Whether it was his bow tie and dark rimmed glasses, his devoted wife, Betty’s valiant battle with and subsequent loss to cancer, his ability to tighten the financial belt during troubled times, Marietta College’s 14th President, Dr. Sherrill Cleland became quite endeared to students and the College as a whole during his 16 years in leadership.
In stark contrast to Dr. Frank Duddy, Jr.’s administration, which was filled with construction and enrollment gains, Dr. Cleland, an honored World War II veteran who was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, began his tenure at Marietta having to make serious cuts to the College budget.
"Hard choices were required from the very beginning of my tenure as president," Cleland wrote in his first address to the Board of Trustees. "A budget built on an expectation of 1,795 average student enrollment in February 1973 had to be reduced by more than $150,000 when a disappointing new freshman class size (down 122 from the previous year) necessitated a budget built on 1,725 students."
Because of the declining number of students, Dr. Cleland had to adjust the number of faculty and staff at the College. Of the 21 faculty positions that were cut during his tenure, four were of retiring professors whose positions were not refilled. Five full-time and one half-time administrative positions were also cut. Despite these cuts, Dr. Cleland’s tenure had a noteworthy retention rate among professors. "Forty-seven of Sherrill Cleland’s faculty members were aboard for every one of his 16 years in office, 1973-89," wrote Dan McGrew in his Marietta College historical, "In the various branches of useful knowledge."
Despite the falling enrollment numbers, in 1977 Dr. Cleland introduced an approach that would protect the College’s position as a high-caliber institution. "Selectivity and Size" was a plan to court high school graduates who were at the top of their classes and who had scored high marks on college aptitude tests.
"The main peg for this was the ’Search’ program offered by the College Entrance Examination Board, the non-profit organization that provides tests and other educational services for students and colleges alike," McGrew wrote. "For a reasonable fee, a college would receive information identifying college-bound students who took SAT and other tests. Computers would match a college’s criteria for the type of students it wished to contact—test scores, high school grade averages and class rankings, academic interests, intended majors, and so forth. As many as a million high schoolers who indicated they wanted to participate in this academic match-up would in turn learn about schools with programs and characteristics they and their parents might find desirable."
After 11 years, the program was considered a success because student quality was high, though enrollment fluctuated during that period from 1,379 to 1,082 students.
Early on in his tenure, Dr. Cleland developed the idea of the Master of Arts in Liberal Learning, along with special courses aimed at teaching freshmen students about successful approaches to transitioning into college, and the Evening school, which was a continuing education program. The Cleland Administration also saw the first woman Provost and Dean of the Faculty hired. Dr. Gwendolyn Evans Jensen was the last of four provosts who served under Dr. Cleland.
Midway through his tenure, the College successfully completed Campaign 150, a five-year, $12 million fund drive that lasted from 1980 until 1985, when Marietta celebrated its 150th anniversary.
There are two moments during Cleland’s time that particularly stand out as memorable and long lasting. The first came the year after he came to Marietta, when students looking to blow off some steam during the spring 1974 semester threw a campus-wide party that included open mic times in front of Dawes Memorial Library and other events. Dr. Cleland showed Doo Dah Dayers how to tie his signature bow tie. The other key event began with a gift from Alma McDonough, the widow of the late Bernard P. McDonough. The $5.5 million donation paid for the creation of the McDonough Center for Leadership and Business, which received the College charter in 1986, the same year Dr. Cleland lost his first wife, Betty, after a courageous battle with cancer. A room in the McDonough Center was named in her honor.
Dr. Cleland and his second wife, Diana Drake, moved to a home in Virginia after he left office in 1989. During that year’s Commencement ceremony, he was surprised to be awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree. The Board of Trustees passed a resolution praising his "unfailing and almost superhuman self control during all those moments when he was fully entitled to outbursts of temper or even primal screams in protest against the vicissitudes that vex the soul of a college president."