Keuka College

In today’s parlance, one would say the Rev. George Harvey Ball liked to push the envelope.

In the late 1880s, when the vast majority of young people (particularly those in rural areas) didn’t attend high school, Ball, a Baptist minister, wanted to create a college – in rural Yates County – that would provide a top-notch education to all deserving students, regardless of financial means.

It wasn’t easy. At one point, Rev. Ball’s nephews endorsed a $200,000 note drawn on a Buffalo bank to guarantee contractors the $500 a week they demanded to construct the first – and for many years, only – building on campus.

But on August 30, 1890, Rev. Ball’s vision was realized when the Keuka Institute, later renamed Keuka College, opened its doors. The first class numbered 144, and 62 of them lived in what would eventually be known as Ball Hall. Students paid $5 a week to live there, $6 for a room with a view of Keuka Lake. Parents were reportedly pleased that that their children’s living quarters were four miles from the nearest saloon.

That fact doesn’t come up much in conversations with parents these days, but in case you’re a mom or dad and are wondering – it’s still true. Keuka parents today are more impressed by the transformation the college has undergone recently. In the past 10 years, Keuka has gone from a college that offered only bachelor’s degrees for traditional undergraduates to one that also offers degree completion programs for adult students, master’s degrees and online courses.

A Revolution
“I’m a political scientist and I’ve studied revolutions,” said President Joseph G. Burke. “I believe this college has gone through a revolution in terms of the scope of its mission and the things we’ve done.”

Enrollment has skyrocketed as a result of the Keuka revolution. Ten years ago, total enrollment stood at 750. Today, it exceeds 1,600, with another 4,000 Chinese students enrolled in four universities in that country and 125 Vietnamese students at Vietnam National University in Hanoi.

But Keuka has been on the other side of the enrollment curve twice in its history. Both times resulted in major changes. Financial trouble forced the college to close in 1915, re-opening in 1921 as a women’s college. It remained that way until 1985 when declining enrollment forced the board of trustees to okay a measure admitting men.

Someone asked Arthur Norton, Keuka president in 1921, if any student would pass up all those good schools (in Ithaca, Syracuse and Rochester) and go to Keuka “out there in the wilderness.”

“Yes,” replied Norton, “if we give them more for their time, effort and money.”

Initially, “more” meant new buildings and programs, but in 1942, “more” became Keuka’s niche. It was then that Edith Estey, a 1933 graduate and administrator, created the Field Period. No other college or university in the nation has anything that compares to what became a required internship program. At other schools, students typically wait until the junior year to do an internship or study abroad, but at Keuka, every student undertakes a Field Period every year, either in January or during the summer.

Field Period is one reason why Keuka is recognized as a national leader in experiential, hands-on learning. The college has been named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for four years running. George Dehne & Associates, a highly respected national consulting firm said, “Among the 350 colleges and universities with which we have worked, Keuka, in our view, is truly the leader in opportunities for hands-on, experiential learning.”

Thanks to Field Period, Keuka students have many opportunities to see the world, such as in January 2009, when students traveled to Italy, Australia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Egypt, England, France and Kenya. Sometimes, however, the world comes to Keuka Park.

A Pivotal Moment
On June 16, 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the baccalaureate address and received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. His wife, Coretta Scott King, accompanied him to Keuka Park.

“As I understand the history of the event, there were those supporters of the college who questioned the validity of inviting a speaker who was controversial due to his passive civil resistance of authorities in Alabama and other parts of the South,” said President Burke.

Burke praised the President of Keuka at that time, William S. Litterick, for “having the courage and foresight to understand the long-term importance of Dr. King in American history and the wisdom to see that Dr. King’s cause was right and contributed to social justice in the United States.” Burke noted that social responsibility has always been a core value of Keuka College, adding, “Martin Luther King Jr. epitomized how a single person can affect the lives of so many. Therefore, our college took the risk of inviting him to Keuka to receive an honorary degree and speak.”

Taking that risk yielded a tremendous reward. King’s words in Keuka Park that June day in 1963 were enough to “change the minds of those who had opposed our invitation,” as Litterick put it in a letter to King.

King’s talk also inspired members of the graduating class. “As I recall, he challenged us to enter our ‘new world’ with our eyes open to social and political injustices; to be concerned about our fellow man and to actively pursue righting injustice wherever our professional or personal life took us,” recalled Trustee Marilyn Baader, who now resides in Cayuga. “He was a dynamic speaker, and as I reflected later on his sermon, I became increasingly aware that my life would change as a result of this day. I had an obligation to do my part to help change how my community addressed these injustices.”

King isn’t the only larger-than-life figure to reinforce the college’s commitment to social responsibility and inspire students.

Stirred to Positive Activity
In 1940, when the United States was on the brink of war, Keuka President J. Hillis Miller wanted the college to contribute to the war effort should the country be drawn in. But how? The answer came from a person who had visited campus two years earlier – First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Miller wrote Roosevelt, and she replied by urging the college to set up courses in nursing and to work with the Red Cross. Three years later, Keuka’s nursing program was born. The program’s intent was to help alleviate the nursing shortage caused by World War II.

Roosevelt’s February 16, 1938 visit to campus featured a public lecture and a meeting with students, including Addie MacAndrews Lee. “Mrs. Roosevelt’s message was memorable,” said Lee. “Her enthusiasm for stirring us to positive activity during those pre-war years was infectious.”

In the years that have followed, Keuka students have frequently been stirred to positive activity – sometimes in response to tragic events.

Responding to a call from the Red Cross and their nation, a group of Keuka students elected to use their January 2002 Field Period in the service of others, traveling to New York City to help with post-9/11 recovery efforts. In December 2005 and January 2006, some 40 students followed in those footsteps, deploying to the New Orleans area and to Biloxi, Mississippi, where they engaged in Hurricane Katrina relief after receiving training from the Yates County chapter of the American Red Cross.

It’s not surprising that Keuka students respond in times of national need. Reaching out to people in New York City or New Orleans is simply an example of what they are committed to do at Keuka College – serve individual communities and the greater good.
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New Keuka Degree Program Offered in Vietnam

Keuka College boasts the highest enrollment of any U.S. college or university operating in China, and may soon claim that same distinction in Vietnam.

Some 125 students at Vietnam National University (VNU) in Hanoi are now pursuing Keuka bachelor’s degrees in management. Further, college President Joseph G. Burke expects enrollment to approach 300 by the end of next year and 1,000 within four years.

“The success of the Keuka China Program (KCP) was a major factor in an agreement being worked out with VNU,” said Burke. “As in China, a degree from an American college or university is highly valued. The Vietnamese like how we emphasize experiential education in our curriculum and how it helps turn out better professionals.”

Burke negotiated the agreement with Professor Mai Trong Nhuan, chairman of the board and president of VNU. Burke praised the work of Dr. Gary Smith, vice president for the Center for Professional Studies, for bringing the deal to fruition.

“The leadership at VNU worked very hard over the final few months to launch the program. We worked around the clock some days to accomplish what needed to be done due to the 12-hour time difference between Keuka Park and Hanoi,” said Smith, adding, “I have no doubt this program will grow in the coming years and lead to other partnerships in Southeast Asia.”

VNU boasts an enrollment of more than 45,000 and is recognized as the premier university in the country. Like the Chinese Keuka students, VNU students will earn two degrees, one from their home university and one from Keuka College.


by Doug Lippincott