On Solid Rock

Prologue from On Solid Rock: The Founding Vision of Florida Presbyterian / Eckerd College

For a few weeks in the summer of 1962, Florida Presbyterian College had no faculty. All but two professors, plus the dean, submitted resignations to the board of trustees at the same time. These faculty members, some of the greatest minds and most talented teachers in the country, who had risked secure careers to come to this upstart institution, and who had worked countless hours in the past three years to create a college from scratch, were suddenly willing to let it go.

They were willing to let go of the innovative curriculum they had designed and fought over and nurtured day in and day out. They were willing to let go of their new home in the community of St. Petersburg, which had raised millions of dollars to bring the college to the sandy shores of Boca Ciega Bay. They were willing to let go of the best jobs of their careers, with excellent salaries, small classes, gifted colleagues, and plenty of room for experimentation.

And they were willing to let go of their students, the 150 founding freshmen who had joined them in taking a risk on a new institution, who had worked harder in their classes than they ever thought they could while creating a student culture for themselves, who would be juniors in the fall with two additional classes coming up behind them.

But through this drastic and painful act, the faculty were still teaching the students: teaching them about justice, about standing up for your beliefs, about holding leaders accountable, about what it means to be Christian.

That summer a black student had applied for admission to Florida Presbyterian College. He had graduated from St. Petersburg's all-black Gibbs Junior College, and there was no question among those who reviewed his application that he was qualified to transfer to Florida Presbyterian and join the class of 1964.

The all-white, mostly male faculty of FPC had come from both northern and southern states, but every one of them expected to be teaching in an integrated college. None of them would have come to Florida if he had thought the college would not accept black students. But the unthinkable happened: When the trustees heard about the new student, a slim majority voted not to accept him.

John Bevan, the dean of faculty, remembers, "I don't know of anything that has shaken me in higher education in my life experience more than that. It was the complete devaluation of everything we had done."

Bevan asked the president of FPC, William Kadel, what it would take to get the board back together and reconsider. Kadel said, "Resignations." By the next day, Bevan handed Kadel twenty-two resignations, with Bevan's own letter on top.

The deep passion the faculty felt for the vision of Florida Presbyterian College made it impossible to do otherwise. The college, as one early student remembered, was "not a place of what you should do, but of what you must do." The vision was of a learning community that tied together the life of the mind and the life of the spirit, that encouraged freedom with responsibility, that combined intellectual rigor with moral development. It offered students an interdisciplinary, holistic worldview and an opportunity to take risks.

But long before there were any students at Florida Presbyterian College, there were just a few men, carrying that vision like a lantern to light their way into an unknown and promising future.

Copyright ©2008 - From On Solid Rock: The Founding Vision of Florida Presbyterian / Eckerd College (Eckerd College, 2008) by Stephanie Kadel Taras, Ph.D.