In 1971, Elmhurst marked its centennial. The anniversary came at a time of crisis, in American higher education in general and at Elmhurst College in particular.
The researcher Earl Cheit produced a national study for the Carnegie Commission in 1971 with the no-nonsense title The New Depression in Higher Education. Cheit documented a straightforward problem: at American colleges and universities, costs were rising faster than income. In the same year, the educator Clark Kerr estimated that of the nation’s 730 liberal arts colleges, 28 percent were failing financially, and another 43 percent were “headed for trouble.” (Time proved him right: by 1987, only 540 liberal arts colleges remained.)
“In the American ‘system’ of higher education, small independent colleges are the most vulnerable institutions,” said David Breneman of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “The 1970s saw a veritable flurry of reports bemoaning the desperate plight of the small colleges. Dependent on tuition and without sizable endowments, these colleges can fail if times are hard enough.”
Times were hard enough at Elmhurst in 1971. The College had more debt (about $900,000) than it had endowment (about $750,000). Having exhausted its credit, the institution faced the prospect of defaulting on its payroll. The sudden splash of red ink was the result of two rather prosaic developments: a somewhat disappointing development campaign and a small but unanticipated decline in enrollment. Because the institution’s fiscal margin of error was so tiny, however, the effect was a bona fide crisis.
Enter Ivan E. Frick, a 43-year-old theologian from Pennsylvania, with a doctorate from Columbia University and experience as president of Findlay College in Ohio, his alma mater. In November 1971, Dr. Frick became the eleventh president of Elmhurst. He moved briskly to effect a businesslike approach to cutting costs and promoting growth.
“The first thing we had to do was to eliminate the short-term debt,” he recalled, five years into the job. “Now the strategies for eliminating short-term debt are very limited in number. You either curtail your expenditures or you raise new money. We did both.” At the end of Frick’s first year as president, the College produced a humble but welcome surplus. By 1974, the short-term debt was gone. The new balance was achieved in part by eliminating fifteen faculty positions—a process that President Frick acknowledged was painful but believed was inevitable. “We needed to restore our financial equilibrium to enable us to advance our academic program with some assurance that this was a place with a future.”
In 1975, the academic program advanced significantly with the establishment of the Center for Business and Economics. In 1979, 200 students enrolled in the new Elmhurst Management Program, a fast-track curriculum for working students. The Department of Computer Science and Information Systems was created in 1988. The Department of Music and its superlative winter tradition, the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival, gained regional and even national recognition during the Frick years.
The renewed academic program improved enrollment numbers, thus enabling the College (among other things) to balance its budget consistently. Predictably, the average age of students increased. For a time, part-time students outnumbered full-time ones, a development that somewhat diminished the institution’s cohesiveness. The Frick years brought heightened efforts to generate from private donors the resources for capital improvements. The impact on the campus was astonishing. The Buehler Library opened. A nuclear accelerator came to Walter Street. Old Main was renovated and achieved a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. (The German inscriptions on the exterior were restored; they had been covered with plaster since the 1940s.) A new physical education center seated 2,000 Bluejay devotees and became the home of Michael Jordan’s basketball camps. An impressive Computer Science and Technology Center opened north of the library.
Early in his tenure, an interviewer asked President Frick, “If you received a $10 million unrestricted gift tomorrow, what would you do with it?” His answer was revealing. “I would put it in the endowment. That’s a crucial need. We’re extremely careful managers, so we have a reasonable measure of financial strength. But ‘financial strength’ is a relative term. We have little endowment, so in that sense, we’re weak.”
By raising money energetically and investing it prudently, Frick addressed the weakness. In 1975, Elmhurst’s endowment finally topped $1 million, the goal President Niebuhr had set for it in 1925. When President Frick left office in 1994, the endowment stood at $35 million. It had grown 46-fold during his stewardship.
It is difficult to take the long view of a college presidency that ended less than two decades ago, and impossible to take its full measure. Inevitably, given the formidable national and institutional challenges, the Frick years included both advances and retreats. Provisionally, it can be said that Ivan Frick left behind an institution that in many respects was more stable and viable than the one he found. By establishing at long last the beginnings of a credible endowment, he did as much as any leader in the College’s history to secure its mission.