The Next Page: Edward Litchfield ... The undiscovered chancellor of Pitt
Transfers, dismissals, retirements and death often leave a body of intellectual and physical work unfinished. Partial books, lyrics, paintings, models and blueprints are often lost forever due to such unforeseen events. They invite the question: What if that phase of an individual's life had been slightly extended? What results, particularly constructive ones, could have been expected?
The career of Edward Litchfield as chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, from 1956-1965, inspires such questions. In a brief period his contributions brought phenomenal growth -- intellectual and physical -- to the campus and catapulted him to the forefront among the pre-eminent innovators in American education. Despite being a dynamo who kept the university in ferment with his creative concepts, he was dismissed by the Board of Trustees after less than a decade of leadership.
At that point he had not yet disclosed all of his plans for change to either the faculty or the public. Drafts of proposals were left on the cutting room floor as part of his unfulfilled vision for the University -- all relatively unknown.
I enjoyed a unique relationship with the chancellor, serving as an assistant from 1958 to 1960, while I continued to teach history. While never an insider to his decisions, I was able to witness his achievements from an uncommon perspective.
"A God-given excavation" was Frank Lloyd Wright's summation of Panther Hollow, which became part of the Pitt's development plans in 1961. Litchfield accepted the challenge to transform this ravine into usable, income-producing space.
The Hollow, a prized Oakland real estate site, is a vast unsightly ravine stretching from the backs of the Carnegie Museums and several Carnegie Mellon buildings to beyond the Schenley Park Bridge for a mile, to near the Monongahela River. As president of OakCorp, the body charged with the redevelopment of Oakland, Litchfield and the university assumed leadership of the restructuring.
The ultimate design outlined the construction of a huge, $250 million complex, extending from the floor of Panther Hollow up to ground or street level. To be developed in stages, the final product was intended to accommodate industrial research centers, student housing, apartments, townhouses, restaurants, office space, courtyards and an auditorium. When Oaklanders, particularly business leaders, tangled with this grandiose idea, they mocked it with "Today Oakland! Tomorrow the world!"
Ballyhooed as "the world's largest research park," the Panther Hollow project was unveiled before civic and industrial leaders in June 1963. The first phase of this largest-ever undertaking for Oakland was to emphasize research space for local industries. But by the scheduled date to receive the signed rental leases, the industries had not responded. Groundbreaking was cancelled, OakCorp was devastated, and the chancellor was dismissed in July 1965.
The Panther Hollow project was the chancellor's most widely publicized feat that failed the test.
The chancellor's most widely accepted proposal was studied and adopted by colleges/universities nationwide. This Trimester System, begun in 1959, was only the tip of the iceberg in his anticipated revision of the school calendar. With the trimester, the university was attempting to revive and energize a plan that had been employed with limited success at various times in the American past. It projected an academic year of three terms (fall, winter, spring), each 15 weeks in length and equal in credits to the traditional semester.
Although not accepted in toto, aspects of the trimester made a major impact on the calendars at Pitt and throughout the academic world. The most widely acclaimed component of Litchfield's pattern was starting the fall term early enough to have it end in December, not to be continued into a three-week, lame-duck session in January as had been done previously. Also at many institutions, the winter term, characteristic of the Pitt pattern, was scheduled to end between late April and early May rather than extending graduations to some time between late May and mid-June.
Both at Pitt and elsewhere, the spring trimester was not overwhelmingly embraced by either faculty or students. Faculties failed to develop courses that were appealing enough to attract students in sufficient numbers to make the term financially feasible. But, realistically, no program was going to keep the bulk of students in class for 45 weeks per year. They applauded the early end to the winter term simply because it provided a longer summer in which they could be gainfully employed to earn the necessary funds to meet the ever-increasing tuition rates. (At this time Pitt was still a private university, and Chancellor Litchfield was advancing this accelerated schedule on private funds with limited state assistance.)
Furthermore, the Russians had successfully launched Sputnik in October 1957 when the trimester concept was being formulated. The need for an American response to this space endeavor brought an abrupt change in federal assistance to education, a formula predicated on a two-term year. That combination, plus Pitt's private status and comparatively high tuition, blunted the progress of the Trimester.
At Pitt at least, the third term survived with modified conditions. The chancellor blamed inadequate preparation for the limited success, and one day he remarked to me: "We must be more thorough in the next phase."
That phase never occurred, but provided an intriguing chart on the drawing board. The trimester was regarded as the opening wedge of a massive revision of the American school calendar, encompassing the primary and secondary school years as well.
In the late 1950s, Litchfield viewed television as primarily an instructional medium limited only by the inventive minds of the nation's education leaders. From today's perspective, those leaders offered meager competition for the entrepreneurial and advertising forces that came to dominate the television age.
The chancellor's scheme was based on the assumption that, because of television, children would be much better prepared for formal education than in the past. With that as a guide, his plan would bypass kindergarten and permit students to enter first grade at the age of 5. Thus the first six grades would be completed by age 11. The next three grades (7-9) could be compressed into two years, concluding at age 13. With the high school years (10-12) following, a student would graduate from high school at age 16. If the trimester were fully operational, as he then anticipated, a student would, according to this theory, have earned a college diploma at age 19.
On the other hand, the student who did not elect a college program would have completed an apprenticeship for a skilled profession at approximately the same age. By age 21, all would be firmly ensconced in a job or have finished at least two years toward a degree in a professional field.
The purpose of this accelerated calendar was to extend an individual's most productive years by having him enter the workplace earlier. This portion of Litchfield's program never emerged, partly because of his departure.
Calendar restructuring, however, was not the chancellor's only visionary idea to fall short of its mark. He believed that industrial, commercial, educational, military, hospital and other organizations all faced the same generalized administrative processes. Thus he undertook the ambitious, exploratory task of discovering what those common processes were. In essence, he hoped to delineate a new discipline -- administrative science -- that would serve all.
Aware that political science, sociology and psychology, for example, had been gradually defined as distinct disciplines for analyzing and understanding society, he asked: Why not administrative science?
Convinced that such a body of knowledge remained to be identified, Litchfield sought to discover and link the various parts together. With that in mind, he organized a seminar that he led and for which he selected all participants. He deliberately identified those students from among leaders in widely divergent fields: a hospital administrator, a public school superintendent, a bank vice president, a corporation official, a lawyer and several others, including me.
I fought hard diplomatically to be excused from this assignment, but the chancellor saw no validity in my argument. After 15 weeks of the seminar had passed, I was grateful that I had joined this diverse group.
The seminar reaffirmed much that was already known: that administration is a montage of information gathered from numerous disciplines, such as economics, sociology, political science, philosophy, accounting and finance. As readers today probably realize, some combinations perform better in certain types of organizations than in others, but we never discovered that one body of information fits all.
This limited success, I'm sure, disappointed the chancellor, but he didn't give up the quest. Instead, he founded a nationally circulated journal, appropriately entitled Administrative Science, which invited the submission of articles on the subject.
Although the administrative science venture and the theoretical revamping of the K-16 school calendar never became known to the general public, the chancellor's most ambitious plan focused on the university of Pittsburgh itself.
Designed to reallocate the university's academic resources, this proposed radical shift never reached the debate stage and was aborted. The possibility, however, lingered long in the chancellor's mind. For example, he had asked me to become his assistant, but I was given no assignments other than to spend a year in learning how the university functioned on all levels, plus attending the special seminar. I was not being groomed for any specific position on campus, but later I, like several others, learned that I was expected to become a college/university president who would play a significant role in his restructuring plan.
Under this projected new university pattern, undergraduate Arts and Sciences programs remained relatively small, approximately 2,500 to 3000 students. (Actually, enrollment had already reached 3,375 by 1960, and, contrary to the college's role in this schema, it grew to almost 11,000 by 2010.) The goal was to form a college that was truly elite in character while fostering expansion in all graduate and professional areas.
Other evidence of the planned evolution of the university away from undergraduate emphasis was the regrouping of the Arts and Sciences faculty into three distinct divisions -- Humanities, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences -- each with its own dean. The purpose behind this shift was to have the individual departments in the three divisions focus more of their resources on graduate study. By this process, their programs would match the professional schools in concentrating on graduate studies.
With Pitt's future strength to reside in these burgeoning advanced programs, small liberal arts colleges and universities throughout the nation were portrayed as potential feeder schools for Pitt's heavily endowed and acclaimed advanced programs. This is where I was to play my role, serving as leader of one of the first feeder institutions.
For multiple reasons this realignment of priorities never got off the ground. Legislation was passed creating the National Defense Education Administration, which focused on specific programs. They, in turn, buttressed by newly available state and federal loan programs, encouraged more students to pursue undergraduate degrees. With this emphasis, the spread of the community college concept further accentuated low- cost undergraduate education and pushed Pitt's grand focus on graduate education into the background.
At the same time, Penn State launched its two-year Commonwealth Campus system that gradually encompassed the whole state. This development forced Pitt to counter with its branch campus program to stake out a claim to the pool of prospective students in Western Pennsylvania. Thus, while the chancellor was thinking of moving the university toward graduate education, external forces were driving education leaders, including those at Pitt, in a different direction.
All of Chancellor Litchfield's proposals were constructive, innovative and visionary, but they ran counter to the changing educational climate.
Leadership and planning were in place, but the timing was hopelessly out of sync. Government funding, plus the emergence of an ever-growing supply of students seeking post-high school education, dominated the scene. In that atmosphere, the chancellor's proposals were struggling against the scholastic current.
First Published November 11, 2012 12:00 am