Coming of Age in the 1970s

The 1960s happened at Westmont in the 1970s. Students never rioted, but they did challenge longstanding rules and traditions. Serious financial problems and local opposition to the College’s growth added to the discontent. A high turnover in administrators (including presidents) left the College without direction at times. Meeting these challenges required skill, perseverance, and faith in God.

John Synder Dr. John Snyder resigned as acting chancellor at Indiana University to become Westmont’s fourth president in 1969. Why did he leave the Bloomington campus of 31,000 students for a college of 800? He explained, “I’ve always had a very strong personal commitment to evangelical Christianity…at Westmont, there is an opportunity to get directly into the mainstream of the evangelical community and its educational processes. A lot of exciting things are going on at Westmont now.”

When Dr. Snyder stepped away from the turmoil of student riots into the calm of Westmont, he simply traded one set of problems for another. Once again, the College faced serious financial difficulties. The limit of 800 students had a severe financial impact. With virtually no endowment, the College depended entirely on income from tuition and gifts from friends. But these were inadequate to sustain a quality academic program.

The president wanted to strengthen Westmont’s curriculum and faculty, and he knew he needed money to do it. If enrollment grew to 1,200, the income from tuition would fund a sufficient number of majors and professors and improve the financial situation.

So the College applied to Santa Barbara County for permission to enroll 1,200 students living on campus and 360 commuting students. In the past, the County had granted requests for more students without much controversy. But not this time. The proposal would practically double enrollment, and people in the community thought that was too much of an increase.

This denial, coupled with a national economic slump, created a financial crisis. In January of 1971, Dr. Snyder announced the lay-off of six to eight professors and the elimination of two majors. Westmont was not alone – many other colleges had financial troubles.

Weeks later, President Snyder submitted his resignation. In an interview with the Horizon, he stated, “When I came, I tried to make it as clear as possible that, one, Westmont needed a major infusion of funds, and, two, I was an academic administrator and not particularly a fund raiser…the fiscal situation is such that there’s simply no alternative but for me to spend a major portion of my time on the road raising funds.”

Other storms caused rumblings on campus. Students began to voice their opposition to “The Code,” a behavioral standard they signed when they enrolled. This prohibition against drinking, smoking, dancing, and gambling both on and off campus became increasingly unpopular. In fact, the Code became the “cause célèbre” of the decade.

The Horizon opened the debated with a front-page editorial, arguing that the Code should include public belching because it offended people. “The danger of belching must be directly proportional [to] the number of people offended by public sputtering. After all, the danger of social dancing, a recognized evil, is proscribed by a leading Christian liberal arts college (to remain unnamed) ‘out of deference to many who are offended.’”

Much opposition to the Code was philosophical. “Many people have told me that students aren’t mature enough to handle the responsibility they would have in a college with no code…[but] the way to develop responsibility…at Westmont is not by waiting until college authorities feel the students are responsible…[but] to place students in situations where they will have to act responsibly.”

Student opinion was mixed – some students supported the Code. “I argue that in submitting ourselves to discipline and a code we are freeing ourselves to truly live the abundant life Christ desires for us – the freedom which frees us from self-authority. This is the real issue beyond the four minor cultural habits specifically prohibited in our code.”

In the fall of 1971, the trustees announced they were studying the behavioral standards of Gordon College in Massachusetts which applied only on campus. But the board made no decisions to change the Code that year, and students felt increasingly alienated from the trustees. The Horizon stated, “You cannot evaluate the school without meeting its students. Don’t beg the question by simply reading the Horizon.” Another article noted, “The task of bringing together faculty, staff, student, and trustee is like swimming in jello. There’s not a whole lot of mileage that’s going to be produced.”

Students wanted a voice on the board, so they pushed for the appointment of a student representative. But the trustees rejected this idea. A bitter Horizon editorial addressed the student responsible for the proposal. “If you are too young, too inexperienced, too limited in your vision…to be included on a board of much older, more experienced, and therefore, by nature, much wiser men, the affront is not to you alone, but to all of us.”

Two other requirements – chapel and women’s hours – also chafed some students. In 1971, the Student Council asked the administration to end hours for women (men had no hours). But the administration rejected the recommendation, noting that the College stood “in loco parentis,” meaning “in the place of a parent.” Students were also unsuccessful in their move to make chapel attendance voluntary.

Debate over rules and regulations didn’t always take center stage, especially with a wonderful lecture-artist series. Students of the 1970s had an opportunity to hear masters like Van Cliburn, Andres Segovia, Leontyne Price, and Beverly Sills perform in Murchison gymnasium. The new interterm, a four-week period of study during January, also generated a lot of interest and discussion. Focusing on the nature of a Christian liberal arts education, the program offered short, in-depth classes in a wide variety of subjects.

Dr. Kenneth Monroe became acting president for the second time – he filled the same position when Dr. Forrester resigned in 1948. The search for a new president took nearly a year, and ended on campus with religious studies professor Lyle Hillegas. At 37, he was the youngest man to become president, and the first to come from the Westmont faculty. Both his age and his rapport with students suggest the trustees were more responsive to issues on campus than students suspected.

Dr. Hillegas took action to revise the Code early in his presidency. In the fall of 1972, he appointed a commission of students, staff, faculty, administrators, and trustees to consider changes. On the basis of their recommendation, Westmont adopted a new Code in 1973 which restricted behavior only on campus. The Horizon proclaimed, “We are privileged to live in the era of the ultimate, once-for-all, universal event: Westmont has adopted a new code of conduct.” The article concluded, “It is recognized that the students are endowed with the freedom to choose, and an accompanying responsibility to emulate the standard of behavior Christ set before us.”

Lyle HillegasBy appointing a new administrative team, President Hillegas brought much needed stability to the campus. Together they presided over the revision of the code, the end of hours for women, and the adoption of contiguous housing (men and women living in the same residence halls, but not on the same floors).

These actions created a new openness and harmony on campus, but Westmont’s economic problems persisted. In October, 1975, the president announced the dismissal of 11 full-time professors, the elimination of four majors, and substantial budget cuts. Faculty offered a counter-proposal that reinstated half the programs cut with a special fund-raising effort, but it was, in the Horizon’s words, a “bitter pill.” Westmont still needed that major infusion of funds.

So President Hillegas began the difficult process of asking Santa Barbara County to increase enrollment to 1,200 students on campus. An initial study concluded, “To maintain the breadth of program offerings required in a liberal arts college and to conserve the present faculty, college enrollments must increase.”

In the fall of 1975, Dr. Hillegas resigned as president, citing a desire to take a more active role in ministry. He has since become the senior pastor at El Montecito Presbyterian Church.

The search for a new president (the third in five years) coincided with the process of expanding enrollment. Public hearings began in October amidst controversy and opposition from some neighbors.

At least the conflict had moved off campus. According to a poll taken in chapel, a majority of students supported the new Code. The criticisms focused mostly on dancing: “The prohibition of dancing is absolutely ridiculous and a product of ultra-fundamentalist Christian subculture.” The board listened to students’ views, but voted against further revisions.

But they did agree to two other changes. In 1976, they allowed open-dorm hours three days a week so men could visit women in their rooms (and vice versa). The WCSA president also became a non-voting representative on the board. To improve communication with students, the trustees decided to hold more meetings on campus.

New President David K. Winter encouraged these changes. He had served as executive vice president at Whitworth College in Washington before accepting the presidency in 1976.

After three days on the job, Dr. Winter had to speak at an all-day hearing before the County Planning Commission on the request to increase enrollment. Many people testified on both sides of the issue. According to a Santa Barbara News-Press report, the commissioners had expected solid opposition to the increase, but found the community “fairly evenly divided.” They finally voted at 6:30 p.m., approving the request 7-2.

Neighbors who opposed the increase appealed this decision to the County Board of Supervisors, which received more than 1,000 letters on the issue. After three hours of heated testimony, the supervisors upheld the Planning Commission’s decision in a close vote (3-2). Westmont finally won approval to enroll 1,200 students.

Elated as he was, President Winter realized this was only a beginning. “Now we can demonstrate what we can be to Santa Barbara and Montecito – a source of enrichment and pride to our community, and a good neighbor.” To improve relations with local people, he appointed a committee of neighbors to meet regularly and carry on a “long-term, on-going conversation between the College and the neighborhood.” At the same time, he became actively involved in the community, serving on a number of local boards.

With the battle over growth behind him, the president turned his attention to the academic program. “Westmont simply must increase its quality, and there’s no magic: quality costs money. Too many colleges are second rate, and I would not be a part of Westmont if that were our future.” The rising enrollment helped the financial situation, but didn’t solve all the problems. To strengthen the curriculum, Dr. Winter called for an increase in tuition. He also began to build the endowment, a permanent “savings account” that earns interest each year for the College.

Westmont grew in many ways during the 1970s. Students became more responsible for their behavior, and the College strengthened its commitment to be a good neighbor to the local community. Controversy led eventually to better communication and greater openness. Despite the difficulties, God remained faithful to Westmont College.