“We are confronted at this time with the most momentous question that Presbyterians have ever been called upon to answer — we shall either continue in the field of higher education, or we shall be forced to close our doors and turn the institution over to the bond-holders.” Dr. John McSween, Nov. 1929
With our country facing difficult economic times, we thought it might be interesting to look back at the Depression, and find out how the college managed to survive those tough times.
In 1928, the college chose a new president, Dr. John McSween, who was then pastor of the Central Presbyterian Church in Anderson. The enrollment was 224, there were 18 faculty members, and assets were just over $1 million. After several years of deficit spending, however, the college was almost $350,000 in debt.
In a monument to unfortunate timing, on October 4, 1929, the college launched a “Program of Deliverance” to fund the endowment and reduce the debt. By the end of that month, the stock market had crashed and the Great Depression had begun.
While the campaign ultimately raised 1/3 of its goal, these funds were urgently needed for current operations, and could not be used for debt retirement or the endowment. Excluding funds given by the various church organizations, the total giving to PC in 1933 was $435. The endowment, which had lost $74,000 because of the closure of a South Carolina cotton mill, provided income mostly for debt service. And financial aid was taking up almost ¼ of the college’s funds.
Salaries were reduced four times between 1928 and 1935. President McSween took the first reduction when his salary was reduced from $5000 to $3500. Dean Marshall Brown took a 33% cut. Salary payments to many faculty and staff were deferred. In total, operating costs during this period were cut 22%. In 1935, liabilities of $323,587 exceeded the endowment, which stood at $274,971. The result was that in 1935, the Southern Association placed the college on its approved non-member list.
John McSween resigned in 1935 to return to the pastorate. He was succeeded by William P. Jacobs, II, grandson of the college’s founder. For his first two years, Jacobs worked for no salary. He immediately began to build confidence in the college. He instituted a public relations plan, asked for suggestions from students and faculty, and sought to involve all of the college’s constituencies. He organized special programs and projects, and invited prominent guests to campus. He increased emphasis on the tennis program, which brought world-renowned players to Clinton. He ramped up admissions efforts, sending faculty and staff out to recruit. This resulted in a record freshman class of 117 in 1935-36.
Although President Jacobs had founded and managed the first intercollegiate football team at PC, and served as president of the American Lawn Tennis Association, he recognized that PC’s current athletic program was simply too costly. He suggested the elimination of all freshman teams, and proposed that PC play football only against small colleges who agreed to eliminate scholarships. These changes were ultimately made irrelevant by World War II, which reduced the athletic program to the bare essentials.
Changes were also made in academics. Some of Jacobs’ additions to the curriculum, like the programs in radio techniques and civil aeronautics, were popular, but drew criticism because they were inconsistent with the pure liberal arts. He continued to defer payments on faculty and staff salaries; between 1934 and 1938, the college was over $9000 in arrears. Considering the small size of the staff, and the average faculty salary of around $1500, this was a significant amount. President Jacobs and the board liquidated much of the endowment to remove the bonded indebtedness from the college. His efforts resulted in a small budget surplus – $780 – the first in almost a decade.
The college was also able to benefit from some government recovery programs. Many students during this time relied on part-time jobs to make ends meet, and the National Youth Administration paid students 35 cents an hour for campus work. The program seems to have been much like the present-day work-study program, and earnings were applied directly to student accounts. The government was also instrumental in funding the joint college/community library (now the Smith Administration Building) through its Works Progress Administration.
World War II, as prolonged and difficult as it would be, actually insured the survival of the college. Beginning in June 1942, PC provided an accelerated program that produced graduates with army commissions after 28 continuous months of schooling. The college was also the base for the 39th College Training Detachment of the Army Air Forces. By July 1944, 1600 pilots had trained here. At the same time, contributions to the college began to increase. By 1944, the college had totally eliminated its indebtedness. Although enrollments were very small, the new GI Bill promised a bright future.
With the debt retired, President Jacobs resigned in 1945, and was replaced by Dean Marshall Brown. By the fall of 1946, PC had returned to the semester system, and had its largest enrollment ever, 352. By 1949, its accreditation had been restored. After almost two decades of hardship, the college was facing a bright future.
(Note: Most of the information in this entry is taken directly from Ben Hay Hammet’s “The Spirit of PC.”)