WPI Journal

October 1996

Remembering WPI's Heroic Age

"Writers are always selling somebody out."
- Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, 1969

The cover story in this special issue of the WPI Journal is one I have been thinking about writing for some time. I'm grateful to the organizers of this year's celebration of the WPI Plan's 25th anniversary for giving me the impetus to finally tackle it.

The story of how the Plan came to be is intriguing for anyone who was not on campus (and even many who were) in the late 1960s, a time of incredible change at WPI. How was it that a small, traditional engineering college was able to turn itself around and become, virtually overnight, one of the most innovative and successful institutions of technological higher education in the country? What combination of circumstances and human capital made this seemingly impossible feat possible?

The drive to answer those questions for myself was behind my interest in writing this story. The answers proved well worth the time and energy the article entailed, as did the opportunity to spend some time talking to the remarkable men who drafted the Plan -- the seven surviving members of the now famous Planning Committee originally appointed in 1968 by the late Harry P. Storke, WPI's 10th president.

The title of the article, "A Miracle at Worcester," makes reference to Catherine Drinker Bowen's 1966 book, Miracle at Philadelphia, which recounts the events of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. While it may seem a bit audacious to compare the Plan's creation to one of the most critical events in U.S. history, the analogy is apt. Like the writing of the Constitution, the drafting of the Plan -- certainly the most important and pivotal episode in WPI's recent history -- was accomplished in a climate of turmoil and change by a small group of dedicated, passionate, creative individuals - each with his own beliefs and biases. That group, the faculty Planning Committee, was determined to craft a sound, workable framework for the future, one that evolved from a set of clearly defined, well-reasoned principles and one that was designed to stand the test of time and the inevitable resistance that greets any new idea. Indeed, looking back from a distance of a quarter century, the birth of the Plan seems nothing short of miraculous.

This spring, I was pleased to see that I am not the only writer who has found a parallel between the accomplishments of the Planning Committee and the achievements of America's founding fathers. On April 23, WPI celebrated the birth and implementation of the Plan with Commemoration Day, an event that brought together many of the dozens of individuals who worked to draft the Plan and turn it into a living, breathing program. As the day wound down, John Zeugner, professor of history, rose to make some concluding remarks.

Shapers of two Heroic ages: top, the signers of the Declaration of Independence; bottom, from left, Planning Committee members Bill Grogan, Charles Heventhal, Steve Weininger, Jack Boyd and Roy Seaberg.

"'Another of our friends of '76 is gone, my dear Sir....We too must go, and that ere long,'" Zeugner began, quoting Thomas Jefferson's letter to John Adams. "'I believe we are under half a dozen at present; I mean the signers of the Declaration. Yourself, Gerry, Carroll and myself are all I know to be living. I am the only one South of the Potomac....'"

Zeugner told of the correspondence between Jefferson and Adams that began in 1813, "three years after Jefferson left the presidency, having won it from Adams in 1800. So, two men who had made a revolution and a new republic, whose political campaigns against one another, for sheer viciousness of personal attacks, make the campaigns of this century seem genteel by comparison, began again a secret letter correspondence that blossomed over the next 13 years into a remarkable ex-presidential colloquy.

"The exchange of letters lingered over characteristics of Indians, Christ's spirituality, British politics, proper ethics, old partisan accusations, grandchildren's vanity, and the certain knowledge that by explaining themselves to each other they were participating in some astounding coda to the Founding Generation. The letters are darted with Greek and Latin sentences and French exhortations. Their erudition stuns. Their thoughtfulness amazes. And throughout, there is a jocular consideration of imminent death, which occurred magically for both men on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

"In his last letter to Adams, in late March 1826, Jefferson wrote that his grandson Thomas Randolph would like to pay Adams a visit. 'I must ask for him permission to pay to you his personal respects. Like other young people, he wishes to be able, in the winter nights of old age, to recount to those around what he has heard and learnt of the Heroic age preceding his birth, and which of the Argonauts particularly he was in time to have seen. It was the lot of our early years to witness nothing but the dull monotony of colonial subservience, and of our riper ones to breast the labors and perils of working out of it. Theirs are the Halcyon calms succeeding the storm which our Argosy had so stoutly weathered. Gratify his ambition then by receiving his best bow, and my solicitude for your health by enabling him to bring me a favorable account of it. Mine is but indifferent, but not so my friendship and respect for you.'

"Twenty-five years out from the founding of the WPI Plan, it does seem, in the poor parallels the mind constructs, that the Planning Committee, the Implementation Committee, and the undoubted captain of the Plan Argosy, Bill Grogan, constitute, in fact, a kind of Heroic age," Zeugner concluded. "They did indeed triumph over a dull colonial educational subservience, did indeed breast the labors and perils of working out of its monotony and stasis. They did provide this institution more than a few Halcyon days (indeed, they saved and grew it). And though the Institute's health at the moment may be indifferent, to use Jefferson's terms, not so its deep friendship and respect for them."

While the cover story focuses on the individuals who were most intimately associated with the Plan's creation - President Storke, President George Hazzard, Dean Cookie Price and the members of the Planning Committee - many, many other people played roles, both small and large, in the story of the birth of the Plan. They include the many faculty members who shared the Planning Committee's passion about education and its conviction that WPI could, and should, be a better and more innovative institution. They offered their ideas, their opinions, their time and their unwavering support as the process of shaping the Plan moved forward. Many went on to become officers and foot soldiers in the more than decade-long campaign known as Implementation, the monumental job of turning the educational program approved by the faculty in 1970 into a workable system. You will read more about that process in the second half of the cover story, to be published in early 1997.

In addition, many faculty members, students, administrators, trustees and alumni helped shape the Plan by taking part in two Planning Days in 1968 and 1969 and by serving on a multitude of subcommittees that helped the Planning Committee flesh out the details of the Plan. Their efforts on behalf of the university were invaluable, and they had the satisfaction of contributing to one of the most important community efforts in WPI's history.

The bottom line of all this is that no matter how careful a job of research a writer might do, or how diligent one might be about giving credit where it is deserved, there will always be those unwittingly and unintentionally left out of the story. To those many individuals, I apologize. I invite them to tell their stories and relate their memories of the Plan's birth on the Letters pages of future issues of the Journal.

- Michael W. Dorsey

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