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Melby, Ernest Oscar, 1891-1987



Ernest Oscar Melby was born August 16, 1891, in Lake Park, Minnesota, the son of Ole Hanson and Ellen Stakke Melby. He joined the faculty of Northwestern University in 1928, becoming Dean of the School of Education in 1934. Melby left NU for the Montana State University in 1941, subsequently holding administrative posts at the University of Montana and New York University before joining the faculty of Michigan State University. Melby died in 1987.

Melby received his B.A. from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota in 1913, taught high school briefly, and married Aurora Herbert on December 29, 1914. They had one child, Stanley Herbert Melby. Over the next decade, Melby was superintendent of schools in Brewster, Blackduck, and Long Prairie, Minnesota. While attending graduate school at the University of Minnesota, where he received an M.A. in 1926 and a Ph.D. in 1928, Melby worked as a research assistant for the public schools of Minneapolis and was the assistant director of the Bureau of Educational Research at the University. Appointed Assistant Professor of Education at Northwestern University in 1928, Melby conducted research on the administration of several Illinois school districts, the results of which were published in 1929 and 1930 and undoubtedly contributed to his rapid promotion to Associate Professor in 1929 and full Professor in 1930.

Melby replaced John E. Stout as Dean of the School of Education in 1934, a position he held until 1941 when his antagonistic relationship with University President Franklyn Bliss Snyder deteriorated to the point where Melby resigned to assume the presidency of Montana State University, a post he held from 1941 to 1943 and again from 1944 to 1945. He also served as Chancellor of the University of Montana during the 1943-1944 academic year. In 1945 Melby was appointed Dean of New York University's School of Education and served in this capacity until 1956 when he joined the Michigan State University faculty as a Distinguished Professor of Education.

During Melby's administration Northwestern's School of Education achieved a national reputation as an influential, innovative institution. Melby formalized the arrangements initiated by former Dean John Stout with the Evanston Township High School that established “laboratory facilities” for students in the School of Education. These facilities, called the “New Unit,” were opened in autumn of 1937. Melby also promoted the M.A.T. “internship” program, initiated a field services program, evening and Saturday classes and workshops for employed teachers, and conducted very successful Summer Sessions. These innovations, however attractive many found them, led to serious conflicts within the University and ultimately to Melby's resignation in 1941.

In the mid-1930s Melby's fiscal policies began to aggravate Franklyn Bliss Snyder, then Dean of Faculties. Snyder found Melby's habit of obligating University revenues by making Summer Session appointments years in advance intolerable. Melby defended these appointments arguing that such a policy was necessary to attract innovative scholars with national reputations. The “New Unit,” which was financially supported by the University, also incurred Snyder's displeasure. Upon his appointment as University President in 1939, Snyder immediately proposed to substantially reduce Northwestern's share of the demonstration school's expenses. In spite of Melby's accusations that Snyder was suffocating the program, the President cut the budget for 1942. The School of Education's expanded field services in the Midwest, subsidized by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, further deepened the rift between Melby and the University's central administration. When Northwestern raised tuition and fees in the late 1930s, representatives of the Foundation told Melby that they would be unable to continue their investment in workshops, equipment, and tuition. Melby blamed the unsympathetic Snyder for refusing to cooperate with the Kellogg Foundation in helping Northwestern to meet its community and public service responsibilities. The President refused to reduce tuition for teachers interested in the in-service training experience. The deterioration of the M.A.T. internship program after 1940 also contributed to Melby's resignation. Although praised by the interns whose placement potential was enhanced by their participation in the program, the internship concept was condemned by the National Education Association. In a resolution introduced by a Chicago teacher, the N.E.A. denounced the concept as being an apprenticeship program that lowered teachers' salaries in neighboring communities. With the advent of World War II, the luxury of extended training for teachers was sacrificed to immediate manpower needs and the graduate internship was discontinued.

Ernest O. Melby died January 11, 1987.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Ernest O. Melby (1891-1987) Papers

Identifier: 14/7

The papers of Ernest O. Melby consist of three boxes of correspondence and printed material primarily relating to his term as Dean of Northwestern University's School of Education between 1934 and 1941. It focuses on his professional activities as a leader in the Progressive Education Association and on the School of Education's relationship to the University's central administration as well as its experimental pedagogical programs.

Dates: 1932-1941