Parsons College: A Cautionary Tale for the UI

Parsons College: A Cautionary Tale for the UI

Laura Crossett

October 28, 2015

Note: A version of this document was published by The Des Moines Register as Laura Crossett, "Parsons College: A Cautionary Tale for the UI," The Des Moines Register, October 28, 2015, 9:57 p.m.

In 1955, the Board of Trustees of what was then Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa, had an idea. The school was struggling financially, so they would try something new. They would bring in a new president, a man without a traditional academic background who would run the college more like a business. [Photo credit: Iowa Center for the Book]

If some of the details of this story seem familiar, it may be because they parallel the current situation at the University of Iowa. Like Parsons, the UI has faced difficult financial times. And like the Parsons board, the Iowa Board of Regents decided to look outside traditional academic circles for a business leader who could turn the school around.

Others have chronicled the problems with the choice of Bruce Harreld, from the transparency of the search process, the accuracy of his résumé, and his qualifications for leading an academic institution. But in considering his story, we might be well served by revisiting what happened the last time a college in Iowa tried to run like a business.

Millard G. Roberts, a football player turned Presbyterian minister, became the president of Parsons College in 1955. Though the college had only 212 students and staggering debt, it was so sure of Roberts that it spent $10,000 on an inaugural celebration for him. And he did have success: by 1963, Parsons had over 2000 students. Roberts hired more professors by promising some of the highest salaries around, brought in more students—at least students who could pay tuition—by giving kids with low grades and those who’d had trouble at other schools a second chance, and instituted year round classes. Parsons was profiled in the pages of Time and House and Garden, and Roberts was invited to speak at conferences around the country. The school that billed itself as a second chance was itself an enormous second chance success story.

But there was a cost to Parsons’s success, one that ultimately led to its demise.

My father, John Crossett, was hired to teach at Parsons in 1962. He came to Iowa from the east coast in part because of the then princely promised salary of $11,000 a year but also because he believed in small liberal arts colleges and in the Parsons mission of helping students who needed another chance at education. He had been told about the many programs Parsons had set up to help these students, from extra tutors to small class sizes and light class loads for professors, which would allow them more time to work and focus on their students and their scholarship. 
 What he found was somewhat different.

The college lied—frequently reporting contradictory numbers in its own publications—about its student:faculty ratio, the percentage of faculty who held doctoral degrees, the contact hours between students and faculty, and the courses offered. Instead of providing the promised small classes and extra help for students, Roberts crammed three or four students in a room meant for two and moving out all but one desk to make room and charged off-campus residents for meal plans.

Most egregiously of all, professors were told what kind of grades to give. If their grades at midterm were not satisfactory—that is, if they did not include enough passing grades—they were first threatened, and then, if they did not comply, required to turn over their grade books to a supervisor. Final grades were often changed later in the Registrar’s office.

In 1963, my father and five other professors detailed the lies that Parsons told in a report to the American Association of University Professors, the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools (the NCA), and the United Presbyterian Church entitled “Conditions at Parsons College Under the Administration of Millard G. Roberts.” All six professors resigned or were fired, but Parsons was put on probation by the NCA.

In 1966, the Register ran a long story about Parsons confirming many of the findings of the professors’ report and finding further anomalies. “In one publication, the college says in had 212 students in 1955; in another, the figure is 236. In one place, it says the curriculum was cut from 492 to 168 courses; in another, 768 to 160. Dr. Roberts was asked: Which figures are right? ‘Both,’ he replied.” Roberts engaged in similarly funny math with the colleges finances, reporting different numbers in different publications, and accepting peculiar bequests—such as the $500,000 hotel in Keokuk that was given to the college provided they paid the owner $20,000 a year. In 1967, Parsons lost its accreditation, and the trustees asked for Roberts’s resignation. In 1973, citing bankruptcy, it shut its doors for good.

When asked about a nonexistent company on his résumé, Bruce Harreld said that it was a name he had previously used and he had “accidentally” listed it. “Shame on me,” Harreld said. “I too quickly pulled it from out of my head and put it on the résumé. There is no Colorado corporation. I live in Colorado. That’s my post office box.”

When asked about Roberts’s tendency to give contradictory information, the Parsons College board said, “Since for him intent and action are one and the same, he sometimes states the truth which he is moving toward as the truth which exists in the present moment.”

I hope that the story at the University of Iowa under Harreld will be very different from the story of Parsons under Roberts. But it seems a cautionary tale.

No comments: