He Reassured and InspiredBates College of the late ’40s, ’50s, and early ’60s reflected the nation – only recently worldly and self-confident, and guided by the conviction that clear values, skillful reasoning, and pragmatic responsibility could be the agency of wisdom and action.
The Bates of those years was also a reflection of Charles F. Phillips, the economist- turned-president who led Bates from 1944 through 1966. He died on March 3, just months after the passing of his wife of sixty-five years, Evelyn.
In addition to a worldly self-confidence, the nation also possessed a streak of hubris in those years during and just after World War II. Experiencing heady successes in averting catastrophes at home and abroad, the nation began to clamor for citizens who were problem-solvers and experts. Some believed that our educational system should bend to fit this zeal. Indeed, as early as 1943, W. Denham Sutcliffe ’37, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate and Rhodes scholar, wrote in the Bates Alumnus that our colleges were “producing a nation of specialists; of men who know…everything about their subject, and who are solemnly, often proudly, ignorant of everything else.”
Reacting to the pressures of that time, Bates College could easily have moved in a different direction, if not for the leadership of President Phillips. He came to Bates in 1944, the first non-clergy president in the institution’s history, and at age thirty-four already nationally recognized both as a scholar and practitioner.
Within months of his arrival at Bates, Phillips reasserted the centrality of the liberal arts with the “Bates Plan,” a mission statement that cast aside any thought that the College would be an educationally reactive place, laying the groundwork for the College’s rise in national prominence among liberal arts colleges. (The marketing of the plan itself, accomplished through College brochures, catalogs, and viewbooks, won a national public-relations award in 1945 and displayed a canny foresight of the power of publications to attract attention – and students – to a college.)
President Phillips often displayed the twin abilities of a great leader: deft handling of chronic concerns while upholding the institution’s guiding principles.
He led Bates through the difficult mid-1940s, when the civilian enrollment was less than four hundred and the number of civilian male students dropped to fifty-three.
When war veterans, many already married and with children, began seeking a college education, Phillips’s experience with the federal government led to the College’s securing of affordable housing – more famously known as Sampsonville – for this massive influx of new students.
He led the College into a construction plan that built – and paid for with no debt – Page and Adams halls, as well as extensive renovations to Chase and Carnegie halls.
He foresaw the benefits of altering the academic calendar, which led to the first iteration of Short Term and an option for three-year graduation.
He helped develop WCBB, Maine’s first and only public television station, which began on the third floor of Chase Hall.
He predicted the need for affordable student loans and pushed for Maine banks to make such loans to students.
He molded a faculty whose devotion to teaching attracted exceedingly able students. In his final President’s Report, Phillips criticized colleges for relying “far too much on the educational methods of years ago, overlooking such technological advances as…tapes, films, educational television.” His warning was prescient, for today we see Bates incorporating technology in the curriculum and in the design of its teaching spaces.
Charles and Evelyn Phillips were a team; their wisdom and courage were directed to students, alumni, colleagues, and friends. To Ann and me, the Phillipses were extraordinarily kind and supportive. Long conversations over dinner or Sunday brunch at Sebago Lake would be the occasions for stories, especially stories about their happy travels visiting alumni around the country.
Indeed, alumni saw in “Prexy” the principles and stability of direction that both reassured and inspired. Not everyone knows that every few weeks of his presidency, Phillips wrote a newsletter to a small group of Bates volunteer leaders. He wrote 315 of these letters, detailing everything from fund-raising successes and visits with retired faculty members to news of Librarian Mabel Eaton’s hospitalization at New England Baptist Hospital and his delight at being satirized in the annual lampoon issue of The Bates Student.
Together, Charles and Evelyn worked at the difficult job of “helping young men and women grow older.” For Charles Phillips, this ongoing work meant assisting in the achievement of their full potential. It is the work of a teacher and the compelling promise of a liberal education. Because of his foresight, his commitment, and his confidence, Bates is today a college of remarkable distinction. We are in his debt.
- Donald W. Harward