David Dodds Henry served 16 years as president during a period of expansion in the 1950s and of campus unrest in the 1960s. A native of East McKeesport in Pennsylvania, Henry earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in English from The Pennsylvania State University. During his student days, Henry had been elected as president of the student government. He served as an instructor at Penn State, a teacher and department head at Battle Creek College, a state education administrator at Michigan, president of Wayne State University, and executive vice-chancellor of New York University.
During these years, the nation was in turmoil over these politically perilous times of the Vietnam War era. Henry was unapologetic in his hard line stance against violence by students demonstrating for civil rights or protesting the war.
Nevertheless, Henry firmly focused on moving the University of Illinois forward during this period of growth. Student enrollment doubled and academic standing improved. New facilities on the Urbana campus included residence halls, Assembly Hall and Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. The newly formed Chicago Circle campus enhanced the University's presence in Chicago.
In 1967, he initiated the chancellorship system of administration at the University, naming Jack Peltason as the first chancellor. Peltason later said Henry made the chancellor system work because he did not second guess decisions made by the chancellor.
Another initiative during Henry's administration was the Special Educational Opportunities Program, commonly referred to as Project 500, created after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. The program was designed to improve access to the University for under-represented socio-cultural minority groups. From Project 500 grew the Afro-American Cultural Center and, in years to come, initiatives for other minority groups such as the Asian American Culture Center.
After his retirement in 1971, Henry served as distinguished professor of higher education in the College of Education at the University until 1974. A decade later, the Board of Trustees named the chief administration building in Urbana after him. To honor his contributions to higher education, the David Dodds Henry Lecture Series was established, endowed by gifts to the University of Illinois Foundation.