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The Visionary : Whittier College's Ash Sees Great Things for Tiny School


WHITTIER — When James L. Ash Jr. first arrived at Whittier College full of ideas on how the private liberal arts college should be run, uneasy students introduced him in the student newspaper as a comic strip character named El Presidente.

El Presidente as portrayed in the comic strip "The Dude" was a rigidly moralistic dictator, intent only on bringing down the irresponsible, partying student known as Dude.

But in less than a year, some of the student leaders who were most wary of Ash are labeling him a "visionary." "El Presidente" has become a less harsh term, and this quiet little Quaker school on the hill isn't so quiet any more.

Ash, 44, a historian and an ordained Presbyterian minister, has the school humming with his determination to market Whittier College as another Harvard or Yale.

During his inauguration March 16, Ash, who is the second-youngest president in Whittier College's 101-year history, presented a vivid and challenging picture of what liberal education should be.

Faculty and staff say Ash is more than qualified for the job. He received his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1976, specializing in U.S. social, religious and intellectual movements. He worked for 12 years at the University of Miami, where he served as vice provost for undergraduate studies and received every major teaching award given by the university, and played a leading role in boosting enrollment and strengthening undergraduate programs. His colleagues there described him as one of the brightest and most creative administrators in higher education today.

Although Whittier College has been listed consistently by U.S. News & World Report as one of the best in the nation, Ash said not enough people know about it. His job is first to make sure the word gets out, he said.

"He has brought to this school what we have needed for a long, long time--vision," said Rafael Chabran, a professor of Spanish. "He has become a spokesman in a time when small liberal arts colleges need spokesmen."

Some faculty and staff members say Ash was brave to leave a high-profile position in Miami to accept the Whittier post. In recent years the college has had well-publicized financial troubles, caused in part by a woefully low endowment fund and the high number of scholarships that Whittier students receive.

Because the school is private, it receives about half of its operating budget of about $22 million from undergraduate tuition. Enrollment dropped dramatically after the Whittier earthquake in 1987. Last spring, the administration was forced to lay off two professors and eliminate three unfilled faculty positions to balance the budget.

Perhaps its largest problem is its endowment, Ash said. Endowment growth is the No. 1 fund-raising priority. At $16 million, Whittier College's endowment is far below that of most private schools. Ash said the fund must be pumped up to $100 million to generate enough revenue to help the school.

But the college is back on its feet, he said. The budget is balanced, three to six new faculty members will be hired during the next year and the campus will be renovated. Once everything is in place, Ash said, there is little preventing Whittier College from becoming a nationally known liberal arts college.

"Before I came here I made an academic judgment that this school is good enough to play in the big leagues," he said. "I came here with my eyes open. They have showed me all the skeletons, and there have been no surprises. Every school I know suffers from an inferiority complex, and Whittier College is no exception."

Though Ash was officially hired July 1, he began working to boost enrollment when he accepted the position in March.

Increasing freshman undergraduate enrollment, he said, is among his greatest challenges. Much of the school's revenue comes from tuition, which this year is $11,350 for the academic year, about a 30% increase during the last five years. In the same period, total enrollment has remained at about 1,100. Ash said he would like to increase the size of the freshman class by 35 in 1990.

"It takes a long time to recruit a student," he said. "It's not like going to the store and buying toothpaste and pork and beans. Students start making up their minds when they are juniors."

Ash said the University of Miami was able to increase its enrollment radically in five years. That, he said, is what he is trying to do at Whittier.

Even before he officially began his job, he started traveling across the country on recruiting trips. Ash estimates that he has been to at least a dozen cities in the last eight months, wooing students to Whittier. So far, he said, applications are up. He has also created slick new brochures for potential students that describe Whittier College in the words of poet Robert Frost, as the "road less traveled"--a road that Frost later said had "made all the difference."

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