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Occidental Bids Adieu to Longtime President

June 09, 1988|ESTHER SCHRADER | Times Staff Writer

Three and a score years ago our trustees brought forth on this campus a new president, conceived in Massachusetts and dedicated to the proposition that the college's budget could be balanced.

--Colleague of Occidental College President Richard C. Gilman The man from Massachusetts is retiring after 23 years at Occidental College.

At a Commencement Celebration last week, a colleague brushed up the words of Abraham Lincoln to recall the remarkable career of Richard C. Gilman, who has signed more than half of the diplomas awarded in the 101 years of the small Eagle Rock school.

Under Gilman's tenure--three times as long as the average college president's in this country--the selective college has grown in wealth and stature, maintained fiercely loyal alumni support and begun to compete with better-known colleges of the East.

Friday, on a scorching day, more than 500 people gathered under striped canopies in the college's main quad at a going-away party of sorts for the 64-year-old president. Students, faculty and alumni toasted Gilman, applauded his contributions and shared in a giant farewell cake.

Then, the college's notorious satirist, music professor Alan Chapman, dragged out Lincoln's weighty prose in the centerpiece of the event.

"We have been engaged in a great war, testing whether that college or any liberal arts college with high tuition can long endure. . . . But fortunately, I have a song."

And, backed by the mock-solemn college Glee Club, he sang:

... When you first arrived

On that summer morn,

Oxy's current freshman class

Hadn't yet been born....

Everyone broke into laughter. Gilman, true to his notorious aloofness, cracked a thin smile.

Indeed, Gilman's distant manner was well in evidence at the celebration in his honor. But behind that manner, many at the college say, is a commitment that--in a period when hundreds of small colleges have folded--has helped Occidental to endure.

Since Gilman left the presidency of Carleton College in Minnesota to head the school in 1965, its endowment has increased from $11 million to $126 million this year. Applications to the college have also grown--by 45% over the last two years--and average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores have increased with each incoming class in recent years.

Low Student-Teacher Ratio

In a state where massive universities compete for big-name professors and build expensive research facilities, Occidental has found its place by doing neither. Classes are small, with a student-faculty ratio of 12 to 1, the college's few graduate students do not teach and professors are expected to. Gilman wants to keep it that way.

"We're not a university. We're not a miniversity. We're a college, and we have very bright students," Gilman said in an interview last week. "They deserve the best that the school and our faculty can provide."

Gilman is known for his stamina, his long hours and his commitment to Occidental, which has left the school, in the words of former Alumni Council President Jim McManus, "on the verge of greatness."

"Almost no president has been so long in office at a single institution," McManus said. "That has allowed the college to really put together a tremendous financial base."

Gilman has overseen construction projects resulting in a library, a theater, a biological sciences building, a center for the liberal arts on campus, a three-story parking structure and renovations to many of the college's existing classroom buildings and dormitories. In 1985, a network of three mainframe computers and 150 remote terminals was installed on campus, and the college's track, playing fields and training quarters were significantly refurbished in 1984.

But students have long joked about the dubious architectural merits of some of the college's recent renovations. So, at the celebration Friday, Alan Chapman took advantage of that to leave the rolling sobriety of Lincoln and the gentle fun of his songs' first stanzas and get down to some serious satire.

... Weingart Center is a gem,

But then there's Johnson Hall

With new decor that brings to mind

Your local mini-mall....

Students, sprawled on the lawn next to sedate older alumni, whistled and hooted. Chapman, who has become infamous on campus for taking gentle musical parting shots at retiring faculty, was hitting his stride.

... Man had not yet walked the moon,

No one drank light beer,

And Nelson Mandela had only been

In jail for a year....

That was a reference to perhaps the most sensitive issue dividing Gilman and the faculty. Last year, 90% of the faculty voted to support disinvestment of the college's holdings from companies doing business with the apartheid regime in South Africa. But in this and other such disagreements, Faculty Council President Eric Newhall said Gilman has shown himself to be a survivor.

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