Bridges: Mezes brought bold educational vision to University of Texas
The early 1900s was a formative time for education in Texas. Sidney Mezes, a one-time president of the University of Texas, rose to the forefront to serve as such a leader as well as a diplomat and a thinker. In the process, the son of a pioneer gold prospector in California became one of the most respected philosophers in the nation and a leader in Texas education.
Sidney Edward Mezes was born in September 1863 in Belmont, California, then a tiny village nestled between San Francisco and San Jose in the years after the Gold Rush. His parents were both immigrants with his father having arrived from Spain and his mother from Italy. His father, Simon M. Mezes, was an attorney who arrived with the early wave of gold prospectors and other fortune-seekers.
His father had helped several Spanish families in the San Francisco area keep the claims on their lands as pressure from settlers and miners as well as various con artists sought to thrust them off their property. In the process, Mezes was able to buy some of this land and set it aside to form what became Redwood City, the county seat of San Mateo County in the 1850s, and for whom a city park is named. This helped provide a comfortable childhood for the future scholar, which included trips to Europe.
He graduated from what was then the University of California in 1884 (now the University of California at Berkeley) with a degree in engineering. After his father’s death that year, Mezes took a different path and began studying philosophy. He enrolled at Harvard University in 1889, receiving a second bachelor's degree in 1890 and a master's degree in philosophy in 1891. While he was completing his doctorate through Harvard, he spent the 1892-93 school year teaching philosophy at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. After finishing his Ph.D. in 1893, he spent a year teaching at the University of Chicago.
He was offered an adjunct teaching position at the University of Texas in 1894. In 1898, he took a look at ideas and perceptions of God with "The Conception of God." He took on questions of spirituality and the existence of God. At the same time, he touched on ideas of time, memory, and reality. Mezes argued that God lives in an eternal state of the present, with all things happening in one everlasting moment and that time as mortal men understand it, is meaningless to God. “Time is no reality; things seem past and future, and, in a sense, non-existent to us, but in fact are just as genuinely real as the present is,” Mezes wrote. “Every reality is eternally real, pastness and futurity are merely illusions.”
He became a full-time professor in 1898. In 1901, he wrote an influential work on ethics, titled Ethics, Descriptive and Explanatory. He earned a promotion to dean in 1902, serving as a philosophy professor simultaneously.
In 1908, Mezes was appointed president of the university. He was the fifth person to hold the position. He was widely respected for his work as a scholar and administrator. The college expanded steadily. He added a new library and a new Department of Economic Geology. Within five years, enrollment expanded 20%, from 2,500 students to 3,000.
In 1913, the newly inaugurated President Woodrow Wilson asked him to become U. S. education commissioner, but he declined. Instead, Mezes decided to take a new position as the fourth president of the City College of New York. He assumed his new post in 1914. He left the Texas on good terms, and the board of regents asked him his opinions on the direction of the university. He published this as "The Future of the University of Texas" in 1914, which helped form a blueprint for expansion.
The same spirit of innovation he brought to UT he brought to CCNY. Here, the college added schools of civil administration, business, education, and engineering, becoming a respected institution in New York.
At the request of Wilson, Mezes became the director of a committee of scholars informally called “The Inquiry” to investigate the causes of the war and to identify and evaluate possible solution to prevent a future war. These suggestions were later formulated into Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which he outlined in a speech in January 1918. At the end of the war, Mezes served as a diplomat as part of the American delegation negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, the shape of the peace to come. He wrote a section from a 1921 series of recollections titled "What Really Happened at Paris."
By the mid-1920s, Mezes began experiencing serious health problems. The situation became so bad that he retired as the CCNY president in 1927 at the age of 64, having seen enrollment quadruple from 5,200 to more than 20,000. He returned to California; and when his health permitted, he traveled to Europe and different parts of the U.S. The University of Texas honored him with the special title of president emeritus in 1929. He died at his home in Pasadena, California, in 1931.
The university remembered his many contributions and dedicated a new building in his memory in 1953. Mezes Hall today is a multiuse classroom building used by various departments and organizations on campus, including the Texas Politics Project, the Spanish Department, the Government Department, and the European Studies Department.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.