Portrait of an Era
Henry A. Acres, President of the GLCA
The GLCA notes with condolence the passing at age 89 of Henry A Acres, who served as the second President of the GLCA from 1967-73. Prior to joining the GLCA, he had been at Hofstra University for 16 years, both as a professor of English and in various administrative leadership roles.
During the years of his presidency, the GLCA established or dramatically strengthened several consortial programs offering students a range of study-away educational opportunities. Among Henry Acres’ presidential papers are accounts of his work to solidify the base for such consortial initiatives as the Oak Ridge Science program (with Oberlin College as the first managing institution), the Japan Study program in conjunction with Waseda University (managed by Earlham College), the New York Arts Program (Ohio Wesleyan University), and the Philadelphia Center (Hope College). Henry Acres’ correspondence also shows him giving early encouragement to a group of women seeking to establish bonds of professional interaction across their respective campuses – what would ultimately become the Women’s Studies group.
During the time of Henry Acres’ leadership the GLCA began its evolution from an organization representing primarily the interests of college presidents, to a consortium that incorporated more substantial elements of academic initiative and leadership across colleges. During the time of his leadership a group called the Faculty Council was created, initially to serve in an advisory capacity to the GLCA Board of Directors in matters of governance. Ultimately that Faculty Council evolved into two groups – one of which became the Academic Council, with two faculty representatives appointed by each college. The other group to evolve was the GLCA Deans’ Council, consisting of the chief academic officers of each college. Both the Academic Council and Deans’ Council appoint representatives to the GLCA Board of Directors. These three groups – Board of Directors, Deans’ Council, and Academic Council – have remained the core governance bodies of the GLCA from the 1970s through the present.
Henry Acres worked in partnership with the president of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) to represent the interests and concerns of independent liberal arts colleges in Washington, DC. One of the salient issues our colleges shared was a concern about the allocation of federal scientific research funding to higher education institutions. The issue was that smaller, independent colleges in particular were not receiving due consideration in the competition for research funding. The GLCA and ACM had appealed to what was then called the Association of American Colleges (precursor to AAC&U) to present their case to Washington legislators. Because AAU’s membership included both public and private institutions, however, it was not inclined to make a strong case for private colleges in decisions about scientific research allocations. Acting together, the GLCA and ACM made important strides in establishing more equitable means of awarding scientific research funds, based on academic merit more than on geographic distribution or public/private institutional type.
During this time the federal government had also shown an inclination to revoke special tax considerations that private family foundations had enjoyed; many policy makers regarded these foundations as simply tax shelters for the rich. Working together, the ACM and GLCA provided testimony before Congress that helped establish the legal statute requiring that private foundations must spend at least 5 percent of their income each year to qualify as a charitable institution. Because contributions from these kinds of private and family trusts were a significant source of financial support for liberal arts colleges, it was important to influence legislation in a way that allowed foundations to retain a tax-exempt status with the provision that they spend a certain part of the endowed funds each year.
From the time of its original founding in 1962 through the early 1970’s the GLCA office was located at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. This location was convenient for presidents of the member colleges to meet, often flying in by small aircraft. It was also conducive to the frequent travel that President Acres himself undertook in developing consortial initiatives. Then as now, the amount of travel required of a GLCA president was extensive. Henry Acres’ son, Alfred Acres, now a professor of Art History at Georgetown University, recalls from his boyhood that his father often traveled to Japan, New York and to other settings in which GLCA programs were in development.
One of those who had worked closely with Henry Acres for two years was Paul Bradley, who later went on to serve in various leadership roles in academic institutions before founding a successful management consulting firm. At the time he was working on a doctoral degree in the education program at the University of Michigan. Bradley became Assistant to the President under Acres at the GLCA, working closely with him on all aspects of the consortial operation. Bradley recalls a nervous energy in President Acres that would lead him most days to take a vigorous walk outdoors at noon, and to bring his Assistant along. One concern that occupied his thoughts was to sustain the coherence and vitality of an association that was then less than ten years old.
Henry Acres had come to the GLCA at a time when there was a substantial turnover in its Board of Directors, as several college presidents had taken positions at other institutions. It seemed clear that some of the incoming college presidents were not as convinced of the value of the GLCA as their predecessors had been. Three Board members who were among the strongest supporters of the GLCA from its founding were Landrum Bolling, President of Earlham College; James Dixon, President of Antioch College; and Weimar Hicks, President of Kalamazoo College. These three in particular recognized the need for the members of the evolving GLCA Board to have a bonding experience that could help solidify their commitment to working together as institutions and as individual presidents. That moment came from a decision made at a GLCA Board meeting. Henry Acres had left the room for a minute while the Board was in session. “When I came back,” he later recounted, “the Board had decided that their spring meeting would be in the Bahamas!”
Landrum Bolling had proposed that the spring Board meeting take place at a biological research station owned by Earlham College on Hummingbird Cay, one of the smaller islands of the Bahamas. For the final leg of that journey, everyone climbed aboard a small boat to carry them across the water from Exuma to Hummingbird Cay. Paul Bradley recalls tossing out a rope and securing the scow by a large rock near the shore upon their arrival. There may have been wet feet in disembarking. . On the return journey from that meeting, a dozen college presidents and their spouses boarded a flight from Exuma to Nassau on a rickety propeller-driven DC-3 with no back door. As it turned out, the weight of passengers and luggage was too great for the plane, and the aircraft did not succeed in its first takeoff attempt, ending up in the weeds by the runway. The presidents and spouses returned from that Board meeting sunburned and with a sense of having experienced a real adventure, not without some danger. From that time forward, everyone agreed, “They were bonded!”
Those who recall Henry Acres attest to the generosity of spirit he exhibited as leader, and the encouragement he gave to those with whom he worked – and to faculty members in particular. As one who had served many years as a faculty member himself, he felt a particular affinity to the faculty groups – both the Academic Council, and the Deans’ Council – and he was respected and well-liked by these groups. President Acres would often visit the Foundation Library during his times in New York City to research grant opportunities for individual faculty members seeking funding for projects they wished to undertake.
Al Acres recalls that his father’s time at the GLCA were deeply satisfying years. He said that “There was a real social dimension to the work of the GLCA – a sense of shared enterprise and team spirit.” A passage from the obituary of Acres in the New York Times observed: “His years of work . . . on many dimensions of development and programming were enriched by his deep understanding not only of higher education, but also of people. His investments of wisdom, time, and hard work in the larger community were broad and deep.”
Paul Bradley said of his former employer that Henry would avoid claiming direct credit for things he helped to accomplish. “He was all about making other people heroes.” Among other things, Bradley was deeply impressed at the support and affection that Henry Acres conferred on his children. “He was a model of a devoted parent in my eyes,” Bradley said.
When Henry Acres retired from the GLCA in 1973, the college presidents presented him with a full set of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). At the time the OED was published as a twelve-volume set. In each volume of this publication there was an inscription of gratitude written by one of the twelve GLCA presidents. The recurrent themes in these testimonials were of Acre’s effective leadership, his organizational ability, and the lasting ties of friendship that they felt toward him. Following his tenure at the GLCA, Henry Acres worked for Muhlenberg College and Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania to develop collaborative programs between the two institutions.
Asked to characterize the impact that Henry Acres had made on his own life in a single sentence, Paul Bradley said quite simply, “He was the quintessential mentor.”
The obituary of Henry Acres can be found at http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/nytimes/obituary.aspx?page=lifestory&pid=175826060.
A tribute written by Paul Bradley, who served as Assistant to the President at GLCA for two years under Henry Acres, can be found at [list our URL.