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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: John Strassburger

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-04-13

John Strassburger is president of a hot institution.

So hot, in fact, that instead of the usual 1,800 applicants competing to qualify for an incoming freshman class of 400 students, some 4,300 applied to Ursinus College this year.

"Truth be told, I just don't know what accounts for this surge in applications," Mr. Strassburger said. "Perhaps it's that 17-and-18-year-olds are getting hungrier each year for a solid liberal arts education."

Ursinus College has been providing such an education since 1869, when it was founded by a group of Pennsylvania Germans who felt that Franklin & Marshall College - started in 1787 in Lancaster with a gift of 200 English pounds from Benjamin Franklin - was getting too liturgical. They named the institution after the 16th century reformer Zacharias Ursinus, a co-author of the celebrated Heidelberg Catechism, probably the most beloved Confession of all time.

In telling the history, Mr. Strassburger is in his element. He was, after all, trained as a historian at Bates College - where his mentors included two illustrious historians, Sydney Wayne Jackson and Ernest Muller. One senses that he misses being in a classroom discoursing with students.

"I tried to teach after becoming president in 1994 - but a college presidency is just too time consuming," Mr. Strassburger said.

Just how time consuming can be seen from a recent day. It started with a faculty breakfast at the 175-acre campus, a mid morning meeting in New York City with foundation executives, lunch with a reporter, an afternoon meeting, also in Manhattan, and a working dinner in Philadelphia with potential donors.

The cultivation and care of donors is a major obligation of any college president's job. In light of the fact that there are 2,460 four-year educational institutions in America - of which two thirds are private - competition for funds is fierce. Even if one assumes that presidents of liberal-arts colleges must compete only with one another, that's still a daunting tournament - there are more than 200 national liberal-arts colleges in the country.

In Mr. Strassburger's case, he needs to raise a significant portion of Ursinus's annual operating budget of $50 million (after student aid is factored in, the figure rises to $75 million).

He has been good at it. When he became president, the college's endowment stood at $50 million. He doubled it by last year. Mr. Strassburger has also initiated a $100 million capital construction program, for which he's raised every dime.

How does he do it?

Mr. Strassburger smiles gently, displaying quiet Midwestern manners learned in his native Wisconsin as the son of a businessman, Robert, and his wife Elizabeth Mathewson.

"Lots of good luck," Mr. Strassburger said.

That may be so, but he's paid his dues. After graduating from Bates College, he went to Cambridge University, where he started as a medievalist. He received a master's degree there, and then obtained a doctorate at Princeton University.

As he moved through the groves of academe, Mr. Strassburger developed expertise in American colonial history. He taught at Hiram College, and then served as an acting assistant director at the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, D.C.

Before coming to Ursinus, he was at Knox College for 10 years, as dean and executive vice president.

When he arrived at Ursinus - which is located about 30 miles from Philadelphia - Mr. Strassburger found that the institution had not generated sufficient buzz.

"It had been far too self effacing, far too modest in view of its accomplishments," he said.

Those accomplishments included a solid reputation as a college that prepared students for medical studies.

"I found that hard work was part of the college culture - that even though it wasn't Harvard or Yale, the education imparted to students was rigorous," Mr. Strassburger said.

He also found a remarkable degree of enthusiasm among Ursinus's 120 faculty members about the talents and potential of its 1,550 students.

"I was struck by how much the faculty were engaged with the students," Mr. Strassburger said. "I shared the excitement of being around attractive, energetic young people who wanted to change the world."

His own message to students always was:

"Whatever you are going to do in life will require an awful lot of work."

If that message reflected his Midwestern values, it also recognized that Ursinus students would enter a professional world of increasing competition.

Such competition came not only from other students in America but also from overseas as more and more American employers cast their net wider to hire talented graduates.

Mr. Strassburger told Ursinus students that they had only to look across the campus toward the nearby presence of Wyeth Laboratories to understand how selective employers were becoming as the pool of qualified college graduates grew larger each year. (More than 2.3 million college students are expected to receive associate's, bachelor's, and master's degrees this spring; of these, 1.43 million will receive bachelor's degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.)

To strengthen the qualifications of Ursinus students, Mr. Strassburger encouraged the introduction of academic programs that deepened reading. One such program that has received national attention is the college's "great books" course, where students pore through 35 titles drawn from many disciplines.

Mr. Strassburger said that Ursinus's new curriculum "combining a common intellectual experience with significant research and independent study" has been hailed by the National Survey of Student Engagement as a national model.

During his presidency, new programs have been added in neuroscience, environmental studies, biochemistry, dance and African and African American Studies. Currently average SATs are well over 1200.

Such programs no doubt contributed to the selection of Ursinus by Newsweek/Kaplan recently as one of America's "25 hottest colleges."

"What we set out to prove at Ursinus was that a terrific college education can be accessible," Mr. Strassburger said, adding that 20% of Ursinus students receive Pell grants of $4,500 each, the maximum figure allowed. (Unlike a loan, a Pell grant doesn't have to be repaid. Generally, Pell grants are awarded only to undergraduate students -- those who haven't earned a bachelor's or graduate degree. Pell Grants are usually a foundation of federal student aid, to which aid from other federal and nonfederal sources might be added. Pell grants are generally given to students hailing families with an annual income of less than $36,000.)

The average aid package per student at Ursinus is $15,000. Tuition, plus room and board costs about $39,000.

"But whatever the source of funding for education, a college always needs to ask what is required of its students to do well," Mr. Strassburger said.

He paused, and then said:

"What does it take for a student to succeed?"

That question preoccupies Mr. Strassburger, not the least because it goes to the heart of the very underpinning of a liberal-arts education.

"The liberal thesis is that wide-ranging probing will produce creativeness," he said. "I hope that's not wishful thinking."

The opposite of that thesis, of course, is to corral students into subject specialization at an early stage of their undergraduate years.

Still, a disproportionate number of America's scientists come from liberal arts backgrounds - which raises the question: What undergraduate curriculum better encourage the ability to think?

That's certainly one question that Mr. Strassburger examines not only on campus but also as he participates in various national education commissions.

"Perhaps the single most important question that any college president must ask is, 'Are we training our students to be better citizens?'" Mr. Strassburger said.

A personal note might be in order: The reporter realized that one could make a college president out of a history professor but that there was always the professor within the president. He asked Mr. Strassburger for a reading list concerning early American history - and within a day of the lunch, a marvelously annotated list arrived by e-mail.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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