Franklin K. Patterson was born in Ellsworth, Iowa, on September 14, 1916. He attended Occidental College, receiving his B.A. in 1939, and moved on to UCLA to obtain his M.A. in 1941. During World War II, he served in the Air Force from 1942 to 1946, rising to the rank of captain. After the war, he became a teacher in the Pasadena Public Schools. In 1951, Patterson moved east to serve as associate educational director and greater New York area administrator of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. He became a faculty member at New York University as associate professor and chairman of the Department of Secondary Education in 1954, serving until 1957. In 1955, he was awarded the Ph.D. by Claremont Graduate School. From 1957 to 1966, Patterson was the Lincoln-Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University and served as Director of the Lincoln-Filene Center.
In 1966, Patterson became President of Hampshire College and was appointed founder president in 1971. In 1971, he became a Frank L. Boyden Professor at the University of Massachusetts and secretary to the Board of Trustees from 1972 - 1974. In 1978 he was named interim president of the University.
Dr. Patterson was the recipient of honorary degrees from UMass, Amherst, Brandeis, and American International College. He was the author of numerous books and pamphlets.