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William Fletcher Russell (18 May 1890–26 March 1956) spent a quarter of a century as Dean of Teachers College at Columbia University. At the time of his death, obituary notices awarded him the title of “staunch defender of public education” (New York Times, March 27, 1956) and called him “prolific. . . in the field of international education” (Bigelow 1957).

Russell was born in Delhi, New York, to James Earl Russell and Agnes Fletcher.  The family moved to New York City in 1897 where the younger Russell attended the Horace Mann School and then Cornell University. After graduation, he moved on to teach history at Greeley High School in Colorado. A year later he was hired as an assistant professor of history and sociology at the Colorado State Teachers’ College (now the University of Northern Colorado). 

Russell married Clotilda Desjardins in 1913 and they had three sons (one of whom, James E. Russell, later followed in the family tradition as a professor at Teachers College). 

In 1914, Russell received his Ph.D. from Teachers College (at Columbia); his dissertation examined “The Early Teaching of History in the Secondary Schools of New York and Massachusetts.” After graduation, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he organized the secondary education department at the George Peabody College for Teachers. While in Nashville, he published his first book, Economy in Secondary Education.

He became Dean of the College of Education at the State University of Iowa in 1917, staying there for six years. He spent the last year of World War I abroad, mostly in Northern Europe, serving as Director of the Education Section, Russian Division of the Committee on Public Information. Dividing his time between Iowa and overseas, he lectured to teachers in Japan and Siberia and served as an advisor to the Russian government. In 1918, he published Education in a Democracy in Russian. His experiences led to his 1919 volume Schools in Siberia. In addition, he spent considerable time in several Asian and European countries as a member of the China Educational Commission — his 1923 trip to southeastern Europe leading to his work Schools in Bulgaria. 

In 1923, he was appointed Associate Director of the International Institute at Teachers College by his father, then Dean of Teachers College. Upon his father’s retirement in 1927, Russell became dean. The succession from father to son of the deanship did not go unremarked in the press reports of the time (“Son succeeds father in deanship” was the headline in a profile in the New York Times, Apr. 8, 1928). The elder Dean Russell had shepherded Teachers College’s growth from a small school to a first-rate institution. Hopes were high for his son to continue in his footsteps, and William Fletcher Russell was compared favorably to his father in a New York Times profile that described him as athletic and sociable (ibid.). The younger Dean Russell arranged for his inauguration to occur as a part of the National Conference on Education (which was, despite its name, an international affair). Both proponent and opponents of American schooling spoke at this affair which was well covered by the press (New York Times, June 11, 1939). 

In 1936, Russell wrote Liberty vs. Equality, a book rising out of study he had been doing on his own to understand the nature of American ideals and their origins. He studied the founders (or Fathers of the Country, as he put it) and pursed their ideas to France. He felt that the struggle between the ideas of liberty and equality was at the root of many contemporary problems and set out to explore the compromise that was necessary between the two. 

His tenure at Teachers College promised continued growth (as the institution issued its first doctorate during his time there) but was not without difficulties. According to Time (Aug. 28, 1939), he was “brooding on the fact that his college. . .had in businessmen’s eyes become ‘The Big Red University.’ ” He was later contacted by Cortlandt Jackson Langley and persuaded to make an alliance with the business world in order to remedy this problem. Russell’s collaboration with Langley led to the 1939 Congress on Education for Democracy, a conference Russell believed was a great success.

During the time leading up to the conference, Russell found himself in conflict with members of his faculty and soon forced outspoken liberal William Heard Kilpatrick to retire. Time reported on Nov. 28, 1938, that George Sylvester Counts (founder of social reconstructionism) had been holding his tongue ever since. Russell administered a “tongue-lashing” to professors who sympathized with striking cafeteria workers and shut down New College, an experimental institution which sent undergraduates around the country and the world to develop their education through life experience.

In 1941, Russell, who had maintained his interest and concern for international affairs, wrote The New “Common Sense” which he hoped would serve as a call to action much as Thomas Paine’s original had. With the book, he hoped to awaken America to her duty to oppose tyranny and support liberty. The book was also published as a part of The Meaning of Democracy along with A Study of the Creed of Democracy  by Thomas H. Briggs and a selection of the texts Russell had studied. 

During the World War II, Russell was a member of the Wartime Committee of the United States Office of Education and Director of the National Citizenship Education Project of the Department of Justice. After the war, he founded the World Organization of the Teaching Profession in 1947, serving as its president until 1952. Russell was named President of Teachers College in 1949 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower (then serving as the President of Columbia University). 

In 1954, he published How to Judge a School which presented a historical look at the roots of American education and explained its superiority to other forms of education, taking as his case studies “primitive” groups (such as the pre-Columbian Native Americans), “old” China, pre-WWI Germany, and the Ottoman Empire. With this book, he hoped to provide information to parents so that they could make certain that their children were not being exposed to “antiquated practices and outworn theories” (Russell 1954, ix). 

Russell retired on July 30, 1954 to become a deputy director in the Foreign Operations Administration, but died two years later at the age of 65 of a heart attack (New York Times Nov. 5, 1945). His papers may be found in the Special Collections Archives at Teachers College.

Contributed by Robert Todd Bruce, Erskine College

Bigelow, K. W. 1957.  In memoriam: W.F. Russell. International Review of Education 3(2): 243. 
Russell, W. F. 1936.  Liberty vs. Equality. New York: Macmillan.
Russell, W. F. 1941.  The New “Common Sense.” New York:  Harper & Bros.
Russell, W. F. 1954.  How to judge a school: Handbook for puzzled parents and tired taxpayers. New York:  Harper & Bros.
Russell, W. F., and T. H. Briggs. 1941.  The Meaning of Democracy. New York:  Macmillan.

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