Presidents I have known

Each of us has individual experiences, hence different memories of the past. This is certainly true about memories of Monmouth College. Memories are falible, but I have been pleased by the number of omments suggestiing that I got this essay pretty much right. Readers can decide for themselves the degree they agree, and express their feelings on the comments site.

PRESIDENTS I HAVE KNOWN

William Urban

When I heard that Mauri Ditzler was leaving for the lake-effect winters of Albion College, I once again reflected on the Monmouth college presidents I’ve known. Quite a diverse group.
I am in my forty-ninth year of college teaching, forty-eight at Monmouth College. I’ve served seven presidents, and I’ve interviewed Robert Gibson, who retired shortly before I came. I can’t comment directly on Gibson’s performance other than to note his retirement message saying that Monmouth College needed a different kind of leader to make the transition from a small Presbyterian school to one that could attract more students; however, I remember from my interview with him for the college history that he was a delightful person, and that he would have been a wonderful person to work for.
Of those presidents I knew, two were very good, two left unhappy, and the rest earned mixed reviews. I won’t say which is which, since all but Dick Stine are still living, but a stranger group could hardly have been collected. In a sense, one could say that until the hiring of Mauri Ditzler, the primary criterion for selecting each new president seemed to be that the new hire had to have little in common with the predecessor.
Most were comparatively young when hired, a reflection of the “ageism” involved in the process of selection — although nationally the average tenure of college presidents is only five years or so, no Monmouth College search committee seems to have seriously considered anyone older than fifty-five. (The one time I was on a search committee, in 1970, I liked an experienced applicant who was sixty, but everyone else wanted someone who would stay for two decades; I still think that if you can get Michael Jordan on your basketball team, you don’t ask how long he will stay.)
I should put the late Bill Amy into this list, because he was Acting President for a year. He did a good job and would have made a good college president, but he was persuaded to remain academic dean.
Of this group, Bill Amy may have looked and sounded most like a president, Dick Giese photographed best, and Bruce Haywood had the finest voice and was the best read. Duncan Wimpress was the most extroverted, playing impromptu sessions with student musicians and flying his own airplane with notorious abandon, Bruce Haywood was the most eager to escape the social spotlight, though he once performed an impressive piano duo. DeBow Freed was the most formal, Sue Huseman the least so. Dick Giese was the most knowledgeable about athletics, Duncan Wimpress the most willing to reach out to other cultures. Several were personally religious, but only DeBow Freed gave long prayers at faculty meetings. Whatever the college lacked in Freed’s days regarding salaries, benefits and student numbers, no one could say that Monmouth College didn’t have a prayer.
Two were very good orators: Duncan Wimpress and Bruce Haywood. Three were excellent in small groups: Dick Stine, DeBow Freed and Sue Huseman. Two were very witty in an understated way: DeBow Freed and Dick Giese. Freed brought his military skills at organization to bear, making very little go a long way and thereby restoring the college’s financial and moral foundations. Dick Giese had the golden touch with finances.
Dick Stine was the unluckiest, taking office when oil prices skyrocketed, the economy tanked, and the draft was ended. College enrollments across the country plummeted just as junior colleges sprang up all over the place, and students were responding to the Sixties by thinking that rules were suggestions for fuddy-duddies. Sue Huseman was the luckiest, holding office during the swiftest rise of the stock market in recent decades and through a period of political and social calm; in addition, she inherited Dick Valentine as admissions director.
Duncan Wimpress and Mauri Ditzler were the most determined to transform the college. Wimpress was successful because he rode a wave of first generation college students eager to get into any college anywhere, and he had to build dorms and classrooms for them. When he left — too early as it turned out — there was more debt than his successor could handle. It’s far too soon to judge the Ditzler legacy.
None of these individuals lacked talent or commitment and each contributed something important to the institution they served. Not surprisingly, some faculty members liked one more than another. Equally predictably, board members bonded better with some more than with others; and their gifts to the college (or their not-giving) reflected their preferences. But throughout the terms of these very different persons, the membership of the Board of Trustees remained amazing stable and their commitment to Monmouth College admirably consistent. The same can be said about the Monmouth community, alumni and friends.
I’ve not agreed with everything that every president has wanted to do, but I refused to sign faculty petitions to trustees to have two of them removed, thereby angering a few colleagues. I do think that there should be more interaction between faculty and trustees, and that the best way would be to have one evening a year in which trustees are scattered among small gatherings at faculty homes, with beer, wine and soft drinks, cushy chairs and a relaxed atmosphere, to talk about college life and the world in general.
It’s not likely. In the locale of my murder mysteries, Briarpatch College, the president gives trustees more information than they want and less than they need. That seems to be general in higher education.
One the whole it’s been a good run. There have been rough patches, but, hey, that’s life — no small college escapes national trends. But I’ve read the official histories of other colleges; where “onward and upward” was the only theme. But my experience hiking suggest that one cannot go up forever unless one starts very low. .Let’s say that there isn’t much of a sense of humor among those who have the final word on what to print in coffee table feel-good publications.
There are challenges ahead. I can guess what some of these may be — recruiting students in a competitive market, raising money in an era of slow growth and an uncertain stock market, and keeping the budget under control — but nothing is guaranteed. As is occasionally remarked, “predictions are hard, especially about the future.” That said, the view across the valley between the past and the future is promising.

Review-Atlas (December 6, 2013), 4.

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