There is no football team, no basketball team. There’s no cheerleading squad or homecoming queen — and the student union is a room of couches with a piano and a dining table.
There’s not even a senior class. Its only two members left for other ventures before graduation.
That leaves just 13 students at Gutenberg College, a nonprofit, Christian-based, liberal arts “Great Books” school that’s quietly been operating since 1994 in what’s been both a University of Oregon fraternity and sorority house on the northeast corner of East 19th Avenue and University Street.
One of the taglines on Gutenberg’s website? “Small is beautiful.”
And most of its tiny student body wouldn’t have it any other way, although administrators would certainly like to increase the number of students at what just might be the nation’s smallest four-year college.
“I like how it’s small on purpose here,” says freshman Isaiah Hall, 23, who bears a resemblance to the actor James Franco and who moved to Eugene from San Diego in 2015 after briefly attending 19,000-student Southwestern College in San Diego. “The tutorship is really key. Also, the student-to-teacher ratio.” (Gutenberg instructors are referred to as “tutors” not professors.)
A 2012 Huffington Post story listed Alaska Bible College in Palmer, Alaska, with 38 students as the nation’s smallest college (a Wikipedia page says it now has 51 students), while a 2016 U.S. News & World Report story listed Marlboro College in Vermont as the nation’s smallest with 192 students.
That still makes Marlboro’s student body about 15 times larger than Gutenberg’s.
“Recruiting has been a challenge for Gutenberg for a number of years,” says President Chris Swanson, also one of four full-time faculty members. “We are desirous of having more students. We are making some changes to enhance recruiting.”
The most obvious change has been the July 1 hiring of Eliot Grasso, who’s been teaching classes at Gutenberg since 2012, as provost. That role also includes wearing the hats of admissions director and chief recruiter.
Grasso, a talented musician of Irish music, particularly the uilleann pipes (the national bagpipe of Ireland), who has a Ph.D in musicology from the University of Oregon, “brings talent and energy and thoughtfulness” to Gutenberg, Swanson says. “I just think Eliot is doing a fantastic job. I think it’s going to raise the number of students.”
Gutenberg, named for Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the movable-type printing press in 15th century Germany that first printed the Bible and then many great writings of Western culture, has had close to 50 students at one time in its 23-year history. But the number of students has faded in recent years.
“It’s a niche market,” Grasso says. “How many students want to study classical Greek? And it’s rather rigorous.”
All Gutenberg students earn a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. It requires two years of Western civilization classes focusing on The Enlightenment freshman year and ancient civilization sophomore year; four years of microexegesis (word-by-word analysis of a text) on Aristotle, the New Testament, Kierkegaard and Biblical Hermeneutics; two years of classical Greek and two years of German; three years of writing and then a senior thesis; two years of math and two years of science.
The reading list is extensive and includes everything from Deuteronomy, Homer, Plato, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Thomas Paine, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Einstein and even Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” The list also include Ecclesiastes, Virgil, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Joyce, Kafka, Descartes, Spinoza, Goethe and 20th century classics such as Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”
Most of the curriculum involves simply reading these “Great Books” and discussing them.
The “Great Books” movement in American colleges can be traced to 1920 when John Erskine, an English professor at Columbia University in New York City, created a General Honors course because he “thought all students should have as part of their education the experience of reading and discussing what he called great books,” according to a 2001 article in Columbia’s alumni magazine.
In 1952, the movement turned a new chapter when University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins and philosophy of law professor Mortimer Adler published a 54-volume set titled “Great Books of the Western World.”
Today, there are several so-called “Great Books” colleges across the nation.
“Distinctive and unique”
Gutenberg grew out of something called the McKenzie Study Center, founded in 1979 as a Christian ministry to Eugene-area college students.
“Gutenberg offers something distinctive and unique in comparison to most colleges,” Swanson says. “We are interested in helping students to think clearly and understanding who they are and what it means to be a human being and ask significant questions about themselves and their culture.
“We are very interested in encouraging students to pursue what’s true in the context of a faculty that’s committed to biblical Christianity.”
All Gutenberg students must sign a “Biblical Foundation Statement,” which outlines a biblical worldview.
“They don’t necessarily have to agree with it,” says Grasso, who adds that being a Christian is not a requirement for attending Gutenberg, which has had students from as far away as Lithuania and Argentina.
David Crabtree, who resigned last year as Gutenberg’s president, was one of the McKenzie Study Center’s visionaries, along with his brother, Jack Crabtree, and their father, Dale Crabtree, says Swanson, who helped co-found Gutenberg in 1994 and whose wife, Cindy, is also a part-time tutor at the school.
“The best part is the relationship I have with the tutors,” says Emily Dunnan, 20, a Gutenberg junior who on a Wednesday in late September attends class barefoot, as do several of the other students. “Because they are such humble people, but such profound thinkers at the same time. They’ve just been so helpful to me in trying to become an adult. They’re good friends.”
Some might ask what a liberal arts degree is worth, in terms of finding work after college? But most don’t enroll at Gutenberg to enhance their workplace prospects. “I didn’t just want to get a piece of paper (diploma) and join the workforce,” says Dunnan, who’s interested in pursuing freelance writing and copy editing after graduation. “Gutenberg is here (so we can) become better human beings. You end up being better at whatever job you have, but it’s not for a specific job.”
Several Gutenberg students were home-schooled while growing up, such as Dunnan, who’s from Queen Creek, Ariz., and fellow junior Audrey Barton, who’s from Medford. Barton considered attending Southern Oregon University in Ashland, “but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do yet,” she says. “And Gutenberg really helps you figure out your place in the world. It’s kind of like a holistic thing, in figuring out who I am as a person.”
Most all of the students live in the school’s brick building, built in 1928 as the UO’s Delta Tau Delta fraternity and later a UO sorority house. Room and board cost between $3,375 and $4,075, according to the school’s website, and annual tuition is $13,000 a year, says Grasso, quite low for a four-year private college. The UO, by comparison, costs in-state residents about $11,500 for tuition and out-of-state residents about $34,600.
The building had served as the McKenzie Study Center since 1981, Grasso says. A Christian men’s organization was the building’s previous owner, and one of its board members knew Wesley Hurd (also one of the early founders and now a part-time tutor), believed in the study center’s vision and “basically gave the building to them,” Swanson says.
According to its Form 990 financial filings for 2015-16 with the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt nonprofit, Gutenberg College had $708,507 in total revenue, which included $344,016 in contributions and grants and $335,737 in program service revenue, $254,830 of the latter number coming from tuition and fees.
Gutenberg’s $691,057 in total expenses for 2015-16 included just $211,030 in salaries and wages, $77,285 in other compensation to officers, directors and trustees and $73,998 in other employee benefits.
For Grasso, his obvious goal is to increase the number of students at Gutenberg, most of whom live on the building’s second floor. This summer he drove around the Northwest meeting with prospective students and tapping into the Association of Classical Christian Schools, a membership of Christian high schools and academies across the nation.
“It was mind-blowing”
Like many in Eugene, Grasso, who moved here in 2007 from his hometown of Baltimore to pursue his Ph.D at the UO, had never heard of Gutenberg until he met Charley Newberry, a longtime Gutenberg faculty member and current dean at the school, in 2008 at The Shedd Institute.
Charley Newberry had a copy of Plato’s “Republic” under his arm that day nine years ago.
“Is that in Greek?” Grasso asked him.
“Yeah,” said Newberry, whose son, Andrew, is a sophomore at the school. “It’s what we do at Gutenberg College.”
“Is that in Eugene?” Grasso asked.
“Yeah, it’s a four-year college,” Newberry said.
“It was mind-blowing,” recalls Grasso, who soon paid a visit and found himself teaching there a few years later. “Just the idea that students would interact with primary sources instead of textbooks to me was mind-blowing. I just thought that was dead in American education.”
Chris Swanson begins a “Great Conversations” class discussion with Gutenberg’s six juniors with this question: “I would like to know whether you think he is a philosopher or a scientist?” The class has been assigned to read “Discourse on Method and Related Writings” by the 17th century French philosopher, mathematician and scientist Rene Descartes.
“Well, he talks about medicine a lot,” Barton says.
“He also talks about moral virtues,” says Elyse Baker, a junior from Louisville, Ky. “The reason he’s interested in saving others is he’s acting according to his beliefs as a moral and virtuous person.”
After the afternoon classes, the students often retire to the lounge area between the classrooms and the kitchen. There, discussions begun in the classroom sometimes continue. Discussions about God and faith and existentialism, about the meaning of the Bible and fear and the courage to ask hard questions.
“There are many discussion-based liberal arts schools,” says Andrew Newberry. “But this is a place about how do you think, not what you think. There’s a willingness to engage with students and (know that) this is your journey. And you can live in the house and disagree with people without hating each other.”
Email Mark Baker at [email protected]
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