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How Thad Seymour led a college back to its academic roots

Nearly eight years ago Thaddeus Seymour, then president of Wabash College in Indiana, decided ``it was time for one more job.'' He had two choices, he says: seeking out ``an established place in the Northeast'' (he'd already spent 15 years previously at Dartmouth as a professor and dean) or ``an opportunity.''

He found the latter at little Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. And he's never looked back. With acceptance of Rollins's presidency, Dr. Seymour, a congenial giant of a man, left behind the North's subzero weather and its often intensely competitive academic environment. But he brought with him something often thought to be native to colder climes -- a deep belief in the value of a traditional liberal arts education.

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For Rollins, that commitment has meant something of a return to the school's roots. The college was founded 100 years ago last November, which makes it this state's oldest institution of higher learning. Its original mission was to bring the virtues of a New England education to the wilds of Florida.

What Seymour has accomplished in his eight years here is ``pretty remarkable,'' according to John Phillips, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. ``He's gone against the trends.'' When others have been willing to say, ``whatever people want, let's provide it,'' Seymour has never veered from his purpose -- the establishment, as Dr. Phillips puts it, of ``a high-quality liberal arts institution in a place that's associated in the public's mind with Disney World and fun in the sun.''

Rollins, under Seymour, may provide ``important lessons for all of American education,'' says Dr. Phillips. The first step taken by the college's new president on his arrival here was the appointment in 1979 of a planning committee of faculty, alumni, staff, and students. Its job: to reassess nearly every facet of the school. What resulted was a hefty, 500-page blueprint for change at Rollins -- change much to its president's liking.

Seymour mentions, with obvious satisfaction, the abandonment of Rollins's undergraduate business major. The winning argument, he recalls, was that ``if you're going to be a liberal arts college, you've got to be a liberal arts college!'' A business major, which five years ago attracted one-third of the students here, was out. The same for a communications major, another popular choice among students. Instead, the school revived its dormant classics department, complete with an endowed chair funded through a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. And as a final heartfelt bow to tradition, Rollins diplomas are once again written in Latin.

Business wasn't dropped altogether, though. Rather, it was concentrated in a graduate school of business, accredited last year by the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business. And it remains available to undergrads as a minor.

There was some initial controversy over these moves, but in the long run ``applications are up, and quality is up,'' says Seymour. For the last two years Rollins has had about 1,800 applicants for a freshman class of 390. Two-thirds of its students come from out of state.

``And our classics professor, John Heath, now has the most popular class on campus,'' the president adds. Dr. Heath came to Rollins 2 years ago with a doctorate from Stanford and prior teaching experience at the University of California, San Diego.

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The freshening of the faculty, in fact, was a major goal identified by the planning committee. To hasten that process, faculty salaries have been raised 80 percent in the last six years. Nearly half the college's 115 instructors arrived within the last five years.

``It's a beautiful time to recruit,'' beams Seymour. There's no shortage of job-hungry PhDs, and Rollins has gotten some good ones, says its helmsman. He mentions, for instance, political scientist Richard Foglesong, who recently migrated south from Amherst College in Massachusetts. Dr. Foglesong is author of a forthcoming Princeton University Press book, ``The Capitalist City,'' which is on the politics of growth in central Florida. Seymour terms the young professor ``a hot commodity.''

Another recruit the Rollins president is particularly proud of: college treasurer Jesse Morgan. ``Persuading Jesse to come over'' from Tulane University may be ``the best thing I've had a hand in here,'' says Seymour. Under Mr. Morgan's guidance, the school has eliminated operating deficits and overhauled its bill collection and investment procedures.

Also, the college's endowment has nearly doubled in the last six years, to around $20 million. And under Seymour's leadership, Rollins has won a number of substantial grants. Most notably, the Olin Foundation gave the school $4.7 million in 1982 for a fully equipped new library -- now a centerpiece of Rollins's well-shaded, Spanish-flavored architectural milieu.

With these financial advances, Rollins is much less dependent on tuition than in the past, says Seymour. Tuition here, though, has also gone up recently and now stands at a steep $10,967 a year. Forty-seven percent of the 1,350 undergraduates receive some kind of help through either government loans or private scholarships to meet that bill.

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