It seemed fitting that I was meeting Clarice Yentsch, one of the five members of NSU’s first graduating class, on Las Olas Boulevard just a few blocks from the site of the university’s first administrative building. It seemed even more fitting that the entrance to her apartment complex lay in the middle of a dimly lit tunnel.
I felt like a detective in a vaguely dystopian science fiction story being ushered into a back room where an elderly shaman who had lived in the “freer” past would impart secret knowledge and wisdom to me. And when the doors opened to the elevator onto the third-floor terrace of Yentsch’s apartment building, where the morning light and soft breeze warmed my face, where a garden lay with benches and staircases spiraled upward like spires into the sky, I knew that’s exactly where I was.
I was here because I wanted to know who the first NSU students were, what they were like and what made them enter in an experiment in starting a research university from scratch.
Yentsch is an energetic and enthusiastic mind. When we were sitting down for our interview, she told me people tell her she talks too fast sometimes.
“If you need me to slow down, just let me know,” she said.
But her mind is the opposite of slow, so I let it free. I sat in a chair in her living room and let her tell me a story.
I began asking why she decided to go to NSU, then called Nova University. And I discovered it was all because of Abraham S. Fischler.
Fischler was in the midst of attempting to revolutionize science education in the country with a focus on process-based inquiry. He wanted to teach elementary, middle and high school students how to form research questions and models for assessing the data they collected. He saw an importance in science education that extended far beyond the traditional boundaries of training scientists.
In a 1961 article for the Schools Science and Mathematics journal, Fischler wrote, “The impact which science has on our culture…will depend in part on the desire of our citizenry to support scientific investigation.”
For Fischler, it was important for all students to not just understand the basic facts that science has given us over the years but to also understand the process of scientific inquiry. And to complete this vision, he had to teach the teachers these skills, most of whom had no formal scientific education, and in turn, he became the teachers of those teachers.
Fischler came with an impressive resume. An Ed.D. graduate of Columbia University, Fischler taught at both Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley before being lured by the board of trustees to come to Nova.
“One does not so easily leave Berkeley,” Fischler said. “But I thought about it and realized that teaching at Berkeley was like golfing with a five handicap.”
So Fischler left to start a program from scratch at Nova.
Fischler was a magnet for students who wanted a chance to study side-by-side with someone challenging the science education status quo, including Yentsch, who left her job as a middle school science teacher in part because she would be working very closely with him.
“The teacher-student ratio was pretty much one-to-one back then,” Yentsch said. “You won’t ever have that anywhere else ever again.”
Fischler personally recruited several students to come to Nova. It was important that they came from a diverse background.
“I purposefully went out and recruited a diverse student population, because I didn’t want the hassle of trying to integrate later,” Fischler said.
In our first phone conversation, Yentsch also stressed this point.
“There were 17 of us at the beginning,” she said. “Two women and one black. That’s where we started. And we have become the most diverse student population in the country. It started from the very beginning.”
The black student was Leroy Bolden, a former All-American running back from Michigan State University who was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the sixth round in 1955 but joined the Air Force instead. He would later play for the Browns in 1958, mostly as a kick returner, where he once returned a kick 102 yards for a touchdown. He was moved to Dallas in the expansion draft and released before the 1960 season. He would later go on to work for the Encyclopedia Brittanica and Hewlett-Packard and become assistant director of admissions at the Stanford University graduate business school.
Of the other 17 students, one was from Venezuela and another from India. Marilyn Mailman-Segal would join the student body one year later and become one of the first five graduates alongside Yentsch.
While desegregation efforts began in Florida’s public schools in 1959, by 1970, its public universities were still largely segregated. According to a letter from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, of the seven public universities in the state, one, Florida A&M, was “almost 100 percent Negro while the other six public university had student bodies nearly 100 percent white.”
As in many areas, Nova University was ahead of its time when it came to diversity and integration.
The school officially opened its doors to students in the fall of 1967, to much excitement and fanfare, even though the campus looked less like a college campus and more like the abandoned airfield it sat on. There was one building on campus, the Hollywood-Mailman building, and one in construction, the Parker Building, with a lot of weeds and sand between the two.
Ed Simco, who joined the second class in 1968, describes his wife’s first reaction of the campus in Julian Pleasants’ book The Making of Nova Southeastern University: A Tradition of Innovation, 1964-2014: “‘This is Nova University?’ His wife asked. ‘Where?’”
This didn’t stop the celebration. With the enrollment of the first 17 students, the South Florida Education Center (SFEC) board had successfully started a graduate school out of nothing and this in and of itself was an accomplishment.
Winstead proclaimed, “We are doing what MIT and Caltech would do if they could start over.”
To succeed at Nova University, students had to be self-motivated. The university was not organized into traditional colleges, there were no traditional classes, lectures were not required, and the university did not go out of its way to help students with deficiencies in their undergraduate education. If a student needed an advanced calculus class to complete a prerequisite for entry into a program, that student would have to find another college to take the class.
“If you didn’t know where you were going already as a student, you would not succeed,” said Yentsch.
Paul Viebrock, another one of the original students quoted in Pleasants’ book said, “You need to be more self-organized here than in other graduate schools. You work at your own pace, but you’re expected to achieve faster.”
The initial excitement of embarking on a new education experiment would soon wear off as the university would be near bankruptcy within two years. Students paid no tuition. Professors were required to pay their own salaries through research grants. Nova relied on philanthropy from the community to pay its infrastructure and support staff needs.
But cracks began to form. Money was running out. The physical sciences department was already eliminated due to lack of funding. The Parker building, which was to house the physical science laboratories, didn’t have the funds necessary to complete the structure so only the outer shell and first floor was built. Warren Winstead, the first president, failed to submit critical accreditation forms to the Southeastern Association of Colleges and Schools, and, in a phone call to Fischler in 1969, the agency demanded a status report be submitted each year until the school achieved accreditation.
Despite word spreading that Winstead dropped the ball on accreditation and that the university might not make payroll, students forged ahead with their research.
“I was just hoping the school would stay open long enough for me to get my degree,” Yentsch said.
The school was bleeding money and at risk of closing altogether. According to Pleasants, businesses began demanding cash-on-demand for services, the electric company threatened to turn off power, vendors who had not been paid were demanding payment, and the federal government had served final notice for payment of payroll tax withholdings.
On Nov. 3, 1969, Winstead resigned, leaving a stack of unpaid bills in his desk. He failed to secure accreditation for the university, failed to bring the school out of its infancy, failed to put it on solid footing for the future. But he did one thing critically important of the long-term success of the university: he convinced Fischler to come.
Fischler’s presidency began with a mountain of debt. His first job was to secure a partnership to inject much needed liquidity.
Before Winstead’s departure, the board of directors reached out to many different partners—Michigan Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology, University of Miami, Florida State University—but they were either not interested or negotiations fell through.
The financial situation got worse. Payroll checks came with notes asking recipients to wait a few days before cashing them. James Farquhar, then a member of the Board of Trustees, kept the university afloat by any means necessary, including selling 80 acres of the 100 he had just donated to the university.
Of all the accomplishments in Fischler’s long tenure as president of the university, he seemed to me the most proud of never missing a payroll.
“They might have had to wait a few days before cashing their checks, but my staff always got paid,” he said.
Two things happened that allowed Nova’s doors to remain open: New York Institute of Technology agreed to a federation with Nova University in 1970 and Leo Goodwin Sr. died in 1971.
NYIT agreed to pay Nova University $60,000 a month for 12 months in addition to a lump sum payment of $750,000 to get Nova out of debt by June 30, 1971, as well as a final lump sum payment of $224,000 by Dec. 13, 1973. In return, Nova would help develop its doctoral programs on NYIT’s campus and NYIT’s president would become chancellor of Nova. The long sought-after partnership with another institution had finally been struck.
Leo Goodwin, Sr., founder of GEICO insurance, bequeathed more than 87 percent of his estate to Nova University in his will, which amounted to $14.5 million. The gift made Nova one of the richest private universities in the country at the time, according to the New York Times. But getting the funds would not be so easy. Fischler was forced to take the trust to court in 1973 over the gift, and the school wouldn’t see any of the funds until 1979.
During the protracted legal battle, the university again fell into debt while in a debate over whether to start a law school and the cycle began all over again.