The Ghosts of Rollins

(and Other Skeletons in the Closet)

By Mary Seymour ’80

President Paul Wagner

Wagnerian Opera

When Hamilton Holt retired as president of Rollins in 1949, he left giant shoes to fill. An innovator and visionary thinker, he’d positioned the College as a progressive institution on a par with Antioch and Sarah Lawrence. Rollins wanted a successor who would bring to its future what Holt had brought in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. Enter Paul Wagner, a 33-year-old wunderkind who specialized in using audiovisuals as a teaching aid. He created the Navy’s first audiovisual lab during World War II, then became PR director at Bell & Howell. Despite his work in the military and corporate worlds, education remained his true passion.

According to College Historian Jack Lane’s centennial history of Rollins, Wagner flew to Florida as soon as he learned about the search for a new president. He breezed into Holt’s office unannounced while the president was interviewing a prospective candidate. Holt grudgingly interviewed Wagner later that day, expecting to dislike this brash, young go-getter. One hour later, Holt was sold on the idea of Wagner as the ninth president of Rollins. Wagner equally enchanted faculty, students, and trustees during a series of interviews; on May 31, 1949, the board of trustees unanimously elected Wagner president of Rollins. His new job made him the nation’s youngest college president and occasioned articles in Newsweek and Collier’s, the latter of which deemed him “Education’s New Boy Wonder.” With his good looks and megawatt smile, he resembled a movie star more than an academic.

More than 50 college presidents attended Wagner’s inauguration at Rollins, and he sailed through his first months with flying colors. There were, however, a couple of early clouds on the horizon: he announced that the football program would be scrapped due to its $50,000 annual deficit. He also locked horns with Arthur Enyart, the College’s Dean of Men since 1911. When the old dean resigned, his many friends—including influential alumni—took an anti-Wagner stance.

Wagner created a new administrative team and debuted a style that relied less on faculty governance and more on executive say-so. He discovered that the College was listing under the weight of perennial deficits from the Holt era, with two added pressures: rampant post-war inflation and a decrease in enrollment caused by the Korean War draft.

Wagner commissioned a study that predicted financial disaster for Rollins unless expenditures were drastically reduced. Specifically, 15 to 20 faculty members had to be dismissed. The board of trustees agreed to this scenario, but when the ax began to fall, the academic community went into shock. The day of the dismissals—March 8, 1951—became known as “Black Thursday.”

Students and faculty were equally upset, both at the cuts and the seemingly undemocratic way they were conducted. Throughout March and April, Wagner and his staff plus the executive committee of the board of trustees squared off against faculty, students, the majority of trustees, and alumni. A storm of angry, accusatory meetings ensued, with both sides hardening their positions. Meanwhile, the national wire services picked up the story, which ran in the Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, Time, and Life.

Wagner stuck to the presidency even as his authority began to crumble. On May 10, a majority of students walked out of classes and refused to come back until he resigned. On May 13 the board of trustees formally dismissed him as president and announced the appointment of Rollins art professor Hugh McKean as acting president. Wagner and his wife departed campus under police escort; the next day, when acting President McKean called an all-college meeting, the students lifted him on their shoulders and walked with him through campus shouting cheers of victory.

Wagner filed a $500,000 suit against the 11 trustees who had voted for his dismissal; in 1953, both sides agreed to a $50,000 out-of-court settlement. Wagner went on to become vice president of New York PR firm Hill & Knowlton, where he was occasionally called on to work with fired college presidents. Wagner and his second wife, Jeanette, live in New York City; they visited Rollins in the 1990s. This time there was no Sturm und Drang, just a peaceful campus populated by students and faculty who didn’t know or recognize the ninth president of Rollins, returning after 40 years and a lot of water under the bridge.

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