He turned a small girls’ seminary into a four-year accredited college for young women. For fifteen years, Peter Pelham held the reins of power at Mount Vernon College – today the Mount Vernon Campus of the George Washington University, where, as president and visionary, he meticulously constructed a great institution from very little. Although President Pelham passed away on April 27, 2005, his vision, preserved in brown brick buildings and white trim, continues as strong as ever.
When the elderly George Lloyd, president of Mount Vernon for a generation through depression, war, and relocation, passed the presidency to 31-year old Peter Pelham in 1962, the closing of an era and the beginning of another seemed apparent. What Pelham lacked in experience he made up for in youthfulness and vigor, and it was a good thing too. Unbound by the traditions of his predecessors, he was able to launch a reorganization that arrested declining enrollments and deteriorating budgets – ultimately saving Mount Vernon College from bankruptcy on his watch.
From 1962 to 1977, Mount Vernon underwent a revolution. The seminary and prep school were discontinued and the institution became an accredited, degree-granting college. The campus and curricula were expanded and the student body became more diverse, both in demographics and experience as more students studied abroad and more international students studied in Washington. By 1977, Mount Vernon had gone from a sleepy seminary for upper-class women to a fully modern and prestigious college with a history dating back more than a century.
The presidency of Mount Vernon College was only the beginning of an illustrious and prominent career for Pelham as an educator and advocate. He served as vice president of the Institute of International Education, which sponsors study abroad programs and student exchanges. With his consulting firm, Pelham Associates, he helped forge longstanding partnerships between American universities and their foreign counterparts. Finally, Pelham cemented his internationally renowned reputation in 1997 by founding Global Connections, which sponsors seminars and conferences for educators and administrators around the world. He is survived by his wife Isobel, three children, and five grandchildren.
The modern Mount Vernon Campus looks much as he left it. The sloping roof, large skylights and award-winning architecture of Pelham Hall are an appropriate testaments to his unique legacy. His vision is enshrined in a campus changed by his leadership, the descendant of a school that survived until the eve of the 21st century. But even if those buildings did not exist, President Pelham’s legacy would continue to live in the hearts and minds of the institution’s many graduates, and in those of us who came after, following in their footsteps. For how can we possibly forget, even decades later, the man who saved Mount Vernon College?
-The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs, is a former Hatchet research editor.