Since its founding as Elmhurst College in 1871 and through its name change in 2020, Elmhurst University has benefited from a succession of strong leaders.
A Storied Tradition
Our former presidents include ministers, administrators, teachers and one of the most prominent theologians of the 20th century. Here are their stories.
On the day that Alan Ray became Elmhurst’s president, he announced the first formal, comprehensive strategic planning process in the institution’s history. The Elmhurst College Strategic Plan 2009-2014 clarified and codified the institution’s core values, and set the stage for ongoing institutional growth in the face of challenging economic times.
Under Dr. Ray’s leadership, the College grew the full-time faculty, significantly increased the presence of underrepresented groups in the student body, and launched the School for Professional Studies, a forward-looking and growing source of graduate education and adult learning. The College also enlarged its online teaching capacity, invigorated its Alumni Association, and worked to more purposefully engage the larger society through strategic partnerships and a robust and respected program of cultural events.
The College also undertook and completed a number of major construction and renovation projects, including the 4,600-square-foot Elmhurst College Simulation Center at Elmhurst Memorial Hospital. A state-of-the-art learning facility, the Center serves the College’s undergraduate and graduate nursing students and represents an innovative partnership with Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare.
In 2014, Dr. Ray worked on the council that wrote the College’s new strategic plan, which the faculty and Board of Trustees passed unanimously in the spring. The Elmhurst College Strategic Plan 2014-2020 lays out ambitious goals for both curricular and enrollment growth.
“First and foremost, I see myself as a teacher,” said Bryant Cureton on his arrival at Elmhurst in 1994. The first new leader of the College in a generation, Dr. Cureton came to Elmhurst from Hartwick College in New York, where he served as provost. He took a Socratic approach at Elmhurst, leading wide-open discussions of “institutional aspirations” that resulted in a detailed, three-phase “Action Plan,” defined as “a ten-year program to build the best possible Elmhurst College.”
The College made measurable progress during the Action Plan years. Between 1994 and 2007, for example, the number of full-time undergraduates grew by 47 percent, and the number of residential students grew by 85 percent. In both cases the growth was intentional, designed to foster a student body that was fully engaged in a robust undergraduate experience, and thus increase the tempo and enrich the texture of campus life.
During the Cureton years, Elmhurst enrolled a succession of freshman classes that were larger, more academically prepared, and more likely to complete their degrees. Between 1994 and 2007, the average composite ACT score of entering freshmen rose from 21 to 24. The proportion of freshmen from the top quarter of their high school class rose from 33 percent to 54 percent. The six-year graduation rate rose from 54 percent to 72 percent; it is now more than 20 points above the national average.
The College accomplished a number of curricular enhancements under the Action Plan, including the establishment of nine master’s degrees and three new fast-track programs for working adults. Physical improvements to the campus included a new academic building, a fifth residence hall, a renovated library, an expanded student center, a new fitness center and several high-profile exterior improvements, such as Alumni Circle, the Reinhold Niebuhr Monument and the new Founders Gate on the eastern edge of campus.
Reflecting on the results of the Action Plan, Dr. Cureton said, “Our faculty have higher expectations of our students, and our students have higher expectations of each other. It’s a kind of transformation that’s rare in American higher education.”
When Ivan Frick became president of Elmhurst College in 1971, times were hard. In American higher education and at Elmhurst, costs were rising faster than income. A sudden splash of red ink at the College had produced a bona fide financial crisis. Dr. Frick moved quickly to effect a businesslike approach to cutting costs and promoting growth. At the end of his first year as president, the College produced a humble but welcome surplus. By 1974, the red ink was gone. When President Frick left office in 1994, the endowment stood at $35 million, having grown 46-fold during his stewardship.
The Frick years were a time of unparalleled fund-raising success for the College, leading to tremendous capital improvements across campus. The Buehler Library and the Computer Science and Technology Center opened. A nuclear accelerator came to Walter Street. Old Main was renovated and achieved a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. A new physical education center seated 2,000 Bluejay devotees. President Frick’s tenancy also resulted in significant advances in the College’s academic program, including the establishment of the Center for Business and Economics, a Department of Computer Science and Information Systems, and a fast-track management curriculum for part-time working students.
Looking back at the early years of his presidency, Dr. Frick said, “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.” By establishing the beginnings of a credible endowment, Ivan Frick did as much as any leader in the College’s history to secure its future.
Donald Kleckner came to the presidency with a doctorate from the University of Michigan and post-graduate experience in England. The first Elmhurst president who was not a minister, he had served as academic dean at Elmhurst since 1962.
President Kleckner served as president of Elmhurst during a tumultuous time in American higher education. Elmhurst’s campus culture embraced the energies and excitement of the sixties; students fought for civil rights, worked to ease poverty, and demonstrated against the war in Vietnam. During the Kleckner years, an exceptional array of speakers addressed campus audiences—including Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Nader, Muhammad Ali, George McGovern, and Gwendolyn Brooks.
President Kleckner worked aggressively to develop the academic program and facilities. An Honors Program began with the participation of 65 gifted students. A Science Center opened. In 1968, the faculty adopted a new academic calendar with an intensive course in January called the Interim. In 1970, Elmhurst launched a baccalaureate program in nursing and broke ground for a new library. In 1971, the College enrolled 2,900 students, from 38 states and 15 countries. In a particularly lasting legacy, Kleckner presided over the establishment of the campus arboretum.
Robert Christian Stanger’s Elmhurst roots ran deep. He was born on the campus in 1900. His father, Christian Stanger, who taught music and romance languages at the College, had the longest tenure in the faculty’s history. The son was uniquely qualified to move the College beyond its parochial borders—gently yet decisively. “His heart was in Elmhurst,” recalled his friend, Dr. Rudolf Schade. “He understood the College, respected its achievements through the years. But he was not blindly committed to yesteryear.”
In 1957, when Stanger took over the presidency of Elmhurst College, his job was to help Elmhurst “enter the American mainstream.” The recent merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church with the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches meant that Elmhurst had become financially and governmentally independent. As Elmhurst’s ninth president, Robert Stanger served the College as a rare and useful figure, a hero of transition.
Raising funds and expanding the campus occupied much of President Stanger’s time. He engaged the architect Benjamin Franklin Olson to develop an ambitious new campus plan. Under President Stanger, Olson designed a new student residence, a new College Union, and Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel. By incorporating classrooms and faculty offices in the chapel’s design, President Stanger made sure that Hammerschmidt would be “a symbol of the educational philosophy to which the College had committed itself,” Dr. Schade recalled. “Education and faith were interdependent—were united.”
Henry Dinkmeyer styled himself a “practical Christian,” and brought to the job of president a distinctive combination of executive savvy and missionary zeal. In 1949, his administrative reforms, combined with swelling enrollments, produced the first budget surplus in the institution’s history.
Under President Dinkmeyer, Elmhurst launched an innovative Evening Session, designed to meet the specific needs of students beyond the traditional “college age.” The initial Evening Session attracted 11 students; within a few years, Elmhurst’s was the fourth largest program of its kind in the state, with 1,422 students. Campus life was further enriched by the matriculation of students from many racial and ethnic backgrounds, and from other nations.
Remembered as “The Builder,” President Dinkmeyer planned and found the money for facilities essential to the future of a growing college, including two new residence halls. Among the many private gifts that flowed to the College during the Dinkmeyer years was a record-breaker: a $300,000 capital grant from Louis Hammerschmidt, an attorney and trustee from South Bend, Indiana, designated for a new campus chapel. In February 1957, Dinkmeyer suffered a fatal heart attack.
Practical and plain-spoken, Timothy Lehmann embraced his predecessor’s dreams for the College with unalloyed enthusiasm, and pursued them with unrelenting tenacity. President Lehmann responded with heart, soul and simple competence to a critical series of institutional challenges, and he prevailed.
President Lehmann built the fledgling college through the Depression. During his tenure, enrollment grew—first in fits and starts, then in a rush. In 1930, the first female students enrolled. Soon commuting students outnumbered residential ones. In the fall of 1942, President Lehmann weathered a storm of off-campus controversy by supporting a student organization’s efforts to bring to the College four war refugees who were American citizens. All four refugees, college students from California of Japanese descent, enrolled in 1943.
In curricular matters, President Lehmann advanced the practical relevance of the College’s liberal arts tradition. He shunned vocational training, but understood liberal learning and professional preparation to be complementary elements of a complete college education. In 1934, Elmhurst gained accreditation as a four-year college.
The College began to move a bit away from its singular identification with the Evangelical Church during the Lehmann presidency. Roman Catholics and a vast variety of Protestants enrolled in large numbers; by 1933, fewer than half of Elmhurst students claimed Evangelical membership.
Helmut Richard Niebuhr was 30 years old when he chose the presidency of Elmhurst College over an invitation to teach at Yale. His presidency was destined to be lightning-swift and utterly transforming. “Niebuhr brought to Elmhurst a first-rate mind and a vision of what the College could be,” writes the historian Melitta Cutright. The result, she contends, was a “revolution.”
In many respects, President Niebuhr was the founder of Elmhurst College as such. He established an ambitious school of music, employed the first women to teach at Elmhurst and strengthened course offerings across the disciplines. He built laboratories, hired a talented and progressive faculty and expanded library holdings at an astonishing pace. Within two years of his arrival, President Niebuhr undertook a comprehensive effort to expand and transform the campus.
Niebuhr already had earned a reputation as a reform theologian of exceptional promise, and he helped the College to redefine its religious identity. He opened the school to students from beyond the German Evangelical Synod, and worked to build an intellectual community where individuals might develop “an intelligent and vital faith.”
After leaving the presidency in 1927, Niebuhr lived another 35 years and made lasting contributions to his profession. In a chronicle of the Evangelical Synod, the historian David Dunn notes that Niebuhr left the church and the school with “a more realistic and generous conception of what it takes to keep a good college going…this leader gained for his faculty and students a priceless legacy.”
In the fall of 1919, the Proseminary was officially renamed the Elmhurst Academy and Junior College. Herman J. Schick led the initial efforts to reorganize the school along collegiate American lines. The son of German immigrants and a Proseminary alumnus, President Schick increased the faculty by 30 percent, hired the first two professors with doctorates and aggressively added courses in the natural and social sciences.
President Schick encouraged students as they developed new traditions. In 1920 the premier edition of The Elm Bark, the first student newspaper, rolled off the presses. The first three social fraternities arrived on campus. In 1923 the College held its first Homecoming, and two alumni wrote the Alma Mater.
Student enrollment expanded during President Schick’s tenure, compelling the construction of a new dormitory, ultimately called Schick Hall. Memorial Library, the school’s first formal library, opened in 1921.
The Junior College gained accreditation in 1924, but accreditation for the four-year senior college still lay ahead. As President Schick wrote in the 1924 student yearbook, the Elms, “There is no doubt concerning the possibility—to meet any and all the requirements—if there is the earnest will to do so.”
Daniel Irion, class of 1874, was the school’s first American-born leader, but was resolutely German at heart. Beginning with a ritual introduction at Old Main, he kept in almost daily contact with each student. He addressed them in German only. “He was a man with black, staring eyes who by his very appearance commanded respect,” Robert Stanger recalled. “Yet he was not an autocrat. Behind that rigid exterior was a friendly heart.”
Director Irion worked hard to sustain the Proseminary’s classical style of education in the face of increasing pressure to modernize the curriculum. During his tenure, Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr led students and alumni in increasingly insistent efforts to reform the Proseminary, calling for college status and more classes taught in English.
In the summer of 1917, the General Conference of the Evangelical Synod voted to upgrade the Proseminary to junior college status within two years, as the first step toward an ambitious plan to create a modern, vastly reformed institution, a “standard A.B. college.” In the summer of 1919, Daniel Irion retired as director, although he continued to teach at the College until two years before his death in 1935.
When Peter Goebel took the helm at the Proseminary in September 1880, rebuilding the faculty was a top priority: three faculty members had died or resigned just months before Goebel took office. Several of the new faculty members hired during his tenure remained at the Proseminary for long periods of time.
Student activities expanded under Inspector Goebel’s tenure, in spite of a faculty vote in 1884 to abolish all student groups except the Meusch Verein Society. Literary and debating societies flourished, and the Young Men’s Society presented Saturday night musical and dramatic entertainment. The first Seminarfest was held in 1881. It featured speeches, preaching, music and refreshments.
Inspector Goebel also strove to modernize the curriculum. An additional year was added to the curriculum in response to faculty concerns that incoming students were unprepared. Inspector Goebel also recommended that more classes be taught in English to broaden the school’s appeal to students seeking a general education. This forward-thinking initiative was rejected by the Supervising Board, but would be realized eventually.
Philip Frederick Meusch, a minister who came to the United States from Germany in 1850, built the Proseminary’s faculty and student body as its second inspector. By 1879, enrollment had swelled more than seven-fold since the school’s founding, to 103. Severe overcrowding on campus during Meusch’s tenure led to the construction of the Proseminary’s first permanent classroom building, Old Main.
Reverend Meusch also oversaw development of the curriculum. By 1878, when the school published its first Jahrbuch, or catalog, the curriculum had expanded to include a distinctly modern discipline, laboratory science. “It was the intent of the Proseminary program to minister to the ‘whole person,’ defined in the context of the German heritage as attending to his formal intellectual needs on the one hand and his spiritual needs on the other,” said William F. Denman, who served as dean of students at Elmhurst in the 1960s. “All subjects were to be taught with moral purposes in mind.” It was, said Denman, “a balanced humanistic diet.”
Students held Inspector Meusch in high regard, even renaming a student society “Meusch Verein” in his honor. Society members collected books to serve as the institution’s first library. Meusch died suddenly in 1880 while still in office. He is buried adjacent to the College campus in a cemetery on Alexander Street.
On December 6, 1871, Carl Frederick Kranz, a minister and teacher recently arrived in the United States from his native Germany, stepped off a passenger train in Elmhurst, accompanied by 14 students. Kranz, who spent his formative years in an orphanage, worked as a tutor for a wealthy family and studied theology at the University of Breslau. He and his students came to Elmhurst from a preparatory seminary in Evansville, Indiana, to establish the German Evangelical Proseminary “to maintain a culture in the wilderness, to provide an educated leadership for the developing communities, and to teach the liberal arts within the context of the Christian faith.”
The Proseminary had one primary purpose: to train ministers and teachers for German Evangelical communities. At the start, resources were few. “Inspector” Kranz taught all the courses, kept the records, paid the bills and checked to see that his charges made it to bed at night. He oversaw the construction of the Proseminary’s first new building, later known as Kranz Hall, which was completed in 1873.
Under Inspector Kranz, the Proseminary’s rigorous curriculum followed the classical model of a German-model academy or high school. All courses, including English, were taught in German. The idea was to foster a spirit of loyalty to two cultures, and to offer young people a chance to prepare for lives of service and meaning. It had the strength of an ideal.