CCC and CSU Two Schools That Almost Never Were

Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine article from September 1, 1991 written by John Funk

Plain Dealer, The (Cleveland, OH) – Sunday, September 1, 1991
Author: John Funk John Funk covers higher education for The Plain Dealer.

Cuyahoga Community College and Cleveland State University might have never existed without two pivotal events: a hearing on asphalt appropriations by a legislative committee in Columbus and a failed secret meeting at the Union Club in Cleveland.

To understand these machinations, one must return to a Cleveland where there was no mandate for tax-supported higher education and no general appreciation of the value of a bachelor’s degree.

By 1960, Greater Cleveland was the largest metropolitan area in the nation without a publicly funded college or university, the old Cleveland Press reported. The Press is credited by many today with developing public support for the creation of CCC in 1961, just as The Plain Dealer is credited with developing support later for CSU, which was founded in 1964.

Higher education, by 1960 logic, had always been taken care of here by private universities. And Clevelanders were proud of that, according to news stories of the era, which attributed that attitude to Cleveland’s Connecticut Yankee heritage. Of course higher education had generally been the prerogative of the elite.

And then there was politics. Cleveland vs. downstate politics. Ohio politicians of the 1950s, including Gov. C. William O’Neill, a Republican, and his Democratic successor, Michael V. DiSalle, were not interested in funding a new four-year university here. Never mind the baby boom.

And the Ohio College Association, representing the interests of existing four-year institutions, recommended as early as 1955 that the state establish new two-year technical schools.

State lawmakers saw even two-year institutions as too expensive.

When DiSalle took office in 1958, he recommended that the state’s universities simply step up their practice of establishing two-year branches in areas without state schools.

And that suited the Ohio College Association, which also argued through the decade that branch campuses were the least costly answer to providing higher education to those who truely needed it.

Even when the state General Assembly approved legislation in 1959 creating two-year community colleges, DiSalle vetoed it because lawmakers failed to include any provision for funding.

Ralph M. Besse, an Illuminating Co. executive who chaired the Cleveland Commission on Higher Education, said in a recent interview that he and others secured DiSalle’s word not to veto a later bill if a provision for local funding were included. And if they got it through the legislature.

The modern era finally arrived in 1961 when the League of Women Voters, the Cleveland Commission on Higher Education and other advocates of tax-supported higher education in Cleveland managed to get enabling legislation through the Ohio Senate.

According to Besse, the bill slipped through only after proponents called for a vote when they noticed two opposing senators – C. Stanley Mechem, R-Nelsonville, the president pro tem, and Ross Pebble, R-Lima, chairman of the Senate Education Committee – had left the chamber to attend a committee meeting on roads and highways. In their absence, the bill squeaked through by two votes, 20-18. Gov. DiSalle signed it into law on July 21, 1961 – to become effective on October 20.

And then the race was on to establish CCC before James A. Rhodes took office. Rhodes – who was to become the Father of CSU – was not generally in favor of community colleges but instead wanted post-secondary technical schools and vocational education at the high school level. He argued that technical schools would more quickly fulfill his campaign goal of putting everyone to work by preparing them for new jobs.

Robert Lewis, a corporate lawyer who was the first chairman of the CCC Board of Trustees, says Rhodes was initially of little help when the board was scrambling about trying to secure buildings and a campus. Even a personal visit with Rhodes in Columbus was of no avail.

“You must understand,” says Lewis, “Rhodes did not want CCC to be created, but he did want to rescue Fenn College,” whose trustees, alumni and supporters were politically potent.

Rhodes was not happy to hear that assessment. “I never opposed CCC. You won’t find it written!” says the former governor. “I put the wheels under higher education,” he says of his campaign to build technical schools and expand the university system.

Lewis remembers scrambling to create CCC without the help of Rhodes or other powerful leaders. “The only way I can explain our success is that the board was so naive. We didn’t know we had to get permission from the power structure. We just did it.”

When CCC opened its doors on September 23, 1963, it immediately set a national record with the largest initial enrollment of any two-year college – 3,039 full- and part-time students. And, of course, the governor showed up later for a dedication.

Most historians give Rhodes primary credit for pulling off the creation of CSU despite the opposition of state lawmakers and other universities. But Rhodes might never have had a chance to create CSU had old Fenn College and OSU been able to work out a secretly proposed deal.

Former OSU President Novice Fawcett came to Cleveland and met privately with Fenn College administrators at the Union Club, say three former Fenn officials.

William A. Patterson, former Fenn provost; Murray Davidson, former development director at Fenn, and his assistant John Barden, say that Fawcett offered to make Fenn a branch of OSU.

The meeting between top Fenn and OSU administrators, never publicly reported, occurred about 1961.

Davidson says his studies of Fenn’s finances had convinced him that the private college’s days were numbered because tuitions could not be raised high enough to cover expenses and because Fenn had no significant endowment.

Fenn alumni, faculty, trustees and President G. Brooks Earnest wanted to tough it out, however, and the OSU proposal was eventually rejected. Work on the endowment and other fund-raising efforts continued.

But fund raising was paralyzed in May 1963 when Rhodes announced that a state university would be built in Cleveland using Fenn as the nucleus. Cleveland’s educational leaders, including Fenn officals, rejected that idea out of hand.

Then in November Rhodes proposed state aid for Fenn if the school’s officials would develop a two-year technical institute. Fenn rejected that plan as did both the Cleveland Commission on Higher Education and the struggling CCC, which had just opened its doors.

Fenn administrators, beginning to drown in red ink, then proposed a four-year university using Fenn as the nucleus. The Fenn Corporation, which owned Fenn’s property, approved the plan in December 1963.

Legislation establishing CSU was not approved until late 1964. In February 1965, Fenn and CSU trustees agreed on a settlement that included the gift of Fenn’s lands and buildings, valued at $13.5 million, the sale of Fenn’s furnishings and equipment, for $500,000, and the right for Fenn to keep its liquid assests, estimated at about $1.5 million. The money became the assets of the Fenn Foundation, which today is an educational fund of the Cleveland Foundation.

The Fenn board’s last act was to go out of business on July 1, 1965. CSU opened in September.


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