Behind the Name: Homer Babbidge
Published: Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 22:02
UConn students are assuredly aware of Homer Babbidge library in the center of campus, but do they know who it was named after?
Born in Massachusetts in 1925, Babbidge resided there until his family moved to New York 12 years later. After high school, Babbidge attended Yale University on scholarship. A lifelong historian, he worked with Professor George Pierson on reconstructing the history of Yale, which pointed him toward his continued studies. He garnered his bachelor’s degree in 1945, followed by his master’s and doctorate degrees in 1948 and 1953, respectively, also through Yale.
Dr. Babbidge’s career was diverse. At Yale, he was a professor of American studies and eventually the University’s Director of Financial Aid. He left Yale to become the special assistant to the commissioner of education in 1955, and steadily worked his way up in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare from there. In 1959, he became the assistant U.S. commissioner of education and director of the Division of Higher Education, earning himself a medal of Distinguished Service from the department. He became President of the University of Connecticut in 1962.
Replacing former President Albert N. Jorgensen proved to be a challenge, who had been UConn’s president for the past 27 years. But, as he did with most challenges, Babbidge made the situation into an opportunity.
Under President Babbidge, the faculty doubled, as did their salaries. These steps were taken in order to keep up with the fluctuating student population. True to form, library and research centers were a top priority for Babbidge. When he took office in 1962, the UConn library was located in the Wilbur Cross building and housed 270,000 texts. At the end of his tenure, plans were in place for the building of an improved library and the collection of written works had grown to over one million. In addition, the Benton Museum of Art, the Honors Program, as well the additions of anthropology and linguistics were all contributions Babbidge made to the university.
The Babbidge years were also a tumultuous time. The conflicts of the Vietnam War not only abroad, but also the domestic struggle against racial and gender discrimination spilled into the confines of the UConn campus. Student protests, demonstrations and strikes were met with opposition and regulation from the state police, for which Babbidge was vilified. In response, Babbidge hired a “race relations ombudsman” who was according to the New York Times “a black special assistant from the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.”
The Governor of Connecticut at the time of Babbidge’s presidency proved to be a constant adversary. Up to and during the Babbidge years, the university was tuition free, but Gov. Thomas J. Meskill sought to instill a $350 fee. Although Babbidge vehemently opposed it, Meskill passed the bill.
From 1971-1972, Babbidge was the Vice President of the American Council of Education. He stepped down from his position as president of the University of Connecticut in 1972 to the dismay of his students, but Babbidge had no intentions of retirement. He ran for governor of Connecticut in 1973 on the democratic ticket and lost. He returned to work at Yale from 1972-1976 as the master of the Timothy Dwight College. While director of Connecticut Public Television (CPTV), he created and narrated a series in 1977 by the name of “Connecticut Heritage,” a subject he was quite knowledgeable about. The series won him an award at the New York Festival of Film.
Babbidge died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 58 and was survived by his wife, Marcia, and his three children, Alexander, Aimee and Sandra. Friends of Babbidge lauded him for his bright mind and quick wit. Pushed out as President in 1972 due to ongoing unrest, he had this to say: “It seems that every time an institution befouls itself, the president is dismissed; we might properly be known as the disposable diapers of American higher education.”
Although he never did become governor, Babbidge was the central intellectual figure of Connecticut during his lifetime. One gets the impression that, without cancer, he would have continued achieving until he had held every position and done everything there was to do.