Sylvanus Thayer: A Historical Case Study of His Educational Leadership

Sylvanus Thayer: A Historical Case Study of His Educational Leadership

Gillian S. Boice
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 18
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1049-9.ch044
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The research examines the educational leadership approach of the historical figure Sylvanus Thayer, also commonly known as the “Father of the Military Academy” and the “Father of Technology in the United States.” The author uses contemporary leadership concept of Strategic Vision and the modern theory of Servant Leadership as a basis of analysis. The author uses a retrospective case-study to explain Thayer's leadership with saliency for enduring and modern application for global leaders (especially educational leaders). A detailed discussion of Thayer's Strategic Vision and the 6 key characteristics of Servant Leadership are examined. This qualitative study, with descriptive report was accomplished by historical literature review and observations.
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Sylvanus Thayer is a treasured historical figure and educational leader known commonly as the “Father of West Point” and the “Father of Technology in the United States”. He served as the fifth Superintendent of the United States Military Academy from 1817 to 1833 with profound impact not only on West Point and its graduates, but on other historic universities. Additionally, his impact on engineering and the legacy he spawned through his graduates’ success are impressively noteworthy. The extraordinary feats of many of his graduates that benefitted from his educational system at West Point were vast, and through the Corps of Engineers produced triumphs such as the Panama Canal (graduate Goethels), major railroad networks, critical harbors and the Washington Monument (graduate Casey), as well as many of the prominent military leaders that served in the Mexican War and Civil War.

Although many of his leadership decisions were initially deemed as harsh, stern and unwavering, his “Thayer System and Method” proved the antidote needed to break the complacency and dismal standards rife at the Academy. Thayer’s approach proved effective and professionalism increased rapidly under his tenure. Internally, both cadets and faculty, grew to embrace his system. Externally, observers gained tremendous respect for his approach to educating engineers and future military officers. Early critics advocated for leniency in his strict measures and these critics kept pushing for the previous nepotism, parochialism, and the status quo; however, Thayer remained steadfast with his vision and the necessary changes needed to develop a disciplined academy of higher learning that demanded excellence in its students. At every stage, Thayer advocated for a system based on merit and performance under strict academic and military standards for the benefit of his students and the military profession they postured to enter.

He also earned their respect by running West Point as a meritocracy, a revolutionary idea in education at the time. Thayer insisted that privileged students should never be accepted over more talented plebeians. He made continuance at the academy conditional on performance. He dismissed cadets who failed academically or breached the academy’s rules. And he avoided favoritism of any sort. When his nephew was admitted to the academy, Thayer called him in to his office. “Sir, your relationship to me is known and I am liable to be suspected of partiality to a relative,” Thayer informed him, “therefore, I have prepared your resignation, which you are to sign now. If at any time you commit a serious offense, this resignation will be published by the adjutant at evening parade and you will cease to be a member of the Corps of cadets” (Campion, 2004, p.1).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Strategic Vision: The future state, path, direction or desired activities promoted by the leader of the organization.

Servant Leadership: A philosophical, set of practices, and broadening leadership theory introduced by Robert Greenleaf that addresses the characteristics of a leader.

Thayer Academy: A private, co-educational, college-preparatory day school located in Braintree, Massachusetts established in 1877 with the help of funds from Sylvanus Thayer.

Dartmouth: An Ivy League college in New Hampshire, host to the Thayer School of Engineering.

Cadet: A student or officer in training at a Military Academy.

Superintendent: The commanding officer, akin to a president or chancellor of a university.

West Point: The location on the Hudson River in New York where the United States Military is located. Often used synonymously with the United States Military Academy.

United States Military Academy: (USMA): The nation’s four-year federal service academy responsible to develop officers for the Army, also referred to as the Academy and/or West Point.

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