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Exley Science Center may have been the embodiment of 1970s architecture, but it also was an instance where the University severely mishandled their funds after gaining 400,000 shares of Xerox stock worth more than $56 million in May 1965. Adjusted for inflation, the value of the University’s Xerox stock would be worth $418,612,484 today. What is now the Exley Science Center cost $13 million upon its completion in 1971, which, while it may not seem like a lot compared to the University’s funds at the time, was originally estimated to only cost $5 million. The project represented a broader pattern of financial errors that came during the Edwin D. Ethrington administration, President Victor Butterfield’s successor.

Adjusted for inflation, Exley would have been more than $46 million over its estimated budget had it been constructed today. For the University in the late sixties and seventies, however, the boom the endowment received from Xerox stock seemed to be infinite. Historian David Potts dedicates an entire chapter to this phenomenon titled, “Hazards of New Fortune” in his book “Wesleyan University, 1910-1970: Academic Ambition and Middle-Class America.”

“With the endowment’s market value almost doubled overnight, from a level already comparable to those of Amherst and Williams, Wesleyan’s building program could now proceed in a brisk, ambitious fashion,” Potts writes. “The Lawn Avenue Residence Halls [now known as The Butterfield Dormitories, or “The Butts”], including commodious quarters for the College of Letters and the College of Social Studies, opened its first two units in 1965…. Construction of a three-unit science complex began in June 1965 and would give Wesleyan’s little university plans their first major asset.”

The vaulting ambition of the Butterfield administration was now manifesting itself in an even greater physical presence for the University. Throughout his book, Potts centers much of his work around the uniquely Wesleyan notion of the “little university,” an apparent oxymoron that alumni take pride in. It involves intimate contact with professors and also access to significant resources, small classes grappling with big ideas, and, by the seventies, a lot of money for a small school.

This ambition was manifested in Exley and Hall-Atwater. No small part of the manifestation of this ambition was in the modernist architecture of the Science Center, which makes spectators scratch their heads from the minute they go on a tour at Wesleyan. While the initial cost estimates were modest in relation to the endowment, the actual cost of construction of what is now Exley proved otherwise.

“Clothed in precast concrete panels with a brownstone aggregate surface, the library and tower would display decidedly modernist lines and scale,” Potts writes. “During the construction years, final costs for the new science facilities would escalate sharply beyond original calculations. The estimated $4 million for Hall-Atwater would rise to $5 million and the estimated $5 million for the library and tower [Science Library and Exley] would rise to $13 million.”

The same pattern was followed for the Center for the Arts (CFA), which was reduced in planning from fourteen buildings to eleven. Designed by Kevin Roche, a venerable architect who was informed by both classical and modern aesthetics, the CFA was marveled at during it’s construction by The New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable. She called the Stonehenge-esque arrangement of Indiana limestone structures a “subtle arrangement” of planes and masses that was “skillfully balanced,” creating artistic spaces that would “make larger universities green with envy.” Regardless of its merits, the CFA’s financial footprint grew eerily similar to that of the Science Center.

“Early planning estimates in 1965 and 1967 set the cost at $5 million,” Potts writes. “That figure would steadily swell, particularly from the groundbreaking in 1970 to the opening in 1973. The final cost would reach almost $13 million.”

These costs—along with a $4.2 million new central power plant to keep up with the rapidly growing campus, a $1.8 million hockey rink, and financial provisions for a new coaching position to bring the men’s hockey team from a club to varsity level sport in 1971—made the early 70s a time of seemingly never ending spending that ended up diminishing the endowment that was once boosted by Xerox.

The building projects represented just some of several ways that the school was trying to change and improve during this era. The “Vanguard Class” of African American students arrived in 1965, bringing with them a considerable degree of change to the University. This change brought about quick demographic and cultural changes to student life, and the University was far ahead of its rivals in experiencing these changes.

“The presence of African American students would increase from an average of two per entering class in the early sixties to an average of about thirty-seven from 1966 through 1969,” Potts writes. “Amherst and Williams would not begin to approach a comparable percentage level until the early seventies. By their senior year, the vanguard group and their successors would have the numbers and solidarity sufficient to press effectively for urgent attention to racial issues on campus.”

There has probably not been a greater time of change in the Unversity’s history then the late sixties and early seventies, where both the physical and demographic landscapes of the University transformed drastically. Although students still benefit from Exley and the CFA today, we would have far more resources available to us had we not recklessly spent out of our endowment during this time period. Schools like Williams, Amherst, Harvard, and Princeton have maintained high endowments while fundraising separately for capital projects.

The This Is Why campaign will have been one of the greatest periods of financial growth since the capital campaigns of the Butterfield Administration. Although much of our education here cannot be quantified into dollars and cents, it takes material resources to sustain our education and that of Wesleyan students to come. So the next time you and your friends make fun of a This Is Why advertisement, remember that we once had the highest endowment per student of any school in the country, and that we lost much of it with just a few poor financial decisions.

  • Ron Medley `73

    It’s easy to look back from the vantage point of an era that focuses on endowment levels the way nuclear powers counted warheads during the Cold War, and hang everything on a couple of cost overruns that occurred fifty years ago. But, that’s not the whole story. If we use the year end value of Wesleyan’s portfolio in 1965 as a benchmark, the difference in constant 2016 dollars is fairly minimal: $873,000,000 versus $810,000,000 at last count. If you read the chapters of Prof. Potts book,’ leading up to the “Hazards of New Fortune” epilogue, one of the things that becomes obvious is that nearly everyone from key members of the board of trustees to senior faculty, looked upon anything above the endowment levels of Amherst and Williams – who were not exactly hurting for cash – as a windfall. They were not entirely unjustified. The Williams endowment, as late as 1969 was about $400,000,000, and, Amherst was not that much richer at 458,000,000 (again, using 2016 inflated dollars.)

    Professor Potts leaves quite a few plot lines hanging by chapter’s end. He hints at a protracted period of financial uncertainty to come – and, there was. Amherst and Williams eventually did catch up and exceed Wesleyan in terms of endowment, both nominally and per student. But, it would take them nearly a quarter of a century to do so and the real culprit was not “overspending” in the 1960s – compelling though that narrative has been for lo these many years.
    The explanation is in the statement you make regarding, “the greatest periods of financial growth since the capital campaigns of the Butterfield Administration.” What capital campaigns during the Butterfield administration? There were none. The Victor Butterfield administration was blessed by the steady income supplied by a publishing company one of whose products was “My Weekly Reader” the sale of which in 1965 netted the $56 million in Xerox stock to which you refer early in your piece. Butterfield was a gifted visionary in many ways. But, for his entire reign as president, from 1943 to 1967, he never had to lift a finger to raise money.
    The single biggest reason that Wesleyan allowed Amherst and Williams to catch up with it and exceed it in terms of endowment (which I assume is the real reason anyone cares about such things in the first place) is because it took Wesleyan nearly a half-century following World War II in order to figure out how to run a successful capital campaign. It simply didn’t have the experience.

    • Rike Moth

      The Wesleyan endowment has increased nearly 33% in the last 15 years (in real nominal book value). Do you think the University is on the correct growth path to once again have a top tier endowment commensurate with endowments of other top liberal arts schools, (i.e. Amherst and Williams and other peers)? If so, do you foresee this growth in capital initiating a corresponding growth in prestige (will Wesleyan ascend the rankings to a position closer to its Little Three rivals)?

      I’m genuinely curious, and you seem to have a solid grasp of the University’s endowment history.

      • Ron Medley ’73

        I think the university is already more prestigious than Amherst and Williams in certain pockets of the world. Over a million people have enrolled in a Wesleyan taught MOOC in the last two years, something Victor Butterfield would certainly have been proud of. And, in term’s of alumni movers and shakers under the age of sixty, Amherst and Williams do not even come close. But, to answer your question, while a billion dollar endowment for a college of 3,000 students would certainly change the conversation, I would never underestimate the click value of money and the American fascination with who has it. I think among the things to watch out for would be Wesleyan’s inclusion among those in the “billion dollar club” who are already facing down suggestions that their tax exempt status be investigated. If that happens, we’d be coming full circle to the days of My Weekly Reader.