Voices From R-MWC

President Emeritus William F. Quillian, Jr. releases new book

There was a time when pie was an important student retention tool for the College.

During William F. Quillian, Jr.’s 26-year tenure as the fifth president of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, from 1952 to 1978, there was a tendency for students to attend R-MWC until the end of their sophomore year and then transfer to larger institutions.

“‘Sophomore slump’ was the term,” said Quillian, who always emphasized close interaction between faculty and students. “By the end of their second year, some students were just ready to leave and looking forward to the next year somewhere else.”

Quillian wanted insight into why students were leaving, so he and his wife, Margaret, began inviting sophomores to their home for dessert and discussion.

“My wife became known for the pies that she made,” said Quillian. “She always made a chocolate chiffon pie, and our children would serve the students.”

Each group of 20 students would provide him with a better understanding of how students were feeling and a glimpse of the challenges that lay ahead for the next recruiting season.

Quillian’s interaction with students and faculty was a feature of his administration and led to the development of hallmark programs such as The World in Britain program at the University of Reading.

“One thing that came out was that it would be good to have more international studies,” he said. “We had a give and take discussion on what we should do in that area. Sweet Briar had a program in France, so we decided to try to establish the program in England.”

Multi-cultural education, retention, diversity, and issues related to changes in student attitudes and needs that Quillian dealt with then are not unlike those faced by the College today. In his new book, Voices From R-MWC, Quillian offers a collection of his essays and memoirs, and historical material from guest authors. The book provides a unique glimpse into the College’s history, how it responded to changes behind the Red Brick Wall and in the community and society around it, and how it evolved and improved.

Improvements at the College resulted, in part, from fundraising and development. The topic features prominently in Quillian’s book, perhaps because it was in his DNA.

“I always enjoyed fundraising, and I knew we needed to raise money,” said Quillian. “My father was a college president, and I watched him build a brand new campus five miles away from the existing campus.”

During Quillian’s tenure, the College built the Physical Education and Recreation (PER) Building, the Houston Memorial Chapel, and the Leggett Building and Thoresen Theatre, and expanded the Lipscomb Library.

“I enjoyed it,” he said, “especially when something good clicked.”

Quillian also worked to acquire support from a variety of foundations, including Ford, Kresge, and Dana.

At the same time philanthropy helped the College build out infrastructure, America was undergoing sweeping social changes. One such change was the integration of the College. For Quillian, resolving the potentially divisive issue began with a discussion among students.

“Every Wednesday, there was a required assembly. At one of them, I raised the question, ‘Suppose this college were to become integrated?’” he recalled. “It shocked them.”

After he started the discussion, students kept it alive. An essay in his book titled, “The Integration of a Southern College,” recalls an editorial in the November 5, 1953 issue of the Sundial that concluded: “Think about the issue— it’s important for your future.”

Throughout the rest of that decade, the discussion on the R-MWC campus would mirror the debate in the broader Lynchburg community, culminating in December 1960 when two Randolph-Macon Woman’s College students—Mary Edith Bentley Abu-Saba ’61 and Rebecca Mays Owen ’61—became central figures in an anti-segregation demonstration at a lunch counter of a Lynchburg drugstore.

The Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling requiring public institutions to integrate exerted pressure on the College from the outside at the same time student social issues were developing within.

Quillian’s “The Abolition of Sororities” is a notable example. In the College’s first decade, six national sororities were established: Chi Omega, Tri- Delta, Zeta Tau Alpha, Kappa Delta, Alpha Omega Pi, and Tri Sigma. However, by the ’40s and ’50s, there were questions about the value of sororities on campus, especially given the pressure students felt to be selected for the “right” sororities.

“Many new students felt deeply hurt by their failure to make the sorority of their choice,” Quillian wrote. “There were tearful phone calls to parents reporting these disappointments.”

Student referendums on keeping sororities active passed by narrow margins. The discussion continued until a Board of Trustees vote on May 13, 1960 directed the administration to eliminate sororities at the “earliest date deemed practical.” As a result, the 1960–61 academic year began without sororities on campus.

This past May, during Commencement, Quillian stood at the podium as Touch of Harmony, the College’s a cappella group, sang a rendition of “Minnie the Moocher.” Quillian responded by singing the last verse, and as delighted students, faculty, and guests joined in the refrain, a lighter moment from his presidency came full circle. Years before, Quillian had been approached by faculty who were planning the first faculty show. They asked him to do something “out of character.” His performance was “Minnie The Moocher,” and when he sang at the request of students at the following Pumpkin Parade, a tradition was born.

“Every president since then has blamed me for that!” he laughed.