THINKING ABOUT INNOVATION: WOFFORD COLLEGE, 1968-2000
On March 3, 1973, the Spartanburg Herald-Journal shared Wofford’s scheduled “Religious Experience of 20th Century Man” speakers with the Spartanburg community. The list featured a Methodist bishop, the dean of the Candler School of Theology, a Catholic high school religion teacher, an associate evangelist from the Billy Graham Crusade, Wofford’s dean of students (who was also an ordained Methodist minister), and a surprising invitee: 20-year-old self-proclaimed witch and satanist Karla LaVey, the daughter of Anton LaVey, the Church of Satan’s founder.
News of LaVey’s invitation spread quickly, as did criticism of the college for extending it. Criticism continued after LaVey’s “packed” March 15th speech in Leonard Auditorium and her afternoon Q&A session in Shipp Hall Lounge. Local media paid particular attention to her short mini-skirt and knee-high leather boots, her pentagram pendant, and her “blood-red” lipstick and nail polish. A letter to the editor in the March 25, 1973, Herald-Journal captures how many Christians and Wofford alumni felt: “I can’t understand why a church-supported college would allow Satan’s angel (arrayed in her beauty and with enticing words) to come to speak to young men.” This letter writer continued that he was sure Wofford “had a reason and a purpose” in allowing LaVey to speak, but he simply could not understand what that purpose could be no matter how many angles he took on the question.
The college’s reason and purpose were explained in Dean of Students Dan Welch’s March 21, 1973, letter to an outraged party who insisted that Wofford had taken “a stand for Satan”:
[W]e were aware (as I am sure you are) that every major news magazine… and every major television network… have presented special articles or programs on the revived interest in the occult, Satan worship, etc. […] Those of us who work with students every day know that there is no way to protect students from the bombardment of different and strange ideas which come to them from the mass media every day. We cannot keep them from reading magazines or watching television. The Committee believed that the best way to expose this movement for what it is, was to bring a representative from the movement to the campus so that our students and faculty and concerned Christians in the Spartanburg area could ask questions which we cannot ask from the news media.
Welch then explained the importance of the college’s open speaker policy:
Wofford College operates under an open speaker policy. This is stated in our Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities. ‘Students and student organizations are free to examine, to discuss, and to express opinions on questions of interest to them. Furthermore, in order to bring to the campus a wide range of viewpoints on various subjects, the College community feels that no speaker invited by a campus organization should be denied free access to the campus. It should be realized by all persons that sponsorship of outside speakers by the College community does not imply approval or endorsement by the College of the views expressed. In addition, all speakers must agree to be available for questions and answers…. We believe that truth flourishes in a market place of ideas.
By all accounts, most attendees thought Karla LaVey’s lecture “a novelty,” a spectacle that few took seriously. But Welch’s response tells us a lot about the frenetic pace of sociocultural change beginning in the late 1960s and just how seriously Wofford took innovating its curriculum, diversifying its student body, and increasing Wofford students’ engagement with the outside world in the second half of the 20th century.
President Charles Marsh wanted Wofford to be an “Oasis of Tranquility.” By the mid-1960s, however, it was clear that Wofford’s now larger “Baby Boomer” student body demanded a different educational experience.
Despite having expanded its faculty and hired professors who would go on to become campus legends, Wofford still was not really ready for the “Boomers” when they finally began arriving on campus in the late 1960s. American youth culture was revolutionized in the 1950s. American teenagers were deeply influenced by the rapid expansion of television culture, the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the beginnings of second-wave feminism, just to name a few. This created, to use sociologist Wade Clark Roof’s term, “a generation of seekers” inclined to ask tough questions and challenge authority and institutions. While students did not doubt that Wofford’s administrators cared deeply about their welfare, they still complained about the college’s long list of rules, room inspections, and twice-a-week chapel assemblies. Many bristled at the tradition of first-year student “ratting” and beanies.
The college would have to change.
Innovation began in the final years of the Marsh administration with Interim’s creation in 1968. The idea of a 4-1-4 academic calendar that would allow students to focus on one course between two traditional semesters was gaining popularity in some academic circles, and Wofford was apparently the first South Carolina college to adopt the approach. Targeted study during Interim allowed students to learn more about the world around them, to travel and study abroad, and to pursue internships and other professional opportunities, generating excitement on campus and in the Spartanburg community. The Herald-Journal featured several articles on the new program in 1968 and 1969. The Interim was directed by Dr. Joab M. Lesesne Jr. Lesesne had started his Wofford career in the history department in 1964 and was appointed assistant dean of the college and coordinator of Interim in 1967. Within five years, Lesesne would be Wofford’s ninth president.
President Marsh retired on August 31, 1968, and was replaced by 37-year-old Paul Hardin III, a Duke University law professor and the son of the Rev. Paul Hardin Jr., a Wofford graduate and South Carolina’s Methodist bishop. In an article highlighting Hardin’s September 10, 1968, convocation address, the Herald-Journal quotes Hardin, offering important insight into his character, the changes that he would bring to the college, and why his four-year tenure was at times controversial:
Part of my problem is that I’m a lawyer and a believer in the contentious adversary system. I believe that on every subject on which difference of opinion is possible, the truth is best found by slugging it out in a robust and open debate.
Hardin was comfortable engaging in types of debate that were uncommon at an institution that had previously sought to be an “oasis of tranquility.” As a result, some Wofford students were not quite sure how to take their new president, as was reflected in contemporary Old Gold and Black articles.
Hardin felt that major changes in residence life policies and programming were overdue. During the 1969 Interim, 27 students, guided by Hardin and Philip Covington, dean of the college, drafted a new “Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities” that guaranteed academic and political freedom for students, created the open speaker policy, and established a judicial process regulating campus behavior. Another committee drew up a constitution for a Campus Union that reorganized and sought to empower student government. At the same time the student code was being re-written, Hardin and the trustees modified the college’s alcohol policy to allow students of legal age to consume alcohol on campus. This decision generated more mail than any decision since desegregation. Hardin explained to parents and others that the decision was part of a plan to place greater responsibility in the hands of students. These changes reflected a greater national trend of ending the practice of in loco parentis, which Hardin effectively dismantled while at Wofford. In 1969, the college also announced it would no longer enforce the practice of ratting that entering students had to endure. The college also attempted to innovate through its Residence Hall Education Program (RHEP). Proposed by Dean of Students Welch, the RHEP was funded by a Danforth Foundation grant. It offered student-led thematic “seminars” organized by residence hall. Student feedback was mixed. First-year students were required to participate. Some reported enjoying the peer-to-peer exchanges, but others complained about instructional quality. The most common criticism was that RHEP needed to be credit-bearing given how much work it proved to be. RHEP was administered by Assistant Dean of Students Bobby Leach, Wofford’s first Black administrator. Leach, who had previously been Carver High School’s vice principal, joined Wofford’s staff in the summer of 1970. Leach left Wofford in 1973 to become dean of students at Southern Methodist University. The RHEP continued in the 1973-74 school year and then ended.
The RHEP’s attempts to engage Wofford’s first-year students with real-world problems reflected a new institutional orientation. In 1969, six Wofford faculty members and two students traveled to Graz, Austria’s Institute of International Studies for a seven-week retreat. Dean Covington described the trip’s purpose in a June 8, 1969, Herald-Journal article as the “fundamental rethinking of the entire conception of [undergraduate education’s] role. Our aims and our curricula must be continually rethought, reevaluated, and changed appropriately if we are to make our college genuinely significant, meaningful, and helpful to the students of today and tomorrow.” Specifically, the Graz group was to consider how the college and its students impacted the surrounding community. The Graz Report recommended that Wofford and other area colleges and universities find ways to get students outside of their campus bubbles and engaged in the world around them in order to prepare students to be productive citizens. This sowed seeds for Wofford’s community outreach programming.
One reason the college wanted to increase its engagement with the surrounding community was to change the campus’ demographics. Part of the reason that Leach had been hired was to be a mentor to Black students and to help the college’s leadership team create a welcoming environment for minority students. Under the Hardin administration, Admission began recruiting Black students more actively. The growing Black population created the college’s first Black student organization, the Association of Afro-American Students in 1971, and sponsored Wofford’s first “Black Week” in late April 1972. That fall, the college hired its first Black faculty member, Dr. Otis Turner, in the Department of Religion. Turner remained at Wofford until 1977, when he left the college for a position at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind. The college’s Black community grew, but it was still small and students reported varying degrees of welcome from white faculty and students.
Women had occasionally attended Wofford since the 1890s, but had never been residential day students. In February 1971, Wofford admitted Robin and Shelley Henry, the daughters of English professor Ed Henry; Donna Green, daughter of economics professor Hal Green; and Leslie Smith as its first full-time female day students. About 20 more women joined them in the fall of 1971. Even though the women did not live on campus, the college was still not ready for its first female students. There was one restroom designated for women’s use in Main Building and, despite the fact that the women had to take physical education classes like their male counterparts, there were no locker facilities available to them. Changes in federal law in the early 1970s, however, meant that partial coeducation could not continue. If the college chose to admit women, they had to be treated equally, which meant the college had to offer them student housing. In 1975, the board of trustees approved full residential coeducation. Admissions standards for women were higher than that of their male counterparts to force the number of women to grow at a slower pace. Again, Wofford was not prepared for the facility upgrades needed to make the campus accommodating for women. By the end of the 1970s, there were more than 200 women living on campus. The college also began to hire women faculty members, with Dr. Vivian Fisher becoming the first tenure-track professor when she joined the English department in 1973.
The Hardin years also saw curricular reforms, beyond Interim, implemented to encourage faculty creativity and to give students more choices. The seeds for Wofford’s Theatre program were planted in the 1968 and 1969 Interims. Wofford’s first-year humanities seminars, pioneered in the 1970s, were copied at institutions large and small. Although a broad liberal arts core curriculum remained in place, pruning departmental requirements made it easier to double or even triple major. Students also were permitted to arrange interdisciplinary majors in the humanities or intercultural studies.
Curricular innovation was aided by the opening of a new campus library on October 11, 1969. Planning had begun during the last two years of the Marsh administration. The Whitefoord Smith Library had been too small for Wofford’s growing student body, an issue for the campus since the 1950s. The new library was to “create by its appearance the impression of a new possibility for education in a new pattern at Wofford. It must do so by defining the college’s interest in having a place where books are readily available and attractively displayed, and where the primary concern is for a certain relationship between students and learning.” On March 27, 1971, the new library was dedicated as the Sandor Teszler Library. Teszler was a Hungarian Jew whose family survived a Nazi death camp. He arrived in New York City in 1948 and moved to Spartanburg in 1961. Teszler opened his own textile mill in Kings Mountain and was one of the first mill operators to integrate a plant. After the deaths of his wife, Lidia, and sons, Otto and Andrew, Teszler spent much of his time at Wofford, taking classes and interacting with faculty, staff, and students. He died in 2000 at the age of 96.
In the summer of 1972, Hardin was elected president of Southern Methodist University, and 32-year-old Dr. Joab M. Lesesne Jr., assumed the role on June 30, 1972. It was the logical end result of his career progression. After being appointed assistant dean of the college in 1967, Lesesne became director of development in 1969 and then, the following year, he replaced Philip Covington as the dean. In the space of three years, Lesesne acquired vital knowledge of the most significant aspects of college operations and close knowledge of Wofford’s alumni, faculty, friends, and students.
Wofford would need a reassuring presence as the campus and Spartanburg community underwent more waves of change during the first half of the 1970s. Between 1945 and 1970, American residential patterns shifted. Speaking generally, population growth and the need for more housing resulted in the expansion of American suburbs. Over time, traditional downtown areas lost their economic and social importance as large swaths of the population moved away from cities. By the 1970s, downtown Spartanburg’s businesses were in economic decline as shoppers flocked to Westgate Mall and other strip malls on the city’s outer edges. The diminished tax base meant there were fewer dollars available for desperately needed improvements, and the downtown area soon appeared rather shabby. The largely Black neighborhoods near Wofford were falling into disrepair as well. They had been in decline for decades as young Blacks left Spartanburg seeking opportunities in burgeoning southern cities like Atlanta or outside of the segregated south entirely. Spartanburg applied for and received federal dollars through the Model Cities Program, a program sponsored by the Johnson administration as part of its War on Poverty. “Back of the College,” the Black neighborhood that developed behind the college beginning in the 1870s, was one of the city’s four Model Neighborhood areas. These areas were chosen because their residents had low incomes or lived in substandard housing. In its May 27, 1972, report on a community presentation about the plan, the Herald-Journal noted that the most significant concerns voiced were about Wofford’s request to acquire some of the cleared land for campus expansion. Community members objected that expanding the college “would change the general make-up of the community too much.”
This 1972 complaint foreshadowed an issue the college would face for the next 25 years: how could it grow without seeming to encroach on its neighbors? Wofford did not enjoy a warm relationship with the Black community. The college had voluntarily integrated in 1964 and was adding Black students and staff, but many Blacks reported chilly receptions on campus and a general feeling that they were unwelcome. Student-led efforts like the Happy Saturday program to establish more cordial relations with the neighborhood were a start, but there were still significant lines of class, education, and race that were difficult to overcome.
The college’s acquisition of properties adjacent to it exacerbated existing tensions. Wofford began buying the properties after World War II as its student body grew. At the time, Cleveland Street, which no longer exists, ran behind Main Building. The Cleveland family owned all of the property between Evins and Cleveland streets and sold the land to the college. The college used the property to add DuPré and Shipp halls as well as a set of tennis courts. Roger Milliken funded these purchases until they became a line item in the college’s budget in the 1980s. By the 1980s, Back of the College’s character had changed. Most of its residents were senior citizens, and the number of persons living in the neighborhood had declined significantly. The college continued purchasing parcels as they became available, often at prices above market value and allowing residents to continue living on them despite having sold them to the college. Wofford acquired the last parcels in the late 1990s. In 1998, Wofford erected a monument commemorating the Back of the College neighborhood.
Building became a hallmark of the Lesesne presidency. The Lesesne era saw the greatest campus building boom since the original campus was built. A new campus life center, with a large arena, a theater, bookstore, multipurpose lecture-cinema room, and canteen opened in 1981. The Neofytos D. Papadopoulos Building, housing the alumni and development offices and a large reception room, opened in 1986. New residence halls opened in 1991 and 1999. During Lesesne’s last decade in office, construction projects were almost constantly underway.
Perhaps the most important moment in Joe Lesesne’s presidency came in the form of a rejection from the F.W. Olin Foundation. In 1985, the college had sought a grant to build a new academic building. In turning down the application, the Olin Foundation said that it found the college’s vision “stunted.” The trustees and administration took the rejection as a challenge, beginning a long process of strategic planning that resulted in the 1987 Masterplan. The college’s leadership became seriously engaged in setting and achieving goals for the college. These goals led to new scholarships being established, expansion of the faculty and the development of new majors and programs. In 1989, the Olin Foundation awarded the college a $5.5 million grant for a technology building, a grant that recognized the steps the college had taken since 1985 to plan for its future.
Lesesne also oversaw significant changes in athletics. When he took office, the college’s few athletics teams competed in the NAIA. With coeducation, the college began to field teams in women’s basketball and volleyball in fall of 1980. In 1988, the college moved into NCAA Division II, and in 1995, moved into Division I, competing in I-AA football. The college struggled throughout the 1980s and 1990s to find a conference affiliation that it believed was a good fit for the mix of academics and athletics at Wofford. In 1997, the college accepted an invitation to join the Southern Conference. Along with these changes came the need to improve the college’s athletics facilities. The new Richardson Physical Activities Building, Gibbs Stadium for football, a renovated Snyder Field for soccer, and the Reeves Tennis Center, all constructed in the latter years of the Lesesne administration, enhanced the quality of athletics on campus. During his tenure, the college became the home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers’ summer training camp.
The Lesesne presidency also saw important curricular innovations. Thanks to a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, the faculty devised a new humanities curriculum. Each first-year student took a values and issues course focused on writing. This lives on in the college’s new LIBA (liberal arts seminar) requirement. Majors in humanities and intercultural studies were developed. The number of faculty grew, as did the diversity of course offerings and the number of majors.
When Lesesne retired in July 2000, he had become a respected leader in state and national higher education circles. In addition to important leadership in the South Carolina Tuition Grants Commission, Lesesne served on the state Commission on Higher Education, the South Carolina Research Authority, and as a member of the United Methodist University Senate. He was the chairman of the board of directors of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and a member of the board of directors of the American Council on Education. In the state, he served on the state archives and history commission. Locally, he was a director of The Spartanburg County Foundation and of the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce.
Lesesne’s careful blending of academic innovation, campus improvement, and community engagement foreshadowed important new directions for Wofford as it entered the 21st century.