Parsons College History

Parsons College Wild CatParsons College a wonderful private liberal arts college nestled in the South Eastern corner of Iowa in the town of Fairfield permanently closed its doors in 1973 after almost 100 years of existence. Founded in 1875 Following the wishes of General Lewis B. Parsons .. in his will written in 1855 … ” … 1 do therefore after payment of the foregoing bequests and the reasonable expenses of administration, give and bequeath the residue of my estate, together with my Natural History of New York and my small cabinet of minerals, to my said executors and the survivors or survivor of them. In Trust to be by them used and expended in founding and endowing an Institution of learning in the state of Iowa, or to be expended in enhancing an existing institution …… And on October 17th 1874 steps were taken by the Synod of Iowa (south) of the Presbyterian Church which had been looking to establish a school for higher education in a meeting in Keokuk developed a committee to establish such a school. On that committee of twelve which included Rev. Willis Craig, Rev. Carson Reed, and Rev.John G. Armstrong comprised the executive committee.

Prior to this …. The executors of General Parsons visited Iowa in 1869 and appointed an advisory committee of 3 ministers Rev. G. Sprees of Dubuque, Rev.John Armstrong of Muscatine and Rev. Willis Craig of Keokuk to locate an appropriate institution or town in which to invest their funds. So Fairfield among other Iowa towns volunteered as a place where this could happen … a meeting was held and the Location Committee was invited to Fairfield” … Wiliiam Elliot presided and opened the meeting with a prayer. This fact was noted by General Parsons the senior executor of his father’s trust, and made an impression on him, as it was the only place of all which the committee had visited where prayer was offered.” From: 50 Years of Parsons College 1875-1925″ February 24th 1875 a call went out to 25 people of Fairfield who adopted articles of association … $27,516.00 was raised. A board was established to oversee the founding and guide the growth of Parsons which included prominent business and clergy from surrounding towns. Included in this board was Rev. Willis Craig.

A plot of land North of town was designated as the site of the fledgling school. Using a mansion on the grounds of the site Parsons opened as a sectarian college affiliated with the Presbyterian Church and quietly grew establishing itself and making do until through funds raised by local businessmen a large building housing science labs, administration offices and lecture halls was constructed.

Mr. Andrew CarnegieGrounds were landscaped and additional structures were raised through the generosity of Mr.T.D.Foster and others. ” … steps were taken in 1902 to provide if possible, for additional buildings (after a disastrous fire destroyed a main building on campus … Ankeny Hall.)” When Andrew Carnegie was a youth, he was involved in the construction of a railroad bridge in Keokuk, Iowa and while in Keokuk was a member of the church whose minister was Dr. Willis Craig. Being familiar with Mr. Carnegie and he first Carnegie library west of the Mississippi River in the United States was built in Fairfield, Iowa the Chairman of the Board Dr. Willis G. Craig and the President of the College went to New York to see if Mr. Andrew Carnegie would build a library for the growing Parsons College.
(Scroll down to 1893) …

As a result of that interview Mr Carnegie promised a gift of $15,000 for a library building, provided a like amount were raised by the college for endowment and upkeep. This was considered by the college board to be too severe a condition at the time so the matter was dropped. Well, after the fire that destroyed the main building, Ankney Hall, other needs of the growing college were felt, but happily in the summer of 1905 Mr.T.D. Foster, (Foster Hall) while crossing the Atlantic, found that Mr. Carnegie was a fellow passenger. An occasion on board ship occurred and TO “presented the matter again, when Mr. Carnegie generously waived all conditions and gave $15,000 outright for the building.” Up until 1955 the college was like many other small colleges in the midwestlt’s history was unexceptional and a reputation was purely local. For more than 75 years Parsons grew slowly, accepting anyone who wanted to come-mostly from Fairfield’s environs,accumulating little endowment and many deficits.

In the 1950’s Parsons had an enrollment of a few hundred and an administration beset with financial hardship. In 1955 the trustees adapted a “Fifteen-year plan” to develop the college and appointed Millard G. Roberts a presbyterian minister from New York City as president of the college. Although he had no experience in educational administration, the trustees believed that he had the ability to promote the college,raise more money from donors,attract more students and possibly manage the school more efficiently. Throughout the twelve years that Millard Roberts was President of Parsons controversy was one of the many unforeseen outcomes of his Presidency. Among the positive outcomes, Roberts promoted a nation wide campaign for students. Enrollment grew from 350 to 5000 students, its income rocketed and the professors entered a circle of the highest paid teachers in the nation. All due to a program Roberts called “The Parsons College Plan.” Publish or Perish was relaxed at Parsons, a Scholar in Residence program was established exposing students to top academic instructors often finding published authors teaching freshman level humanities and history courses.

Foster HallDr Roberts also brought to Parsons his able and greatly appreciated wife, Dr. Louise Roberts who taught Humanities courses and introduced many students to the Greek Classics. Her humane and comfortable teaching style inspired many halfhearted students to rise above their humble academic expectations. The “Parsons Plan” included academic help in all areas of instruction. A ranked professor taught a 3 credit course with 3 hours per week of formal lecture, an academic specialist..usually a masters degree holder or instructor would have a small classroom seminar 2 days per week to review the lecture notes adding weekly quizes, and a tutorial center in the Wright Library was available to all students where by they could review all course work. One third of all students were recruited from the East,one third from the Midwest and one third from the West Coast. One third were in the top third academically, one third were middle level and one third were academacally challanged. Students were permitted to learn at a rate that was unique to them, often manifesting in the student repeating the course a following trimester with no loss of standing as an enrolled student. (Known to the student as double starring) Thus it was possible for a student to maintain overall cumulative grade point averages of acceptable levels. Some students would attend parsons and then transfer to more prestigious venues. Sports was a very big part of Parsons College. Football was ther most popular sport and provided a link between the college and the community. Football was the main event from opening night in 1893 and held the publics attention forr the following 78 years.

The first football game ever played at Parsons was on September 16, 1893. It was Parsons vs. Elliot Business College of Burlington. Parsons won 70-0. Students were enthusiastic about sports from then on. This monumental winning promoted the building of Parsons own stadium and field for their 1894 season. An alum from the early days said that football was a huge event and very great fun to attend the games. In 1966 a new 5,000 seat stadium was built on the campus. Iowa Wesleyan College was Parsons’s number one rival for 70 years. The two teams played each other 60 times. Parsons won 34 of the games, and Iowa Wesleyan won 21 games. During a 41 year span, Parsons won Conference Championship five times, and six of their players were members of the Parsons College Football Hall of Fame. All together, the teams played over 600 games. Parsons College was invited to the Hula Bowl in Hawaii and the Pecan Bowl in Texas. Basketball was another popular sport at Parsons. The first basketball game they played as an independent school was in 1963. Other sports Parsons athletes participated in were wrestling, tennis, baseball, skeet club, golf, soccer, and cross-country. The more unique sports were fencing and sharpchuters. Fencing began in 1964 and members learned the art of medieval sword play. Sharpchuters also began in 1964; now known as parachuting. Parsons College radio station established in the ’60s broadcast these events to the avid student fans.

The Students of Parsons

Fry Thomas FieldhouseAfter the arrival of President Roberts in 1955, the full-time enrollment of students at Parsons College began to increase dramatically. Enrollment goals for 1963- 1964 had been substantially met and there was a possibility of a slight over enrollment in the Fall of 1964. At one time, the Board of Trustees had placed the limit of 3,000 students on campus at any given time. By 1968 the enrollment topped 5,000 students with a dramatic building plan creating low cost housing units-“quads”, and co-ed housing and standard dormitories (Unfortunately often housing 3 students to rooms designed for two). Roberts created the college’s own construction company thus essentially putting money back into the school’s own coffers and lowering costs. A difficult but interesting problem of Parsons College was how to fill the summer trimester. This problem led to a scheduling solution that was very different from many other colleges. The difference being that at Parsons, the third trimester began on June 8 instead of in April as at other colleges. As the trimester system continued at Parsons, they were charging $1,650 tuition for 3 semesters. They offered a full tuition scholarship of $600 during the summer semester if the students maintained a C average. Those who could manage on a 0 got $250. The students still had to pay room and board charges. Parsons offered many opportunities for the financially stressed students with work-study grants employing students as kitchen staff, serving staff, dishwashers and to attract women to the overwhelmingly male populated campus “milk maids” (attractive co-eds received free meals for serving milk in pitchers roaming the dining halls) received full board grants. Full room and board grants were provided for grounds workers and dorm monitors. Parsons became known mainly as a college for students who couldn’t get into any other colleges or had been refused readmission from another college due to poor grades, but not all students went there because of that. Some of them just liked the atmosphere.

The Parsons Campus was a classical ivy path greensward park like atmosphere, with gothic cathedral and collonaded porticos on the Hall that Andrew Carnegie built for a library.

Foster HallTransfers, at one time, made up 43% of the student body, and never dropped lower than 22%. This was the main reason that Parsons was often referred to as “Flunk-Out U” or as a college “for rich dumb kids.” An unfortunate article in Life Magazine (April 1966) highlighted many wisecracking students and prominently featured the high spirited recreational adventures of many of the students. Most of the students attending Parsons were from the middle-class. The rate of students leaving school before graduation was high. Over 70% of students who entered Parsons in the fall of 1960 left the school by the end of their second year. Parsons had a loose retention policy, which means grades didn’t have to stay too high for students to stay in good standing with the institution. The teachers were successful with most students, regardless of their ability. They only had problems with those who went to class grudgingly, however, many students didn’t go at all. Girls at Parsons were outnumbered 4 to 1. Despite the shortage, most students gave Parsons a four-star rating as a party college. Townspeople complained bitterly about the drinking parties and the wild driving that followed these parties. One example would be the classic party held in a cemetery crypt. The proliferation of Greek letter Fraternities and Sororities as well as “independent” social groups provided party houses and socialization opportunities off campus.

The campus was “dry” and the women had “hours”, curfews and monitoring. Town wide celebrations such as homecoming parades, Greek week with chariot races and “Town and Gown” events with Parsons College fine Drama Department enhanced cultural life in Fairfield. The townspeople of Fairfield wondered if the hard drinking hot-rodding invasion of Parsons boys was a mixed blessing. Students from other communities would flock to Fairfield to learn how to get a piece of the academic action. But in the end, the fame of Parsons didn’t last very long.

A combination of reasons … academic competition from other schools,The revocation of accreditation by the NCA, the discouraging effect of the Life Magazine article and the financial dependence on a steady tuition inflow spelled doom for the underendowed institution. Shedding itself of the maligned and controversial Dr Milard Roberts the leadership was placed into the capable leadership of Doctor Robert Tree. The college went to great lengths to stay the creditors including selling the rich Iowa topsoil from the graceful campus. Sadly all efforts to save the college were destined to fail. The college recovered its accreditation, but it was too late. Many Parsons students went on to academic excellence in other institutions and became great assets to their communities having mastered social skills in the farm land of Iowa of the ’60s. The graceful buildings and stately grounds have now undergone destruction as the campus’ new incarnation as the home of Maharishi University. A dome now arises for trancendental medition on the former gridiron where Parsons Football heros once fought great competitive battles. This addendum supplied by: GeneParsonsGrad 30 March 2007.

Why Did Parsons Close?

The exit of students due to the loss of accreditation and the bad publicity from the Life Magazine article hastened the destabilizing of the financial underpinnings of the College. Never having a large endowment, Parsons depended on a constant influx of tuition money to satisfy creditors. Connecticut General Life Insurance as well as other institutions Parsons administrators and Board of Directors reached out to would not provide additional credit and funds to maintain the operation. GeneParsonsGrad 31 May 2007