Westmont Magazine Remembering Robert Voskuyl
When he left his position at Wheaton College to become president of Westmont in 1950, Roger Voskuyl came to a deeply troubled institution. During the previous decade, two presidents, two interim presidents and a three-person executive committee had led the college. Nearly half the faculty resigned in the spring of 1950, most protesting the board of trustees’ “unprofessional” treatment of presidents. Student enrollment declined from a high of 324 in 1946-47 to a low of 218 in the fall of 1950. The college was deeply in debt, and the future looked bleak.
At the memorial service for Roger Voskuyl, who died Nov. 9 at the age of 95, Professor Emeritus Paul Wilt proclaimed, “We can say with confidence that in the sovereignty of God, Dr. Roger Voskuyl, with others, ‘saved’ Westmont.
“He achieved many things in his 18 years as president,” Wilt noted. “He stabilized and then rebuilt the faculty. He reversed the decline in student enrollment and built it to a high of 700 when he resigned. The college received accreditation by the Western College Association in 1958. He presided over a building campaign that led to the construction of three dormitories and planning and financing for a fourth, a dining commons, a lecture hall, library, physical education complex, health center and several smaller buildings. The college invested nearly $7 million in construction during the Voskuyl years. College assets increased from $500,000 to $10 million.”
“It would be hard to overstate the importance of Roger Voskuyl in the history of Westmont,” said Westmont President Stan D. Gaede. “He was an active member in the Santa Barbara community and represented the college well. He left a much stronger institution at his retirement, both academically and physically. His faith was deep and genuine and impacted everything that he did. We are grateful to the Lord for the life of Roger Voskuyl.”
It is fortunate — and surprising — that Voskuyl agreed to come to Westmont. After graduating from Hope College, he had earned master’s and doctorate degrees in chemistry at Harvard and served as a group leader on the Manhattan Project during World War II. In 12 years at Wheaton he had risen from instructor to professor to dean and served as interim president for a year.
Why did he leave the security of Wheaton for the uncertainty of Westmont? The advice of his friend C.C. Brooks convinced him to make the move. In his wisdom, Brooks said, “At Wheaton you can keep the wheels turning — at Westmont the sky is the limit.”
The faculty welcomed Voskuyl warmly. Retired Music Professor John Lundberg remembers being pleased with him. “I thought, here’s a man of stature, a godly man, he’s got all the credentials, and I thought it was a condescending move on his part to come here.”
Lundberg also recalls hearing Voskuyl speak in chapel. “In his first chapel talk he said, ‘I’m so happy to be here at Wheatmont.’ It just cracked up the student body.”
Voskuyl had good reason to be confused. “Mind you, I had visited Westmont on August 22, resigned from my position on August 31, and arrived in Santa Barbara on September 15. That was the fastest, most dramatic move I’ve ever made in my life!”
Westmont even helped Voskuyl move. He recalled, “At the board meeting at which they decided to offer me the position, John Wilks spoke up… [He] said, ‘Paton Yoder (who had been the dean of faculty and just moved back east) bought a horse trailer from me for $100. It’s large enough for two horses. You go to Goshen, Indiana, buy it from him for $100, move your things, come back here, and I will buy it from you!’ That was the board’s assistance for our move.”
Moving from Illinois with two cars, two trailers, and four children seemed easy compared to the task Voskuyl faced as president. He had to build up the finances, attract qualified faculty, gain accreditation, and expand the campus and the enrollment.
Voskuyl knew Westmont needed financial stability, and he made it a priority. After he came, the college never missed a payroll. He adopted the wise policy of not expanding beyond what the institution could support financially. This pragmatism served Westmont well — the community felt greater security and optimism.
The faculty needed rebuilding after the exodus of 1950. According to Voskuyl, “The first time I went to a faculty meeting, I was quite disappointed in what I saw. Remember, I had been presiding over quite a prominent and well-established faculty at Wheaton…To attract people of professorial rank was difficult…[the dean had] sought people who were doing graduate work and …needed to teach…I felt we should seek those who had doctorates, perhaps settle for less, but encourage them to finish their work.”
Voskuyl picked up the determination of Wallace Emerson, the first president, to gain accreditation. Early in 1956 he wrote, “It is the pledge of this administration to make accreditation foremost in all of our studies.” The faculty prepared for a visit by the accreditation team in early 1957. But the answer proved disappointing: the committee recommended a two-year probationary period. They required work toward a better liberal arts curriculum, a library and an endowment.
In 1958 Westmont submitted a report detailing its progress. The good news came in March when Westmont received a three-year period of accreditation from the Western College Association. When Voskuyl shared the news with students in chapel, they became so excited, the scheduled speaker never got a chance to speak.
Westmont enrolled 219 students in the fall of 1950, a number hardly adequate to support a good program. By the next fall, enrollment reached the maximum of 298 set by the county. The existing facilities couldn’t handle this number comfortably. So Voskuyl suggested enclosing the south patio of Kerrwood Hall to provide space for studying and dining. He also proposed an athletic field, a residence hall, a gym, a chapel, and a dining hall.
The expansion began with the Garden Room, the addition to Kerrwood Hall, built in 1953. This project sent two important messages: Westmont intended to stay in Santa Barbara, and it planned on growing.
Both the county and the Montecito Association approved the college’s request to increase enrollment to 323 in 1953. Their response opened the door for further increases. In 1955 Westmont got per-mission for 375 students and a future enrollment of 650.
The campus erupted with buildings in the 1960s. Westmont built or acquired 12 of its 24 major facilities during these years, including Voskuyl Library, Murchison Gymnasium, Porter Hall, and the Deane School complex. Three new residence halls (Clark, Van Kampen, and Armington) housed the growing number of students.
President Voskuyl rejoiced over the growth of the campus, but noted in 1965 that buildings “are but the container in which the educative process takes place… the faculty [is] the catalyst, bringing about the maturing process more completely.” The president worked with Dean Frank Hieronymus to strengthen a faculty he described as “young” in 1960. “A college 20 years old does not have a backbone of faculty who have taught for 20 years and who have had time for meditative research,” he said.
But the faculty matured in the 1960s. The number of full-time professors grew (from 29 to 49) as did the percentage of those with doctorates (from 38 to 58 percent). Meanwhile, teaching loads decreased. According to the dean, professors used their extra time “to engage in greater depth of study in their own field, in research, and in writing.” They also concentrated more on their areas of expertise in the classroom. As a history professor in the 1950s, Hieronymus had taught “everything in our curriculum, except Latin America and the Far East.” Faculty no longer stretched themselves so thin.
Enrollment set a record nearly every fall during the 1960s. The number of students jumped from 490 to 892 in ten years. The college kept expanding without sacrificing quality. The addition of badly needed facilities and professors actually improved education at Westmont.
Despite all the successes, Voskuyl also knew sorrow. The festive holiday mood ended suddenly for the Westmont community in December 1959. Just two days before Christmas vacation, President Voskuyl’s daughter Nancy died in a car accident. While her death brought deep sorrow to the college, it gave the Voskuyls an opportunity to share their faith with the local community.
Nancy had gone out to lunch that day and was returning to campus for an afternoon class. The car in which she was riding slipped off the road, throwing her against a telephone pole just off the pavement on Sycamore Canyon Road. She died instantly.
Dean Hieronymus called the president who was in Los Angeles. According to Voskuyl, “Frank told me that Nancy had been in an accident. I asked how bad it was, and he told me it was the worst. He offered to come pick me up, but I told him I could drive up by myself. We agreed to meet at the Conejo Grade… From there, we drove the rest of the way to my house. When we arrived, there were several family friends waiting. The young man who was driving the car with Nancy was also there. I took him aside, and we went into the bedroom and knelt and prayed together.”
Although they grieved for Nancy, Roger and Trudy Voskuyl opened their arms to this young man. Their response to him and their expression of faith in God touched the Santa Barbara community. The Lord used the tragedy to make Westmont more visible in the local area.
Within a few days, the idea of a prayer chapel in memory of Nancy took hold. Voskuyl chose the New England style of the building because of his time at Harvard.
In an open letter in the Westmont Courier in 1960, Dr. Voskuyl shared his thoughts. “Our life at home and the life of the college were different because she had been with us … Truly we can say with other parents and friends that there are many things worse than having a daughter, a classmate, a friend in heaven … for to be with Christ is far better.”
Thirty years later, Voskuyl said he believed Nancy’s death led to a special time of personal and spiritual growth in his life. “During that week, I spent hours reading about what it means for a Christian to die … [and], I did most of my grieving. I feel I was given a special grace from God to face the burden …
“I fulfilled my duties as president as best I could. At times, I would be quite moved emotionally, and it became difficult to lead chapel, but I was able to continue somehow. Since that time, I haven’t felt grace quite like I felt it during that period.”
Comparing Voskuyl to his predecessor at Westmont, music professor John Hubbard described him as “a much gentler kind of person, very thoughtful, a person marked by humility . . . What he did [for the college] was as much by the character of the man . . . his personal integrity and his kindness as a person.”
“He reflected in his personal and professional life the college motto, ‘Holding Christ preeminent,’” Paul Wilt says. “The Roger John Voskuyl Library is a fitting memorial to his very significant contributions to the development of the college.”
The Christian College in the 20th Century
A university or college is Christian only as it is Christian throughout. This means that the board, the administration, the faculty, must be composed of vitally Christian men and women.
A Christian university has the liberal arts at the center of its curriculum. A liberal arts education produces a cultured person who understands and comprehends and sees through the culture in which he lives.
A Christian university within the common grace of God shares in the transmission of culture . . . a Christian college must be as broad as the creative-redemptive base of sacred Scripture. This means it must be concerned with the purposes of God in creation as well as redemption.
The Christian university relates itself vitally to the Christian church for the Christian college is a committed institution and is composed of committed people.
— President Roger J. Voksuyl
Westmont Courier, June 1963