Of all the presidents of Villanova College in the nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, Edward V. Stanford, O.S.A., probably best represents the Augustinian quest for academic excellence. During his relatively long presidency from 1932 to 1944, Stanford set as his goal the modernization of Villanova's curriculum, the improvement of its faculty, the updating of its structures of academic governance, the building of its endowment, the expansion of its physical plan - most especially its library - and the insistence upon cost-efficiency in order to compete successfully among the best colleges and universities in the United States. Stanford, who had joined the Villanova Engineering faculty in 1918 while studying for the priesthood, spent the better part of his adult life on the Main Line campus and led his college through the crisis of the Great Depression and the challenge of World War II. He was the last president to work exclusively at Villanova College before it became a university in 1953 and the last president to deal with a study body that numbered in the hundreds. As such, he could not have anticipated the phenomenal growth of the university after World War II, nor could he have conceived of a university built upon massive student numbers and students' substantial collective tuition. He aspired to the model of an excellent Liberal Arts college that would base its reputation on quality. While he devoted himself to his relatively tiny collegiate campus on the Main Line, he was the least isolated of Villanova's earlier presidents in the context of a secular world. As the first Catholic chief executive of the Association of American Colleges and as president of numerous national and regional academic organizations, Stanford insisted that Villanova embrace American standards of academic excellence and compete in a modern American collegiate world. At the same time, he was intent upon preserving and strengthening Villanova's traditional Catholic and Augustinian identity, with daily celebration of masses, ongoing confessions and penance for students and indeed for all the faithful, promotion of faculty and students' religious retreats, daily prayers and recitation of the rosary, novenas for occasions of crisis or need, and locally-crafted devotions to St. Augustine and his sainted mother, Monica.
While religious devotion remained a stable force at Villanova, the internal secular challenges that Fr. Stanford faced were daunting. When he assumed the presidency of Villanova College in 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression, the college had virtually no endowment and no funded scholarships, no Alumni director or secretary, let alone any reliable list of alumni or friends to whom it might appeal. Most local non-Catholics and even a few Catholics in the 1930s assumed that Villanova was still primarily a seminary for the training of priests. Stanford established an Alumni Association with a full-time secretary, spoke to newly formed Alumni Clubs, and launched an alumni magazine. He appealed for funded academic scholarships to balance the unfunded ones that were mostly given out to students in football or other athletics. By the end of 1939, Stanford has raised a modest $90,000 in scholarships with which to begin a serious collegiate endowment, augmented in 1941 by an additional $15,000 raised for the Centennial of 1942-1943. By 1936, he had been able to reverse a ten percent cut in faculty salaries initiated in 1933 and modestly improved faculty compensation thereafter. By 1937, he had managed to establish a pension fund for the faculty under the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA), the first Catholic college to do so, though college contributions remained pitifully small by modern standards.
For Stanford, Villanova must reform in order to compete and it must compete in a secular academic world. To achieve cost efficiency, the college needed reorganization with one strengthened academic dean replacing several titular ones, with academic departments defined and placed under the leadership of chairmen, with new guidelines for promotion and tenure, with adherence to standards of academic freedom, and with the establishment in 1941 of a Villanova chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Stanford also demanded reform of the curriculum with more "meaningful" electives established for the students - as opposed to nominal ones - and with the creation of new majors and minors for Villanova's undergraduates. While the faculty eventually endorsed these initiatives overwhelmingly, it is instructive that Fr. Stanford designed them entirely himself, believing firmly in the principle of reform from the top down. Overall, Villanova needed to rely less on student numbers, said Stanford, and more on academic excellence. This was the only course to pursue.
It is astonishing that Stanford's reforms were carried out at all in the midst of perpetual crisis. Villanova College was hit savagely by the Great Depression of 1929, being utterly dependent upon students' tuition. Student enrollment, which had hit a peak of 1,022 in 1931, fell to a low of 701 in 1935. In the spirit of the Augustinian emphasis upon community, Villanova initiated a policy of free tuition for needy seniors who could not pay their way or otherwise would not graduate. The situation improved gradually as prosperity began to return on the eve of World War II. But university conscription on the threshold of war posed the supreme crisis for Villanova as an all-male college. Fr. Stanford, who had opposed American entry into the Second World War, quickly and sincerely proclaimed Villanova's patriotism once war had begun. Beginning in 1940, the house chapter of Augustinians voted to allow the college to participate in national defense training programs. Thereafter, Stanford worked assiduously with the Secretary of the Navy to establish Villanova as a naval officer training unit, know as the V-12. This was finally accomplished in 1943, the college being one of the smallest favored by the war department. One might say that Fr. Stanford's foresight in acquiring a naval military unit literally "saved" his college: by the spring of 1945, enrollment had fallen to 493 students, 318 of whom were "navy men."
In 1944, in the midst of the war, Fr. Stanford proclaimed himself "anxious" to continue his work as president of the college but his religious superiors thought best to replace him. As a leader of undoubted talent, Stanford was almost certainly frustrated by forces in the world community (and perhaps his own religious order) that he clearly understood but could not control. An ambitious building campaign at Villanova had to be shelved in the late 1930s and early 1940s. His greatest wish - the creation of a separate library building for his college - had to be postponed until 1947. One can imagine Fr. Stanford in "retirement" somewhat astonished at the burgeoning expansion of Villanova from college to university and somewhat askance at the near-open admission policy that fueled it. One might hope that by his death in 1966, this great Augustinian leader might have discerned at long last the unmistakable impress of his paradigm for academic excellence being imposed bit by bit on an enlarged but maturing university.
Contributed by Dr. Donald Kelley, Professor of History (retired), Villanova University