The Ghosts of Rollins
(and Other Skeletons in the Closet)
By Mary Seymour ’80
Rice Versus Rollins
In 1930, Rollins President Hamilton Holt hired John Rice, a brilliant scholar and maverick teacher, as professor of classics—a decision Holt would come to regret.
Rice was one of several progressive educators Holt hired in his push to put Rollins on the cutting edge of innovative education. Other “golden personalities” (as Holt called his hand-picked stars) included professors Frederick Georgia, Ralph Lounsbury, and Theodore Drier.
In short order, Rice became a major campus figure. He served on several key committees and was a catalyst for academic reform. His classroom style was iconoclastic: rather than teach Greek or Latin, per his contract, he riffed on Greek art, literature, and philosophy. Students typically exited his classes as ignorant of classical languages as when they entered. They did, however, get a unique Socratic-style education. For example, one day Rice put a calendar pinup of two nearly naked women on the classroom wall. When a student asked what his purpose was, Rice replied, “Why, don’t you like them?” The student’s negative reply engendered a two-day discussion of the meaning of art.
Rice attracted a small, devoted group of followers, but many students loathed and feared him. If he deemed someone slow-witted or contrary, he was openly disparaging. Rice was, at least, egalitarian in his approach: he was equally cutting to faculty and students alike. His personal habits didn’t help—he dressed carelessly, with a tramp-like presentation. Rice’s habit of wearing brief swim trunks led to the charge that he paraded around in nothing but a jockstrap. Rumors flew that he was having affairs with students.
Given his penchant for going against the grain, Rice rapidly lost credit with the administration. He and fellow faculty reformists declared that Rollins’ fraternity system should be abolished because it deterred individual development. He also advocated scrapping the College’s two-hour classes and eight-hours-a-day schedule (known as the “conference plan”), which was Holt’s proud creation and trademark. Rather impoliticly, Rice and his fellow golden personalities recommended a more elastic plan.
President Holt was shocked at his protégé’s mean-spiritedness and insurrection. He met with Rice in February 1933, suggesting that he undertake “an old-fashioned religious conversion; that is, get love in your heart and banish hate.”
Rice, a firm atheist who called the first Christmas service at Knowles Chapel “obscene,” had no interest in conversion or compassion. Since Rice would not yield, Holt sent him a formal letter of non-reappointment March 21.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) caught wind of the matter and began investigating whether the firing was legal. In the AAUP’s eyes, Rice hadn’t received an impartial hearing—rather, he was the victim of Holt’s lordly dismissal. After its investigation, the AAUP issued a report criticizing the College’s “ill-defined” tenure policy and Holt’s autocratic methods.
Holt had no interest in kowtowing to the AAUP. Instead he called Rice’s supporters into his office one by one and asked them to make a loyalty pledge. Those who agreed kept their jobs. Those who resisted did not. All in all, eight faculty members resigned or were dismissed.
There was one positive outcome from the Aeschylean drama. Former Rollins professors Drier, Georgia, Lounsbury, and Rice—all casualties of the loyalty pledge—gathered during the summer of 1933 and decided to found their own college. In an astonishingly short time, they pulled off their vision by creating Black Mountain College.
The college opened that fall on the campus of the former Baptist Summer Retreat in Black Mountain, North Carolina, with 21 students—including several from Rollins. In the next decade, the college garnered national attention for its experimental approach, which included democratic self-rule, extensive work in the creative arts, and interdisciplinary study.
Although John Rice was the founder of Black Mountain College, his tenure ended in 1940, at the faculty’s request. His plainspoken, polarizing personality was once again the culprit—apparently “an old-fashioned religious conversion” continued to elude him.
Black Mountain College folded in 1956, a noble experiment whose influence is still felt in colleges such as Goddard, Hampshire, and Antioch. As for Rice, he forged a second career as a writer. He penned a memoir, I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century, and wrote short stories for magazines such as The New Yorker and Harper’s until his death in 1968.