Eickhoff: Hero or Tyrant?

SHOULD WE HERALD EICKHOFF?

On average, college presidents spend about eight years in office. The figure was even lower – hovering around six – when Harold W. Eickhoff took over the reins of Trenton State College in 1980. By the time his not-so-voluntary retirement came into effect, the seminal figure had been at the helm of what is now known as TCNJ for nineteen years.

And in nineteen years, we have discovered, much can happen.

Strikes, protests, an overhaul of academic programs – Eickhoff presided over two decades worth of unprecedented collegiate transformation. Accustomed to being surrounded by newly constructed buildings and scholars of considerable prestige, we as students in 2009 have little means by which to conceptualize what the Trenton State of 1980 really looked like. We should recall with some humility that what had formerly been a teachers’ college of little notoriety has today become a comprehensive and well-regarded institution of higher learning.

But change doesn’t come easy; by all accounts, the road from Trenton State to TCNJ was a bumpy one. Any organization structured in such a way that power is shared among ambitious individuals – individuals whose agendas are not uniform – will inevitably produce personality conflict and institutional strife.

Eickhoff, to be sure, will be assigned both credit and blame for the events that transpired during his tenure; such is the craft of history. But to most students and faculty, that history has been lost – “Eickhoff” means little more than a dining hall at the center of campus. For better or for worse, “Colleges don’t have much institutional memory,” recounts Dr. Steve Klug, professor of biology, who, along with history professor Dr. Dan Crofts, led the charge to remove Eickhoff from office in the late 1990s. “Most of my colleagues don’t even know who Harold Eickhoff really was,” Klug lamented.

Some, however, have showered Eickhoff’s nearly two-decade term with unfaltering praise. Robert Gladstone, former Board of Trustees chairman, lauded his presidency as “the most successful this wonderful college has ever seen.” But many others, evidently, would unequivocally disagree.

“He was dictatorial and autocratic,” Crofts charged.

“We were stymied,” Klug added.

The fundamental conflict arose over a divergence in vision of how the College should foster academic growth. Eickhoff refused to allocate adequate resources to the development of faculty scholarship, claimed Crofts and Klug. This created an environment that was not conducive to the sort of progress that the College purported to stand for in its admissions material. At the time, Klug’s mantra was “We should be what we say we are.”

Thus, we are faced with a fundamental question: Should Eickhoff be heralded as a hero, who transformed a teachers’ school into a multifarious, competitive university, or a tyrant, whose authoritarian managerial style both alienated faculty and hindered pedagogical development?

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the true story of Harold W. Eickhoff.

The former president was born to a day-laboring father and a home-making mother in Depression-era Kansas. His parents had only a 6th grade education, and though they had little money, Mr. and Mrs. Eickhoff instilled in their son values that taught him to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”

After a stint at the University of Missouri-St. Louis – which Eickhoff helped turn from a two year college into a fully developed university – he arrived at Trenton State College in 1979. Eickhoff succeeded Clayton R. Brower as president in January of 1980; at that time, Eickhoff maintains, the College was comparable to Glassboro State College (now Rowan) and William Paterson University in terms of the caliber of students and faculty.

“The greatest adventure of my life…” – this is how Eickhoff describes his time as president. Everyone would agree that those nineteen years were adventurous, perhaps. But not everyone would call them “great.” Crofts and Klug, among those critics, offer Eickhoff little commendation.

The two senior professors, themselves now nearing retirement, together comprised the focal point of faculty-administration relations, which deteriorated dramatically during the latter half of Eickhoff’s presidency. Beginning in 1997, Crofts and Klug, president and vice president of the faculty senate, respectively, began a carefully-orchestrated effort to depose Eickhoff from office. And once the effort was underway, they insisted, there was no turning back.

“It looked like we were going to have him forever,” Klug said of the campus climate in the late 90s. Eickhoff had been in power for nearly seventeen years, and people were growing restless. “You don’t go into a president’s office and say, ‘Okay, we’d like to know, what are your retirement plans?’” So when it came to hatching a plan of their own to reform the college administration, Crofts and Klug “didn’t really have much choice” other than to spearhead a serious effort to put the College on what they felt was the right path.

“There was a point at which a group of faculty met and requested that he resign. The longer he stayed, the more a bunker mentality began to develop,” Klug said.

What was it about Harold Eickhoff that left Crofts and Klug with “no choice” but to maneuver him out of power? Why would a president, who in large part oversaw the transformation of TCNJ, need to be forcefully removed?

Eickhoff’s early years as president were met without much controversy – at least until 1986. The teachers’ union, in response to a salary dispute, censured him, stating, “The relationship between the faculty and the Board of Trustees of Trenton State College has deteriorated measurably during Dr. Eickhoff’s tenure.” The union would prove to be a persistent thorn in the president’s side.

In the late 80s, Eickhoff, in an ambitious attempt to attract new, first-rate, out-of state faculty, purchased 150 houses surrounding the campus. Real estate prices, he said, were driving qualified talent away from Trenton State. Included in the plan were 39 especially expensive houses for vice presidents and administrative faculty. Many students, 700 of whom held an anti-Eickhoff rally in front of Kendall Hall, were outraged at the decision to use millions of dollars from student tuition to pay for the initiative. “I used to like Eick,” one of the protestors’ signs read.

When asked to comment on the real estate purchases, Dr. Steve Klug scoffed. “Have you gone in any of those homes? You should—they would not attract you.”

Justifying his decision, Dr. Eickhoff said, “Things happen. The plan was a sound one, and one that was consistent with the development of the community.”

Due in large part to discontent over Eickhoff’s perceived unilateral decision-making, in 1991 the faculty senate held a ballot in which 64% of its members voted “no confidence” in the president. Sensing an impending faculty reprisal, a few weeks earlier the Student Government Association passed a resolution in defense of the embattled Eickhoff. Ultimately, he was able to withstand the faculty’s challenge.

The College’s 1996 name change – still a point of contention – was spearheaded by Eickhoff, who attributed the hasty decision to a need to disassociate from the city of Trenton. “The name of the College was a handicap,” he said. “Whatever it was, it was. But the anecdotal evidence said over and over again that if you put Trenton into a name, it’s like putting Newark, or Camden.” Both Eickhoff and the Board of Trustees took grief from students, alumni, and faculty for the precipitous rebranding.

In 1995 and 1996, while still in office, Eickhoff simultaneously held the post of Vice President of Academic Affairs. Dr. Ralph Edelbach, then president of the teachers’ union and a longtime critic of Eickhoff’s, said the move “threatened the system of checks and balances.” The union president also claimed that Eickhoff had no recent teaching experience in the classroom, making him unqualified to hold such a position. According to The Signal archives, Edelbach said the faculty would go on strike if the situation continued. Although they never did strike, the fireworks between the faculty and Eickhoff were only beginning to spark.

Eickhoff Cartoon, Signal 1991
Signal, 1991

Over the course of The Perspective’s interview with the former president, Eickhoff became increasingly agitated when asked about the latter years of his presidency, and largely declined comment.

There were three major events that perpetuated the faculty’s frustration with Eickhoff, and resulted in his eventual decision to retire:

First, after vacating his position as Vice President of Academic Affairs, Eickhoff hand-selected Dr. Anne Gormly to be his successor. Dr. Klug, whose opposition to Eickhoff was gaining steam, said that after she was chosen for the position, Gormly was put “under constraints” by the administration. However, he added, “She’s a wonderful person.”

Second, Eickhoff abruptly fired the respected Dean of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Richard Kamber. Kamber, who was “phenomenally popular and extremely effective,” according to Klug, declined to comment for this story. Kamber is currently the acting chair of the department of Philosophy and Religion, and his dismissal as dean is still shrouded in mystery. Klug, who said he and Kamber are close friends, claims to have never discussed the matter in-depth with the former dean.

Lastly, Eickhoff put Dr. Mary Biggs, Dean of Library and Information Services, on probation under questionable circumstances. Biggs, who also declined to comment for this story, filed a lawsuit against the College in 1998, alleging that Eickhoff and others continuously harassed her on the job. She was forced to step down from her position as dean, she said, because her working conditions had become “intolerable.” The Perspective was unable to ascertain whether the case had ever been brought to trial, but all signs point to an out-of-court settlement. Biggs today teaches at the College as a professor of English.

On September 9, 1997, 57 senior faculty petitioners, citing the aforementioned controversies, called for the president’s resignation. “We now have no choice but to hold [Eickhoff] responsible for undermining collegiality and creating an academic setting marked by fear, intimidation, and retaliation,” the petition declared.

“It’s pretty difficult for any president of an academic institution to continue without the support of the most senior faculty members,” said Klug. Although he did not leave office immediately, on September 23, Eickhoff announced that he would retire in January of 1999.

In a stark rebuke, 91% of tenured and tenure-tracked professors who expressed “no confidence” in the president also called for him to instead retire no later than June 1998.

The decision was then up to the Board of Trustees, and predictably, they sided with the president, allowing him to stay on until his desired retirement date.

Curiously, for the last several months of his term, Eickhoff took a job as the Chief Operating Officer at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates.

Dr. Harold W. Eickhoff finally relinquished power to Dr. R. Barbara Gitenstein on the first of January, 1999.

Crofts and Klug credit Gitenstein with having created an “atmosphere on campus in which faculty – the best faculty in the country – wanted to teach.” This, they claim, was “the single greatest accomplishment of the last decade.”

Though his name is brandished in the middle of campus, after nearly eleven years since his retirement, Eickhoff’s reputation as a controversial figure has all but subsided. He largely stays out of the limelight, but his presence is still felt by those who come into contact with him, and those he still educates.

Eickhoff currently teaches two sections of a Freshman Seminar Program humanities course, and retains an office on the first floor of the library. A source familiar with Eickhoff’s salary, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, alleges that in receiving a “platinum parachute,” Eickhoff, while only teaching two classes, is paid nearly 50 percent more than the average tenured professor. It was part of a “sweetheart deal” that Eickhoff received upon leaving office, the source claimed. Not much fuss has been made over the salary, the source said, out of respect for President Gitenstein, who would receive the brunt of any criticism.

It is clear that animosity still lingers between the parties involved in the Eickhoff saga. What were initially professional disagreements, Klug said, inevitably turned into “personal aversion.” Further, speculation persists about a Nixonian “enemies list” that Eickhoff may have kept, consisting of notable faculty agitators who could potentially pose a threat to his reign.

Even after a decade, important actors are still unwilling to comment. Indeed, much of the story remains to be told.

Now in semi-retirement, Harold W. Eickhoff is currently working on a memoir, which is unlikely to be published for several years. The writings are expected to provide readers with a comprehensive account of his career, as well as his life preceding it. Though Eickhoff certainly demonstrated a thorough knowledge of College history, he nevertheless chose to remain silent when questioned about many of the important decisions that were made during his tenure. Although he refuses to consider the forthcoming memoir a “tell-all,” we certainly look forward to learning more about the man whose name, for better or for worse, will always be part of the TCNJ lexicon. ΨΔ

Comments

5 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. J.,

    We all make mistakes. This article is one big mistake.

  2. JK,

    If The College was not at the status it was I would be somewhere else. Perhaps some mistakes were made but one cannot be happy at this school without many Eickhoff’s decisions along the line. What’s done is done.

  3. B,

    Eick ROOCKKS!!!!!!! Why not ask him yourself if you have doubts, since, in my experience as his student, he welcomes questions and active learning. He’s an incredible person who got into the public sphere and couldn’t please everybody.

  4. Joe,

    a great man and wonderful human being who took time out of his busy day to appreciate and greet everyone no matter what their rank or income.

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