By Geoff Gehman ’80
In the annual State of the College address Friday evening in Colton Chapel during Reunion Weekend, Edward W Ahart ’69, chair of the Board of Trustees, said he had never experienced as many “emotional highs and lows” in his 47 years as a member of the Lafayette community.
Pinch hitting for President Daniel H. Weiss, who was attending the wedding of a close family friend, Ahart began with announcing that “in many ways the College has never been in a better position,” in spite of the difficult economic environment in which Lafayette and all colleges have operated since the downturn of October 2008. This resulted in a drop in the value of the College’s endowment from about $750 million to about $500 million and concurrent strain on operating budgets in the last three fiscal years.
“We are among the leaders coming through the recession,” he said, citing balanced budgets each year and the College’s resolve and initiative in completing 18 of the 35 new faculty hires proposed in the 2007 Strategic Plan during a time when economic uncertainty has slowed progress at other institutions. The endowment has rallied back to around $700 million, he said, and fund-raising has been strong. It was a banner year for research grants and other awards to the College, including a grant of $800,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to infuse the arts throughout the curriculum, fund the new position of director of the arts, and support programming at the Williams Arts Campus, now under development on North Third Street.
Ahart saluted his alma mater for taking steps to become more well-known and competitive, on the field and off. A major conference entitled “The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and Its Leadership Role in Education around the World,” co-hosted on College Hill by Lafayette and Swarthmore College, was attended by nearly 60 college and university presidents and many other higher education leaders. Also, Lafayette joined the Patriot League initiative to expand merit scholarships to football and other sports, for both sexes.
Applications to attend Lafayette increased by a healthy 17 percent and set a record. This was due, among many other efforts by the admissions staff, to an increase in the number of high schools they visited from about 750 to more than 1,000. Some high schoolers and their parents were undoubtedly impressed by the Bloomberg BusinessWeek report that placed Lafayette No. 17 among 1,248 colleges and universities nationally (within the top 1.5 percent) and No. 2 among liberal arts colleges in net 30-year return on investment.
Priceless publicity was generated by visits by Vice President Joe Biden and Mikhail Gorbachev. Biden delivered the Lives of Liberty Lecture for 2012 at the alma mater of his great-grandfather, Edward Francis Blewitt 1879, who became a Pennsylvania state senator. Gorbachev’s address celebrated the Oechsle Center for Global Education, which will provide a dynamic, collaborative learning environment and enable the College to add a global perspective to the educational experience of every student.
A typically robust year for prestigious student scholarships and fellowships for undergraduate and post-graduate study included two Fulbright Grants, two Goldwater Scholarships, and four National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, among many others.
Ahart also discussed the tragic death of Everett Glenn ’15. Nicknamed “Mr. Mayor” during his first year on campus for his magnetic personality, Glenn was pronounced dead at Easton Hospital on All-College Day, May 5. He had been transported there from his campus residence hall room by ambulance after the Northampton County Dispatch Center (911) and the College’s Office of Public Safety had been alerted about a possible medical emergency. The cause of death is still being investigated by the Northampton County Coroner’s Office and the Easton Police Department, assisted by the Office of Public Safety.
During the academic year, Ahart said, 52 undergraduates were transported to the hospital for reasons relating to alcohol consumption, and on All-College Day 32 were arrested for disorderly behavior. The statistics were extremely disappointing to Ahart, who chaired the 1998 All-College Task Force on Alcohol and Substance Abuse, whose report included 55 recommendations for reducing alcohol and substance abuse among students. Ahart said his sister, a nurse at the hospital, emailed him that day about the admission of Glenn and two other Lafayette students who had been severely sickened by alcohol.
Ahart praised the College’s emergency team for their actions following the tragedy. Leaders counseled Glenn’s family members and students. A prayer service for Glenn was held the night of May 5 in a packed Colton Chapel. The College provided bus transportation to Glenn’s funeral service May 12 in Orange, N.J.
Ahart said he was severely shaken by the death of a student, something he had vowed would never happen on “my watch.” Alcohol abuse “is a societal problem, but that does not give us any comfort,” he said, “because it is still our obligation to protect the health of our students.”
Among positive initiatives under way, Ahart mentioned that an external review of the engineering program will result in even stronger programs with greater synchronization between engineering and the liberal arts. Grossman House, a new residence hall for students interested in global topics, is expected to open in the fall. Construction of the Oechsle Center is slated to start in 2013, fulfilling a component of the Strategic Plan’s global-citizenship goal. The project to renovate the central campus, including the Quad, will have a “striking” effect.
After Ahart’s remarks, Ray Jacoby ’57 lightened the mood by citing the national attention the College enjoyed for the entertaining commencement address by film and TV producer and director Garry Marshall. Ahart picked up the story, disclosing that Marshall and his wife had thoroughly enjoyed their time in Easton. Barbara Marshall, he added, straightened the tie of her rather rumpled husband. She wanted to make sure he looked neat for his very first commencement address, which was brokered by former trustee chair Larry Ramer ’50, a friend of Marshall’s in Los Angeles.