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Parsons College

Parsons College was a private liberal arts college in Fairfield, Iowa. The school, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, was founded in 1875 and closed in 1973.

A small and relatively little-known college for most of its history, Parsons is now remembered primarily for its last two decades of existence, when the school underwent a dramatic expansion and curriculum revision that brought it national attention. This experient in higher education, dubbed the "Parsons Plan," was the brainchild of Millard G. Roberts, who was the college's president from 1955 to 1967. The Plan saw Parson's enrollment mushroom from fewer than 400 to more than 5,000, but also resulted in the school's eventual loss of accreditation and ultimate collapse.

History

Parsons College was named for Lewis B. Parsons, a wealthy New York merchant who died in 1855 and left much of his estate as an endowment for an institution of higher learning in Iowa. The executors of Parsons' estate considered a number of possible locations for the school before choosing a tract of land just north of Fairfield. The college opened in 1875, with a single building on the campus; the physical plant gradually grew as supporters made gifts and bequests for additional facilities. A fire destroyed the main building, but a 1905 gift from Andrew Carnegie made it possible to rebuild.

Until 1955, the college was like many other small colleges in the Midwest. Its history was unexceptional and its reputation was purely local. For more than 75 years Parsons grew slowly, accepting anyone who wanted to come, primarily local residents, and accumulating little endowment and many deficits.

In 1955, the trustees appointed Millard G. Roberts, a Presbyterian minister from New York City, as president of the college. Although he had no experience in educational administration, the trustees believed that he had the ability to promote the college, raise more money from donors, attract more students, and possibly manage the school more efficiently.

Roberts quickly instituted a 15-Year Plan to develop the college. Throughout his 12-year presidency, he attracted both positive and negative attention. Chief among the positive consequences was a huge increase in enrollment, which, in turn, made it possible for the college to implement other aspects of the Plan.

The Parsons Plan

The Parsons Plan took a many-pronged approach to higher education:

  • The college would embark on an aggressive student recruitment campaign. This involved drawing students from the East, Mid-West, and West in roughly equal proportions. Likewise, students would be recruited from the upper, middle, and lower thirds of their high school graduating classes. The best students would be offered full scholarships.
  • In the belief that all students had a right to be exposed to the best academic minds available, a ranked professor taught a 3-credit course with three hours per week of formal lecture. All full professors had earned doctoral degrees. An academic specialist (usually holding a masters degree) would have a small classroom seminar two days per week to review the lecture notes, encourage discussion and questions, and give weekly quizzes. A tutorial center was available to all students.
  • A "Scholar in Residence" program was established to expose students to top academic instructors. This resulted in published authors teaching freshman-level humanities and history courses.
  • The professors were to be compensated at a level previously available only to top faculty at major universities like Harvard and Yale. At one time, in the 1960's, they were second in pay only to Harvard. Other perks included loans for real estate purchases and membership in the local country club.
  • Based on the idea that the primary function of faculty was to teach, Parsons had no "publish or perish" ethic. The professors Roberts recruited had already proven their academic mettle in other institutions; at Parsons, their sole responsibility was to teach. All faculty were required to keep extensive office hours, ensuring their availability to all students.
  • Because Dr. Roberts felt that everyone deserves a second chance, he recruited heavily from among those who had flunked out of more traditional colleges and universities. Thus, Parsons became known in some circles as "Flunk-out U," and was a haven for male students trying to avoid the Vietnam draft. These students were dismissed from Parsons if they did not maintain at least a "C" average after acceptance.



  • Finally, believing that a college campus that stood empty for the summer was a waste of money, Roberts changed the term system to one of three trimesters, each four months long. They ran from October through January, February through May, and June through September. A student who could only afford two trimesters a year could skip a term at any time, thus avoiding the inevitable competition for summer jobs. Furthermore, to make a summer in Iowa more appealing, the summer trimester offered not only the usual full complement of classes, but also a Fine Arts Festival, for which professional talent was brought in to perform with and for the students and town.

Enrollment

As a result of these innovations, enrollment skyrocketed, growing from 350 to 5000 in a few years. By 1968, the enrollment topped 5,000 students. At one time, transfers made up 43% of the student body and never dropped lower than 22%. Most of the student body came from the upper Mid-West, the Northeast and the West Coast of the US, with a small number from other countries. Much of the enrollment growth was driven by the military induction policies in the 1960s that allowed deferments to undergraduate college students.

Female students at Parsons were outnumbered 4 to 1. Despite the gender mismatch, students enjoyed a full and active social life, with 12 national fraternities and four national sororities.

The campus

Roberts instituted a dramatic building plan, creating low-cost housing units, as well as an innovative new library and a student union. He also created the college's own construction company, thus putting money back into the school's own coffers and lowering costs.

Athletics

The first football game played at Parsons was on September 16, 1893, against Elliot Business College of Burlington, Iowa. Parsons won by a score of 70-0. This monumental win promoted the building of Parsons' own stadium and field for their 1894 season. In 1966, a new 5,000-seat stadium was built on the campus. Iowa Wesleyan College was Parsons' main rival for 70 years. The two teams played each other 60 times. Parsons won 34 of the games, and Iowa Wesleyan won 21 games.

Decline and closure

On June 3, 1966, Life Magazine published an article that was critical of the college and its underlying philosophy. As a result of that article and growing concerns about the viability of the Parsons Plan and Dr. Roberts' leadership, Parsons College began a period of decline from which it never recovered. The most serious blow came in 1967, when the North Central Association withdrew the college's accreditation. Roberts was fired in the ensuing turmoil, and in the following years the school's enrollment plunged from 5,000 to 1,500. Though accreditation was later regained, the upheaval of the late 1960s had fatally destabilized the underpinnings of the college.

In June 1973, in its 99th year, Parsons College closed for the last time. All records and transcripts were sent to the University of Iowa in Iowa City. The campus was sold to adherents of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and it became the home of Maharishi International University, now known as Maharishi University of Management.

Despite the fact that the historic core of the campus was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, nearly all the old Parsons College buildings were bulldozed, without permits, beginning in the 1990s. They were replaced by new buildings that adhered to Maharishi Sthapatya Veda principles of architecture.

The Parsons "satellite colleges"

In the late 1960s, Dr. Roberts attempted to expand the Parsons Plan to other colleges, specifically:

  1. Midwestern College, Denison, Iowa -- Opened 1965, closed October 1970. Students were taken in by Parsons College.
  2. Lea College, Albert Lea, Minnesota -- Opened 1966, closed August 1973.
  3. Hiram Scott College, Scottsbluff, Nebraska -- Opened 1965, closed June 1971.
  4. John F. Kennedy College, Wahoo, Nebraska -- Opened 1965, closed July 1975
  5. John J. Pershing College, Beatrice, Nebraska -- Opened 1966, closed June 1971.
  6. College of Artesia, Artesia, New Mexico -- Opened 1966, closed June 1971.
  7. Charles City College, Charles City, Iowa -- Opened 1967, closed 1968.

These "satellite" schools initially used the Parsons Plan academic model, and their establishment was supported logistically and financially by the main Parsons campus. All, however, suffered from inadequate funding and accreditation issues, and as Parsons faltered in the late 1960s, the reputations of the satellite schools suffered by association. The last of the Parsons satellite schools closed in 1975.

References

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