlated School of Music into the university, but neither was actually accomplished during President Burton's tenure.

Soon after taking office, President Burton re-organized the committee structure of the Board of Regents from a system of each regent overseeing one college or school to that of committees concerned with overall functions of the university, such as Educational Policies, Student Welfare, Finance, Buildings & Grounds. Regent Lucius L. Hubbard was engaged in re-writing the university by-laws. The staffing of the president's office was enlarged, and a presidential assistant, Professor Frank Robbins, was added. The establishment of new units required the development of appropriate management plans, while older units saw shifts in their governance, such as the change in jurisdiction of the Nichols Arboretum from the Department of Botany to the Board of Regents.

During his first year, President Burton established the office of Dean of Students and appointed Joseph A. Bursley to handle matters previously dealt with directly by the president or by various committees. The Dean of Students took over the Employment Bureau (previously run by the Student Christian Association), as well as the Student Loan Fund.

Under President Burton the old system of departmental governance by a permanent head appointed by the administration was changed to one of chairpersons elected for a limited term and committees set up by the department. This system was started in the English Department in 1920, the Economics Department in 1921, and the Mathematics Department in 1922.

The problem of student discipline which arose with the increased student population required the attention of the administration for some time, and work was started on a uniform code of student discipline, although it was not until later that the code was adopted.

Various other issues received attention during President's Burton's tenure. Among the more important were the adoption of a system of retirement pay. For a number of years the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching had been providing "retirement allowances" to a limited number of professors. As this became inadequate to meet the needs of growing educational institutions, the Teachers Insurance Annuity Association was established, and university policies were adapted to the new system. This was also a period when renewed attention was given to the needs and interests of women students, including suitable housing and appropriate curriculum. In addition, the Student Christian Association was in need of re-vitalizing after a decline during the war years.

From the guide to the Marion L. Burton Papers, 1895-1925, 1921-1925, (Bentley Historical Library University of Michigan)


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  • Presidents--Election--1924
  • Presidents--United States--Election--1924
  • Clothing and dress--18980-1929
  • Funeral rites and ceremonies
  • Students, Foreign--Michigan--Ann Arbor
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  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
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