Peter D. Pelham, the outgoing president of Mount Vernon College, tells an anecdote that probably indicates the nature of his college's student body, or the nature of its president, but most likely both:
"Back in the late '60s, when campuses all over the country were in turmoil, and Mount Vernon was no exception," Pelham recalls, "I returned from a fund-raising trip to find my secretary absolutely ashen-faced. She explained she couldn't help it, but students had pushed past her and were occupying my office.
"I went back there and could barely open my office door, the room was so jammed with students. Through the crack I saw they all looked completely grim. It looked like an awful scene. I edged my way in and the silence, the grimness, continued about five seconds. Then the whole crowd broke up.
"'We just wanted to let you know, Mr. Pelham,'" they told him, "'that we know you're traveling around a lot, talking to all your colleagues about campus problems, and we wanted you to be able to say that your office had been occupied too.'"
The tall, youngish looking college president, now 46, laughs as he remembers the incident. He believes it indicates the strong rapport he has enjoyed with Mount Vernon students during his 15 years as president. The womens college, nestled in rolling green landscape off Foxhall Road NW, is 102 years old.
Pelham left the college June 30 to become a vice president of the Institute for International Education in charge of the organization's Washington regional office. He leaves behind a career that not only boasts popularity with students, but respect, sometimes grudgingly, from his faculty and administrators.
For when his colleagues at Mount Vernon mention Peter Pelham, the word "change" follows close behind.
With Pelham at the helm, Mount Vernon was converted from a girls' high school and two-year college to an accredited four-year degree-granting institution for women. The school first opened in 1875 with 11 students to offer a "proper education" for young women at the suggestion of post-Civil War statesmen living in Washington with their families.
"He will be a hard act to follow," says retiring English professor Ethel Peirce, who has taught at Mount Vernon 17 years.
"It's a difficult job to undergo substantial change and still maintain an atmosphere and feeling of stability," says another Pelham associate. "Not everyone likes all the changes they saw that Pelham had a hand in, but they appreciated the cooperation and order he managed to give the changing process."
When Pelham came to Mount Vernon in 1962, "young and naive at age 31," as he describes himself then, Mount Vernon was having trouble trying to support its high school as well as the two-year junior college. He described fund-raising efforts as "modest" and the college as 90 per cent fee supported. With 300 students, it operated on a $1.5 million annual budget.
The typical graduate of the college then would have completed her formal education after two years here, perhaps to earn a bachelors degree later, and gone on to Katy Gibbs or work in her hometown community. Maybe she would have gotten married or opened a boutique - something like that," Pelham said.
Now the four-year college has more than 450 students and operates on a $2.7 million annual budget. It offers bachelors' degrees in public affairs, government, childhood and special education, business administration and the visual arts.
A member of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, Mount Vernon students can earn credits at other Washington colleges and universities. A learning abroad program, inclusive in the $4,700 tuition for dormitory students, offers courses during six weeks travel to another country.
A continuing education program begun in 1972 now has nearly 2,000 students taking 133 courses and the new Washington Institute for Women in Politics sponsors workshops and seminars on practical and theoretical aspects of women entering politics as a career.
The college now is 45 per cent fee supported, with other monies coming from corporations and foundations and annual gifts, Pelham said. Keeping the college open in summer generates other funds by community use of tennis courts, swimming pools and classroom facilities.
As the character and substance of Mount Vernon has been revamped, so has its typical student. Today about half of Mount Vernon's students continue there to earn a bachelors degree, Pelham said. Another 40 per cent of those women would go on to post graduate work or professional careers. The college no longer caters to "young women" but all types of women. About 11 per cent of the student body are women between 35 and 40 years old. Half of those women are returning for a second bachelors degree. About 25 per cent of the student body represent minority groups or are foreign students, many of whom have lived in Pelham's home with his wife Isobel, and their three children, Melissa, 16, Peter, 15 and Sam, 12.
As for Pelham, he maintains that Mount Vernon had to change in order to survive, and "that choice would have had to been made whether I had been here or not."
"What has changed Mount Vernon is the collective effort of a great many people here who were willing to try a different approach," says Pelham, who holds masters and doctorate degrees in English from the University of Virginia.
While Pelham claims collective efforts molded the school to its present image, others credit Pelham with the relatively smooth changes.
"He's a great public relations man, a salesman," says another retiring teacher, describing Pelham's extensive travel during his tenure to garner support, funds and contacts for Mount Vernon. "He can be familiar with you, yet set his distance."
"I think it would be hard finding anyone who won't say he's one of the better things that happened to Mount Vernon," says Marion Farnsworth, who graduated from Mount Vernon this year and works in the college admissions office.
She added that, in her opinion, having a male president "added some balance" to a school where the student population and 65 per cent of the faculty are women. Pelham says he is "certain that my being a man running an all-female school has at times served as a convenient target, but on the whole it has made no difference."
Board of trustees member Walter Beach says no replacement has been found for Pelham, but that hopefully one will be announced before the next school session. He denied reports that the school is looking for a woman president.
"We have no preference for either a man or woman," he said. "We are simply continuing our search for a president that will continue the excellent leadership we have had in the past."