Was Paul Geren Our First Peace Corps Writer, Part Six
Paul Geren arrived at the Baptist college as a veteran foreign service officer with a wide-ranging successful career in government. He had been deputy director at the Peace Corps in its first year. He had been a diplomat for more than a decade. And he had been a college faculty member and a vice president of Baylor University. He was 54 when he was appointed just the fifth president of Stetson University.
Geren’s first success at Stetson was setting up a foreign exchange program and building a swimming pool for the students! But the wheels soon came off his presidency.
What happened? Why was Geren such a quick failure at Stetson University when he had such a successful career earlier in his life. Or had he been so successful? He had lasted less than a year at the Peace Corps; he never jelled with the Mad Men and Women in the Maiatico Building at 806 Connecticut Avenue.
He was, everyone soon learned, not qualified for the job as president of a university, even a small one like Stetson University. The Dean of Baylor’s Law School replied, when asked why Geren had not become president of Baylor a decade before, “It’s a long story,” the Dean said, “but you’ll regret it if you let him become president at Stetson.”
What was not found out by the presidential search committee, according to a book by Gilbert L. Lycan, professor of history and chairman of that department at Stetson University and author of Stetson University: The First 100 Years, was that Geren had been fired by Baylor. That is why he left the academic world and returned to the State Department.
Paul Geren started out okay at Stetson, but from the beginning, it seems, he was too ambitious for himself and the school, and too isolated in his decision making for this conservative academic community. In his first year in office, for example, he caused the university to have its largest deficit in years.
He did built a swimming pool for $85,000 that students welcomed; he created a sabbatical leave system that the faculty liked. He wanted to be seen as a bold planner, but he didn’t seek advise from others, particularly the faculty, and he didn’t raise the money to support his dreams for Stetson. He made hasty and bad appointments to friends that further distanced him from the entire community.
Soon he was ‘on the outs’ with the faculty. Added to that was the fact that the important Baptist leaders in Florida lost confidence in him. By December 1, 1969 the faculty were taking votes, for and against, Paul F. Geran.
Geren ‘said’ he was willing to ‘change his ways’ of how he did his job at Stetson, but he never did, and finally he resigned his job in July, 1969. It was to go into effect August 1, 1969 unless the trustee of the college disagreed. Geren was giving them a window to save his job.
The trustees, however, decided not to save Geren and they did not take any action on the resignation Geren had submitted–on May 30– when the faculty had voted unanimously “no confidence” in his administrative leadership. The Stetson students also voiced their support of the faculty. Geren had to go.
It was a nasty time at Stetson University. On the week-end following the trustee and faculty action, the graduating seniors boycotted and picketed a reception given in Geren’s honor. The students carried signs saying “GROG” meaning “Get rid of Geren.” Other signs read: “944 students Can’t Be Wrong.” and “We Love Our School, We Love Our Faculty.” Only 30 of the 300 graduating seniors attended the reception for Paul Geren. Earlier, 944 students had signed a petition requesting the board of trustees to accept Geren’s resignation.
Contacted by telephone by a reporter for the Baptist Press, Geren said he would have an official statement to release later, but that he planned to leave Stetson at the end of the summer. He added that in the light of the faculty and student body reactions, any significant degree of usefulness he could serve as president has ended.
Several persons, according to reporters from the Baptist Press who wished not to be quoted, said that Geren’s resignation had been announced primarily to stave off a faculty revolt and a vote of no confidence by the faculty. No one seemed willing, however, to identify publicly the issues involved in the faculty administration squabble.
The Florida Times Union in Jacksonville quoted several faculty members, all of whom wished to remain anonymous, as saying the main issue was the administrative ability of the president.
One faculty member said the central complaint was the president’s “inability to work effectively with his colleagues and the faculty.” Another person was quoted as citing the trend towards changing the philosophy of the university away from the traditions of a quality institution.
All of this had come to a head after a position paper was presented concerning plans for expansion of the “school’s Brevard County campus,” when Geren reportedly told the faculty, “If you don’t like it, you can leave.”
Schultz, chairman of the history department, said that “the faculty-student erosion of confidence in the president in no way reflected criticism of Stetson’s relations with the Florida Baptist Convention.” To the contrary, the faculty commended Dr. Geren for his distinguished work in church university relations,” added Schultz. “The faculty only regrets that the president’s obvious talents in this one field are not matched by the necessary talents in other essential areas of presidential administration.
In a statement he gave to the press, Geren said, “Until May 30, 1969, the trustees held hope which I shared that it would be possible to accommodate faculty-presidential problems. The trustees devised a plan of action. It is clear from the subsequent faculty votes the plan could not succeed. The difficulties at Stetson, as in many area of our corporate life, are psychological.”
He then added, “My family and I thank the many people of Florida who have given us their friendship and support. I hope to continue to work in higher education, probably in teaching economics at another university.”
Paul Francis Geren who had walked out of Burma, then went back into war in the Far East, and later served our country in a dozen overseas assignments, would never teach economics or anything else at any other university.
End of Part Six
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The article contains annoying typos and other errors that could have eliminated with proofreading.
What is missing from the story is that Paul Geren was President of Stetson in the midst of the civil rights movement. He was an ardent advocate for the integration of public schools and instrumental in recruiting black students into the student body. He personally mentored many of these students. At the time the Florida Baptist Convention was opposed to school integration and antagonistic to appearances of black activists on campus. Geren resisted these forces and even some bigoted faculty members in pursuing an integrated campus and community. To this day he is revered for his efforts by many. Edward Wimberley Class of 1971.