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Glenn Frank was born in Queen City, Missouri on October 1, 1887. He attended the state normal school at Kirksville, Missouri before entering Northwestern University, where he graduated in 1912. After working for Abram Harris, the president of Northwestern, and Boston merchant Edward Filene, Frank was chosen as associate editor of Century magazine in 1919 and made editor-in-chief three years later. He was known as a progressive and a charismatic speaker, and he had spoken in Madison in 1924.
In April 1925 Regent Zona Gale, whose fiction had been published in the Century, approached Frank about the presidency. Support for Frank snowballed, although his appointment was opposed by the La Follette family. On May 20, 1925, he accepted the presidency, to begin in September.
At age 37, Frank was the youngest person ever appointed leader of the university, and the only one without an earned advanced degree or substantial educational experience. During his tenure, Frank established the short-lived but influential Experimental College and expanded the short course in agriculture. Although Frank was a staunch proponent of academic freedom and tenure, he never had the full support of the faculty, and his increasing criticism of President Roosevelt landed him in political trouble with Governor Philip La Follette and Senator Robert La Follette, Jr.
In March 1936 the Board of Regents, most of whom were La Follette appointees, asked Frank to resign. He refused, which eventually resulted in a public hearing on his competency to be president. On January 7, 1937, the Board of Regents narrowly voted to dismiss him.
After his removal, Frank became increasingly involved in Wisconsin politics. In 1940 he sought the Republican nomination for the Senate seat held by Robert La Follette, Jr. On September 15, 1940, two days before the primary election, he and his only child, Glenn Jr., were killed in an automobile accident near Greenleaf, Wisconsin.