Rodney A. Briggs

Black and white photograph of Rodney Briggs at a desk as superintendent of WCSA.

Rodney Briggs was the first dean and provost at the University of Minnesota Morris. Hired in 1959 to serve as the superintendent of the West Central School of Agriculture, he successfully oversaw the phasing out of the agricultural school and the transition to a college program. A tireless worker and supporter of the college, Briggs threw himself into the twin tasks of recruiting students and hiring faculty and staff. Sporting his ever-present Stetson hat, Briggs was a fixture throughout the sixties at virtually every community event in the region. The development of the campus, the implementation of a liberal arts curriculum, the establishment of a successful athletic program, the promotion of extracurricular programs and cultural outreach, all bear Briggs' signature. The decision to name the campus library as the Rodney A. Briggs Library in his honor in 1974 is a lasting legacy to his contributions to UMN Morris.


born in Madison, WI on March 18

engaged to Helen K. Ryall

received his B.S. in agronomy from the University of Wisconsin

received his Ph.D. in Field Crop Physiology from Rutgers University

started working at the University of Minnesota as an extension agronomist

started at WCSA as superintendent and about 6 months later dean[1] of UMN Morris

moved to Nigeria to work for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture

promoted to executive assistant and the associate vice-president for federal relations at the University of Minnesota

named president of Eastern Oregon State College

honored with library dedication at UMN Morris

retired from Eastern Oregon State College; moved back to Madison, WI to work as executive vice president of the American Society of Agronomy

died in Shoreview, MN on May 10

Personal Life

Rodney A. Briggs grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. His father, George 'Soybean' Briggs was a noted agronomist, famous for the promotion of soybean cultivation among Midwestern farmers. As a teenager, Briggs was the winner of a cheese cookery contest sponsored by the National Cheese Institute.[2]  Briggs graduated from Madison West High School in 1941 and then enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. Initially, he was interested in the liberal arts before switching to agronomy, and while at Wisconsin he was active in both theatre and music.[3] He entered the army after Pearl Harbor.  Achieving the rank of lieutenant, he served as a combat infantry officer, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded the Bronze Star. While on leave in 1944 he married Helen K. Ryall in Madison.[4] He reentered the army during the Korean Conflict and served in Germany. After his World War II service he returned to the University of Wisconsin, where he earned his B.S. in agronomy in 1947. Six years later, with a hiatus for military service during the Korean War, he finished his Ph.D, at Rutgers. Briggs came to Minnesota as an extension agronomist in 1953 and a few years later entered the classroom an associate professor of agronomy at the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus. Six years later the Board of Regents appointed him superintendent of the West Central School of Agriculture (WCSA) and a few months later he became dean of the newly created University of Minnesota Morris. His task was to direct the transition from the WCSA to the University of Minnesota Morris. He personally interviewed and hired many of the early faculty, worked closely with key administrators and faculty from the Twin Cities, including the so-called "Morris Campus Advisory Committee.” He spoke at countless Lions' Clubs and Rotary Association meetings and labored hand-in-glove with the West Central Educational Development Association to recruit students and promote the college. By the time he left UMN Morris at the end of the 1960s, enrollment had grown to over 1700 students, and the campus enjoyed a regional reputation for academic excellence.[5]


Research and Teaching

While finishing his graduate studies at Rutgers Briggs worked with New Jersey Extension and developed an expertise in forage and feed crops. He published a handful of brochures and booklets on these subjects while also making the rounds and meeting regularly with groups of New Jersey farmers. He continued in this mode after moving to Minnesota in 1953 and was named the "Extension Forage Crop Specialist." Two years later Briggs was named Director and Secretary of the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association and traveled widely throughout the state preaching the benefits of grassland management to livestock farming. He also taught agronomy while publishing numerous articles on field cropping for Minnesota's Extension Services' many publications. At the time of his appointment as the superintendent of the WCSA he was working on improvements in the production and storage of silage.[6]

Briggs was active in a number of professional organizations. In the 1950s he served as secretary for both the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association and the American Society of Agronomy. He was also an active member of the Minnesota branch of the Conservation Society of America.[7]

Community Involvement

Community Involvement

Rodney Briggs, upon his appointment to head the transition to UMN Morris, was no stranger to either Morris or West Central Minnesota. He had been a frequent visitor to the WCSA, had experimental plots at the station, and later claimed that he “knew all the kitchen help at the West Central School.”[8] He was completely comfortable with rural people having worked from 1953 to 1955 as the University of Minnesota’s Extension Agronomist. After being tapped to lead UMN Morris he threw himself into the twin tasks of promoting the school and recruiting students. He later recalled, “I went to high schools, to PTA’s, to civic groups. I talked to any organization that would let me talk to them, to let them know we were developing a college program at Morris.” In the spring of 1963 alone, he spoke at eight high school graduations. He also appeared on public television, served on the State Board of the Educational Advisory Committee, addressed a bankers convention and was present at countless Lions and Kiwanis club meetings. He accomplished all of this while surviving on four or five hours of sleep per night.[9] Briggs was acutely sensitive to the need for faculty and staff to fit into the local community,  once advising the newly hired, St. Paul native, Steve Granger to be sure to join the Morris Country Club.[10] The Briggs initiative that best represents his appreciation of rural culture and the need for outreach was the Agriculture Barter for College program, a program which converted donated agricultural commodities to funds for student loans and scholarships.[11]

In 1964, Briggs briefly considered running for the Republican nomination for Congress from the sixth district of Minnesota.[12] Later in that decade he served as a member of Governor Harold LeVander’s State Planning Advisory Committee. He was also a member of the American Academy of the Advancement of Science, and a member of the American Association of Agriculture.[13]

Campus Contributions

Rodney Briggs faced myriad challenges in managing the transition from the WCSA to the University of Minnesota Morris. That the establishment of a college program at Morris was at first considered experimental, that rival stakeholder groups required attention, and that the Morris project was launched without adequate financial support, presented Briggs with significant practical and political problems. Faculty had to be hired, staffing needs addressed, a curriculum developed, library books procured, laboratory equipment found and, not least, students recruited. And at the same time, the WCSA was to be phased out. The latter task was particularly delicate, as West Central alumni were unfailing in their loyalty and the parents’ association wielded significant power on a local level. Briggs, with both charm and skill, was able to win over local residents, convince them of the necessity of phasing out the agricultural school and earn their support for the new college. Throughout his career at Morris, because of his long experience in agricultural extension and because of his understanding of rural people, Briggs proved to be especially adroit in gathering and mobilizing support from local groups.

The most important of Briggs’ contributions in the first few years was to help ensure the survival of the college. The University Board of Regents, minus a legislative mandate and thus without funding, announced in the fall of 1959 its decision to initiate the undergraduate collegiate program at Morris. Some members of the legislature were upset and civic leaders from rival communities in western Minnesota felt the decision premature. This resistance not only persisted but also grew in volume after the appearance of a news article in the Minneapolis Star in early December 1960 suggesting the Morris experiment a failure.[14] Briggs, in combination with the West Central Minnesota Educational Development Association (WCEDA) and allies on the Twin Cities campus, steered the campus through this crisis. He came to see the controversy as the key moment that unified support for the institution. Later in February of the following year, Briggs worked with WCEDA in sponsoring for legislators a rail excursion to Morris where they could visit the campus, meet faculty, students and supporters and be entertained.[15] He maintained an especially close relationship with Peter Popovich, a key House member and future Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, who, upon Briggs’ invitation, journeyed to campus to deliver guest lectures for political science classes.[16]

One of Briggs’ initial tasks upon his appointment was to assemble a faculty. As noted above, he lacked funds, as the legislature could not supply any funding until it would meet in early 1961. However, he did not lack personal connections--many from the Twin Cities campus and many through the Morris Advisory Committee--to hire young and ambitious men and women interested in building a college from the ground up. Briggs worked without search committees and without necessarily informing candidates that their contracts were only for a single year! He was also able to recruit promising faculty and staff members from the WCSA and find room for them at UMN Morris. Many of Briggs’ hires--Jim Gremmels, Nate Hart, Truman Driggs, Jooinn Lee, Don Spring, Jim Olson, John Q. Imholte--carved out long and illustrious careers at UMN Morris. He also sought diversity in staffing and a number of his early hires were faculty of color.

Briggs also had to find the students for the faculty to teach. At that time no colleges existed in the western part of the state south of Moorhead, and only a small number of area high school students went off to college. Indeed, fully, 50 percent of the fathers of UMN Morris’s first class members had not gone beyond eighth grade.[17] Because Morris detractors remained active and vocal, the failure to meet enrollment goals and retain students would expose the campus to renewed scrutiny and criticism.  Although committed to the liberal arts, Briggs was not rigid and in order to attract more students advocated opening up more vocationally oriented programs.[18]  In fact, Briggs always insisted that the campus should take an experimental approach to the liberal arts. Skeptical about the usefulness of grades, Briggs nevertheless insisted on maintaining rigorous academic standards, and by the end of the first term over 40 percent of that first class were on academic probation, a figure startling to some at the time but not totally unexpected.[19] Throughout the first decade and despite the at-times almost ad hoc quality of campus growth and development, Briggs’ determined advocacy of a liberal arts ideal worked to clarify the college’s mission and enhance its appeal to real and prospective students. At the start of UMN Morris’s third year of operation, the student population had grow to over 520 students, and, in contrast to the members of first class, who were only mildly interested in the liberal arts, over sixty percent of the 1962 enrollees testified in a survey that their educational goals closely aligned with those of the liberal arts.[20]

Briggs knew that an active student club life, the establishment of both extra- and co-curricular activities and building town-gown relations were vital to attracting and retaining students. By the beginning of winter of quarter 1961 eleven student organizations had already been born with Briggs urging the faculty to assume an active role in promoting student organizations.[21] During that same academic year the first Cougar basketball team took the court. and the following fall saw the first football team. By the time the first class graduated in 1964 the campus could boast of eight varsity sports teams, a full docket of intramural athletics, a fine arts series, theatre, a festival of arts and letters, and student organizations which included fraternities and sororities, a literature club, both Young Republicans and Young DFLers, and others.[22] Due in no small part to Briggs’ efforts, the 700 or so students in 1964 found much to keep them busy, and the campus had taken the first steps toward the establishment of a very distinctive UMN Morris student culture.

Although part of the logic underlying the establishment of the Morris campus was that liberal education could be accomplished on the cheap, the infrastructure was still inadequate for a college program.[23] Briggs inherited a dozen buildings from the WCSA, but the campus still needed additional classroom, science and dormitory space. UMN Morris was especially successful in those early years in convincing the state legislature to meet its building requests.[24] The pace of construction moved roughly in tandem with the growth in enrollment and by the early 1970s, the original twelve buildings were complemented by three new dormitories, a library, a fine arts building, a new food service building and a new science building, to name a few. Many of the older buildings were remodeled. The pace of construction slowed in the 1970s but by that time an infrastructure appropriate to the needs of the campus had taken shape.[25]

After UMN Morris

In 1968, Briggs announced that he would retire from UMN Morris and become assistant director of the International Institution of Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, Nigeria.[26] After working in Africa for two years, Briggs came back to Minnesota to work at the University of Minnesota as an executive assistant to President Malcom Moos. In 1973, he was promoted to the associate vice-president for federal relations, where he was the university’s primary liaison with Congress and federal agencies.[27] He remained in this position for only a few more months before he became the president of Eastern Oregon State College in La Grande, Oregon.[28] He frequently returned to visit friends and former colleagues at Morris. His visit on October 19, 1974 coincided with the dedication of the Rodney A. Briggs Library in his honor.[29]

At Eastern Oregon State College, Briggs attempted to rejuvenate a university battling low enrollment numbers and a small budget.[30] In an attempt to more closely link the college to real community needs, he introduced degrees in agribusiness, psychology, fire science, nursing, and early childhood education.[31] Briggs left Eastern Oregon in 1982.[32]

Briggs then moved back to Madison, Wisconsin to work as executive vice president of the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of American, and the Social Science Society of America.[33] He retired shortly after being diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, a rare cancer that also afflicted two of his brothers. He worked to trace the disease within his family and learned before his death that the National Institute of Health had accepted his extended family into a large genetic study. Later Rodney and Helen Briggs returned to Minnesota and made their home in Shoreview. 

Rodney Briggs died on May 10, 1995 in Shoreview, Minnesota at the age of 72.[34]

Lauren Solkowski
Stephen Gross


[1] This position was later changed to provost.
[2] “Wisconsin Boy is Winner in Cooking,”
Green Bay Press-Gazette (Green Bay, WI), Nov. 20, 1937.
[3] Rodney Briggs, interview by Wilbert Ahern and Charles Brunette, July 30, 1976, transcript, University of Minnesota Morris Stories, West Central Minnesota Historical Research Center, Morris, MN.
Kenosha Daily New
s (Kenosha, WI), 2 June 1944. See, in addition, "Rodney A. Briggs, UMM's First Dean and Provost, Dies." UMM to You, Summer 1995.
[5] “Morris ‘U’ Provost to Resign, Take Tropical Agriculture Post,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), Dec. 11. 1968.
[6] “State Agronomist Wants Improved Hay in a Hurry,”
Star and Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), March 27, 1959.
[7] "State Agronomist Wants Improved Hay in a Hurry"
[8] Briggs, interview by Wilbert Ahern and Charles Brunette, 1976.
[9] Much of this paragraph is taken from  “‘U’ at Morris Buckles Down to Create Image for Itself,”
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), May 19, 1963.
[10] “Memory Tours of UMM: Arden Granger,” UMMRA Info: volume 11, number 1, Summer 2008.
[11] “Student Loans Grow on Farms,”
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), 11 March 1962.
[12] “’U’ Dean at Morris May Run for Office,”
Minneapolis Star (Minneapolis, MN), Feb. 15, 1964.
[13] David Chanen, “Rodney Briggs, longtime leader at UM-Morris, dies at 72,”
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), May 12, 1995.
[14] “Report Seeks End of Branch at Morris," The Minneapolis
Star (Minneapolis, MN), Dec. 2, 1960.
[15]  Gary L. McGrath, “The Establishment and Early Development of the University of Minnesota, Morris,” EdD diss. (Indiana University, 1974), 98-99. and Briggs, interview by Wilbert Ahern and Charles Brunette, 1976.
[16] Briggs, interview by Wilbert Ahern and Charles Brunette, 1976.
[17] McGrath, 107.
[18] Briggs, interview by Wilbert Ahern and Charles Brunette, 1976 and McGrath, 100-102.
[19] McGrath, 105.
[20] McGrath, 115.
[21] University of Minnesota, Morris, “Faculty Minutes,” January 9, 1961, University of Minnesota Morris Archives.
[22] University of Minnesota, Morris,
1964 Venture.
[23] McGrath, 34.
[24] Briggs, interview by Wilbert Ahern and Charles Brunette, 1976.
[25] Stephen and Susan Granger, “New Buildings Constructed for the University of Minnesota, Morris from 1965 to 2002,” 2-3.​​​​​​
[26] “Morris ‘U’ Provost to Resign, Take Tropical Agriculture Post,” Dec. 11, 

[27] “2 veteran officials at U being promoted,” Minneapolis Star (Minneapolis, MN), June 7, 1973.
[28] “Rodney Briggs named to head Oregon college,”
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), Sept. 27, 1973.
[29] “Library to be Dedicated October 19,”
Vanguard (Morris, MN), Sept. 30, 1974.
[30] “Eastern Oregon State makes changes to pull in students,” Capital Journal (Salem, OR), June 1, 1976.
[31] “Eastern Oregon State makes changes to pull in students,” June 1, 1976.

[32] “Tenured faculty members fired at Eastern Oregon,” Corvallis Gazette-Times (Corvallis, OR), June 3, 1978.
[33] “People of Business,”
Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), Sept. 12, 1982.
[34] Chanen,
 May 12, 1995.

Contribute to this Biography

For assistance in using the UMN Morris Archives, call 320-589-6172 or complete the following form.