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Interim leadership and evolution; 1976-1980

Following a legend

Dr. Gemmell announced his pending retirement from the presidency during the summer of 1976 meeting of the board of trustees. The process to find a replacement began shortly thereafter. When he left office at the end of December, Dr. Elizabeth Rupert, dean of library media and information sciences, became interim president. Rupert was the first woman to serve as chief executive since the early days of Carrier Seminary.

Sommers arrives as president

Clayton Sommers
Clayton Sommers
On March 1, 1977, Dr. Clayton Sommers assumed the office of president. Sommers received his undergraduate and graduate degrees form Harvard, the former was finance and the latter in law. He had practiced law and served in a number of higher education positions in the state of California, serving as dean of faculty affairs of California State University and Colleges before coming to Clarion.

The legacy Dr. Sommers inherited was both a blessing and a curse. He had come to an institution which had survived growing pains and the student activism of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The other aspect of the legacy was an environment in which tight budgets prevailed. This scenario was far different from California which had a long history of supporting public higher education.

In early March 1977, Dr. Sommers was interviewed by reporters from The News. "I feel Clarion is the maximal size for a college to function properly," said Sommers. "This college is an important cultural center not only for the students but for the townspeople as well. Buildings are not simply filled during the day then left vacant at night. Many opportunities exist for involvement. I feel the old creative urge for the first time in six years." In a general context, these views set the tenor of his brief administration which was characterized as a period of stabilization in enrollment and considerable budgetary restraint.

Between 1975 and the arrival of President Bond in 1980, enrollment declined by about two per cent. The decline was but a temporary phenomenon. By the end of the 1980s, a new all time high had been reached. As it had throughout its history, the college catered to first generation college students. But while this was happening the mix of the student population at Clarion continued to evolve. The proportion of minority and international students was gradually easing upward.

Students continued to achieve success in both the academic and extracurricular areas. A high watermark year for Golden Eagle athletic teams may have been 1977. Female swimmers and gymnasts won national titles while the male basketball and gymnastics teams garnered high rankings in post season competition.

A number of programmatic changes occurred during his time frame. Clarion, through the aid of grants, instituted programs in an effort to support and encourage college attendance by high potential secondary school students of low socioeconomic status. The effort was later expanded to include those who enrolled at Clarion.

Curricular changes included the implementing of an associate of science in business degree, a bachelor of science in communication degree, and a bachelor of fine arts in theatre degree. The School of Continuing Education began to explore new scenarios for course delivery to meet the needs of adult learners. Continuing education offerings, which were available at both campuses, included an innovative undergraduate "Tuesday College" and a Saturday MBA program, both at Venango. The Venango Campus also added an associate degree in habilitative sciences. Other activities designed to be of service to the region included sponsoring an economics seminar for truckers, conducting largemouth bass research, and sponsoring an institute for coal engineers and executives.

Because of recurring budgetary problems, faculty morale seemed to be at a low ebb. In spite of this, high quality teaching remained a characteristic of the institution. State College Distinguished Faculty awards in 1977 to professors Nadine Donachy, Eugene Sobolewski, and Charles Ruslavage are evidence. These and other faculty continued to practice Galileo's philosophy, "You cannot teach a person anything; you can only help him to find it within himself."

The planning process, critical to the advancement of any entity, continued during the Sommers administration. A status report in 1978 generated by the Clarion State College Planning Commission served as a backdrop for expansion that would occur during Dr. Bond's tenure. Products of planning during an earlier administration that were dedicated in 1978 were the Dana Still Hall of Business and the George Lewis Computer Center.

In the summer of 1979, after only about 30 months in office, Dr. Sommers resigned to take a position as Commissioner of Higher Education in Harrisburg with the Pennsylvania Department of Education. While his term of office was short, it was not unusual for a Clarion president. Including Sommers, five of 13 presidents served three years or less.

"I was asked to take this position by Secretary of Education Scanlon, I was not a candidate for the job," said Dr. Sommers when he resigned. "There is a real pain for me in leaving Clarion, but there is also an opportunity to help Clarion . . . by making bureaucracy more responsive to schools."

This is reminiscent of a somewhat similar journey to Harrisburg almost 100 years before. The reader might recall that A.J. Davis, founder of Clarion State Normal School, went to the Harrisburg in 1882 to further the cause of a state sponsored teacher preparation institution at Clarion. It is obvious that, since this history is being written, Davis was successful. Sommers did not have similar success. In fact, differences with Secretary Scanlon led to Sommers early departure (May 1981) from Harrisburg and subsequent return to California.

Leach fills in as interim president

During the interim of the presidential search, Dr. Charles Leach, vice president for administration, served as chief administrator. This was the second such stint for Dr. Leach. He had served in the same capacity during a Gemmell sabbatical and would surface again for a third session as interim president after the resignation of Clarion's next president, Dr. Thomas Bond.

Leach's major concern, like that of Sommers, was a series of fiscal crises. Hiring freezes and various budget cutting scenarios became the order of the day. Following guidelines from the Commonwealth, he presided over the reconversion of Clarion's heating system to coal. This measure was expected to have an estimated first year savings of $2.5 million.

This four-year period of time between Dr. Gemmell and President Thomas A. Bond was more than simply a series of caretaker administrations. Results of sound management and planning become evident during the early years of the Bond administration.