Eisenhower College: From Riches to Rags — and Back? (Change 10/1/75)

On the cold, gray mornings of April 29, 1974, the 10 officers and trustees of Eisenhower College, Seneca Falls, New York, met for what they suspected might be the last time. No minutes were read; none were recorded. For the board of trustees — as well as the rest of this isolated upstate campus community — this was the day of decision.

Less than six years before, the college, officially designated by Congress as the nation’s “living memorial” to the thirty-fourth President, had opened its doors to its charter class with much pomp and circumstance, Now, millions of dollars in debt, it was like hundreds of other small colleges across the country, tottering on the edge of oblivion. The trustees had to decide whether to declare the college bankrupt and close it down or take a chance and try to keep it open for another year. It was as simple — or as difficult — as that.

The trustees held their deliberations in a small conference room on the second floor of the college’s administration building. Downstairs, in the building’s large, ground-floor lounge — nicknamed Jacob’s Lounge — most of Eisenhower’s 808 students and a considerable number of faculty members and employees quietly waited.

The events leading up to this climactic meeting began quite inauspiciously in 1961 when John Rosenkrans, a Seneca Falls insurance broker, and Dr. Scott Skinner, a local physician were discussing their children’s futures during a church coffee hour. Skinner, noting that competition for admission into the nation’s private colleges was more intense than ever wondered what the situation would be like when his children, then in their early teens, began to send away for catalogs. What if they, like him, turned out to be late starters — “underachievers”? Rosenkrans, at the same time, expressed nostalgia for his alma mater, Alma College, a small, private, Presbyterian-related liberal arts college just outside the cozy little town of Alma, Michigan. Why, the two men wondered, wasn’t there a college like Alma in New York State? Indeed, why wasn’t there a college like that right in Seneca Falls?

The town fathers rather fancied the idea of having their own liberal arts college right in the neighborhood. In addition to being a credit to the community (this was still several years before the student rebellions of the late ’60s), it would provide the area’s depressed economy with desperately needed jobs and business. Trouble was, you needed money to start a college — big money. And to raise big money you generally needed big names, Rosenkrans, Skinner, and a few helpers put their heads together and came up with one of the biggest names in the country: Dwight David Eisenhower.

Ike proved very responsive. The projected college — a small institution securely nestled in a pleasant, rural setting that would give late starters a second chance — struck him as a college he might have chosen. He agreed to give the school his name and full endorsement.

Money immediately began flowing into the college’s coffers. One million dollars was raised among the citizens of Seneca Falls area alone. Dozens of Ike’s wealthy Republican friends contributed. Assured, at least temporarily, of the institution’s financial security, John Rosenkrans closed down his Seneca Falls insurance agency, and, with a small, handpicked staff, began planning the college campus and designing its curricula.

In approaching the latter task, Rosenkrans was particularly fortunate to have Warren Hickman as his consultant. Hickman, an international scholar and curriculum expert at nearby Syracuse University, had already devised a plan for “World Studies University,” his vision of the ideal liberal arts college. It would offer a highly sophisticated core curriculum covering the natural and social sciences, literature, art, music, and philosophy. There would be no lectures, only informal seminars.

Eisenhower’s founders feared that high school students, no matter how desperate they might be to get into college, might still be somewhat hesitant about applying to an obscure college with a small physical plant, no reputation, no alumni, and no accreditation. Eisenhower, it seemed, needed something new, something exciting. Hickman’s world studies program sounded like just the thing. Hickman was asked to test out his curricular design at Eisenhower. Later he was persuaded to stay on as the college’s vice president for academic affairs.

The next step — to establish a strong faculty — proved easier than expected. Attracted by Eisenhower’s innovative curriculum and its promise to emphasize teaching rather than research, the college began receiving dozens of job applications from teachers around the country. From these, 23 were eventually selected.

One of the first to be hired was Donald S. Allen, then a professor of chemistry at the State University College at Albany. He later became chairman of the science department. “When I first came out here, I was interested in having a very high-level operation with true excellence. I didn’t want to start just another college,” he says. “The interdisciplinary nature of the college fitted in very well with my philosophy.”

A reputable slate of officers and trustees was also chosen. Earl McGrath, former U.S. Commissioner of Education, was appointed chancellor. Lewis Strauss, head of the prestigious center for Advance Study at Princeton University and former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, was named first chairman of the board of trustees. John Rosenkrans, of course, became president.

The site chosen for Eisenhower College was a large, flat, rather barren expanse of land two miles outside of Seneca Falls. At the ground-breaking ceremonies in September 1965, Ike delivered a thunderous speech, and Bob Hope and Nelson Rockefeller, sweating profusely, posed with their shovels for newspaper photographers.

In the meantime, fund-raising activities, many sponsored by Ike himself, continued unabated. In February 1967, for example, the general arranged a special exhibition of 60 of his paintings and some of his military memorabilia (including the saber used to cut his wedding cake) at the posh Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The proceeds went to what was by now his favorite charity. The college was also substantially enriched by the proceeds of such gala affairs as the chic “I Like Ike” party at New York’s St. Regis Hotel in May 1967, which attracted such luminaries as Jacqueline Onassis and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

By the time the college opened its doors in September 1968, it had received more than $7 million in private donations. In addition, Congress, designating the college as the official “living memorial” to Ike, had just bestowed on it an extraordinary $5-million matching grant. President Rosenkrans, in his welcoming speech to the 304 entering students, promised that because of the college’s increasing wealth, he would never have to raise their tuition — a promise he would regret.

The college’s first year of operation proved rough going. The first dean of students, piqued by the rampant disorder he found, resigned after one month. A large number of freshman, unable, or perhaps unwilling, to meet their instructors’ rigorous grading standards, were either suspended or expelled at the end of the first semester. Sporadic fights broke out between whites and blacks in the cafeteria. Then, in the spring, the college captured newspaper headlines when 13 of the remaining 200 students were arrested on drug charges.

“Those 23 of us in that charter class lived about nine years in one,” recalls David D. Murdoch, first chairman of Eisenhower’s humanities division. “We experienced everything with those students.”

Dwight Eisenhower was keenly disturbed by the mischievous doings at his own “living memorial.” Duly chagrined, Rosenkrans assured the general that the college was simply experiencing growing pains and urged him to be patient. Unfortunately, the ex-President could no longer afford the luxury of patience. He died in New York City on April 1, 1969.

On May 29, 1972, Eisenhower College’s charter class — or the one third of it that remained — was graduated. Mamie Eisenhower, enfurled in the college’s own red, white, and blue gown, presented the hundred or so diplomas. Then she, an honorary member of the class, also received one. “If only Ike could be here,” murmured many of those in attendance.

Eisenhower College had grown considerably over the years. Its 272-acre campus, though poorly groomed, displayed 15 spanking new buildings. In addition, the college had received accreditation. Its first graduates had been admitted into some of the nation’s leading graduate schools. There were yet other signs of the college’s maturity: The student-faculty ratio, for instance, had been knocked down from 20:1 to 12:1; its library had 55,000 volumes, 35,000 more than in 1968; the median SAT of its matriculants was up by over 100 points.

Nonetheless, if measured by financial terms, the college was clearly in miserable shape. Money was arriving in trickles rather than streams. Because of the pinch of inflation, most of these wealthy private citizens who had originally donated so generously to Eisenhower’s treasury decided to squash their philanthropic impulses for the time being. (Several of the original backers, like Hope and Rockefeller, had also been alienated by the 1969 drug bust.)

The college was put on a strict austerity budget as harried officials searched desperately for a way out of their financial dilemma. An editorial in the Syracuse Post-Standard promptly pointed one out. Noting that Congress was about to vote on a bill authorizing the production, manufacture, and sale of mint-proof Eisenhower silver dollars, the editorial cleverly suggested that the bill be amended so that Eisenhower College could receive 10 percent of the profits. The immediate windfall for the ailing institution was estimated at about $6.5 million; eventually it might receive as much as $20 million, which would put the college into the black. Eisenhower administrators and trustees seized upon the idea and lobbied intensely for it.

The amended bill was passed by the Senate in 1972 and 1973. In 1973 it reached the floor of the House. A number of Ike’s former political friends, most notably George Meany of the AFL-CIO, campaigned for its passage. Representative Leonor Sullivan of Missouri led the opposition. The amended Eisenhower bill, she told her colleagues, promised to set a dangerous precedent. On August 3, 1973, the House of Representatives defeated the bill, 230-180.

Seven months later, Rosenkrans decided that it was time that the students of Eisenhower College know the facts. On March 12, 1974, he dispatched Joseph Coffee, vice president for financial affairs, to speak to an assembly of the student body in Jacob’s Lounge. The college, the students were told by an embarrassed Coffee, was faced with an intolerable short-term operating deficit. If $369,000 was not pledged by April 9, the date of the trustees’ next meeting, it might have to close.

At first, there was panic as some terrified students rushed to apply for transfer to more solvent schools. Others simply went off and got smashed. Then, with the combination of zeal, discipline, and intestinal fortitude, Eisenhower’s students pulled themselves together to try to bail out their alma mater.

One imaginative sophomore, Nicholas Berg, suggested that the students might leave their bodies to science. Berg had heard that the American Medical Association (AMA) was willing to pay $700 to anybody who would sign away his or her cadaver; the only catch was that a small tattoo would be permanently stamped on the heel of one foot. At least in theory, if all 800 students subscribed to the AMA’s “sell now, pay later” plan, the college would stand to make at least $560,000. Its immediate troubles would be over.

Berg announced he had already decided to sell his body. Inspired by his example, more than 50 other students rushed to sign up. Their names were immediately dispatched to the AMA. The AMA wrote back explaining that the organization had never bought nor solicited corpses, and was not about to begin.

Fortunately, there was no lack of other bright ideas. Armed with the good word and plenty of admissions applications, Eisenhower students went home to recruit candidates from their old high schools. Others, striving to cut down the college’s maintenance costs, made sure their classmates threw trash into the proper containers, turned off unnecessary lights, and walked on the sidewalks. Still others wrote to their congressmen and state legislators, urging that they move to grant direct financial aid to the destitute college.

The trustees met, as they had promised, on April 9. However, because of the remarkable showing of spirit, they decided to delay a decision on the college’s fate until April 29, giving the students, faculty, and other friends of the college three more weeks to raise the needed money. The students returned to their battle stations. They held auctions, lotteries, sales; during their free time, they took jobs as gardeners, carpenters, cooks, and babysitters. A few of the more musically inclined pooled their resources and cut a record of college songs. Unfortunately, it didn’t sell.

By the morning of the 28th, over $200,000 had been raised — an impressive amount, to be sure, but still far short of the amount the administration needed to forestall bankruptcy.

Most of the students were still worried, but hopeful. As it turned out, the students’ faith in the survival of the college proved justified. On the afternoon of April 29, when General Lauris Norstad, the new chairman of the board of trustees, appeared in Jacob’s Lounge, he had good news to report. The trustees, he said, had decided to underwrite the remaining short-term deficit themselves, thereby allowing the college to remain open for at least another year.

“Basic to this decision by the trustees is their high regard for the stand taken by students and faculty, affirming that the Eisenhower College should live,” said Norstad. “It is clear to all that something truly worthy of the Eisenhower name has been developed here. Eisenhower College must continue.” The assembled crowd of students, faculty, and employees leaped to its feet, bursting into loud, prolonged applause.

Four months later, another version of the Eisenhower silver dollar bill was brought before the House. This time — thanks to a little more arm twisting by Ike’s allies and a few tearful appearances by Mamie — it passed, though only by three votes. The bill also passed the Senate, and was signed into law by President Ford in October 1974. The immediate windfall for the college was $8.6 million, enough to clear away the rest of its outstanding debts and assure its financial viability for perhaps another decade. Eisenhower College had been saved.

Still, it isn’t all wine and roses at the college in Seneca Falls. As a result of last year’s evacuation, enrollment today is down to a scant 700. The remote, upstate campus has a positively deserted look — two of its dormitories are closed and many of its other facilities underutilized. “It’s like going to school in a ghost town,” said one student. The number of applications is also at a low. The informal, Renaissance-man orientation of Eisenhower is becoming difficult to sell in today’s economy.

One final note. On July 1, 1975, John Rosenkrans resigned as president of the college. A replacement has not yet been found. “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished,” says the weary founder. “But if I had a choice, I wonder whether I would want to do it again.”

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