Beginnings as a seminary
In 1859, some local citizens generated a proposal for the creation of a seminary in Clarion, the earliest recorded evidence of an institution of higher education for Clarion, according to Caldwell's Illustrated Historical Combination Atlas of Clarion County.
The proposal was forwarded to the Erie Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, but Civil War engulfed the nation before any action could be taken. (The impact of wars throughout the history of Clarion, like many other colleges and universities, had a direct impact on enrollment and growth.)
The institution began operation Sept. 10, 1867, as the Carrier Seminary of western Pennsylvania. It was named in honor of the Carrier family for their contributions of $6,000 and lumber for the endeavor. Lacking any facilities of its own, classes were held in the old academy building. The Seminary was a coeducational institution with the Rev. James G. Townsend as principal.
Carrier's calendar called for three, 13-week terms with tuition as follows: Common English branches: $6, Higher English branches: $7, and Languages: $8.
Normal program to college
Carrier Seminary began operation and offered a normal program as early as 1871. However, it wasn’t official for another 16 years. Clarion State Normal School, the successor to Carrier Seminary, opened its doors on the old Seminary grounds April 12, 1887.
The commonwealth’s purchase of Clarion was official in December 1915 with the state assuming full control the following year.
Clarion became a college-level institution in 1920. A student now needed 15 units of high school work to be considered for admission and after 1924 intelligence tests were used as criteria for admission. The old Normal School was composed of students who were preparing for entrance to college of liberal arts, technical schools, professional schools, a business school or the teaching profession. Clarion was no longer a preparatory school, but rather, a technical school of junior college rank.
Clarion became a college on May 28, 1929, and Dr. G.L. Riemer became its president. The nation was in the midst of an unparalleled economic boom. In a span of five short months, however, the Depression set in. On Oct. 24, 1929, otherwise known as "Black Thursday," total panic seized the stock market and by Oct. 29 the bottom had dropped out. The Great Depression had profound effects upon state appropriations and student enrollment at Clarion.
Dr. Paul Gladstone Chandler, the son of an itinerant Methodist preacher, arrived in Clarion as the nation was emerging from the doldrums of the Depression. He led Clarion toward great heights during his 23 years as president.
Although crises kept intruding during the two decades of turmoil from 1930 to 1950, the period was a time of continuing thoughtful inquiry and soul-searching into the philosophy, organization, structure and operation of the educational program. These efforts resulted in the primary achievement of the Chandler administration, academic respectability. In 1948, Clarion was accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. The accreditation was vital because it implied that Clarion's course offerings were now of collegiate quality in name as well as in fact.
Dr. James Gemmell knew what it would take to make Clarion State College successful when he arrived in 1960. "The basic ingredients of a good college are namely able students, sufficient money, and sense of purpose, plus able administrators and teachers," said Gemmell in his inaugural address.
When Gemmell arrived on campus in 1960 there were about 1,100 students and 10 buildings.
The institution's sole educational function had been teacher preparation. By the time
he left the presidency in 1976, the student body had expanded to about 5,000 with
25 buildings completed, under construction or on the drawing boards. Clarion's mission
expanded into that of a multipurpose institution.
The spectacular growth was not painless. Major adjustments were required on campus and in town. Expansion of the institution required the acquisition of a significant amount of private property in Clarion Borough. While the college had the legal right to exercise its power of eminent domain at the time, many local citizens questioned the disruption of their lives and the loss of a good percentage of the loss of the tax base.
Clarion State College emphasized its significance as an intellectual, social, cultural and economic stimulus to counter community concerns. Just as the number of buildings increased, the student population escalated from 1,100 at the start of the Gemmell presidency to about 5,000 at the end of his tenure.
Venango becomes reality
Oil City was the next area of growth for Clarion State College. With the support of the chamber of commerce, the superintendent of schools, the mayor, local business and civic leaders, Gemmell was asked to explore the possibility of providing higher education in this Venango County community. What resulted was Clarion State's Venango Campus, the Commonwealth's first public community college.
Since no state money was available for building construction, a local campaign was undertaken to raise $350,000. The citizens of Oil City exceeded the goal by about 10 percent. Classes began in the fall of 1961 with an enrollment of 131. The venture made a high-quality, low-cost higher education available for many young people. An associate degree in nursing became one of the mainstays of the Venango Campus.
Despite the tremendous growth of Clarion during the Gemmell years, financial concerns
continued as a state institution. Commonwealth funding was never a certainty and after
the boom the late 60s and early 70s, budget appropriations did not keep up with growing
enrollment. Tuition and fees started to increase regularly and by the mid-70s retrenchment
and lay-offs became part of the campus vocabulary. During the early 70s, Gemmell was
frequently the financial spokesman in Harrisburg for the state colleges as a whole.
The Clarion State College Foundation was founded on Dec. 8, 1969, based on the premise of providing people with an opportunity to donate to Clarion State College and ensure that their contribution would be used as intended. Contributions still fund scholarship programs, fund selected capital projects, and support other projects.
During the Gemmell presidency the institution's student body, academic programs, physical
plant and overall reputation reached a level that would have been considered preposterous
if prophesied only a few years earlier. Much of this change resulted from two decisions.
The first decision was that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania chose to convert its
single-purpose teachers colleges to multipurpose state colleges. The second decision
was that the trustees hired Gemmell as president.
Clarion was in the vanguard of the state colleges. A survey reported in the May 5, 1975, issue of The News indicated that Gemmell had turned the tide in the community. According to the survey, 91 percent of the participants were proud that Clarion State College was in their community.
The following year Gemmell announced his intentions to leave Clarion. "To everything there is a season, and there is no reason to regard the college presidency as an exception," said Gemmell in a letter to trustees. "Generally a college president is chosen to fill a particular need of the institution and when that need has been fulfilled it is time to move on."
Gemmell moved on to become associate director of the Academic Collective Bargaining Service, a Washington, D.C., based consulting service. In recognition of his leadership at Clarion, a student complex which houses student organizations, a food court, meeting rooms and a bookstore was named in his honor.
The Bond years
Thomas A. Bond was named president June 3, 1980. He assumed responsibility after the university was under interim leadership for several years. Writing at the end of the 1980s, three-time interim president, Dr. Charles Leach, said, "The decade of the 1980s was the decade of President Thomas A. Bond. A good share of what Clarion is today is because of his impact."
Highlights of the decade include:
- a change to university status
- a substantial increase in enrollment
- a significant number of retirements and replacements
- advancement in the realm of academic standards
- introduction of campaigns to raise capital funds.
By Legislative Act 188 of 1982, all 14 state colleges were taken from the control of the Pennsylvania Department of Education and placed under the jurisdiction of the newly-created Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.
When Dr. Diane L. Reinhard assumed the presidency of Clarion on June 1, 1990, she brought with her perspectives from larger universities, but also an understanding of what was needed at Clarion.
The professional level of academic programs and administrative approach evolved under her leadership. She also guided Clarion to seek the top level of accreditations available for its programs.
"Fly Eagles Fly" was the ending of most speeches made by Joe Grunenwald during his presidency and the words emphasized how Clarion Proud he was of his Golden Eagles.
Retiring June 30, 2010, after 40 years of public service, the last 32 of which were at Clarion, he was quick to add, "I want to continue to help Clarion in any way possible once I retire." Since his retirement, Grunenwald has assisted in general fundraising and promoting the Barnes Center for Biotechnology Business Development. He has also served as a consultant for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.
Clarion turned "Eagletastic" with the arrival of Dr. Karen M. Whitney as its 16th president on July 1, 2010. The new word coined at Clarion reflected a continuation of the pride in PennWest Clarion and its mascot, the Golden Eagle.
When she assumed the presidency, Whitney articulated a vision of engaging leadership with the goal of advancing the university and its region through increased degree attainment, a campus culture of civility, listening, entrepreneurialism, achievement, relationships, civic engagement, and institutional leadership.
Clarion's 17th president
With the arrival Dr. Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson on July 1, 2018, Clarion's 17th president has sought to help Clarion find its True North. True North is a three-year plan of action to move the institution in a new direction.
Pehrsson has more than 25 years of experience in higher education, beginning her academic career as an affiliate faculty member and clinical supervisor for counselor education at Idaho State University in 1991. She also has worked in the healthcare field, as both a counselor and registered nurse.
Throughout its history, the PennWest Clarion community has evolved from the immediate greater Clarion to the state, nation and world. It all started as a dream of providing local advanced education through a seminary to the current PennWest Clarion that is part of Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education.