Olivet College: Reinventing a Liberal Arts Institution (X):

This case was written by Michael K. McLendon, Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Vanderbilt University, under the supervision of Professor Marvin W. Peterson at the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. The project was funded as part of the W.K. Kellogg Foundationís "Kellogg Forum on Institutional Transformation" initiative. This case is designed as the basis for class discussion on managing change in higher education institutions; it is not intended to illustrate either effective or ineffective handling of an administrative situation.


At 9 oíclock in the evening of April 2, 1992, an ugly racial incident between white and black students at Olivet College plunged the institution, a 700-student liberal arts college situated on an idyllic five-acre plot in the southwestern Michigan countryside, into a state of deep crisis. That the incident made Olivet College the focus of national media attention and the epicenter of a larger debate about race relations on American campuses was profoundly and inescapably ironic, for the college was the first in the country to open its doors to all persons regardless of race, gender, or class. That the student brawl occurred on the floors of Olivetís Shipherd Hall, a dormitory named after the collegeís abolitionist founder, made the events of April 2 seem surreal.

For faculty, staff and students of Olivet College, the events that followed the incident of April 2, 1992 were tragic and bizarre. The collegeís isolated campus, located atop a gentle hillside 30 miles southwest of the Michigan state capital in Lansing and 125 miles due west of Detroit, soon teemed with television camera trucks, reporters from some of the nationís largest newspapers, and representatives of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies as rumors circulated about local Ku Klux Klan activity and the prospect of additional violence. Within two weeks of the initial student altercation, all but four of Olivetís fifty-five black students had packed their bags and left campus, many of them expressing fear for their safety.

In truth, by April 1992, Olivet College was a tinderbox, an "accident waiting to happen", according to numerous observers both inside and outside the institution. The racial incident which made Olivet the unlikely focus of the nationís media followed several years of declining enrollments, alarming rates of student attrition, plummeting faculty morale, and seething tension between the faculty and administration. One renowned study on the future of American liberal arts colleges featured Olivet as the model of an "endangered" institution and questioned the institutionís survivability, noting that "the College has very little maneuvering room left, financially or educationally. Among the colleges visited, prospects for Olivet are the least promisingÖ"

The Setting: A Brief History of Olivet College - Back to Top

Olivet College enjoys a rich and distinctive history among institutions of American higher learning. In 1844, eleven years after founding Oberlin College in Ohio, Reverend John J. Shipherd led a group of Congregational missionaries traveled north to create a college amid the wilderness of southern Michigan. Recalling that the Biblical Mount of Olives was a center of morality and learning, the missionaries named both the college they founded and the town they built alongside it "Olivet". In so doing, the founders intended both college and town as a "harmonious Christian community."

Olivet Collegeís founders held a progressive vision for the institution that they began to carve from the Michigan countryside, a vision that was codified in the collegeís founding charter. Emphasizing personal freedom, democratic practices, and the staunch abolitionist stance of Reverend Shipherd, Olivetís charter made the college the first in the country to be open to all persons regardless of race or gender (Oberlin College was the first college in the nation to admit women). Moreover, Olivetís egalitarian charter expressly provided for the inclusion of students who were "not rich in this worldís goods", a bold public statement for an era when college education was typically reserved for the economic elite. Olivetís first catalog eloquently stated the collegeís commitment to the noblest spirit and aims of liberal learning:

Having no partisan or sectarian interests to subserve, we wish simply to do them [young men and women] good by placing in their hands the means of intellectual, moral, and spiritual improvement and to teach them the Divine art and science of doing good to others. Olivet Collegeís early history, like that of many frontier colleges, was marked by innumerable challenges. Soon after his arrival to the area, Reverend Shipherd succumbed to malaria. Additionally, Olivet College had barely celebrated its first commencement in 1845 when the collegeís single building burned to the ground. To compound matters, the college suffered social hostility. Olivet Collegeís deep commitment to the anti-slavery movement and to the admission of women as students was not universally welcomed. In fact, these commitments seemed so strange to the Michigan legislature that the state refused to grant the institution a charter until 13 years after its first classes began. Despite the obstacles, early Olivetians forged ahead in the firm belief of their calling. The collegeís first catalog in 1846 listed a total of 72 students, "39 ladies and 33 gentlemen", in residence at the college.

In short time, Olivet Collegeís students and alumni became conspicuous by their distinguished record of service to the state of Michigan and to the larger community of liberal learning. In the first half century of the collegeís existence, Olivet students were included among the ranks of the first Rhodes Scholars, influential alumni provided leadership in founding the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, two Olivet College professors served a combined 25 years as state Superintendents of Public Instruction in Michigan, and Olivet became one of three colleges to form the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1888, the oldest intercollegiate athletic association in the nation today.

Except for a brief period of experimentation with an Oxford-style tutorial curriculum from the mid-1930s through the mid-1940s, a painful Communist witch hunt that engulfed the campus in 1959, and periodic building campaigns, Olivet Collegeís experience in the 20th century was largely unremarkable. By the early 1990s, Olivet seemed, by all outward appearances, not too much unlike many other small liberal arts colleges.

Olivet College in 1991: Students, Faculty, Curriculum and Campus Life - Back to Top

Student Demographics

In the fall of 1991, Olivet College enrolled 735 students, 90% of whom were enrolled on a full-time basis. Of this total student population, 427 were male and 308 were female. An overwhelming proportion of Olivetís students was drawn from within the state of Michigan; indeed, 96% of students were Michigan residents. The racial composition of the college also was overwhelmingly white: 90% of Olivetís students were white, approximately 8% were black, and less than one-percent were either Hispanic or Asian. International students comprised about one-percent of the student body, and they were drawn from five countries: Canada, Nigeria, Japan, Thailand, and Croatia. One hundred and twenty-four of Olivetís 735 students were categorized as "non-traditional", meaning they were 25 years of age or older.

Administration and Faculty

Olivet College employed 132 administrators and faculty in 1991, including 66 administrators and staff and 71 instructors. Among the administrative ranks were seven executive officers, including the president, a senior vice president, an academic vice-president and dean of the college, a vice president for enrollment and strategic management, a dean of students, a director of church relations, and a director of the physical plant. Six of these seven top administrators were men, and all seven were white. Both the president and the senior vice president had been at Olivet for 14 years. The other five executive officers had an average tenure at Olivet of four-and-a-half years. In addition to these seven executive officers, Olivet College classified fifty-nine employees as "administration and staff". All of the administrative staff was white. The average tenure of these 59 employees was six-and-a-half years.

Forty-nine of Olivetís seventy-one instructors were classified as "faculty"; twenty-two were classified as "adjunct faculty". Among the former group of full-time instructors, thirty-four were male, 15 were female; all them were white. Twenty-one faculty members, or 43%, did not possess a terminal degree in their teaching area. On average, Olivetís faculty members had been employed just over seven years. Of the twenty-two adjunct faculty, twelve were male, ten were female. Fourteen of the twenty-two adjuncts, or 64%, did not possess a terminal degree. In 1991, Olivetís adjunct faculty had been employed an average of seven-and-a-half- years.

The faculty governance processes at Olivet College centered revolved mainly around a traditional faculty senate, the membership of which was elected at the local department or program level. The college did not have a lifetime tenure system; rather, faculty appointments were made on a contract basis.


Olivet Collegeís mission and curriculum in the early 1990s seemed typical of many small liberal arts institutions. The collegeís catalog offered the following statement of educational mission:

The academic emphasis is on the liberal arts--certain studies which aim to develop in the mind the qualities of subtlety, precision, sensitivity, breadth, and compassion--with special attention to career planning and work experiences during the undergraduate program. Toward this end, Olivet offered students two degrees, the Bachelor of Arts degree and the Bachelor of Music Education degree, and it also offered programs in which students could earn Michigan State Provisional Elementary and Secondary Education Teaching Certificates.

Typical of many liberal arts institutions, Olivetís curriculum was arrayed around a general education requirement. Known as the "Core", the general education requirement consisted of a nine-course sequence from the Freshman through the Junior years, and three distribution courses. The "Freshman Core" consisted of a two-course sequence devoted to reading, writing, and reasoning. The "Sophomore Core" consisted of a two-course sequence intended to integrate training in research and geography with the study of historical ideas, events, and personalities. The "Junior Core" also consisted of a two-course sequence that focused on the arts, literature, philosophy, and religions of Western Civilization. These six courses, supplemented by three distribution courses consisting of a laboratory course, a mathematics/science course, and creative arts course, constituted the collegeís general education requirement.

After completing the Core requirements, students selected a major field of study from one of 24 areas: American Studies, Art, Biochemistry, Biology, Biological Anthropology, Business Administration, Chemistry, Computer Science, Economics, English, Health/Wellness, History, Interdisciplinary Communications, Journalism, Mathematics, Music, Personal Interest, Physical Education, Psychology, Social Studies, Sociology, Theater/Speech, Twentieth Century Studies.

In 1991, Business Administration was by far the most popular major among Olivetís students, enrolling 23% of the 255 students who had declared a major. Eight other major areas of study, Biology, English, Health/Physical Education, History, Music, Personal Interest, Psychology, and Social Studies, each attracted between 5-10% of the 255 students who had declared a major.

Student Campus Life

Campus life programming would seem essential at a small, residential college like that of Olivet. Accordingly, the Campus Life section of the 1992 college catalog stated that the campus atmosphere at Olivet College:

reflects an active student body with an informal style. Students are friendly and get to know each other well since most students reside on campus, and all residence hall students eat their meals together in the Kirk Center Dining Hall. The catalog confidently proclaimed: "Nearly everything there is to do at Olivet is free--and there is lot to do." Indeed, a variety of student organizations did exist at the college. Among the varied "special interest clubs" were academic or disciplinary-affiliated organizations like the American Chemical Society, Phi Beta Lambda for business students, the History/Political Science roundtable, and Campus Media. Numerous performing arts organizations, including clubs devoted to theater, opera, and musical comedy, also existed on campus. Olivet students also maintained a newspaper and a college radio station.

Because the town of Olivet is small, the college student population, most of which originated from outside the immediate area, could not be housed in local homes. Thus, over time the college had built a series of residence halls. In 1991, Olivet required all students with less than 58 credit hours to live on campus in one of three dormitories: Blair Hall, a male-only dormitory built in 1929; Dole Hall, a female-only dormitory built in 1932; and, Shipherd Hall, an upper-class, coed dormitory in operation since 1966. One exception to this general requirement was made for students who belonged to one of Olivet Collegeís Greek societies and who petitioned to live in their respective Greek organizationís house. Olivet actively promoted the residence halls as "living-learning experiences" and as an important vehicles to foster "personal growth and self-fulfillment" among students.

The Greek system had long been a central component of campus life at Olivet College. Olivetís Greek organizations originated as literary societies, which were common on American campuses in the 1800s prior to the growth of national fraternities and sororities. Founded at Olivet in 1847, the Soronia Society exists as the oldest collegiate sorority in the United States. Seven social societies, four male, two female, and one co-educational, existed on campus. All seven societies were local organizations founded at Olivet. Several of the societies, in addition to Soronia, had enjoyed a considerable history at Olivet College, dating back well over 100 years.

Another especially popular dimension of student life at Olivet College in 1991 was intercollegiate sports. The Comets are members of the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA), where both men and women compete at the "non-scholarship", NCAA Division III level. The Olivet Cometsí fellow members of the MIAA include six other Michigan liberal arts institutions: Adrian College, Albion College, Alma College, Calvin College, Hope College and Kallamazoo College.

Olivet beneath the Surface: A "Dysfunctional and Demoralized" Campus - Back to Top

Beneath Olivet Collegeís seemingly calm exterior lurked latent tensions and a variety of percolating problems. By the beginning of the 1991-92 academic year, these maladies were reaching near-crisis proportion.

In recent years, faculty morale at Olivet College had plummeted, as evidenced by the 20-30% annual faculty attrition rate the college had suffered since 1987. Both college "insiders" and external consultants considered Olivetís administration, with the exception of its president and a few select staff, as weak and poorly trained. Olivet also faced a variety of problems in attracting and retaining students. For the fall, 1991 academic term, student enrollment had declined in excess of four percent from the previous year--the third consecutive year in which Olivetís total enrollment had dropped.

One consequence of the drop in student enrollment was a marked decline in tuition and fee revenue for 1991-92. Olivet College collected approximately $5.5 million in student tuition and fee revenue in 1991-92, down about 7% from the $5.9 million collected the previous year, 1990-91. Although Olivetís total revenues had not suffered similar decline, they had begun to stagnate. The institutionís total fund revenue of $9.76 million in 1991-92 represented just a 1% increase over the $9.66 million in revenue for the previous year. Moreover, over the previous four-year period, from 1987-88 through 1991-92, Olivet Collegeís current fund revenues had grown at an average annual rate of 3.2%.

Although the origin and nature of these problems was undeniably varied and complex, they shared a single contributing factor; namely, they were fueled by "a culture of fear, suspicion, and distrust" that had come to permeate the Olivet campus. The clearest manifestation of this culture was the tense relationship between faculty and the administration. At the root of the problem seemed to be faculty perceptions of mistreatment by the president. By 1991, Olivetís president had been in office 14 years, the second-longest tenure in school history. The presidentís management style was characterized as that of "benevolent autocrat"; although he was widely-regarded to be personable and friendly, the president also was known to exercise a "top-down", "hierarchical" and "hands-on" managerial approach.

Much of the facultyís mistrust of the president stemmed from his alleged use of the promise of rewards and threat of punishment as levers to induce faculty and staff to follow a preferred course of action. Certain financial and non-monetary rewards were perceived as being granted to those faculty who held administrative favor, rather than to those who professional accomplishment deserved merit. The seeming lack of consistent criteria for merit raises and other professional awards was interpreted by faculty as an instrument of control; in the absence of an objective, merit-based approach, the president could parcel favors according to his wishes alone.

Faculty also had come to fear retribution from the president for expressing ideas viewed unfavorably by the administration. One example which illustrated the growing distrust between faculty and administrators was the presidentís practice of "banning" certain individuals from campus. Faculty viewed the practice of banning as a device used by the president to punish former faculty or staff who had fallen out of favor. Faculty considered the practice a petty and indiscriminate way to "get even" with individuals that the president disliked.

Many of the specific complaints and concerns of faculty became were openly aired during Olivetís 1991-1992 strategic planning process. A litany of perceived problems and injustices surfaced in a series of meetings that an external consultant facilitated with faculty and staff. Included among the problems were the following: lack of top leadership; lack of fairness; arbitrary treatment by the administration; the discouragement of "policy" so that exceptions to the rules could be made for favored individuals; distrust between faculty and administration and among faculty; a culture that conveyed to its employees that they are easily replaceable; lack of communication between offices; and, intimidation by the administration.

A 1992 report by a Human Services Task Force articulated what many believed was a link between Olivetís culture of distrust and the collegeís inability to retain faculty:

The college community has suffered tremendously because of the continuing turnover of its employees. While salary or other economic factors have contributed to the problem, other issues have played an equal, or greater, role in our view...Retention is a function of attitude, individual treatment, and the work environment, also. An external consultant later would conclude that a "Devilís Bargain" had long ago been struck between Olivetís president and its faculty, with both sides saying, in effect, "We wonít ask anything of you if you don't ask anything of us". Said the consultant: Faculty, in exchange for low pay, lack of support, and the lack of a voice in the operation of the College allowed the President to run the College as he saw fit. To run the College by Ďfirst, surviving each year and then each semesterí, by Ďmeaning all things to all peopleí, by Ďplugging holesí through a desperate series of Ďplans of the year, the elixir on which this place ran for so many years.í One consequence of the Devilís Bargain was that Olivet Collegeís faculty governance structure was widely regarded to be weak and passive in nature. Over time, the presidentís top-down management approach had gradually eroded the authority of the faculty senate. The senate enjoyed little real responsibility, which led to its unspoken reputation among Olivet faculty as that of a reactive and relatively insignificant entity without any substantive agenda.

Olivetís Board of Trustees was said to function along the lines of a similar "agreement" with the president. The thirty-member Board, which consisted of six executive officers (a chair, three vice-chairs, a secretary and a treasurer) and twenty-four other voting members drawn primarily from the ranks of alumni living in Michigan, was conspicuous in its passivity toward the governance challenges currently facing the college. In exchange for the privilege of service without real responsibility, the Trustees typically asked few hard questions, requested little information, and entertained relatively little substantive discussion about the Collegeís status. One knowledgeable observer characterized the Boardís role in the following way:

The Board was very sleepy. Essentially what would happen was that Board members would come to campus four times a year and they would say to the president, ĎHow are things going?í The president would say, ĎWell, you know, these are tough times in higher education, but weíre hanging in there.í And then the Board would pat [the president] on the back and say, "Keep up the good work.í They were just uninvolved. By the early 1990s, both the curriculum and the academic culture at Olivet were atomized, fragmented and hollow. One external consultant to the college, invoking a popular classification scheme of undergraduate education, summarized Olivet College as modeled on an "instructional paradigm", rather than on a "learning paradigm". By this distinction, the observer meant that at Olivet, the emphasis was on academic programs and departments, rather than on learning environments; on instructional delivery, rather than on the quality of outcomes; on instructional parts, rather than on the instructional whole; on credit hour acquisition, rather than on demonstrated knowledge and skills; on line governance, rather than on shared governance and teamwork. This emphasis on "parts" and "input", rather than on "the whole" and "outcomes", created a college devoid of any overarching or coherent curricular vision.

The academic culture at Olivet was strangely paradoxical in nature. On the one hand, faculty did essentially what they wanted to do, having been freed from real responsibility by the "Devilís Bargain" they had struck with the president. There was a perceived lack of central educational mission and purpose and a palpable sense of academic drift. One faculty member lamented:

We had no direction. Academic sprawl was the case; each area was an entity unto itself. There was no core at the institution, no core of the institution. No leadership...The bargain was this, ĎFor low pay we will leave you alone, you can do what you all want to do.í On the other hand, despite the relative freedom "enjoyed" by faculty, the institutionís focus on resource inputs and individual academic programs, coupled with Olivetís larger employee culture, which exhibited high levels of administrative arbitrariness, lack of trust and respect, and a fear of open expression, bred intense competition, squabbling, and political maneuvering for limited resources.

The nature of campus student life also reflected the fragmentation evident in the larger environment. "Cliques" among students and among student groups and a strong sense of exclusion was felt by many students. The Greek organizations were regarded by many students as "the only thing to do" on campus. But, these organizations were insulated and isolated from the larger community. Alcohol usage among students, especially among students involved in Greek organizations, was becoming a serious problem, although little serious attention was given to it at the time. Also, many students believed that the student sanctioning and disciplinary process was unfair and arbitrary, with certain individuals or groups enjoying favoritism from the administration.

Despite the existence of numerous clubs and social organizations, there was little information collected about the membership levels, participation rates, or educational outcomes associated with student participation in these activities. Student participation in various organizations, clubs, and activities was treated as supplemental to, rather than integrated with, curricular content and mission. Hence, student organizations seemed to serve more as social outlets intended merely to occupy studentsí time, rather than function as co-curricular vehicles for the development of students. Consequently, one consultant to the college noted that during the 1990-1992 period, there "[did] not seem to be high, or even modest levels of campus and community involvement." This same consultant employed Peter Sengeís "learning disabilities" metaphor to summarize his perceptions of the state of student involvement on campus and in the community during the period:

The College suffers from widespread Ďattention deficit disordersí, dyslexia, and apparent absence of basic critical thinking skills and self-reflection. It may not be putting it too strongly to say that Olivet, during 1990-92, was not only Ďlearning disabledí but functionally handicapped." (p. 8) Finally, despite Olivet Collegeís historical orientation toward equality and diversity, the institutionís recent behavior did not give diversity a very high priority. Olivetís 55 black students had been actively recruited to campus, but little was done to integrate the students into the broader weave and fabric of campus life. Compounding the problem was the fact that while most of the collegeís white students came from rural areas or small towns in Michigan, the vast preponderance of Olivetís black students grew up in the stateís urban centers, especially Detroit.

In summary, by the end of the 1991-1992 academic year, Olivet College faced numerous, varied, and pervasive problems. Perhaps most distressing was that a palpable sense of malaise and disengagement permeated the campus community. One faculty member and top administrator summarized Olivetís condition in the following way:

We were dysfunctional, ...just really bad. We had a demoralized faculty, a weak governance structure, and abusive relationships.

After a decade of gradual, but perceptible, decline, Olivet College had become a tinderbox. The events of April 2, 1992 provided the incendiary that set the campus ablaze.

Olivet Turned Upside Down - Back to Top

On Wednesday, April 1, 1992, following several months of simmering tension among students over the issue of interracial dating on campus, a white female student claimed that she had been beaten by four black students and left unconscious in a field near campus. Although the woman was not hospitalized and a police investigation later found no evidence to support her claim, rumors about the alleged attack circulated throughout the campus community. Later that same night, trashcans were set on fire outside the dorm rooms of several black student leaders.

On the following evening, the night of April 2, an argument arose in a coed dormitory between a white female student and her white boyfriend. Events escalated when the womanís boyfriend later returned to her room, bringing two of his black friends with him. Claiming that she felt threatened, the female student called her sorority, which, in turn, contacted a fraternity for help. Within minutes of the studentís initial phone call, about 15 members of the fraternity had arrived in the womanís dormitory and confronted the two black men in the buildingís lobby. A crowd soon gathered as additional black students were summoned to the lobby by black female students in an attempt to "even the numbers". Some of the students in the crowd had been drinking. Insults and racial epithets were soon exchanged between the two sides.

The subsequent course of events was confused and contested; black students claimed a white fraternity member threw the first punch, while fraternity members maintained that events unfolded so fast it was simply impossible to say what had happened. By the time police arrived, however, two students required hospitalization and Olivet College was forever changed.

In the days that followed, black students and white students began siding with their respective race in the dispute, wild rumors spread throughout both communities, and students grew increasingly resentful, even fearful, of one another. Both black and white students received threatening telephone calls. Black students discussed rumors of Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi group activity in nearby towns. Although city officials denied the existence of such groups in the area, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights began monitoring events. Both white and black students demanded more security; the administration responded by hiring security guards to escort students at night across Olivetís tiny campus. Events at Olivet seemed to be spiraling out of control.

Olivetís internal crisis very quickly attracted the nationís media spotlight, bringing to campus hordes of newspaper reporters and television news crews eager to make the college the flashpoint of a larger conversation about race relations on American campuses. The New York Times and USA TODAY newspapers devoted special coverage to the collegeís problems. ABC Nightly News, and numerous regional news stations, also reported on the "crisis at Olivet College." The "Olivet incident" became popular editorial fodder in newspapers across the country.

Feeding the news frenzy was the announcement that national civil rights and advocacy organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and The Nation of Islam were investigating the problems at Olivet. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farakkhan, himself at the center of controversy regarding a scheduled address at nearby Michigan State University, was quoted in national wire reports as saying, "at Olivet, they can get away with physically lynching or physically harming...black students."

In the aftermath of the April 2nd incident, black students demanded, and the president consented, that Olivet hire minority faculty, expand the number of minorities on the college staff, and focus the curriculum more on multicultural issues. The president hired a black minister from nearby Lansing to serve as the campus minority affairs coordinator. Black students also demanded that the fraternity members involved in the melee be suspended immediately, a demand which the president flatly refused; the president insisted that any action taken before the collegeís Judicial Board had formally investigated the incident would be unfair to all parties. In response, Black student leaders claimed that the administration was trying to "sweep [the incident] under the rug".

Perhaps the most damaging consequence of the racial crisis and its aftermath was that students who formerly interacted with one another on a regular basis no longer were on speaking terms. One black student, a dormitory resident assistant who tried to break up the fight, had racial epithets yelled at him by his white friends. In the days following the melee, the student wondered why his friend had turned on him, rhetorically commenting to a news reporter, "How can you call me that when we were friends, when I let you borrow my notes?"... But at that time it was white against black. It was disgusting. [Afterwards] We would go to class and couldnít even look at each other." Many white students expressed similar frustrations. One senior female student lamented, "Some of them [black students] are my friends who don't even talk to me anymore. They all say they fear for their safety, but white students do, too. Everyone is afraid to say anything."

By Wednesday, April 8, Olivetís black students began leaving the campus en masse. One black student told a news reporter, "Obviously, they don't want us here. People I never would have expected have called me names. None of us feel we can trust white people anymore." The decision to leave was a painful one for most of the students. Said the principal black student leader; "It wasnít an easy decision. It would have been easier to stay. But the campus is unsafe and unjust. I canít imagine any of us returning." Many white students also expressed sadness at the decision by their black classmates to leave campus. But, even as an increasing sense of loss began to take hold of the campus, new wounds were opened. The parent of one black student who had come to Olivet to collect her daughter alleged that a white student yelled at her, "N----r go back where you came from."

On Thursday, April 9, just one week after the incident, but with two weeks still remaining in the spring term, Olivetís president excused from classes all students who feared for their safety. Students were told they would be allowed to finish their classes and complete their exams by mail. By the next day, fifty-one of the fifty-five black students enrolled at Olivet had packed their bags and left the college. Scores of white students also departed. By the following Monday, April 13, press accounts reported that Olivetís campus resembled a ghost town.

Under pressure from the Board of Trustees, Olivet Collegeís Judicial Board finally took up the disciplinary matter on Saturday, April 25, after two previous delayed hearings. In an ironic and poignant twist, the first scheduled meeting of the Board had been canceled due to the absence of the Boardís lone black member--a student who had also departed campus. The Boardís proceedings began at 10 a.m. and lasted until 1 a.m. the next morning, Sunday. Two students, one white and one black, were give one-year suspensions from Olivet College and a third student was banned from living on campus and participating in school-sponsored extracurricular activities for harassing and threatening another student.

On that same Sunday, April 26th, Olivet Collegeís 1991-92 academic year ended.

"From Worse to Worse": A Year of Presidential Transition - Back to Top

In the weeks immediately following the racial crisis, faculty, parents, and students complained that the administrationís response to events was sluggish and confused. Although the president announced the creation of a new, permanent multicultural affairs staff position and pledged $100,000 toward the development of a multicultural program, many campus constituencies had lost confidence in the presidentís ability to govern effectively. Observers both internal and external to the college concluded that the presidentís leadership style and the associated organizational culture did not position the college to deal with the racial crisis well. Said one observer who was intimate with the past decade of Olivet Collegeís history:

This fear of retribution from the president, while not being overt, became intertwined with the crisis due to the sudden empowerment by the media of certain factions within the campus. As long as the president was able to maintain control, the divisions that had begun to build were held in check. But what the media provided was a situation beyond the control of the president. This empowerment and the resulting confusion became instrumental in the uncertain response of the president during the crisis. More than a few of Olivetís Board members had reached this conclusion, as well. On May 1, 1992, the collegeís president announced his resignation. The Board chairman, a long-time friend of the presidentís, was credited with having "graciously negotiated" his departure. The president agreed to remain at the institution until an interim president was named. Perhaps strangely, the presidentís departure was greeted with subdued relief among many at the institution. According to one faculty member, the campus was experiencing an "intense stupor": Events seemed to be just passing us by, nothing really registered. It was like a grieving process, and we were just at that time experiencing the Ďdisbeliefí stage. No one could believe all that had happened. The Kreuter Era Begins

On June 30, 1992, Olivet College announced the hiring of Gretchen Kreuter, president of Rockford College in Illinois, as its interim president. Kreuter, a feminist and historian who had taught at Macalester, St. Catherine, and St. Olaf colleges, was Olivetís first female president. She immediately acknowledged the seriousness of the racial episode that had engulfed Olivetís campus, and she pledged to make the issue of multicultural diversity her top priority.

Kreuter assumed the position of Interim President on August 15, 1993. She immediately focused her energies on the issue of diversity and multiculturalism, just as she had promised. The nature of her approach, however, plunged the college into even greater controversy. Relations between President Kreuter and the Olivet faculty quickly eroded following Kreuterís appointment of a new associate dean for multicultural affairs, a controversial individual whose classroom "inspections" were intended to ferret out inappropriate or racially charged language by faculty. The faculty was both threatened and offended by the administratorís actions, and they openly complained of violations of their academic freedom.

President Kreuterís relationship with the Olivet faculty further eroded after the surprise firing of two senior administrative officials in December 1993. The officials, Olivet Collegeís academic dean and its dean of students under the former president, were unexpectedly told one afternoon, just days before the Christmas holiday, to clear their desks by 5 p.m. The event had a devastating effect upon the already low morale of Olivet faculty, who perceived the message as "a warning". One faculty member and administrator at the time said, "The message was obvious; any of us could be fired at any time. Everyone lived in fear for the next eight months." Many faculty believed that by focusing almost exclusively on "the race issue", the Kreuter administration had come to view race as the problem, instead of the symptom of deeper problems plaguing the campus.

By the spring of 1993, college officials believed that conditions at the institution had grown even worse than they were following the initial racial incident in April of the previous year. Although student enrollments had climbed, the college faced a $1 million deficit, due in large part to the extensive use of external consultants by the college over the 1992-93 academic year. Also, faculty morale teetered at the breaking point. Indeed, a June 1993 survey conducted by an external research organization found that 85% of faculty and staff "disagreed" or "strongly disagreed" that their experience at Olivet had been a rewarding one. In the words of one senior Olivet official:

People thought that things had gone from worse to worse. People were hurting, really hurting badly, and they were looking to heal. The Bassis Era Begins

The 1992-93 academic year was a frustrating and disappointing experience both for Olivet College and its interim president. As the 1992-93 academic year drew to a close, the perceptions of trustees sharpened around the need for bold presidential leadership. The majority of members of the presidential search committee which formed in May 1993 believed that their institution required "a turn-around president", one who could help Olivet College "reinvent" itself. One trustee wrote an influential letter to the search committee urging the group to bypass traditional candidacies in favor of "a mad scientistÖan inventorÖa critic of traditional higher education practices and, [someone] willing to take risks and to experimentÖ". Among the qualities in a prospective president for which the search committee said it was looking were the following two: (1) "a change agent capable of leading the reinvention of Olivet", and (2) "a President with a management style that would engender in the faculty a sense of respect, support, and a willingness to make the College work."

The Board believed it had found these qualities in one of its candidates, Michael S. Bassis, the 48-year old provost of Antioch College in Ohio. Although the bulk of Bassisís administrative career had been spent at public universities, and he had never occupied a college presidency, Olivet Board members became convinced of Bassisís unique fit for their institution.

Bassis held an undergraduate degree in sociology from Brown University and a masterís and doctorate in the sociology of education from the University of Chicago. He had published and consulted in the areas of social change and leadership in higher education. Throughout his career, Bassis had demonstrated a commitment to undergraduate education, having chaired the Undergraduate Education Section of the American Sociological Association and served as editor of the journal, Teaching Sociology. In addition to his recent experience at Antioch College, a national leader in non-traditional undergraduate education, Bassis seemed especially eager to put his skills and abilities to work in a challenging environment. One trustee later recounted, "[Michael Bassis] was asked by someone [during the interview], ĎWhy do you want to be a college president?í Michael answered in a personal way that related to Olivet, ĎI want to be president of this college at this time, because of the potential for the growth of the college and the chance to put my abilities to good use.í"

On July 15, 1993, Michael Bassis assumed the presidency of Olivet College, just months before the institution was to celebrate its sesquicentennial anniversary. It seemed no small irony that on the eve of this anniversary, Olivet College faced an abundance of problems no less threatening to the institutionís survival than those first confronted by the collegeís founders 150 years earlier. Michael Bassis, Olivet Collegeís twenty-third president, would indeed have ample opportunity to put his abilities to good use.

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Reference Links:

Managing Change and Transformation in Higher Education...Institutions...M. W. Peterson...CSHPE...School of Education

Higher Education Transformation Work Group
Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education
2117 School of Education
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109-1259