Following the brief tenure of William Pearl as acting president in 1951, C. Clement French was selected by the Board of Regents on February 24, 1952, to become the institution’s sixth president. French is remembered as a pragmatist and diplomat, valuable attributes for rebuilding campus unity after the Wilson Compton firing. As an example, he opted to be inaugurated at the June 1952 commencement rather than during a separate inaugural event. In addition, French built cordial relations with the president of the University of Washington, allowing the institutions to solve issues of mutual interest, such as degree duplication, themselves.
Born October 24, 1901, in Philadelphia, French held three degrees in chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania, including a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. He taught and was dean of the college at Randolph Macon College in Virginia. He also had been for short periods an administrator at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech) and then vice president at Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College (Texas A&M), both land-grant institutions. He was 51 as he began his presidency.
Early in French’s tenure, student enrollment was expected to dip as veterans finished their degrees, but instead in the fall of 1952 enrollment rose to 5,081 students. This marked the start of steady growth for the institution, with enrollment doubling to 10,662 by 1966. During this growth period, WSU received a number of favorable budgets from the legislature that funded improvements in faculty salaries. In 1957, voters approved a referendum allowing the state to issue bonds for capital construction, providing important funding for campus buildings.
In matters of administrative structure, French undid a number of Compton’s changes. As early as 1953, the purview of academic leaders in the biological sciences, physical sciences, humanities, and social sciences was restricted to the College of Sciences and Arts, rather than the entire college. Near the end of his tenure, in April 1965, French won the regents’ approval for elimination of the institutes of agricultural sciences and of technology, created by Compton, and return of full management responsibilities to the deans of agriculture and engineering.
In intercollegiate athletics, the French years saw the 1958 demise of the Pacific Coast Conference, in which WSC teams competed. The institution was at first excluded from the five-member Athletic Association of Western Universities, but in 1962 was invited to join the conference, then dubbed the Big Six. Oregon and Oregon State would soon join, establishing the Pacific Eight, precursor of today’s Pacific 12.
By then WSC had become Washington State University, effective September 1, 1959, as approved by the Legislature. In 1954, French is said to have been cool to a faculty member’s suggestion of the name change, but four years later a state senator indicated an intention to introduce a bill approving university status. Faculty members, especially Professor Emmett L. Avery, Faculty Executive Committee chair, helped lobby for the change.
The new name matched the reality that WSC had grown into a university with an array of colleges and both undergraduate and graduate programs. The 1960s saw growth in university research and scholarship, as well as the founding in 1960 of the Honors program for talented students. These steps reflected the aspirations of the faculty for excellence in undergraduate and graduate study, and in research and scholarship. In response to the growth in size of the institution, Holland in 1964 elevated the position of dean of the faculty to vice president for academic affairs and the business manager to vice president for business.
A recognized figure in higher education leadership, French served as chairman of the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, or WICHE.
French retired in October 1966. Wallis Beasley, who had served as professor and chair of the Department of Sociology as well as academic vice president, was named acting president on November 1, 1966, to serve until the next president arrived. Beasley had also been WSU’s faculty athletic representative and would serve as executive vice president under President Glenn Terrell.
In 1968, Washington State University’s new administration building was named the French Administration Building to honor WSU’s sixth president.
Chemistry, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania
Healing campus wounds after Compton firing
Life after WSU
Served on various higher education committees and commissions, active in Episcopal Church
French Administration Building