Matthew Henry Buckham, the second alumnus to serve as president, was born on July 4, 1832, in Hinckley, Leicestershire, England. Buckham's father was a clergyman who brought his family to America in 1834 and preached in Chelsea, Vermont, before moving to other parishes. Matthew Buckham entered UVM at the age of fifteen and graduated valedictorian in 1851. Following graduation, he served as principal of Lenox Academy in the Berkshires. He spent two years studying at University College, London, before he returned in 1856 to UVM where he was appointed to the chair in Greek while also serving as a professor of rhetoric and English literature. The following year he married Elizabeth Wright of Shoreham.
When Buckham was elected president on July 6, 1871, few realized he was destined to serve for thirty-nine years, the longest term in the university's history. UVM had realized great progress under President Angell, but Buckham still faced a number of difficult problems.
Although enrollments had risen, only sixty-five undergraduates were enrolled when he became president. On August 1, 1871, the trustees passed a historic vote when they resolved “women may be admitted to the academic and scientific instruction under such rules and regulations as the faculty shall recommend.” It would be misleading to imply that low enrollments were the only factor that led UVM to become one of the first eastern colleges to admit women. Trustee Justin Morrill was an outspoken advocate of the democratization of higher education, and Presidents Angell and Buckham supported the admission of women. Lida A. Mason and Ellen E. Hamilton, the first two women to enroll at UVM, were both elected as the first women members of Phi Beta Kappa when they graduated from the university in 1875. Two years later George Washington Henderson, an African-American, graduated from UVM in the class of 1877. He later served as professor of Latin, Greek, and ancient literature at Wilberforce University in Ohio.
The controversy over the agricultural college was still simmering among many farmers who felt the university was not fulfilling its commitments under the Morrill Act. Actually, the main problem was a lack of student interest in the agricultural program. Although the State Agricultural College had been established in 1865, no students had applied for the agricultural course by the time Buckham became president in 1871. In addition, UVM was experiencing difficulty recruiting faculty for the new program because few had as yet been trained to teach courses in the agricultural sciences. As Dean J. L. Hills later pointed out, the term “agricultural college” was a misnomer since the Morrill Act had been passed “for the benefit of agriculture and the mechanic arts.” Most of the students had enrolled in engineering courses, and the agricultural program was moribund.
The farmers began to vent their dissatisfaction in 1874 when three members of the State Board of Agriculture attacked the university, but it was not until 1886 that the state helped to establish an Agricultural Experiment Station at UVM. In 1888 funds from the Hatch Act were used to buy a 110-acre farm in South Burlington for teaching and research. However, leaders of the State Grange kept sniping away at the university for not doing enough. The issue reached a climax in 1890 when a group of Rutland residents pledged fifty thousand dollars for the Agricultural and Mechanical College “if the same is located permanently in the town of Rutland.”
During the 1890 session, a “divorce bill,” designed to separate the State Agricultural College from The University of Vermont, was debated in the state legislature. The bill passed the House 152 to 67 but was defeated in the senate by an 18-to-12 vote. The great legislative battle of 1890 marked the end of attempts to establish a separate agricultural college, and henceforth the university increased its efforts to mend fences with the farm community.
A winter course of free lectures for farmers was sponsored with conspicuous publicity. President Buckham opened the series with a formal address to the assembled group, which was followed by a talk on “The Horse's Foot and Its Care.”
If the agricultural college conflict provided the pyrotechnics for the Buckham administration, the building boom that took place during his presidency shaped the face of the present-day campus. Riding the crest of an economic upsurge in the lumber industry, the population of Burlington expanded during the Buckham era from 13,500 in 1870 to 20,500 in 1910. In 1883 the Old Mill was renovated, and this marked the beginning of a period of major building on the campus, which included the construction of Billings Library (1885), the engineering buildings (1891), Williams Science Hall (1896), the gymnasium (now Royall Tyler Theatre; 1901), the College of Medicine building (1906), and Morrill Hall (1907). The Centennial Woods area, Chittenden Farm, and Grassmount Hall were all purchased (the latter to serve as a women's dormitory). Other buildings constructed or purchased included Converse Hall, Commons Hall, and three houses for the faculty.
Additional funds were secured to increase both the library and museum collections and to establish five new faculty chairs: the Pomeroy Professor of Chemistry (1878); the Howard Professor of Natural History (1881); the Flint Professor of Mathematics, Natural, or Technic Science (1895); the Converse Professor in Commerce and Economics (1899); and the Thayer Professor in Anatomy (1910).
Many stories accumulated over the years about President Buckham. One of the classics involved his 1896 summer visit to Scotland and England where he delivered a lecture at Oxford University. When he was introduced to one of the Oxford dons as the president of The University of Vermont, the don responded, “I have been there. I have traveled extensively in various parts of the world, and I have seen many beautiful places, but there is only one view I have ever seen that is finer than the western view from the tower of the University of Vermont.” President Buckham, in a delighted tone of voice, said, “I should like very much to know what the other view is.” “Well,” the don replied, “it’s the eastern view from the tower of the University of Vermont.”
During Buckham's tenure as president, the faculty increased from fourteen members to more than eighty. In 1899 the trustees voted to assume full control of the medical department, and in 1909 the home economics department was created, and UVM hired its first woman faculty member, Bertha Terrill. Tuition rose from $45 in 1870 to $110 in 1910 when a total of five hundred students were enrolled at the university. John Dewey '79, UVM's most famous graduate during this era, paid tribute to the senior-year philosophy course he took from President Buckham. By 1904, the centennial anniversary of the first graduating class, nearly seventeen hundred students had graduated in the arts and sciences, including William A. Wheeler '34, who served as vice president of the United States from 1877 to 1881; 22 members of the United States Senate and House; 4 governors; 14 college presidents; 554 schoolteachers; 287 clergymen; 183 physicians; and 96 college professors. More than thirteen hundred of these graduates contributed to the university's centennial fund, which reached $500,000 in June 1910.
President Buckham's first wife, Elizabeth Wright, raised a family of five children before she died in 1886. In 1897 he married Martha G. Tyler of St. Johnsbury, and they had a daughter in 1904. When Buckham died on November 29, 1910, at age seventy-eight, he had served The University of Vermont for fifty-four years. The Buckham family recently established a fund for students majoring in English to perpetuate the memory of the man who played such a critical role in guiding the university's growth.