Three Elon presidents described their love for the university in a March 11 program that wrapped up a daylong 125 anniversary celebration.
Legendary Elon President Emeritus Earl Danieley brought a Founders Day crowd to its feet Tuesday evening with an impassioned assessment of the university’s rise to national prominence. Speaking to a crowd of about 400 in McKinnon Hall, Danieley said he wanted to share his thesis about Elon’s transformation over the past two decades.
“It is my belief that there is no more remarkable story in the history of American higher education than the story of the growth and development of this institution,” Danieley said. “When you consider where we were in 1931, and you consider the national reputation which we have now, it is no stretch of the imagination to say that none of the 4,000 colleges and universities in this country have a story that matches the story of this institution. It is a great institution and don’t you ever forget it!”
Danieley, a member of the class of 1946 who went on to serve as president from 1957 to 1973, was joined in the program by President Emeritus Fred Young, who served from 1973 to 1998, and current President Leo M. Lambert. Responding to questions from a moderator, associate provost Connie Ledoux Book, the three leaders described Elon’s development, the challenges they faced and their personal recollections.
Lambert recalled two great shocks to the university: the impact of the September 11 terrorism attacks and the financial collapse of 2008. In both cases, he worried about a dramatic impact on enrollment and severe financial difficulties for the university. Instead, he said, Elon responded with hope for the future.
“That is the Elon story – whether it’s the 1923 fire or the Great Depression a few years later, or losing our accreditation in the 30s and 40s,” Lambert said. “You face trials in your life, (and) institutions face trials – and you have to persevere. That’s the Elon story – perseverance and rising like a Phoenix.”
Young said Elon faced major changes in the higher education landscape during his 25-years as president. With the cost of private higher education rising, and state universities and community colleges offering low-cost options for North Carolina students, Elon was no longer in a position to serve first-generation students in the region. In addition, the number of college-aged students in the state dropped by almost one-fourth from 1975 to 1995.
“Our main mission was gone,” Young said. “The 1970s was the decade of ‘can we survive,’ and we sort of proved that to ourselves.”
Young said that in the 1980s the community settled on a strategy of raising tuition, increasing the size of the student body and using the additional resources to transform the college.
“Believe it or not, it worked,” Young said. “Enrollment went up, SAT scores went up, costs went up. It was just that money (we needed) to build a better institution.”
Danieley described his decision to integrate the campus in 1963. He decided to wait for a qualified African-American applicant and then move ahead. “We were very fortunate to have Glenda Phillips, an honors student at the school in Burlington, to apply for admission,” Danieley said. “We admitted Glenda. It was 50 years ago that we did that. It was a good move.”
All three presidents gave credit to teachers who shaped them at a young age and served as role models for their careers in education. Lambert recalled the names of his elementary school teachers in Scotia, N.Y. He said he and his wife, Laurie, went to fine public schools in a good school district and said it is important for Americans to bear in mind how important schools are in building a strong nation and a strong economy.
Young said that his 50 years of association with Elon has spanned generations. “I knew a man who went to the first Commencement. I knew the president of the class of 1932, and when I came here a high percentage of the trustees were outstanding Elon alums from the Depression era. And the values have been so constant.
“I’ve never been able to underestimate the capacity of the human spirit to learn and grow. Elon grows people,” Young said. “It grew me … It is such a privilege and an honor to be part of the Elon community. Elon helps people grow.”