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James Fulton Zimmerman

By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

From 1927 until 1968, James F. Zimmerman and his executive assistant, Tom Popejoy, served successively as president of the University of New Mexico for 39 years, with only a short, two-year interregnum. That has been the longest period of administrative stability that the University has enjoyed. Zimmerman, a Ph.D. historian from Columbia University, served in the UNM faculty for two years at the end of the tumultuous administration of David S. Hill.  He was appointed President of the University in 1927 and remains one of the most fondly remembered University Presidents.

James Fulton Zimmerman was born September 11, 1887, at Glenallen, near Cape Girardeau in southeastern Missouri. His parents were James Madison Zimmerman and Emily Narcissus McKelvey. The future UNM president’s childhood and adolescence were apparently uneventful. But in 1908 he entered Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, from which he earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. In 1913, the year he was awarded the M.A. degree, he also married Willa Tucker, who was known by her middle name Adella. Between 1913 and 1919, Zimmerman taught at Duncan Preparatory School and West Tennessee Normal School; was principal of the Paris, Tennessee, high school; and returned to Vanderbilt as an instructor in economics and sociology.[1]

It was education at the university level that appealed to him most. So, to gain a more secure faculty position, he decided to continue his own studies, enrolling in the doctoral program in history and political science at Columbia University in 1919. He was awarded a doctorate in 1925, with a dissertation titled “Impressment of American Seamen.” Published later that year by Columbia University Press, the resulting book discusses three periods of unsuccessful diplomatic negotiation between the United State and Great Britain over the British assertion of the right to impress American seamen into the king’s navy. Impressment resulted in the forced recruitment of at least 8,600 American seamen between 1793 and 1812, and was a major cause of the War of 1812.[2] International diplomacy remained one of Zimmerman’s major interests throughout his life and was reflected in initiatives he took at the University of New Mexico.

With new degree in hand, Dr. Zimmerman received offers of teaching positions from Ohio State University and the University of New Mexico. Evidently, the romance of New Mexico appealed to James and Adella. They arrived in Albuquerque in the spring of 1925 ready to begin a new career and life in the Southwest. After he had served on the faculty of the Political Science Department at UNM for just two semesters and having demonstrated considerable skill as a teacher and administrator, Washington State University tried to lure Zimmerman away from UNM to serve as their Dean of men. He decided to stay at UNM just as tensions between UNM president David Hill and a local citizens committee were coming to a head. New governor Richard Dillon replaced the entire Board of Regents at UNM, and the new board accepted Hill’s resignation and appointed Zimmerman as interim president of the university. He became the first faculty member ever to be made president[3] and on September 1, 1927, that appointment became permanent.

Immediately, Zimmerman instituted innovations at UNM. He invited Edgar Lee Hewett, former president of New Mexico Normal School and founder of the Museum of New Mexico and School of American Research, to set up an anthropology department at UNM. The new department, chaired by Hewett, was to focus on the rich prehistoric heritage of New Mexico. Its first field school was conducted in 1928 at Chaco Canyon and Jemez Pueblo. Zimmerman’s opinion was that UNM “should emphasize those areas of scholarly activities that were related to New Mexico’s heritage and its region.” Thus began a long association between Zimmerman and Hewett that would see the two collaborate on numerous projects over the next 17 years.[4]

One instance of that collaboration was the move, in 1929, of the New Mexico Historical Review and its first editor Lansing Bloom to UNM from the School of American Research, where it had been founded in 1926. Three years later, a young Harvard Ph.D. named Frank Hibben was brought to UNM to establish an anthropology museum, today’s Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, to house the growing number of artifacts recovered by students and faculty during summer archaeology field schools. Meanwhile, in 1928, the Education Department was elevated to the rank of college and in 1929, Lloyd Tireman, a tireless advocate for bilingual education was added to the faculty. In 1930, under Tireman’s direction, the San José Experimental School was founded in Albuquerque’s South Valley for the purpose of training bilingual teachers. During the academic year 1929-1930, Zimmerman added 30 new faculty members to the University’s roster.[5]

As the University was expanding, America entered the Great Depression, which lasted for much of the remainder of Zimmerman’s tenure as University President. The Depression, which in general affected New Mexico less severely than other states, nevertheless repeatedly shrank the University’s budget. But Zimmerman, with the aid and collaboration of such politicians as Clyde Tingley and Bronson Cutting, was able to tap into the New Deal programs of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.  This program money actually allowed UNM to continue to grow during the Depression years. New Mexico and Louisiana led the list of states in New Deal funding, which brought millions of dollars for higher education. As former UNM president Bud Davis has written, “the WPA [Works Progress Administration, later Work Projects Administration] financed a veritable building boom” on the UNM campus and the student population grew four-fold between 1927 and 1937.[6]

Zimmerman and the various boards of regents under which he served reinstituted the Pueblo Revival architectural style that had originated in 1903 under President William Tight. Between 1934 and 1936, a new administration building, now Scholes Hall, was built, designed by John Gaw Meem and inspired by the church at Acoma Pueblo. In 1936 construction began on another Meem-designed building, the University Library, later named Zimmerman Library. This building would become the University’s architectural centerpiece. The following year a new student union building, that eventually became the anthropology building, was opened. By 1939, the UNM campus boasted a physical plant of 19 buildings. As Edgar Hewett once said, Zimmerman “built the great institution that is the pride of New Mexico.” Zimmerman was the impetus behind the construction of 10 major buildings on campus.[7]

In 1935, Zimmerman hired UNM graduate and former football star Tom Popejoy as his executive assistant. After suffering a massive heart attack in 1939, Zimmerman relied more and more on Popejoy and a newly formed Advisory Council of Administration. But Zimmerman remained a potent force in the university and in the state at large. The University of New Mexico Press was also established during Zimmerman’s presidency, releasing its first book in 1931 and he oversaw the creation of a graduate school at UNM where the University’s first Ph.D. was conferred in 1937, in history. He also saw the university’s Latin American Studies Program and the School of Inter-American Affairs founded. Hispanos and women had complained early in Zimmerman’s administration that they were underrepresented in the university population and he moved to correct that imbalance. Between 1932 and 1936, Hispano enrollment jumped from 16% to 28%. In part this can be explained as a result of federal mandates associated with New Deal funding, but it is also clear that Zimmerman supported the change.[8]

Zimmerman was widely recognized for his administrative skill. He served as President of the New Mexico Education Association, Vice- President of the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, and President of the National Association of State Universities. He also published a second book titled, The American Way in Foreign Affairs. As New Mexico and much of the rest of the Southwest looked forward to commemorating the first coming of Spanish settlers into the region with the 1940 New Mexico Coronado Cuarto Centennial celebration, Zimmerman was appointed president of the Coronado Cuarto Centennial Commission. He joined his longtime friend Edgar Hewett in the year-long commemoration, which included the creation of Coronado State Monument at the ruins of Kuaua Pueblo, near Bernalillo.[9] There are some who have claimed that Hewett was the real driver of the commemoration but Zimmerman was never the less a powerful force behind its successful completion.

Clearly, when a second heart attack took James F. Zimmerman’s life in October of 1944 at the age of 57, he had had lived an extraordinarily productive life. No one can say how much longer he might have served the University, had his health permitted. Tom Popejoy and the Administrative Advisory Committee acted in the President’s stead for two years following Zimmerman’s death until the Regents hired a permanent replacement. The replacement did not work out in the eyes of the Regents who quickly reverted to Popejoy, Zimmerman’s former assistant, who would hold the post of UNM President for 20 years, the only president at UNM to exceed Zimmerman’s record.[10]


[1] Walter, Paul A.F.  “James Fulton Zimmerman, 1887-1944,” New Mexico Historical Review  20(1) (January 1945):83-89.

[2] Zimmerman, James Fulton. “Impressment of American Seamen.” Doctoral dissertation in Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law, Vol. 118 (New York: Columbia University, 1925), 1-279.

[3] Davis, William E. Miracle on the Mesa: A History of the University of New Mexico, 1889-2003 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006), 134-35 and 138.

[4] Walter, “Zimmerman,” 84; Davis, Miracle on the Mesa, 140, 143.

[5] Davis, Miracle on the Mesa, 139, 141, 142, and 145.

[6] Davis, Miracle on the Mesa, 146 and 151-52; Walter, “Zimmerman,” 85.

[7] Davis, Miracle on the Mesa, 154 and 158-61; Walter, “Zimmerman,” 88.

[8] Davis, Miracle on the Mesa, 139, 148, 152, 153, 154, 171-72, and 174; Walter, “Zimmerman,” 85.

[9] Davis, Miracle on the Mesa, 143; Walter, “Zimmerman,” 84 and 87; J.J. Brody, “Kuaua as Coronado’s Monument: Innocent Arrogance or the Ultimate Chutzpah?” Papers of the Archaeological Society of New Mexico, 35 (Albuquerque: Archaeological Society of New Mexico, 2009), 20.

[10] Davis, Miracle on the Mesa, 176 and 191; Walter, “Zimmerman,” 83.