Carleton’s Forgotten President: The Short, Embattled Reign of William Henry Sallmon

Lining the south wall of a central conference room in the Weitz Center for Creativity is an August procession of painted portraits, depicting in numerical order the stately succession, from 1870 to 2010, of past Carleton presidents. Nine men, clad variously in academic robes or business suits–one having discarded his jacket in apparent readiness for hard work–gaze down on viewers with the serenity of accomplishment from within the individually framed boundaries of official commemoration. Except . . . ¬†there have been not nine, but ten past presidents of Carleton College. At the left of this display is a notice, “Carleton College Presidential Portraits,” listing the nine men celebrated in oil paint and the years of their presidencies. Below the names, in smaller print, is an asterisk: “*No portrait for William Henry Sallmon (1903-1908).”

Sallmon was Carleton’s second president, leading the college only for five short years sandwiched between the immensely formative 32 years of service of Carleton’s first president and the 36 years spanned by her third. His presidency, begun with high hopes all around, was in the end both contentious and, consequently, abbreviated, and Sallmon has ever remained the most overlooked and least known of Carleton’s chief executives. And yet, his period in office was in fact quite important, as a time of significant, and I think necessary, transition for the college as it evolved beyond its 19th-century beginnings as an intensely and explicitly religious undertaking to a less “earnestly evangelical” and more modern educational institution of higher academic standards–something closer to the Carleton we recognize today.

¬†Hillemann will explore how President Sallmon was both an agent for, but also ultimately a casualty of, this transition, and make the casethat he ought to be remembered, as Carleton completes its year-long sesquicentennial celebrations, for rather more important accomplishment than his present status of simply being, Millard Fillmore-like, the president famous, if it all, primarily for his obscurity as “the one everybody forgets.”