Paul Engleman’76
May 01, 2018

Beloit’s Bold Experiment

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first class to graduate under the Beloit Plan, a brief but pivotal chapter in the long history of the college that established the school’s reputation for innovation and, despite its demise, still lingers in its DNA.

In my senior year of high school in 1971, I was sure of one thing: I was not going to sit in a classroom the next year. Instead, a friend and I had a doomed plan to move to New York and get jobs—doomed because no landlord would rent to a pair of unemployed 17-year-olds. I ended up living at home and working at a post office, a taste of the working world that whetted my appetite for college. I requested catalogs from schools that the smart kids I knew were attending. One stood out: Beloit.

Eight years earlier, Beloit had implemented a sweeping new plan that emphasized experiential learning, interdisciplinary study, and flexibility, including a field term and year-round calendar that allowed you to choose when to be on campus and offered the option to graduate in three years. It was well-regarded academically, though my larger considerations at the time were co-ed dorms, being allowed to have a car, and Wisconsin’s 18-year-old drinking age.

During the next four years, I took advantage of almost everything Beloit had to offer—access to professors, independent studies, and off-campus stays in different cities, including a job at the New York Times. My three summer terms seemed like vacations no matter how far I fell behind or how hard I had to work. It was the kind of experience that keeps you connected with a college for life.

The Beloit Plan was the result of forward-thinking administrators and faculty who viewed a looming challenge as an opportunity for reinvention. College enrollment was expected to double as the first-born of the baby boom started reaching college age in 1963. With tax-supported institutions drawing an increasing proportion of students, private liberal arts colleges faced increased competition and the prospect of losing faculty to state universities. But a larger pool of applicants also offered the opportunity to become bigger and better.

Beloit leaders had already spent nearly a decade reexamining the college’s pedagogy, curriculum, and its very reason for existing. As early as 1952, the seeds of the Beloit Plan were planted when the college captured a self-study grant from the Ford Foundation during the tenure of President Carey Croneis. That study brought together a range of faculty and administrators for a comprehensive appraisal of Beloit’s program. The study yielded a 300-page report that set off 10 years of brainstorming and institutional soul-searching. In an era of conformity, Beloit was striving for innovation.

When sixth College President Miller Upton arrived in 1954, the concepts from the Ford self-study were still alive. A second review on Upton’s watch regenerated reform efforts and led Beloit to make the most significant changes to its curriculum and academic calendar in college history.

In October 1962, at a retreat in Lake Geneva, Wis., a self-study ad hoc committee led by psychology professor Sumner Hayward drafted a set of proposals that soon were approved by the faculty—by a vote of 68-3—and fleshed out and adopted by the administration. The new Beloit Plan replaced the traditional categories of freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior with “underclass,” “middleclass,” and “upperclass,” required off-campus field terms for work in the United States or seminars abroad, divided the curriculum into humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, and instituted an underclass common course (UCC) in which some faculty members taught outside their disciplines. (UCC and mandatory proficiency exams were later eliminated under a presidential mandate.)

The “framework of the program,” as Hayward called it in a 1964 article in the journal Liberal Education, was the year-round calendar designed by mathematics professor Edwin Wilde, with three 15-week semesters. By utilizing campus facilities year-round, the college hoped to increase student enrollment by 50 percent—from 1,200 to 1,800—while increasing faculty by only one-third, generating a significant rise in revenue.

A series of reports from 1966 to 1970 analyzing the impact of the Plan noted that students were dividing socially into “squares” and “non-conformists,” with the latter on the rise as fraternity membership declined. How much that trend had to do with the Plan itself or broader societal changes is anyone’s guess. The reports also evaluated the calendar’s impact on continuity—in sports programs and the availability of teachers and courses—and the challenge in accommodating the new-found independence of students returning from field terms. How do you keep them content in a supervised dormitory after they’ve seen Haight-Ashbury?

There is little doubt that the Plan, which College President Miller Upton said was “unlike any other educational program in America,” put Beloit on the radar of high school counselors and established its national reputation. In 1963, nearly 60 percent of the school’s enrollment of 1,115 drew from Illinois and Wisconsin. By 1969, with enrollment reaching 1,799, those states accounted for 37 percent, and Beloit was attracting students from 48 states and 22 countries. But in the 1970s, the college’s fortunes took a sharp turn south.

The first problem was the guaranteed tuition program, notable for its generosity and naiveté. Beloit set tuition at a flat rate at the start of a student’s stay and guaranteed it throughout, a policy that proved disastrous at a time when President Gerald Ford was issuing WIN (Whip Inflation Now) buttons. The second problem was a decline in enrollment. This had to be expected to some degree, with student deferments from the military draft no longer in play and many colleges going co-ed and adopting Beloit’s model of staying open year round. But the drop was sudden and steep. The entering class in fall 1972 topped 600; three years later, it was 276. In June 1975, Martha Peterson replaced the retiring Miller Upton as college president and presided over devastating cuts to faculty and staff that culminated with the 14th and final summer session of the Beloit Plan in 1978.

“Harrowing times, for sure,” recalls Jerry Gustafson, an economics professor emeritus who, as a member of the class of 1963, was “almost present at the Plan’s creation.” He eagerly joined the Beloit faculty in 1967 because of the Plan.

Recently retired from a 46-year teaching career, Gustafson believes the calendar was the only real casualty from the Beloit Plan. “Most of the innovations survived and continued to evolve,” he says. “I am not sure the faculty and staff fully realize how much the character of the college is revealed by the entire episode. It was a miracle that the Plan, ambitious as it was to make a college all a college should be, was conceived, approved, and implemented by tiny Beloit. Although its major innovation—the trimester calendar—did not survive, Beloit has remained a place that is capable of inspiring major change as time goes on.”

Booklets that promoted and explained the Beloit Plan are part of the College Archives' collec... Booklets that promoted and explained the Beloit Plan are part of the College Archives' collection.
Credit: Beloit College Archives

Voices from the Class of ’68

As the first group of students selected to take part in the great Beloit Plan experiment, members of the class of 1968 adopted the moniker “guinea pigs.” We caught up with several of them to ask about their experiences.

Scherri Thompson Hall

From: Beloit, Wisconsin
Major: History
Field Terms: Bank teller, Chicago; United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland
Career field: Social work, corporate operations and quality

The new Plan was the attraction that led me to remain in town and attend Beloit, living on campus. There were seven African American students in our class and a notable population of foreign students. We did our best to assimilate; however, we still stood out. There were no minorities and few females on the faculty. My sorority planned an outing at Pearl Lake, and the owners did not want to allow me to participate. The sorority and college stood up for me and I did go, despite knowing I wasn’t welcome. About 350 students marched to Madison in support of Dr. King’s march from Selma. President Upton declared in loco parentis and said we couldn’t go, but we marched anyway. Several patrons in town supported us with food and arranged rest stops. We joined 10,000 students already assembled when we reached Madison. It was unforgettable. The changes at Beloit were concurrent with those taking place in the country. Before college, my only travel was to Mississippi and Alabama to visit my grandparents. Because of Jim Crow laws, we would not stop until reaching our destination. Beloit offered me the opportunity to literally see the world.

Kekoa Catherine Enomoto

From: Hawaii
Major: English composition
Field Term: Lifeguard, NATO headquarters, Fontainebleau, France
Career field: Journalism

The new Beloit Plan was a microcosm of the social change that was taking place. My sorority had to separate from the national sorority for admitting an African American student when I pledged as a first-year student. What stands out to me is the diversity in our class makeup, the quality and accessibility of the faculty, and the camaraderie you could achieve with the instructors. I knew it was a progressive program. I didn’t come to appreciate how wonderful it was until I returned for our 20th reunion. It seemed like we were all part of an experience that developed our social awareness and commitment to community.

Al Hannah

From: Denver, Colorado
Majors: English literature and history
Field Term: Copyboy, New York Times
Career field: Non-profit education and community development

The Beloit Plan excited me—a small college in a rust belt town in Wisconsin with a fine anthropology museum and literary journals! I think there was a marked difference between the class of ’68 and the class of ’67. Our class was maybe more progressive and the student body became much more diversified geographically. My field term in New York was fantastic. After that, I started to outgrow Beloit emotionally, not intellectually. I got restless being on that small campus. Male students were facing the draft. There were anti-war counselors on campus to talk to. I didn’t think about a career. My main thought was “How the hell am I going to get out of this stupid war?” Beloit had a good reputation with AmeriCorps VISTA, which I joined.

Jean Fyfe'68 and Mandy Sessel Legare'68 on campus during the Beloit Plan era. Jean Fyfe’68 and Mandy Sessel Legare’68 on campus during the Beloit Plan era.
Credit: Beloit College Archives

Bruce McEwan

From: Riverdale, Illinois
Major: International Relations
Field Term: Copyboy, New York Times
Career field: Insurance underwriting, risk management

I was aware of the Plan when I applied but didn’t realize the impact until I had the full experience. I liked the flexibility of the calendar, the field term with its independence, and the interdisciplinary course structure. The Plan was innovative and gave students great responsibility in deciding how we wanted our college career to be directed and for crafting our own future while we were there. It was an experience that I’ve valued as I’ve made career decisions ever since.

Lena Neal

From: Chicago, Illinois
Majors: Political Science, Theatre Arts
Field Terms: Social worker, University of Chicago Hospital; Court Theatre
Career field: Education, technology consulting

I didn’t know much about the Plan until school began. My family was poor. Beloit gave me funds. I liked the accessibility to the professors, their willingness to work with us and challenge us. I loved working in Court Theatre in the summer. The summer of 1965 was special. Having the campus to ourselves gave us a sense of bonding. Our song was “Satisfaction,” by the Rolling Stones. Political activism picked up in 1967. There were teachins about the war, draft card burning ceremonies, which were kept private, and in the spring of 1968, many of us “came clean for Gene” and worked for McCarthy, who won the Wisconsin primary. During finals week in April of 1968, Dr. King was killed. That was one of the hardest times. I got tired of the “guinea pig” crap. We were on the leading edge of a major social and educational movement.

Di Niesman

From: West Chicago, Illinois
Major: Biology
Field Term: Clerk, Hawaii
Career field: Medical technology

An unintended, but quite delightful, consequence of the mix-and-match calendar was that it often felt like you were meeting new classmates every time you were on campus. The off-campus terms affected the college quite dramatically. We entered under in loco parentis. When students started returning after study abroad or field terms, the prevailing opinion in our class was, “You have got to be kidding!” Mandatory “chapel points” and dorm curfews went out the window. With the classes that followed, co-ed dorms began.

Tina Gordon Hayward'68 and Richard Leff'68 in Smith Union. Tina Gordon Hayward’68 and Richard Leff’68 in Smith Union.
Credit: Beloit College Archives

Donna Niesman

From: West Chicago, Illinois
Major: French
Field Term: Housekeeper, YMCA Conference Center, Melun, France
Career field: Social services, travel consulting

Beloit attracted such a diverse group of students—different ethnicities, some wealthy, some not. The calendar worked really well for me: on campus four terms, off campus four, on campus five (bonus term), and I graduated with the class. Most of my “learning” was outside the classroom, and it permanently changed me for the better, I think. I might have started out “square” (scared to death was probably more like it) but after France and my field term, I was surely not a conformist. As a former secretary of the Alumni Board, I’ve met many Beloiters who followed. The Plan ended, but its spirit and purpose remain true.

Ginny Owen

From: Cobb, Wisconsin
Major: Education
Field Term: Retail clerk, Yellowstone National Park
Career field: Education, teacher and administrator

The freedom to set your own direction and the independence that went with it appealed to me. I loved the idea that you could decide your own time on campus, but I found the calendar a little disjointed and isolating. I pushed through it with only the field term as a break. With students moving around that much, the plan created smaller groups, rather than integrating the whole class together. When we entered, women had curfew and a dress code. By the time we left, that had all changed. Just the beginning for equality and some social justice!

Julie Ripley

From: Denver, Colorado, and Webster
Groves, Missouri
Major: English Literature, English
Field Term: Kitchen maid, youth hostel in West Germany
Career field: Editor, writing teacher, archivist

I don’t think we knew we were guinea pigs until we got there. We didn’t gel until the summer of 1965 when we were the only students on campus. Our class killed the dress code. With almost no air-conditioning on campus, cutoffs and tennis shoes replaced nylons and skirts. I think our class killed the Greek system at Beloit until the 1980s. We all hated area exams. Nobody liked the common course, but it was a common denominator in breaking down the divide between the sciences and the liberal arts. The diversity of our class delighted me. Beloit became my third parent—I don’t find that loyalty in other folks my age for their undergraduate institutions.

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