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Gemmell guides growth; 1960-1976


Dr. James Gemmell knew what it would take to make Clarion State College successful when he arrived in 1960.

James Gemmell
James Gemmell
"The basic ingredients of a good college are," said Gemmell in his inaugural address, "namely able students, sufficient money, and sense of purpose, plus able administrators and teachers."

The new president was quick to point out that teaching would continue to be the bedrock of the institution. "The teacher undoubtedly holds the central position," continued Gemmell.

A native of Scotland, Gemmell came to Clarion after serving as a professor and department head at Pennsylvania State University for 15 years. He also brought with him training as an economic theorist and business consultant and was more than ready to take advantage of the Commonwealth's unprecedented emphasis on higher education.

Growing pains

In the middle 1950s the state committed itself to financing the higher education of more and more college-bound youth. Over the next two decades, the state colleges faced a continuing struggle to provide adequate campus facilities for their growing student enrollment. Early in the growth of higher education the state only built facilities for current needs but did not address projected demands.

When the state did make projections, they were too conservative. For example, in December 1958, State Superintendent Boehm asked Clarion to make long range plans for a maximum of 1,100 students (1,099 were enrolled the following September). In April 1960, State authorities projected an enrollment of 1,500 by 1980 (1,750 were enrolled in the fall of 1961). In 1963, the projection for 1971 was 3,000 students. By 1966, enrollment was 2,874, an increase of 161 percent. Clarion was no longer that small rural college known only for its library science curriculum.

According to data provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, state college enrollment increased 176 percent during the decade 1957-1966. In this same decade Clarion's enrollment increased 280 percent. It was probably one of the fastest growing institutions of higher education in Pennsylvania.

Spectacular growth and Clarion

When Dr. Gemmell arrived on campus in 1960 there were about 1,100 students and ten buildings. The institution's sole educational function had been teacher preparation. By the time he left the presidency in 1976, the student body had expanded to about 5,000 with 25 buildings completed, under construction, or on the drawing boards. Clarion's mission expanded into that of a multipurpose institution.

The spectacular growth was not painless. Major adjustments were required on campus and in town. Expansion of the institution required the acquisition of a significant amount of private property in Clarion Borough. While the college had the legal right to exercise its power of eminent domain at the time, many local citizens questioned the disruption of their lives and the loss of a good percentage of the loss of the tax base.

Clarion State College emphasized its significance as an intellectual, social, cultural, and economic stimulus to counter community concerns.

As early as 1965, Dr. David Hilton, assistant to the president, and others stressed this point through presentations to the Borough Council, the Chamber of Commerce, and to various civic groups. Presentations included projections of the growing number of students and related physical plant needs. CSC's cultural impact, talent pool of employees, the related spin-off from the college's presence, and the economic impact of the institution were also stressed. For instance, Hilton's December 1965 presentation noted that each group of 1,000 students would spend $200,000 per year in the town. Then the second largest employer in the county, Clarion State College spent $6 million in the community each year, including salaries and purchases. College officials also said that some new dormitories would be privately owned and remain on the tax roles.

Recognizing the significance of the college's proposed expansion for the community, the Clarion Borough Council tied the expansion into its federally funded urban renewal proposal. In 1967, the Clarion County Commissioners and the college agreed to become partners in the development of an urban renewal plan to facilitate expansion to meet the physical plant needs of the college. The plan would result in the displacement of some 70 buildings and approximately 50 families. The land included in this particular aspect of the development plan totaled 30 acres. The total cost of the expansion plan exceeded $21 million. The renewal program also provided the first zoning in Clarion.

Some opposition to the planned expansion would continue, but the Chamber of Commerce continued its wholehearted support "because of the overwhelming economic, social, and cultural benefits." The Master Plan eventually approved projected the acquisition of yet more land to accommodate a projected student body of 6,200 by the year 1978. The Clarion Borough Planning Commission said its goal was "To promote and support CSC as a means of providing greater post-secondary education opportunities in the County," according to the Sept. 12, 1969, issue of The Clarion News.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s it seemed that the ritual associated with both Homecoming and Alumni Day included either a groundbreaking or dedication ceremony. Major new buildings during the Gemmell years included: Carrier, Chandler, Becker, Givan, Ralston, Nair, Campbell, Wilkinson, Carlson, Pierce, Tippin, and Marwick-Boyd.

Student enrollment grows and grows

Just as the number of buildings increased, the student population escalated from 1,099 at the start of the Gemmell presidency to about 5,000 at the end of his tenure.

In 1969 the American Council of Education conducted a series of nationwide campus studies and Clarion students were described as high achieving, high aspiring persons from relatively low income families. They chose Clarion because of its academic reputation and low cost. Data also showed Clarion served a higher than usual proportion of first generation college attendees.

The Clarion student body was also socially active and generally in tune with the times. Students were involved in protests of the times such as American involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Even streakers could be found darting across campus in the unofficial "People's Park" that now includes the Gemmell Student Complex.

As more state and federal grants and loans became available, the proportion of first generation students remained high. The student body was more reflective of the larger society and the number of minority students began to increase. As diversity grew, different challenges faced Clarion. Minority enrollment rose from 30 to about 200 between 1969 and 1973. In 1969, the Black Student Association presented a list of ten demands dealing with minority student recruiting, admission, retention, etc. By the end of the Gemmell administration some minority student needs were being met through the creation of their own fraternities, sororities, and social clubs. It has only been since the early 1980s that Clarion and other institutions of higher education have better addressed diversity needs.

Curricular firsts

Act 788 in the 1960s gave Clarion and her sister colleges were new missions. They were authorized to develop programs in the liberal arts and at the graduate level as newly christened state colleges. Teacher preparation would remain a staple, but it would offer much more.

Clarion became the first of the former state teachers colleges to offer a Bachelor of Arts degree, a bachelor of science in business administration, and master's degrees in several fields. These new offerings were in the general fields of the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics. Highly respected curricula in special education, chemistry, business administration, science education, archeology, and other fields were developed. Between 1967 and 1970, 21 new curricula were put in place. Clarion was also the first former state teachers college to qualify for American Library Association accreditation, along with approval to offer a master's degree in library science. Exciting, innovative educational activity was not confined by geography. Leading the way in environmental education, Clarion carried out its mission to the young people of the region through sponsorship of the McKeever Environmental Center at Sandy Lake.

Venango Campus rises in Oil City

Oil City was the next area of growth for Clarion State College. With the support of the chamber of commerce, the superintendent of schools, the mayor, local business and civic leaders, Dr. Gemmell was asked to explore the possibility of providing higher education in this Venango County community. What resulted was Clarion State's Venango Campus, the Commonwealth's first public community college. Since no state money was available for building construction, a local campaign was undertaken to raise $350,000. The citizens of Oil City exceeded the goal by about 10 percent. Classes began in the fall of 1961 with an enrollment of 131. The venture made available a high quality, low cost higher education for many young people. An associate degree in nursing became one of the mainstays of the Venango Campus.

Student accomplishments bring recognition

Institutional image building occurs both in and out of the classroom. Performance of Clarion students in auditoriums, gymnasiums, and on athletic fields brought acclaim to their alma mater. Music and art students, debaters and club sport participants, as well as the student newspaper staff and student athletes won numerous championships and awards. Included in the array of successes during the Gemmell administration were Hun Judo and debating trophies, championship teams in men's sports such as football, basketball, swimming, baseball, wrestling, and golf, and a number of outstanding individual athletic accomplishments. Certainly one of the highlights of the era must be the five individual NCAA Division I wrestling championships won by Clarion athletes in the mid-1970s.

During the latter half of Gemmell's administration athletic programs for women began to develop. The first teams in 1967 were on the intramural level. Within a few years women were winning more than their share of championships while competing on an intercollegiate level in swimming, gymnastics, basketball, and other sports.

The number of sororities, fraternities, clubs, interest groups, and other extracurricular programs increased as dramatically as did curricular ones. A Student Affairs Office was created to coordinate programs and scheduling.

Centennial celebrations

Clarion Crest
In 1967 Clarion State College celebrated its centennial anniversary. Throughout the year a series of curricular and co-curricular events were scheduled in honor of the event. Noted speakers like educational sociologist Robert Havighurst and Penn State President Eric Walker made appearances.

During the mid-1960s David Christie-Murray of Scotland was a visiting professor of English. Christie-Murray, a recognized authority on heraldry, designed a Clarion State College coat of arms. Included on this heraldic creation is the motto "Clare Clarion Clara," meaning, "Be famous, Clarion, and shed forth the light of learning."
Intellectual growth part of mission

Intellectual growth depends on a strong faculty and a strong faculty depends upon its professional development. Gemmell encouraged faculty development and drafting a faculty senate constitution with provisions for evaluation and tenure. Clarion was the first of the state colleges to implement a tenure procedure, serving as a model for personnel procedures in the first collective bargaining agreement for institutions in the current State System of Higher Education.

The Legislature passed Act 195 in 1969 and the Association of Pennsylvania State Colleges and University Faculty (APSCUF) represented faculty for its first contract in 1972.

Other unions represented remaining employees, including the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

According to Dr. Dana Still, provost emeritus, the transition to bargaining at Clarion "was easy and completely non-traumatic." This was largely due to Dr. Gemmell's progressive attitude toward the process. "The traditional adversarial nature of the relationship between labor and management was virtually non-existent during the Gemmell years," said Still. "President Gemmell applied his managerial skills in a fashion that nourished good labor relations."

During these years the composition of the faculty began to evolve. The proportion with terminal degrees and numbers from across the country increased, as did the numbers of females, minorities, and internationals. This broadened the exposure and experience of both faculty and students. As a result both the faculty and student body became more cosmopolitan in nature.

Meeting challenges

Despite the tremendous growth of Clarion during the Gemmell years, financial concerns continued as a state institution. Commonwealth funding was never a certainty and after the boom years of the late 60s and early 70s budget appropriations did not keep up with the growing enrollment. Tuition and fees started to increase regularly and by the mid-70s retrenchment and lay-offs became part of the campus vocabulary. During the early 70s Dr. Gemmell was frequently the financial spokesman in Harrisburg for the state colleges as a whole.

The Clarion State College Foundation was founded on Dec. 8, 1969, based on the premise of providing people with an opportunity to donate to Clarion State College and ensure that their contribution would be used as intended. Contributions still fund scholarship programs, fund selected capital projects, and support other projects.

"The beauty of the Foundation is that it has its own board of directors," said Still. "That board, under the articles of incorporation, are the responsible people and that enables them to control the money, as long as it falls under the umbrella of the Foundation's charter."

During the Gemmell presidency the institution's student body, academic programs, physical plant, and overall reputation reached a level that would have been considered preposterous if prophesied only a few years earlier. Much of this change resulted from two decisions: (1) that of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to convert its single purpose teachers colleges to multipurpose state colleges and (2) that of the trustees to employ Dr. Gemmell as president.

Clarion was in the vanguard of the state colleges. Moreover, a survey reported in the May 5, 1975, issue of The News even seemed to indicate that Dr. Gemmell had turned the tide in the community. According to the survey, 91 percent of the participants were proud that Clarion State College was in their community.

The following year Gemmell announced his intentions to leave Clarion. "To everything there is a season, and there is no reason to regard the college presidency as an exception," said Gemmell in a letter to Trustees. "Generally a college president is chosen to fill a particular need of the institution and when that need has been fulfilled it is time to move on."

Gemmell moved on to become associate director of the Academic Collective Bargaining Service, a Washington, D.C., based consulting service. In recognition of his leadership at Clarion, a student complex housing student organizations, food court, meeting rooms and bookstore was later named in his honor.