College Omissions: West Chester State College President T. Noel Stern’s Academic Goals Deemed Too Lofty for Some

In 1960, West Chester State College got a new leader, but declined to follow.



Thomas Noel Stern, during  his amazingly short tenure  at West Chester State College

Two steps forward, one step back. Progress works that way. And that’s fine—except for those who are stepped on. 

One was Thomas Noel Stern after he was named president of West Chester State College (now University) in 1960. Brought in to steer the growth of West Chester from what had been a small school for training teachers to a comprehensive college, Stern became a target for those threatened by change—namely, coaches and politicians who used the school for patronage. “The Athletic Department pushed to admit 80 students who were below West Chester’s admissions standards,” wrote Stern. “I wanted to eliminate the double standard: classes at junior-high level for a minority of our students who were admitted for athletic skill and college-level instruction for the mass of students.”

He lasted a year.

Born in Pittsburgh, Stern was the son of do-gooders Leon Thomas Stern, a sociologist who worked for prison reform, and Elizabeth Levin, a journalist who wrote about the challenges faced by new immigrants. The Sterns had Jewish antecedents, but were drawn to the Quakers because, as Leon told his son, they were “people who take care of those who are in trouble.” Do-goodery provides a lean sort of living, so Stern’s first memories were of growing up in a tiny, second-floor apartment on Canal Street near the Delaware.

Even so, he graduated from Swarthmore College in 1934, then earned a masters and Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania. During World War II, Stern was a conscientious objector, working on farms in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. 

After the war, he taught at Boston University, served as director of the Foundation of the United States in Paris and for a year with the United Nations in Ethiopia, where he organized a school for government employees at Addis Ababa University. In 1960, he was in Harrisburg, working as director of research and statistics in the state’s department of revenue, and looking for his next opportunity.

Meanwhile, east of the capital, West Chester State College needed a new president. Founded in 1812 as a private school, the institution became the West Chester Normal School in 1869, when it was tasked specifically to train teachers. Taken over by the state in 1913, it was renamed the West Chester State Teachers College in 1927.

To put it mildly, the academic environment was not Ivy League—particularly in the athletic department, which trained young men to be physical-education teachers and athletic coaches. Writing of his undergraduate days in the 1930s, Russell Sturzebecker recalled an era in which freshmen jocks were brutally hazed and the behavior of athletes was almost unregulated. Himself a coach, Sturzebecker attributed this to “the nature of the students who came to the college at this time.”

“The majority came from the coal regions and the more virile stretches of Pennsylvania from Lancaster toward the Ohio border [with] a code of conduct that would do credit to Mike Fink,” he wrote, describing the P.E. majors as “independent, sometimes swaggering, quick to anger, with fierce group loyalty.”

P.E. students lived mostly in Wayne Hall, where, according to Sturzebecker, living was riotous. During hunting season, the third-floor hallway was used for rifle practice. Fire hoses were used as squirt guns. Drinking was open. Students chopped holes in the walls. “With a little effort, the plaster and laths were removed, providing a two room apartment,” he wrote. “Some desired a suite and extended the cutting to a third room. The occupants of the three-room suite might put all the double-decker beds in one room and use the other two rooms for social purposes (principally) and studying (rarely).” 

P.E. students also had preference for campus jobs: “Invariably, they were given student-help jobs as waiters,” wrote Sturzebecker. “It was the exception in those days for a non-athlete to get a waiter’s job.”

On the upside, West Chester regularly won state football championships.

In 1935, the presidency at West Chester was passed to Charles Swope who, in the following 25 years, oversaw an improved curriculum, higher faculty salaries and the creation of a master plan for campus expansion. He also proposed that the college become a university. That fit well with the agenda of then-Gov. David Lawrence, who backed a plan to triple state college enrollment, turn all of them into liberal-arts schools, and expand availability of scholarships and loans.

As part of this plan, West Chester became West Chester State College in 1960. Two years later would come the liberal arts program that transformed it into a comprehensive college. But Swope died suddenly in May 1959. Another leader would have to carry the effort forward.

A hundred applications were received; 14 were interviewed. In April 1960, Lawrence announced the appointment of Thomas Stern, effective in September, at a salary of $14,657. Interviewed by the Harrisburg Evening News, Stern told the newspaper that “West Chester has an excellent reputation. The future is the brightest of the 13 schools.”

In the interim between presidents, an outside committee of college administrators had recommended decentralizing administrative responsibilities. (There was concern that Swope had worked himself to death.) The committee’s report endorsed a de-emphasis on the P.E. department, with an observation that academics at the school had “taken a back seat” and “the health physical education and recreation majors have convinced [other] students that they are actually more important.”

That Stern was a bit of an egghead was apparent at his inauguration. He spoke for 30 minutes on “Albert Camus and Creative Leadership.” Camus, a French philosopher who’d died the past January, had explored humanity’s search for meaning. 

“Camus devoted his skills to the exposition of two related riddles,” Stern told the gathering. “One is the interlocking of foolishness and wholeness in man, at all levels of society. The other is the dilemma of the constructive leader who must be integral within himself and yet integral with society.”

The Daily Local News described the speech as “well prepared.” Later, Stern would learn, West Chester coaches had mocked it as “Socratic” and fretted over not hearing a more standard talk on the mission of education. Later, after Stern spoke to West Chester Unitarians about Camus’ religious thought, Sturzebecker noted that it had been yet another chance to hear about Stern’s “favorite subject.”

In the end, Stern’s dismissal caught him by surprise. In September 1961, nine months after his inauguration, the board of trustees asked for his resignation. “I am simply told,” wrote Stern, “that the board ‘lacks confidence’ in my administrative performance and that it is disturbed by a ‘series of little things.’” 

Through the grapevine, Stern compiled a list of offenses. He’d been reluctant to hire a football line coach as an assistant professor. “One trustee accused me of ‘prejudice’ against the candidate because he had used bad English,” wrote Stern. 

Attempting to equalize admissions standards for athletes and non-athletes, Stern noted that the practice of separate standards had been criticized the previous year by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.  He told a Local reporter that final chemistry exam scores for athletes were “below the high school level.”

Stern also tightened controls over Athletic Department accounting. By his tally, the department received $70,000 from game receipts and student activity fees, but couldn’t document where the money went. And then there was his efforts to reduce patronage. “Local politicians were excited when I fired a painter who was partially blind, a tractor driver without fingers, a rapist working in the girls’ dormitory and a fireman who took fits and who had a long record of arson and stabbing,” recalled Stern. “A woman board member pleaded for reinstatement of the arsonist.” 

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