Franklin S. Harris, Sr.

Agricultural Scientist, Educator,
President, Brigham Young University (1921 to 1945) &
President, Utah State Agricultural College (1945 to 1950)

Franklis S. Harris, Sr, BYH Class of 1904

Frank Harris, BYH Class of 1904

Brigham Young High School
Class of 1904




Benjamin, Utah, birthplace of President Harris
Benjamin, Utah, birthplace of Franklin Harris, Sr.
Franklin Stewart Harris was born on August 29, 1884 in Benjamin, Utah Territory, United States. His parents were Dennison Emer Harris and Eunice Polly Stewart. In the 1890s his family moved to the Mormon colonies in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

In 1903 Frank Harris and his brother, Dennison E. Harris, both came to Provo, Utah, to enroll at Brigham Young Academy. They arrived at an interesting crossroads in time -- at the end of the academic year, in May 1903, Brigham Young Academy ceased to exist.

As a result, Franklin and Dennison both graduated from Brigham Young University High School in 1904, the first year for both BY High and Brigham Young University -- previously both were called Brigham Young Academy.

Upon graduation from BY High, Franklin was called back to Colonia Juarez to teach science at the Juarez Stake Academy.

As Franklin traveled back and forth from Utah to Mexico, he observed the vast desert lands of Utah, southwest United States and northern Mexico, and they presented a challenge to him. He dreamed of conserving, watering, treating, and fertilizing soils for a greater crop yield in these desolate areas.

Upon his return to BYU, Franklin made the acquaintance of and became the assistant to Dr. John A. Widtsoe, then Director of Agriculture at BYU. A lasting friendship followed. Soil chemistry became a driving force for both of these scholars and teachers.

Widtsoe served as a professor of agriculture at BYU for several years up to 1907, and is arguably the founding father of BYU's College of Biology and Agriculture.

In 1907, Widtsoe moved north to Logan, Utah, serving as president of Utah State Agricultural College through 1916. He then served as the president of the University of Utah from 1916 until his call as a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve in 1921.

Franklin Harris graduated from BYU in 1907. He also received his Masters Degree at BYU.

It was in 1907 that Franklin courted and won the affections of one of the more popular girls on the campus, Estella Spilsbury of Toquerville, Utah. Franklin and Frankie Estella Spilsbury were married on June 18, 1908, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Franklin often said that this was the most significant act of his life.

Estella's vivacious personality enlivened all of the groups in which she mingled. His life was completely complimented by her gracious charm, friendly attitude toward faculty and students.

Estella Harris also made easy adjustments to a varying social life, whether in Mexico, Russia, Iran, or diplomatic Washington.

In 1911 Franklin attained his doctorate degree at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Franklin was an agricultural scientist. He served as head of the Agriculture Department and of the Agricultural Experiment Station at Utah State Agricultural College.

They spent ten years living on the Logan campus. Their five children were born there: Franklin Stewart Harris, Jr., Chauncy Dennison Harris, Helen Harris, Leah Dorothy Harris, and Mildred Harris. Dr. Harris was promoted to Dean of the School of Agricultural Engineering and Mechanic Arts up to 1921.


BYU & BYH Lower Campus in 1920s

In 1921, Franklin S. Harris began serving as president of Brigham Young University. He arrived on the campus as a reputable scholar at age 36, and was the schoolís first president to hold a Ph.D. He also had a great love for the arts, and a vision of crafting a great university.

In his inaugural address, President Harris outlined an ambitious plan to lead BYU to considerably higher academic levels.

Brigham Young Academy granted a few collegiate degrees as early as 1897, started awarding four-year degrees in 1900, and in May 1903 the LDS Church changed the school's name to reflect university status.

However, the unaccredited school was still essentially a regional denominational high school and college in the 1920s.

In fact, the new university had more high school students than college students.

When Franklin Stewart Harris became president of BYU, LDS President Heber J. Grant voiced his approval by saying, "We feel we have the right man in the right place."

Harris was determined to raise the standards of the 46-year-old school in Provo, an ambition that remained constant throughout his administration.


1892 Lower Campus & 1911 Maeser Bldg Upper Campus

In those days the entire campus consisted of the 1892 "Lower Campus" where the Provo City Library now is, along with the 1911 Maeser Memorial and several other small buildings on "Temple Hill" which was called the "Upper Campus". Finances were always tight.

In his new position, Harris also encountered a faculty with some misgivings about the future of BYU. Financial challenges did not deter his dream of making BYU a superb center for learning that compared well with other universities.

Harris' secretary, Kiefer Sauls, once described Franklin's vision and educational philosophy:
"He immediately charted an ambitious course for the destiny of BYU as he envisioned it, and set sail. I once heard a faculty member philosophize about a young man with grandiose plans; it was thought the young man's sail was too big for his rudder. President Harris's sail was big, but the rudder proved adequate.

"Dr. Harris believed in a well-rounded education. He had one. He had a better working knowledge in more fields of learning than any person of my acquaintance. Though his major field was science, he loved the classics in literature, art, and music and knew of the accomplishments through the centuries of the great artists in these areas."
Within five years of becoming president, Harris organized five new colleges -- education, arts and sciences, commerce and business, applied science, and fine arts.

BYH - BYU Lower Campus in the 1930s
Brigham Young Lower Campus in the 1930s

He also added graduate and research divisions as part of his goal to upgrade the scholarship and academic standing of the university. Harris also added the Honors Program to encourage high achievers.

One of Harris's first statements on coming to campus was a long-term need to make BYU a center of religious scholarship, with a short-term goal of obtaining a broad spectrum of religious books in the library.

The first building built on BYU campus during Harris's administration was the Heber J. Grant Library building on the Upper Campus. This was the first BYU building built specifically as a library, but soon it became too small to hold all the books Harris had managed to have the University acquire.

In 1923, speaking on the campus where as a high school student from Benjamin, Utah, he had dreamed of the school's future, President Harris said,
"Behold the greatest university campus in all the world - in embryo. More students will come, the faculty will be enlarged, new colleges will be added, and there is no end to the improvements which can be made. Truly the campus is the setting of what will undoubtedly be the greatest university in the world, a place to train for leaders."
Harris served as the fifth president of the school, continuing for the next twenty-three years ó the longest term of any BYU president.

Upper Campus BYU President's Home & Harris Fam
The Harris Family & The BYU President's Home

For more than two decades he successfully weathered a series of controversies over the place and role of BYU in the Church.

Overall, his educational leadership extended from 1907 to 1950, 23 years as president in Provo at BYU from July 1921 to June 1945, and five years as president in Logan at Utah State Agricultural College from 1945 to 1950. The USAC is now Utah State University.

Harris also filled a variety of brief assignments away from the campus. In 1926 he was sent as a missionary in Japan. He also served a short mission among the Latter-day Saints in Syria in 1927. In 1929 Harris was involved with founding a Jewish colony in Siberia. In the early 1950s Harris worked in Iran, where he served as the president of the LDS Church branch headquartered in Tehran.

Franklin S. Harris & BYU Board of Trustees 1933
Members of the BYU Board of Trustees on Commencement Day 1933, standing at the southwest gate to the Lower Campus. From (L to R) BYU President, Dr. Franklin S. Harris; Church President, Heber J. Grant; Church counselor Anthony W. Ivins; Reed Smoot, US Senator and member of the Council of Twelve; David O. McKay, member of the Council of Twelve and later President of the Church; and John A. Widtsoe, also of the Council of Twelve.

Harris is quoted as saying, "I use my knowledge of science to make a living. But through my interest in art I live."

The legacy of this love is reflected in the Franklin S. Harris Fine Arts Center that today houses the School of Music and the departments of Visual Arts, Communications, and Theatre and Media Arts.

Why was the Harris Fine Arts Center named for an accomplished agronomist, a soil scientist, an academic administrator?

As BYU president he attended more arts events than athletic events, which probably could not be said of any president since.

While traveling, which was frequently, he always visited museums and art galleries and attended the theater and concert halls. Even many years later he could remember a specific work of art that he had seen in his journeys.

In the 1920s it was very unusual for a university to have a curriculum in the fine arts. Within a few years after his arrival at BYU, Harris established the College of Fine Arts with Gerrit de Jong, Jr. as Dean. It was the first such college in the western United States.

With the help of Herald R. Clark he brought numerous performers to this small college. Herald R. Clark was the Dean of the College of Commerce (Business) at Brigham Young University spanning several decades. Even though Clark came from a background in business, like Dr. Harris he had a deep love for the fine arts.

Harris and Clark desired the students at BYU to have exposure to great artists and thinkers of the time and assisted in bringing world renowned musicians, conductors, and guest speakers to the campus.

Herald R. Clark directed a lyceum series for 53 years, from 1913 to 1966, during which time such luminaries as Pearl S. Buck, Robert Frost, Helen Keller, Robert F. Kennedy, and Carl Sandburg came to speak. He was also instrumental in bringing eminent performers to BYU, among them Bela Bartok, Sergei Rachmaninoff, the Vienna Choir Boys, the Boston Symphony, and the Berlin Philharmonic.

In addition to supporting the performing arts, Harris acquired about seven hundred art works and had them hung in the offices, halls, and classrooms on the Lower Campus.

In those days the entire school was located on the Lower Campus, with only a few buildings on the Upper Campus. Budgets were tight, but Harris had a clever way of acquiring art. He gave tuition credit to family and friends of artists in exchange for paintings. Several of the paintings of Minerva Teichert were acquired in this way.

While faculty salaries were consistently inadequate and there were always growing pains from the need to construct new facilities, the Harris administration was characterized by lean times, but also steady growth.

During his tenure, the student body expanded from 450 to about 3,000 students. The library grew from 19,000 to 120,000 volumes. Harris saved and spent every possible cent to purchase land surrounding the Maeser Memorial on Temple Hill, the school's Upper Campus.

And one of his greatest accomplishment was that Harris -- along with a dedicated group of faculty and donors dedicated to the BYU dream -- managed to keep the University alive during the Great Depression.


"I use my knowledge of science to make a living,
but through my interest in art I live."
~~Franklin S. Harris, Sr.


"He had a wonderful gift," wrote the Gerrit de Jong, Jr., the first dean of the College of Fine Arts. "He could make every faculty member feel that the university was a school of destiny, that great things were bound to happen, and that it would be a distinct pleasure to have a hand in all the growth and development that was to be."

"Harris' rapport with the faculty was one of the hallmarks of his administration," de Jong said. "Many faculty members who could have gone elsewhere stayed with BYU because they trusted President Harris and knew he believed in them. He traveled the state extensively and became so well-known he was often referred to as Mr. BYU."

He also traveled the world for his profession, his university, and his church. He always made it a point to stop and visit the libraries and universities wherever he went.

Karl Young, Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, and BYU English teacher, summarized Harris' achievements:
"A life could be written of F. S. Harris the Humanist, or of Harris the World Citizen, or of Harris the Educator, or of Harris the Man of Religion, or of Harris as the Big Brother to All His Fellows. But Franklin Harris' greatest work in life was in Education."
At the close of his administration, Dr. Harris was quoted as saying, "After all, I think my greatest accomplishment is what we have done with the fine arts."

Harris wrote 6 books and over 600 pieces ranging from scientific papers to articles. He was sought after as an agricultural adviser. But Harris is most remembered as the founder of the BYU College of Fine Arts and Communications. In 1965 a newly constructed art center was named the Harris Fine Arts Center in his honor.

Franklin S. Harris Fine Arts Center at BYU
Harris Fine Arts Center - Brigham Young University

The College of Fine Arts and Communicationís highest honor, the Franklin S. Harris Award, is also named in his honor.

Over the years, all of his children and many grandchildren and great grandchildren graduated from BYU. Many descendants continue to teach or work on campus.

Franklin S. Harris, Sr. died in Salt Lake City on April 18, 1960. His interment is in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

Estella Spilsbury Harris died on December 2, 1973 in Salt Lake City. Her interment is beside her husband in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.


The Franklin & Estella Harris Family
Franklin Stewart Harris, Sr. and Estella Spilsbury Harris, and their five children: Franklin Stewart Harris, Jr., Chauncy Dennison Harris, Helen Harris Jenson, Leah Dorothy Harris Jensen, and Mildred Harris Bradley.


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