Niebuhr was lucky in his successor. Timothy Lehmann was a practical, plainspoken Russian émigré, and a respected Evangelical minister. He embraced Niebuhr’s dreams for the College with unalloyed enthusiasm, and pursued them with unrelenting tenacity. “We are not seeking the impossible,” he insisted. “We are facing the situation squarely.”
By the time the new president arrived on campus in October 1928, the College’s financial situation was “a full-blown nightmare,” in the description of the dean, Theophil W. Mueller. In that context especially, Lehmann’s inaugural address that October was utterly remarkable. He lauded his predecessor’s “heroic” and “prophetic” vision for the College, and blasted the Evangelical Synod’s “apathetic” and parsimonious response to it. Lehmann compared his own church to a hypocritical, shortsighted, self-centered parent. “The church saw the [Niebuhr] program, even approved it formally, because it dared not do otherwise,” he noted. “But instead of responding with heart and soul … it simply refused to give more. The church’s attitude was that of the father who bemoans the fact that his boy is growing up. He turns away from his boy; he is not willing to pay more for him.”
Thus began the long, arduous, and important tenure of an unusual college president. Lehmann was a prickly customer. Predictably, the Evangelical powers never fully got over his inaugural festivities. The president’s relations with his Board of Trustees also lacked a certain warmth. Still, Lehmann responded with heart, soul, and simple competence to a critical series of institutional opportunities and challenges, and he prevailed.
For a variety of reasons beyond the president’s sharp edges, the College began to move a bit away from the church during the Lehmann presidency. The process of weaning the institution from utter dependence on denominational sponsorship actually had begun under Lehmann’s predecessor. President Niebuhr had ended the school’s days as a closed communion; he thought Elmhurst should serve “an ever-widening circle.” President Lehmann widened the circle aggressively. Roman Catholics and a vast variety of Protestants enrolled in large numbers; by 1933, fewer than half of Elmhurst students claimed Evangelical membership. The following year, the Synod itself passed into history, merging with the Reformed Church in the United States—a theologically progressive assembly centered on the East Coast—to form the Evangelical and Reformed Church.
Meanwhile, the College’s enrollment grew—first in fits and starts, then in a rush. In 1930, Lehmann presided as the former seminary enrolled its first 46 female students. Soon commuting students (mostly women) outnumbered residential ones. For the first time, it became difficult to describe the “typical Elmhurst student.”
In curricular matters, Lehmann advanced the practical relevance of the College’s liberal arts tradition. He shunned purely vocational training, but understood liberal learning and professional preparation to be complementary elements of a complete college education. Under Lehmann, the College added twenty-two courses in economics and business administration, expanded its offerings in elementary and secondary education, and started a preprofessional program for prospective physicians.
The institution also more consciously became, in the words of a later mission statement, “resolutely student-centered.” In January 1933, Lehmann told the trustees: “The student is the central and most important factor at Elmhurst College. For the student we live, we organize our program, we seek to perform our task in society.” William Denman writes: “In practice if not in policy, Elmhurst students held a measure of authority over their affairs rarely found on a denominational campus.”
On April 24, 1934, the North Central Association granted Elmhurst full accreditation as a four-year college. Students danced in the streets and marched through town with victory signs. The same year, the University of Illinois surveyed the Elmhurst program, declared itself “very favorably impressed,” and placed the College (literally) on its “A” list.
In 1941, Lehmann engaged an eminent educator, John Dale Russell of the University of Chicago, to direct a comprehensive review of Elmhurst’s progress. The verdict was highly favorable overall. The Russell report called the faculty, for example, “a widely trained group … who have had contact with outstanding leaders in many fields .… It is clear that the college has made incredible progress in this respect in the last eight years.”
It should be noted that those were all Depression years, a fact that serves to underscore the magnitude of Lehmann’s achievements. He built the fledgling College through exceedingly hard times. Dr. Russell’s team reported that the College’s debt load—$400,000 in 1941—was the highest of any college accredited by the North Central Association. The school clearly had the spirit but lacked the resources to fully realize its dreams.
As the institution approached the 70th anniversary of its founding, Lehmann planned once again to “face the situation squarely,” this time with a far-reaching fund-raising drive. He convened a campus conference to study the Russell team’s specific recommendations for institutional growth (there were ninety) and to explore ways and means to accomplish them. The conference completed its work just in time for the anniversary. It was a peaceful Saturday in America, December 6, 1941.