On July 1, 1994, Bryant L. Cureton started work as the College’s twelfth president.
A native of New Jersey, Cureton brought to the job a wealth of relevant experience as a graduate of one small liberal arts college (Maryville, in Tennessee) and as a former professor, dean, and provost at another (Hartwick, in New York). “First and foremost I see myself as a teacher,” he said upon his arrival at Elmhurst.
As the first new leader of the College in a generation, Cureton took a Socratic approach to fostering a reinvigorated sense of institutional purpose. He used various forums, such as the Faculty Council and the Board of Trustees, to lead wide-open discussions of “institutional aspirations.” An early Cureton memo spoke of “moving toward a clear sense of our shared vision.”
The process continued throughout the Cureton years, and served to substantially raise the school’s sights. During the first ten years, the trustees approved a series of three “Action Plans” defined as a “program to build the best possible Elmhurst College.” Their aim was nothing less than to enable Elmhurst to move toward claiming a place as “the premier private college in the Chicago area and a national benchmark of effectiveness in adding value to student lives.”
It can be said at a minimum that the College made impressive progress during the Cureton years, moving with renewed vigor toward increasingly ambitious goals. Recent years saw sustained growth in the College’s enrollment, curriculum, assets, impact, and prestige. In total, the result is an institutional repositioning of striking proportions—a rare phenomenon in American higher education.
“It makes no sense to take an institution like Elmhurst College and try to transform it into something it can and ought never be,” Cureton said about halfway through his tenure. “The proper task of college leadership at any point in an institution’s history is to free the place from unnecessary constraints, and thus enable it to serve its students and society in the fullest way possible. I think Elmhurst is like a marathon runner with many miles ahead, but progressing strongly through the long course.”
How strongly the institution progressed throughout the Cureton presidency can be measured in multiple concrete ways. Between 1994 and 2007, for example, the number of full-time undergraduates grew by 47 percent. 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.
Elmhurst enrolled a succession of freshman classes that were—at once—larger, more academically prepared, and more likely to complete their degrees. Between 1994 and 2007, the number of entering freshmen rose from 222 to 508, a 130 percent increase. The customary measures of student academic preparedness also increased. The average composite ACT score of entering freshman 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 enhanced student profile “changed the classroom experience,” Cureton observed. “Faculty have higher expectations of students, and students have higher expectations of one another. It also has enhanced campus life outside the classroom. Our students are more engaged intellectually, even athletically.” (The number of student athletes more than doubled in thirteen years, from 185 to more than 400.)
During Cureton’s tenure, the quality of Elmhurst’s academic programs became more widely recognized. U.S. News & World Report now consistently ranks the College in the top tier of its category. The Princeton Review calls Elmhurst “a small college with a big bang,” citing its “excellent” internships, “gorgeous” campus, and “intimate academic experience.”
The Action Plans called for the College “to clarify and develop its distinctive edge, the integration of liberal arts education and preparation for professional life.” This effort led to the creation of three new “centers of distinction” that aim to solidify the bond between liberal learning and professional preparation.
In 1997, the College launched the Center for Professional Excellence, designed to augment each student’s classroom experience with extended professional and intellectual challenges, on campus and beyond. The center’s programs include international study, career exploration, service-learning opportunities, a burgeoning Honors Program, and an immense assortment of internships. “Our students participate in purposeful activities that acquaint them with the realities of their prospective careers,” says executive director Lawrence B. Carroll. “The center is an explicit demonstration of Elmhurst’s commitment to making sure that our students have what it takes to be a true professional.”
In 2001, the College established the Niebuhr Center with a $2 million grant from the Lilly Endowment. Named for two of Elmhurst’s most illustrious alumni, the theologians Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr (the College’s sixth president), the center is an academic program for students who are motivated by faith, whatever their religious background. It guides and supports students who are considering a calling to a service profession or the ministry. Through a range of academic and field experiences—including courses, paid internships, and international experiences—students explore the links between the values they have chosen to embrace and the careers they are preparing to pursue.
In 2003, a new Center for the Health Professions began to bring together students who are aspiring to careers across the spectrum of health care for an innovative mix of academic and co-curricular programs. The center offers expert academic advising and professional mentoring to students in a range of majors and pre-professional programs, including biology, chemistry, pre-med, nursing, exercise science, and speech-language pathology. The students gain and develop strong teamwork skills in a variety of clinical and research settings.
During the Action Plan years, the College expanded its service to embrace new student constituencies. It launched nine master’s programs—the first in the institution’s history—and created the School for Advanced Learning, which serves both graduate students and adult learners in undergraduate programs. The Academic Partnership Program allows working professionals to complete their degrees at their workplaces. The Elmhurst Life Skills Academy provides a full-time, post-secondary educational experience to young adults with developmental disabilities.
The number of full-time faculty grew from 94 to 127, a 35 percent increase over thirteen years. Under the leadership of Dean Alzada J. Tipton, the faculty explored new ways to engage students in learning, including collaborative research, a first-year colloquium, a capstone experience, and a new general education curriculum. The Center for Scholarship and Teaching, currently in the early stages of development, will support both faculty and students in the teaching and learning processes.
The final decade of the Cureton presidency was a time of considerable construction on the campus. The most conspicuous physical improvements include 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. A sixth residence hall is under construction west of Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel. Together, these developments have reshaped the landscape, sometimes subtly, sometimes significantly. What is more, they have enhanced the ways students on the campus can learn, live, and grow.
During the Cureton years, the College enlarged its contribution to the cultural life of the larger community. The campus events calendar became crowded with concerts, plays, art exhibits, and an array of impressive speakers, including Maya Angelou, Marian Wright Edelman, David Gergen, Taylor Branch, Sister Helen Prejean, and two winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, Lech Walesa and Elie Wiesel.
The son of a Presbyterian minister, Cureton worked to enhance the College’s affiliation with the United Church of Christ, which he regards as an unalloyed asset. “It is one of the things that makes us special,” he said. “Our heritage enables us to pay close attention to issues of values and ethics, in an open intellectual climate that welcomes students of all backgrounds and traditions.”
Financially, the College remains “carefully managed but by no means rich,” in Cureton’s words. In 2004, the institution successfully completed a $42 million development campaign, the largest in its history. The annual operating budget for fiscal year 2008 is $54 million. Since 1994, the market value of the endowment has grown from $35 million to $96 million, a 174 percent increase.
Throughout his transforming presidency, Bryant Cureton remained very much the teacher in his operating style and philosophy. About halfway through his tenure, he returned to the classroom to lead an honors seminar on “The Higher Learning in America.” The course included an emphasis on one of the professor’s passions, the history of Elmhurst College.
“In reading the history, one of the things that intrigues me is the fact that each of my eleven predecessors contributed something important,” Cureton said. “I am especially aware of the contributions of my immediate predecessor, Ivan Frick. I have lived every day with the benefits of leading an institution on firm financial ground, thanks to his careful management of resources.”
On June 30, 2008, Cureton retired after fourteen years of service to the College. In public and private, Cureton continues to consider the particular role of the small college in the higher education landscape. In an essay entitled “The Big Promise of the Small College,” he wrote: “As we work to respond to the challenges of our environment, we must find ways to assure that learning remains at the center of our enterprise....As faculty at a small college, we model a commitment to learning, and we invite our students, one by one, to enter the company of scholars and share it with us. Such a company must embrace not only the scholars who are teachers but also the scholars who are students. When faculty and students are colleagues, living the life of a company of scholars, then we are at our best as a college.”