“Niebuhr brought to Elmhurst a first-rate mind and a vision of what the College could be,” Melitta Cutright writes. The result, she contends, was a “revolution.”
In his first report to the Board of Trustees—itself an innovation of the era—the young president declared, “The time has come for a thorough reconsideration of the curriculum.” Then he got to work, reforming the entire academic enterprise. He started the first honors, business, and pre-professional courses. 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.
Niebuhr already had earned a reputation as a reformist 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.” Tellingly, the student publications of the era displayed a lively new seriousness, staking out thoughtful stands on pacifism, isolationism, and other social and moral issues of the day. “The task of assisting the student to find his religious orientation in the modern world is not a light one,” the president told the Board in 1926. “It cannot be achieved by refusing to introduce him to contemporary culture .… It is the function of the school to introduce its students to the world of modern ideas, so that they may make use of scientific insight yet maintain the faith and ethics of the gospel.”
Within two years of his arrival, President Niebuhr undertook a comprehensive effort to expand and transform the campus. He engaged a young Chicago architect, Benjamin Franklin Olson, to create a long-range development plan. It included a proper college quadrangle, the now-familiar sunken mall surrounded by red-brick, English Colonial buildings. The plan was “designed to make theirs one of the most attractive little colleges in the Middle West,” the Chicago Sunday Tribune reported in its editions of May 9, 1926.
The young president’s ample ambitions were supported by enormous personal strengths. His personality was original and winning—a striking combination of brilliance, humility, and genuine kindness of heart—and he established himself as an effective and popular leader, especially among students. “The new approach and program found hearty acceptance, and morale soared,” William Denman writes. Niebuhr “was willing to provide a concrete challenge to which students might apply their energies .… They participated heavily in rallies aimed at recruiting prospective students, and gave thousands of dollars to fund-raising efforts.
Those restricted by poverty from traveling home at Christmas even donated their cash Christmas gifts.”
The money came in handy. Niebuhr’s vision of “a Greater Elmhurst” could not be realized on the cheap. In truth, it could not be realized within the institution’s available resources. In 1925, the College found itself with 21 cents left in the treasury. In 1926, it ran a deficit.
The president believed that a larger endowment was essential to the institution’s very survival. In those days, Elmhurst’s endowment was in the disadvantaged neighborhood of $35,000. Niebuhr set a dramatic goal: to increase the endowment to $1 million within ten years. He started the school’s first up-to-date fund raising and public relations programs.
Then he crisscrossed the country to garner support, often accompanied by the Glee Club. For a sensitive scholar, it was an exhausting process, and it met with only modest success. Officially, each of the key College constituencies shared Niebuhr’s vision. After one meeting of the Board, for example, the Elm Bark ran the headline, “MAMMOTH EXTENSION PLANS APPROVED.” “Unfortunately,” Melitta Cutright notes, the Board “did not provide money.” For their part, many alumni and other members of the Evangelical Synod wished the College well but were more concerned with the home missions and other competing interests. Reinhold Niebuhr observed tartly, “As yet there seems to be no definite realization in our Church that we cannot have what we need in educational advantages without the expenditure of a large amount of money.”
As the College’s financial crisis deepened and lengthened, and the practical prospects for his dreams drained away, Richard Niebuhr’s health broke. In the spring of 1927, he resigned. He returned to his first and abiding love, the teaching of theology, first at Eden, then at Yale.
He lived another 35 years and made lasting contributions to his profession. In influential books, he described Christian life as a “permanent revolution.” Niebuhr believed that all things human—individuals, institutions, societies—were called to a perpetual process of transformation, to achieve their highest good in response to God’s grace. The faith of Jesus, he wrote, is “radical faith.” It demands yearning, sacrifice, and change without end.
It can be said that Niebuhr’s theology was foreshadowed and embodied by his stewardship at Elmhurst. Like all records, his was mixed. “In appraising the quality of his leadership, some would despair in the management of institutional finances,” Dr. Denman notes. Still, with his radical faith in the College and its possibilities, H. Richard Niebuhr remains a challenging and inspiring figure. 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.”
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