Oxy's 10th president—who died January 15—advanced the College to greater heights with a clear vision and a personal touch
By Dick Anderson
On Oct. 25, 1965, two large dining halls were filled with guests and well-wishers for Occidental's 10th president. But Richard C. Gilman didn't sit down to eat. Instead, he and his wife, Lucille, "walked from table to table, getting to know the guests and just enjoying themselves," the late Clancy Morrison, Oxy's legendary director of food services, recalled in 1988. "It's a style he set from the very beginning, and I've seen it over and over—whether it's a meal for alumni, headmasters, or people involved with Elderhostel. There he is, like always, not bothering to eat, but strolling from table to table, introducing himself, and getting to know the folks."
That one-on-one interaction became a trademark of the 23-year presidency of Gilman, who died January 15 at his home in Pasadena at age 92. "His personal outreach to me after DWA day for high schools in the area convinced me that Oxy was where I belonged," says Kathy Bowyer Frazier '88. "I still have the handwritten note with specific remarks about our conversation that he sent me."
A native of Cambridge, Mass., Gilman never lost his distinctive New England accent nor his affinity for his native region. He attended Dartmouth College on a full scholarship, where he graduated in 1945 cum laude on an accelerated, wartime calendar. He served as an officer in the U.S. Navy in World War II aboard the USS Shangri-La in the Pacific. In 1948, he enrolled at Boston University, where he was a Borden Parker Bowne Fellow. Gilman also attended the University of London and received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston University in 1952.
He began his academic career as a teaching fellow in religion at Dartmouth in 1948. Gilman was a tenured faculty member in philosophy and religion at Colby College for six years, leaving in 1956 to become executive director of the National Council on Religion in Higher Education. In 1960, he was named dean of the college and professor of philosophy at Carleton College, where he served as the chief academic officer until coming to Occidental.
Gilman came to Oxy at a time when the College was basking in the afterglow of national attention, with a $114,000 grant from the Ford Foundation in 1962 and a Time magazine article that same year that described Oxy as a "little giant" of the West. In February 1965, when he was chosen from a field of more than 100 candidates to succeed Arthur G. Coons '20 as president, Gilman was introduced via a telegram in which he wrote, "I have pledged to the trustees and to the faculty my personal commitment to serve the College to the fullest and best of my ability and to cooperate with you in a united effort to advance Occidental to even greater heights in the years ahead."
"When I was being interviewed by the trustees, they wanted to know if I would be willing to stay at Occidental for a time," he recalled in a 2012 interview with President Jonathan Veitch. "My predecessors [Remsen Bird and Coons] had 20 years or more, and I said that I would commit to 10 years. But beyond that I just didn't know. That was the best I could do at the time."
As it turned out, Gilman became the president of record for the Baby Boom generation—all the while adapting to "probably the most remarkable set of changes of any president in the institution's history," in the words of Veitch. Gilman brought to Oxy a tradition he was introduced to as a student at Dartmouth, of personally greeting new students in his office on campus at the start of each school year. "I want them to know me right off the bat so at any time during their years at Occidental they can come to me without reluctance to discuss any issue," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1970.
Among Gilman's first actions was to put an end to what had previously been a segregated Greek system. As a freshman arriving at Oxy in 1963, "I was surprised and somewhat disillusioned when I arrived for my first year at Oxy to discover that the fraternities were segregated organizations," recalls Eric Newhall '67, professor of American studies and English. "I was pleased two years later when the new president declared that Greek organizations at Occidental would have 'local autonomy' rather than adhering to the exclusionary rules and regulations of the national organizations. When I look back today, 50 years later, it seems to me that Dick Gilman took an early step in the direction of what we refer on campus today as 'excellence and equity.'"
Using what he called a "practical, sensible, careful approach," Gilman navigated Occidental through the tumultuous era of campus protests against the Vietnam War in the late '60s and early '70s. At Commencement ceremonies in 1971, he declared that the American college must remain a place of lively discussion and earnest debate, of intellectual freedom and social concern, if it is to challenge contemporary society. "It is, and must remain, a place for vigorous dissent, but not disruption; for responsible argument, but not for acts of hostility and aggression."
Not long after the anti-war movement died down, the anti-apartheid movement took hold at Oxy. "There were protests and comments about divestment as early as 1965," Gilman recalled. But the movement only began to snowball at Oxy in 1978, after Columbia University and a number of Ivy League schools began to divest from businesses with ties to South Africa. "Part of the problem on the other side, with respect to the divestment controversy, was that the history of student and faculty involvement was very uneven," said Gilman, who made what he called "a sustained and serious effort" to bring the trustees around on the matter even creating board committees to deal with issues of "moral responsibility" in investments. Despite his best efforts, trustees voted against the resolution in 1983.
Working closely with a succession of deans, Gilman hired a remarkable number of tenure-track professors who shaped the academic core of the College for generations. In addition to growing the faculty by one-third, from 90 to 120, Gilman increased salaries and benefits, encouraged and supported faculty research, and made significant investments in the sciences, including construction of a new $7-million biosciences building.
A lifelong interest in interdisciplinary academic inquiry inspired Gilman to encourage the expansion of the College's curricular offerings, adding such majors as American studies, urban studies, and biochemistry, while also overseeing what he called the "inevitable" demise of History of Civilization—specifically, Western civilization. "The intellectual and social horizons of faculty and students had expanded beyond Rome and Athens," he said. "And many of the faculty coming in did not have the breadth of background that was really required to be comfortable in teaching the course."
"As a faculty member, I always supported President Gilman's policy of focusing on high-quality undergraduate education rather than creating graduate programs designed to bring in additional tuition revenue," says Newhall, who has taught at the College since 1975. "Many colleges and universities around the country cobbled together mediocre master's programs designed primarily to make money. Oxy during the Gilman years took the high road: We focused on undergraduate education and kept the student/faculty ratio low."
This focus was accompanied by substantial investments in campus infrastructure including the construction of the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center, Stearns Hall, and Keck Theater; a large addition to the library; the remodeling of Orr Hall into the Weingart Center for Liberal Arts; and the renovation and expansion of athletic facilities in conjunction with Oxy's role as a practice facility for the 1984 Olympic Summer Games. On Gilman's watch, Oxy's endowment grew from $11 million to $130 million.
During the course of his 40 years in higher education, Gilman was on the boards of numerous national organizations. In 1979-80, he played a key role in the establishment of the U.S. Department of Education, serving as executive assistant and special counsel to Secretary of Education Shirley Hufstedler. He also was appointed by the Department of State to participate in seven educational missions overseas.
Along the way, he managed to strike a careful balance between work and family life with his wife, Lucille, and their four children (daughter Marsha and sons Bradley M'78, Brian, and Tucker). "I would usually come to work at 9 a.m.," he recalled. "I have skipped lunch for years, unless I have a meeting, but I always have a good breakfast in the morning and a good dinner at night. But when I came home, Lucille and I would go in my study, have a drink or two, and sit and talk about the day. We called it Mommy and Daddy's time. And then we would have dinner together—Lucille did the cooking. Sure, I had to be out a lot, but the times that we had were deliberately and consciously family time."
Following the sudden death of Lucille from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1978, Gilman found himself at a crossroads, both personally and professionally. When it came to Occidental, "I just decided to stay, even though life was going to be very, very different for me," he reflected years later. "And one of the reasons I decided to stay was my children. They'd been in this house for more than 10 years; they had their friends in the community."
Gilman would marry a second time, to his longtime secretary, Sarah Gale, in 1984. Two years earlier, around the time their relationship got serious, Sarah was diagnosed with breast cancer—"We knew it, and we wanted to beat it. We didn't. [Sarah died in 1986.] And at that point, I was again ready to leave," Gilman said. The trustees asked him to stay through the College's centennial year, and he ultimately consented.
When Gilman announced his retirement in 1988, this time it was final. "I always said when my step is slow, or when my step slows down, it's time to go. And I thought I'd done just about all I could," Gilman said in 2012. "I know there were some faculty looking for another face in the president's office. I think I used to say I gave it my best shot. It's up to other people to determine how accurate that shot was, but I don't look back on it with any pain or regret."
"He genuinely enjoyed the company of some of his harshest critics," says Larry Caldwell, the Cecil H. and Louise Gamble Professor in Political Science Emeritus. "He often got a twinkle in his eye when confronting [professor of history] Norm Cohen, or other colleagues on his left on College issues. … For all of the criticism that faculty had for him during his tenure, many of us came to look back on his years as simpler, and clearer. He expected strong faculty leadership and respected people who could go toe-to-toe with him in a civilized way."
"No event, activity, situation, condition, or problem has ever been too small to be given his fullest attention and consideration when it was on his agenda," Lee Case, Oxy's longtime vice president for planning and development, observed upon Gilman's retirement. "History will rank him among the best of Occidental's leaders."
"One of Dr. Gilman's qualities was his ability to connect to people on whatever level was appropriate for the occasion, whether it was my cousin [Norton Clapp '27, whose family built the College library] or Mrs. Hufstedler or [Oxy trustee] Warren Christopher," says Colby Parks '81 M'82, who frequently drove Gilman to the airport as a student worker at Oxy. (The president, in turn, taught Parks how to shake a proper martini at a house party.)
"Building an academic institution is a labor of love," Veitch says. "Dick's lifelong devotion to Oxy is evident everywhere one turns on the campus: from the excellent faculty and staff he hired to the wonderful facilities he raised money for and built. We are all in his debt."
In addition to his four children, Gilman is survived by six grandchildren, including Peter Gilman '13; and a great-granddaughter. A celebration of his life will be held in Herrick Chapel on April 2 at 2 p.m.