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Louis Benezet, 86; College Innovator


Louis T. Benezet, an educator who championed small colleges and challenged rating systems that failed to analyze schools' overall impact on students, has died. He was 86.

Benezet, who was the innovative fifth president of Claremont Graduate School in the 1960s, died Jan. 23 in Mill Valley, Calif., of undisclosed causes.

During his years in California, Benezet served on the Governor's Commission on Tax Reform and was elected chairman of the American Council on Education, at the time the principal coordinating agency for higher education institutions across the United States.

A prolific writer, the outspoken educator expressed many of his views in articles and books, including "General Education in the Progressive College" in 1943, "Private Higher Education and Public Funding" in 1976, "Style and Substance: Leadership in the College Presidency" in 1981.

He continued writing well into retirement, publishing "People Versus Pyramids" in 1999 and "Restoring America's Failed Democracy" in 2000.

Benezet moved to Claremont in 1963 to become what he described as "chief housekeeper" of its cluster of colleges.

During his seven-year stay at Claremont, he ran the Graduate School and coordinated operations with the presidents of five other colleges: Pomona, Scripps, Pitzer, Harvey Mudd and Claremont Men's.

Early in his tenure, he spearheaded efforts to win once-rejected Ford Foundation grants totaling $5 million for the colleges, and led a drive for matching funds that ballooned to $86 million.

Responsible for planning for all the colleges, Benezet established a constitution, eliminated an unwieldy council of presidents, trustees and deans in favor of a committee of six presidents and launched plans for an additional college.

Significantly, he also helped conceive and establish the Human Resources Institute, which made Claremont a pioneer in ethnic and urban studies.

Considered efficient and businesslike by his friends and aloof and cold by his critics, Benezet was credited with persuading the separate colleges to develop several joint programs and better coordinate fund-raising.

He also became a major spokesman for education throughout Southern California, working particularly to change how the public viewed specific schools.

Benezet criticized the concept that a college should be valued because of its age or lucrative endowments or by the number of students that it sends on to graduate school.

Instead, he said, one should examine what a school accomplishes for the bottom half of its students.

"A college is as good as the permanent improvements it brings about in the largest majority of its students," he told The Times.

Benezet proposed his own 14-point plan for evaluating colleges and universities and proposed publishing an annual list. Included among his criteria were the number of entering freshmen who graduate, the percentage of graduates from low-income families, the number of graduates holding public office or volunteering in their communities, student attendance at noncompulsory evening concerts and plays and library circulation figures for unassigned books.

"What I have done," he told The Times nearly four decades ago, "is to propose some analyses of a college's inner makeup and performance, which have to do with quality in the total campus experience.... Inside that college, what is happening to young people, all its young people, that becomes important and lasting?"

Despite his advocacy for small colleges and the then-unique Claremont cluster college concept, Benezet left on July 1, 1970, to become president of State University of New York at Albany, eight years after it became SUNY's fourth center.

Born in La Crosse, Wis., the son of a Dartmouth professor, Benezet earned his bachelor's degree at Dartmouth, a master's in psychology at Reed College and a doctorate in college administration at Columbia University.

He taught briefly in high school in Pennsylvania, then taught psychology at Reed and at Knox College in Illinois. He worked in administration at Syracuse University and then was named president of Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., in 1947.

He was president of Colorado College from 1955 until moving to Claremont in 1963.

Benezet was president of State University of New York at Albany for five years before moving to SUNY Stony Brook as a research professor and consultant.

Twice widowed, Benezet was preceded in death by his son. He is survived by daughters Laura, Julia, Barbara and Martha; and four grandchildren.

Services are planned for 3 p.m. Sunday at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Sausalito, Calif.

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