I was a graduate student at the University of Missouri during the death throes of Parsons College. The success Parsons had enjoyed made us realize that the traditional role of the college professor might be forever changing. However, the same factors—the end of the Vietnam War and the shrinking of college enrollments—that helped bring about the close of Parsons and its imitators, condemned many graduate students such as I to hard times in the job market.
This small school, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, went through its first 75 years as a typical liberal arts college, serving primarily a local base and accumulating debt. The 1928 Peira, the school yearbook, shows an enrollment of around 500 that year. Of 79 graduates, 76 were from Iowa. Most majored in liberal arts subjects; biology, economics, history, English, and Latin led the list. By 1957 the enrollment at Parsons had dropped below 400; at that point the trustees appointed as president Millard G. Roberts, a Presbyterian minister from New York with no experience in educational administration. Roberts instituted a fifteen-year plan which emphasized the following strategies: aggressive recruiting coast to coast, accepting “second chance” student and students from all high school graduation levels, paying senior faculty well to teach large introductory classes, utilizing school facilities the year around with a trimester calendar, and restricting the curriculum—especially for the first two years.
Enrollment skyrocketed, reaching 5,000 by 1967. However, the Roberts plan also attracted negative publicity, and the accrediting body showed dissatisfaction with some of the school’s practices. After being placed on probation in 1963, Parsons lost accreditation in 1967, resulting in the firing of Roberts. Parsons regained accreditation, but a loss of enrollment coupled with building debts led to financial problems. The school closed in 1973.
The Henn Mansion, was the original home of Parsons College. Later renamed Ewing Hall, it survived the college. On the National Register, part of the building remains as part of Maharishi University. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
Bricks and Mortar
Anchor buildings of the old Parsons campus were Fairfield Hall (1903), the administration building, and Barhydt Chapel (1911). They were joined by the Cloisters.
The growth of the student body during the presidency of Millard Roberts led to growth in building. Parsons had to form its own construction company to keep up with building demands. At the time the campus closed, it contained 72 buildings. After sitting idle until the weeds grew up, it was purchased by Maharishi University of Management.. Ultimately, M.U.M. bulldozed most of the old Parsons buildings to create a campus in keeping with its mood. Now when Parsons alumni have a reunion, there are few bricks and mortar to return to.
Colors: Green and White
In 1923, Parsons became a member of the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and continued as a member through 1963. As a conference member they fielded teams in football, basketball, track and field, cross country and tennis. Sports for women were played at the intramural level.
Parsons began playing football in 1893 and continued through 1970. During this time they had I.I.A.C. championships in 1924, 1926, 1936, 1955, 1960, 1961, and 1962. Through the years, Iowa Wesleyan College at nearby Mt. Pleasant was the most consistent opponent.
By 1963 Parsons’ coast-to-coast recruiting had increased enrollment to the point that the school left the I.I.A.C. to pursue a big-time schedule. With a new stadium in 1966, Parsons began scheduling mid-major schools from Hawaii to East Carolina, including Idaho, Idaho State, Furman, Richmond, and Tennessee-Chattanooga.
Parsons made two post-season bowls, losing to Northeast Missouri State 22-8 in the Mineral Water Bowl in 1961 and to North Dakota 42-24 in the Pecan Bowl in 1966. Two other teams—1955 and 1962—went undefeated. However, as college problems grew in the late 60’s, the football fortunes waned. The over-scheduled Wildcats finished with 2-8 and 2-7 records in 1969 and 1970. The school dropped football at that point.
Women's Basketball player from 1908. (Piera, interactive.ancestry.com