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Part 2 – Blazing a New Trail, 1959-1964

Part 2 – Blazing a New Trail, 1959-1964

A Spectrum of Students

They came from all walks of life, plunging into an entirely unknown entity. Who could foresee the fate of this bold step into the future of higher education in little Rockland County? A county that was the state's smallest geographically, outside of New York City, but one that was growing exponentially in population and in demand for a skilled, educated work force?

There were 139 of them that first year: 87 men and 52 women, 119 full-time and 20 part-time.93 They were high school graduates uncommitted to a career path but eager to capitalize on an affordable, two-year alternative brought to their doorstep. They were homemakers with children to care for. They were veterans thankful for a second chance. Some – like James Wentz of Suffern, a paraplegic veteran of the Korean War – used a wheelchair, in the days before facilities were required to be accessible to people with disabilities.94

One was a woman who had never completed high school because she had lived in Africa during her teens. A few were recent immigrants who had completed high school equivalency requirements. Fourteen of them – 10 percent of the class – were college dropouts from four-year institutions.95

Most, but not all, hailed from Rockland. Several came from northern New Jersey, which had no community college at that time. (Many more New Jersey students would flock to RCC in ensuing years.) Those out-of-state students paid double tuition to attend Rockland.96

The very first student to enroll in that pioneer class was Sophie Fink of Garnerville. Fink's first husband had died in June of Hodgkin's disease at age 38. Her mother died of cancer three months later. Fink, who was then 33, searched desperately for a way to support her three young children.

"That was a very sad and a very hard time in my life, and I didn't know what I was going to do," said Fink, who remarried in 1961 and is now Sophie Long. "I picked up the paper and saw that a college was opening. I wanted to learn typing and steno to be a secretary, but Jane Freeman convinced me to take accounting. It was a godsend for me because I learned a trade that was very profitable for me."

Fink worked as a bookkeeping assistant in RCC's administrative offices while still a student, then spent five years as a full-time member of the school's accounting staff. She later enjoyed a 20-year tenure as a bookkeeper at North Garnerville Elementary School.

David Sauberman of Spring Valley was married, with children on the way, when he enrolled in the fall of 1959, looking to enhance his job prospects. Galvanized by teachers who transmitted their passion for learning, Sauberman found a calling in business and finance. From RCC, he transferred to New York University, and later became a vice president for a major brokerage firm in California.

"Everything the professors said to me at RCC, all the business concepts, stayed in my head," said Sauberman, who moved West in 1979 and lives in the San Francisco suburbs. "The faculty was first-class for a school just beginning. Everyone jelled so well. It was more like a family than a college."

Before the arrival of students, the college was nothing more than a building-in-transition surrounded by farm accoutrements. All the visions and projections in the world would mean little without the lifeblood of a student body. As the calendar turned to the last week in September, everyone with a stake in the genesis of this educational experiment held their breath and hoped their strivings were not for naught.

 

The answer was forthcoming on the first day of registration in late September. Trustee Harold Laskey remembered driving to the college that day mindful of the vicissitudes of the five previous years.97

"As I turned into the campus from old Almshouse Road," he said, "I saw the parking lot filled with cars. The people in this community really wanted this college, and they were showing it. It was, I might say, the most exciting day of my life."98

 

Curriculum: General and Vocational

Like all New York State community colleges, Rockland was established under Article 126 of the state Education Law. As such, it is legally authorized to "provide two-year programs of post-high school nature combining general education with technical education relating to the occupational needs of the community. . ."99

Courses are registered by the state Department of Education. The college is authorized by the SUNY Board of Regents to award Associate in Arts degrees and Associate in Applied Science degrees, and is approved for holders of state scholarships.

The first year three programs were in place for students transferring to four-year colleges after graduation: liberal arts and sciences, business administration, and business administration with accounting major.100 Completion of these led to the Associate in Arts degree.101 Three other programs served those who sought employment right after graduation: business management, secretarial science, and accounting major.102 These led to the Associate in Applied Science degree.103

New York State community colleges in that era emphasized vocational and technical courses of study. For example, Farmingdale Community College on Long Island was renowned for its poultry design and aircraft mechanics curriculum.104

Rockland, however, placed no such stress on occupational courses. Of the 139 original daytime-division students, 84 concentrated in the college's strong liberal arts curriculum.105 Among the remainder, 39 majored in accounting, nine in secretarial science, and seven in business.106 Most intended to transfer to four-year schools and obtain bachelor's degrees.

"Our trustees wanted, and they felt the community wanted, a two-year liberal arts program," said Ray Rossiter, the founding social sciences professor. "That was pretty significant in those days." 107

Before instruction in those disciplines began in earnest, an opening convocation was held September 29 in the renovated assembly room. Charles Hetherington, the acting president, placed the new college in perspective and buoyed the spirits of its principals when he noted that, at that moment, RCC was the smallest college in the largest university in the country, the State University of New York.108

"I think we all felt a little taller and braver, which we needed to be," said psychology professor Maureen Haberer.109

The occasion also was highlighted by the irrepressible Henry Larom leading the assembled students in their first college cheer: Rah, Rah, Rockland!110 That established an atmosphere, a joie de vivre, that would be reprised countless times in Larom's tenure: the dean of students playing the drums at the annual holiday dance; jumping in a car with students and waving their protest banner; feeling honored when the students affectionately hung him in effigy; bellowing so loud after getting stuck in a doorjamb with a student that he could be heard clear across campus.

"Henry Larom would literally stand on his head to get people excited, to get kids cheering," said Trustee Belle Zeck. "He would just about put on a clown outfit. But these things were wonderful. They worked."

Larom's humor leavened the fear and uncertainty as RCC took its first baby steps. The whole operation still had the feel of an unfinished production whose players were improvising their lines as they went along.

Classes started without blackboards or chalk, textbooks or a true library. Math instructor Bob Burghardt tacked up large sheets of wrapping paper and wrote with a crayon.111 Ray Rossiter roamed the halls lugging huge National Geographic maps.112 Instructors arrived on Mondays without a clue where they would hold classes.

Teachers' straining voices competed with the thumping hammers and groaning saws – and salty conversation – of workers continuing Almshouse renovations. (By the end of the first year, all three floors were in use.113 )

"We would be working in one room, and have a sandscraper working in a room next door, or right over our heads," said Maureen Haberer. "We were running almost daily ahead of the sanders, the wall breakers-down and wall builders-up. It was a very noisy place. We taught under extremely rugged conditions." 114

Despite the initial hardships, everyone recognized the need to pull together for the common weal. An esprit de corps developed, born of necessity. In the days before a custodial staff was hired, it was not unusual to see someone like Jane Freeman - an accomplished professional educator - sweeping floors. Even trustees got in on the act, says Belle Zeck: "I was literally washing windows the day before the school opened."

The first semester culminated in a dedication ceremony held November 1 in the outdoor courtyard shaped by the Almshouse's "U" configuration. Although a hail shower delayed the start and rain accompanied the end, some 300 people turned out to hear the college's virtues extolled by several speakers.115

The highlight of the afternoon came when Frank Manley, the Board of Trustees chairman, accepted a commemorative gavel for his leadership role in the college's founding. Manley immediately presented the gavel to his 85-year-old mother, Anna Loring Manley, who had traveled from Boston to attend the event.116

Manley came from a poor family of eight children. His father, Herbert Manley, a Baptist clergyman, died at a young age. That left his mother to care for him and five surviving sisters. At his mother's urging, Manley obtained a college education – the only one in his family to do so – graduating from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the last two years on full scholarship. He never forgot his mother's transcendent influence.

"He acknowledged that he was indebted to her," said Frank Manley's son, Loring, "and she was the primary factor in his life that got him an education. And that got him interested in education for other people."

 

A Full-Time President

After helping orchestrate the start-up of the college, Charles Hetherington took on the role of overseer. As interim president on loan from Colgate University, he would make periodic visits to the Viola campus. But the day-to-day operation of the college that first semester was handled by Henry Larom and his assistant, Doris Marquardt.117

The second semester signaled the arrival of the college's first full-time president, Dr. Frank Mosher. Mosher had spent 10 years as superintendent of schools in Liverpool, N.Y., and taught summer courses in education at Syracuse University. When Lester Rounds notified him of the opening, the temptation was too strong to resist.

"When I heard of the position as a first president of a new educational institution, I felt it was a real challenge and I was ready for it," said Mosher, who is 92 and lives in Tucson, Ariz., with his wife, Onnolee. "It was especially exciting to be involved in establishing a new learning center and to work with a faculty who was equally excited about the new adventure."

Upon starting his term on February 1, 1960, Mosher immediately launched an expansion of facilities, the development of a larger library and three new science laboratories for use in the fall.118 But the physical plant was not the only area Mosher improved. Before he arrived, instructors held no academic rank. "We were just Mr. so-and-so and Mrs. so-and-so," said Bob Burghardt.119

To raise faculty members' salaries, Mosher established a system that assigned every instructor a rank of associate professor.120 Although their education credentials varied, the teaching staff accepted the move as a well-intentioned step toward adequate compensation for their experience.

Mosher's was not a charismatic leadership; he would not influence people by sheer force of personality. Yet everyone agreed they had the right man at the rudder, navigating the shoals with the hand of a seasoned veteran.

He was variously described as steady, efficient, methodical, organized, businesslike, a "shirt, tie and coat man" and a "clean desk sort of person." He enjoyed sitting in on classes – unannounced, of course – to familiarize himself with students and to observe the classroom dynamic firsthand.

Mosher could be firm when he had to be, especially when occasional flareups tested his mettle. "There was one Ph.D. who arrogated to himself the privilege of speaking for the faculty," said Bob Moseley, who has taught social sciences at RCC since 1960. "He was full of testosterone and would speak up, sometimes truculently. But Dr. Mosher handled it all neatly and quietly. It was his quiet spirit that steered us through a period that could have been fairly rocky."

Three days before Mosher took office, the college received its official registration from the state Education Department, granting approval of its curricula.121 This authorized the awarding of Associate in Arts degrees in liberal arts, science, pre-engineering, and pre-teacher education; and Associate in Applied Science degrees in business management, accounting, and secretarial science.122

The registration also made RCC students eligible for state scholarships, such as Regents and War Service grants – the Veterans Administration also validated the curricula, for those with GI benefits – and paved the way for them to transfer to four-year institutions.123 Jane Freeman, the director of student personnel, was instrumental in securing agreements with colleges to accept the transfer of credits from RCC graduates.

Freeman first made contact with Fred Crossman, the director of admissions at New York University, who assured her acceptance of academic credits of students holding at least a C average, and offered scholarship aid as well. The University of Buffalo, St. Thomas Aquinas and Dominican College followed soon thereafter.124

“His announcement even made The New York Times," Freeman said, "which told other colleges we were `OK.' That was a real boost. I spent many months and two summer vacations visiting New York colleges and universities selling RCC and in many instances drew up parallel programs to assure transfer credit. Our transfer record was great and the loss of credit very minimal. The personal contacts paid off."

With all the kinetic energy churning through the modest campus, it was well into the school year before stability seeped into the daily routine. Since graduation ceremonies were still one year away, the academic campaign was climaxed by the inauguration of Mosher as president.

The man who would be standard-bearer during Rockland Community College's sink-or-swim infancy accepted the official confirmation with typical equanimity.

"He was very steady, very traditional," said Belle Zeck. "He directed his attention to essentials. He was not adventuresome, but he was what we needed to get that college started."

 

Evening Division

A true community college cannot ignore any segment of its citizenry. From its earliest days, SUNY Rockland held fast to its mission to serve, in Lester Rounds' words, "all the people." The RCC braintrust recognized that a separate division was needed for the adult working population, for those whose jobs prevented them from attending during the day but who still sought to better their lot through further education.

The Evening Division was established during the very first semester to address this need. Ray Rossiter was tapped to serve as acting director, an unofficial title he held for two years until Arnold Rist was appointed full-time director in 1961.

Students in the evening sessions, who earned part-time credit, outnumbered those in the day sessions for the first five years.125 In 1959, 162 students – 94 men, 68 women – enrolled in the evening versus 139 during the day.126 By 1963, the numbers had grown to 783 evening and 674 day.127

Who were these evening students? "A range of students, from right out of high school to people in their 50s and 60s," said Rist, a school psychologist and guidance counselor who served until 1965. "A lot of them had been out of high school for 20 years. Many worked in New York City. Many were coming to pursue knowledge, then that turned into getting a degree to move up in industry."

A full menu of courses from the liberal arts, sciences and business were taught. One of the first evening instructors was Bob Moseley, who then resided in Nyack and had been teaching an evening sociology course at Orange County Community College.128 Rossiter persuaded him to teach evenings closer to home. Moseley eventually joined the full-time staff in 1962.

"I enjoyed it more teaching in the evening," he said. "We had GIs who came back, lots of older people who held down jobs. They had more life experience. It was an absolute delight."

The Evening Division became a prime source of daytime faculty. For example, Marven Nelson rose to become chairman of the psychology department after starting as a night-division instructor. William Hirn was the first full-time psychology teacher hired from the ranks of the Evening Division.129

From the outset, college founders also identified a need to tailor courses, both on and off campus, to niche constituencies. Thus began the highly successful Extension Division. James Naismith, an actor and theatrical director hired in the 1960 spring semester, taught the first extension course, a speech class in the old Orange and Rockland Utilities building in Nyack.

Courses to prepare engineers for the state Professional Engineers exam and graduate-credit courses for teachers sponsored by Columbia University Teachers' College highlighted early offerings.130 The Extension Division continues to flourish in centers off campus, places of industry, and health care facilities.

One salient legacy from the Evening Division is what became known as the Foundations program. Well before other colleges with a similar open-admissions policy, Rockland immediately recognized the need to offer remedial courses to reinforce English and math skills in students deficient in those fundamental disciplines.

Students were required to pass a six-week noncredit program before they could matriculate.131 A specialist taught reading and study skills to students who warranted it.

"This was something that distinguished us from any other school I knew," said Belle Zeck. "It was what St. Thomas Aquinas used to write essays about: the divorce of `is' and `ought.' We had to accommodate what is and not what ought to be. We were very surprised and delighted when someone who wasn't college material turned out to be very good academically. The Foundations program was the best thing we ever did."

 

Extracurriculars: Sports, Clubs, Dances, and a Barn

Listen closely for the heartbeat of a college. It pulses with a cadence all its own, unique to the organism. Now go deeper, beyond the bones and sinew, into the very soul. There you shall find a place of visceral emotion and spirit. A place where the human drama is played out in all its multihued splendor.

At Rockland Community College, that place was the Barn. If the old Almshouse was the heart of the early campus, the Barn was assuredly its soul. By the time renovations had been completed on the Poor House dairy barn in the spring of 1960 – hay lofts, cow stalls, milk shed and signature barnyard fragrances replaced by tile flooring, wall paneling, better lighting, heat and tiled drop ceiling132 – the Barn had established itself as the axis around which student life revolved.

The drafty old hulk was as versatile as a favorite pair of Levis and as adaptable as a chameleon. All manner of events took place under its sturdy wooden roof: school registration, physical education classes, sports team practices, large classes and final exams, dance classes, student-faculty talent shows, worship services, films, guest lecture series, concert series, even war protest rallies.

But the program most closely identified with the Barn was the College Barn Theater and its Drama Club student performers, the College Barn Players. The impresario of the program, the effervescent James Naismith, heightened the college's cultural milieu immeasurably.

He brought to the Barn stage the works of such heralded playwrights as Edward Albee and Arthur Kopit.133 He would direct theatrical productions at lunch time, in the summer, on weekends. The college – and the greater Rockland community – treasured it all.

"For me, the center of college life was the College Barn Players," said Sanford Rubenstein, a 1963 graduate who became a Rockland legislator and an RCC trustee. "Not everyone was involved in the Players, but considering the total number of students, many, many of us were involved." 134

From an inauspicious beginning – Naismith, eager for a sneak peek, inadvertently mucked through wet floor cement the night before the renovated Barn opened – he reckons he has directed more than 150 plays in the county, most of them in the Barn Theater. (The Barn burned down in January 1979, but the student actors continued to perform, shifting to the Cultural Arts Center, built in 1983.)

"I lived in that theater for many years," said Naismith, who also taught English and psychology and retired in 1986. "My degree of commitment was . . . well, when we were in production, I'd be here sometimes 15, 16 hours a day, seven days a week.135 I enjoyed my job, my work, so much."

What James Naismith was to theater, Edwin Greene was to athletics and physical education. Greene had been a highly successful coach and athletic director at Suffern High School when he was hired part-time the first semester to coach the fledgling basketball team. He recruited with the peremptory approach of the World War II veteran he was.

"Coach Greene had recognized my name from when I played basketball at Spring Valley High School," said David Sauberman. "He said, `If you want to make it through this school, you better play for this team.' So I did."

Greene became the full-time athletic director, physical education department chairman and bookstore manager in the second semester. He was joined by Joseph Famellette, fresh out of Springfield College, who was hired part-time in the fall to coach the first soccer team and, like Greene, became full-time in the spring.

Greene and Famellette had to be magicians to keep their programs afloat with limited facilities. Greene coached basketball, baseball, tennis and golf, while Famellette coached soccer and wrestling. For basketball, Greene wangled court time in gymnasiums at Suffern, Haverstraw and Spring Valley high schools and a few junior highs.

Baseball practice was held on a rough-hewn diamond carved out of acreage in the southwest quadrant of campus, while games were played at the Village of Suffern ballfield.136 The team also competed against several junior colleges in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia during annual spring breaks.

The physical education office shifted early on from the north wing of the old Almshouse to the former Ramapo police station. Activities like calisthenics, jogging, archery, soccer and golf were held in the fields surrounding the small, peaked-roof building.

The Barn proved suitable for gymnastics, fencing and varsity wrestling practice. For other physical activities, Greene and Famellette became nomads. Swimming and lifesaving were taught at the Bader's Hotel outdoor pool in Spring Valley. Bowling was at the Hub alleys in Monsey. Deer Kill Day Camp in Suffern was rented to teach lifetime skill sports like tennis, handball and one-wall paddleball as well as softball and basketball. All phys ed activities were coeducational from the outset.

"You had to be innovative," said Greene, who is 87 and lives in Panama City Beach, Fla. "I found that when you were lacking in facilities, you had to make do with what you could."

Famellette – the longest-serving current faculty member – added, "We had a well-defined physical education department that was probably way ahead of its time in lifetime and coed sports."

While physical and theatrical expression were given free rein, so too were other student activities that are hallmarks of a college environment. Thus arose clubs catering to student interests: business, drama, choral singing, public service, Spanish, French, ski, gun, varsity athletics, and the Newman Club, for fostering understanding of the Catholic faith. The student scribes' creative impulse manifested itself in the student newspaper, The Record; the yearbook, Vanguard; and the literary magazine, De La Plume.

The most popular dance was the holiday Snow Ball in December, held at Letchworth Village's cavernous Kirkbride Hall. "We felt like the Christians in the bottom of the Colosseum in Rome," recalled Ray Rossiter, "about 100 of us huddled in one corner of a place that would hold 1,000 people." 137

For the first seven years, Rossiter also served as faculty adviser to the student government. In the first Student Senate, Rhoda Benjamin and Paul Serra were president and vice president, respectively. Coincidentally, they also were chosen Queen and King of the inaugural Snow Ball, and later were married.

A prominent arm of student governance was the Student Court, composed of five judges and a prosecutor who heard cases and determined penalties for violations of college and senate rules.138 Sanford Rubenstein was the court's first "chief justice."

"It was all very exciting," Rubenstein said, "because we had a sense that we were really shaping student government. And we had fun, too."139

 

The First Graduation and Beyond

On June 11, 1961, the college's first commencement exercises honored 39 graduates – 22 men, 17 women – who had finished the journey begun by 139 full-time students two years before.140 They sat outdoors on that warm Sunday afternoon and listened as keynote speaker Dr. Lawrence Jarvie of SUNY cautioned them to retain their individuality "in a world of shrinking space, mechanization, brainwashing, rapid communication . . ." 141

As David Sauberman sat among his fellow graduates, his mind unspooled back to the untold hours of honest toil that earned him a role in this milestone occasion.

"There was a pioneering spirit in my mind, that I was a charter member of this school," he said. "I worked my butt off to be in the first graduating class. As time went on, I became more and more proud of the institution, what it stood for and what it was going to be."

Other events would serve as benchmarks defining the college's progress in subsequent seasons. The year 1962 brought the departure of Frank Manley, an icon in the college's founding.142 Manley accepted a job as president of Fitchburg Gas and Electric Light Co. in his native Massachusetts. An emergency loan fund for needy RCC students was established in his name. Manley was replaced as chairman of the Board of Trustees by Dan Brucker, who served in that capacity for 22 years.

By 1962 the college was beginning to outgrow the Almshouse and its makeshift classrooms. The first phase in the trustees' master plan called for an academic building and a gymnasium. The athletic facility was not completed until 1972, during the second construction phase. But the new classroom building was the highest priority, and its groundbreaking ceremony was held that year.

"It seemed to symbolize the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one," said Anthony Palladino, a 1963 graduate. "The pioneers who had struggled with the early problems, who had lived and learned in the old Almshouse, were about to give way to a new breed of students who would bring new problems and challenges to the modern building." 143

As college enrollment grew, so too did its graduate base. From 39 in 1961, the number rose to 60 in 1962 and 115 in 1963, including the first 24 from the school's nurse education program.144

The transition of which Palladino spoke gained its denouement with the retirement of Frank Mosher in 1963. At age 55, after 32 years as an administrator, Mosher was eligible for retirement in New York public education. He then moved back to Utica, N.Y., where he introduced a teacher preparation program at Utica College of Syracuse University, and remained there nine years before retiring for good.

"I had no intention of leaving so soon," Mosher said. "I had turned down Utica after two years at RCC but the next year they came to me again, and again the challenge was there. During my three years at RCC I could see growth and felt the self-confidence and pride of everyone involved. We were beginning to be recognized as a strong influence in the community."

While Mosher returned to Utica from Rockland, his successor at RCC, Seymour Eskow, made the reverse trip. The symbolism is apt, because Eskow – in his 20-year stewardship – proved to be the antithesis of Mosher as an administrator.

Eskow, a New York City native, worked his way up to president during his 17 years at Utica-based Mohawk Valley Community College, one of the first post-war two-year colleges in the state. At the insistence of Henry Larom, whom he had met at academic conferences, Eskow applied for the RCC job – he was the first applicant – and was chosen after an extensive search by the trustees.

Where Mosher was a paragon of stability, Eskow was the avatar of change. Where Mosher advocated evolutionary growth, Eskow sought revolutionary expansion – or so it seemed to many of his colleagues.

Eskow believed that a college is encumbered by the very infrastructure that undergirds it – state and local regulations, committees, various constituencies. The challenge of leadership, as he saw it, was to recognize all of those disparate components yet still push the whole juggernaut forward.

How did he accomplish that? "In my time that meant kicking dust in the face of the Legislature, telling them to back off," said Eskow, who is 75 and lives in Goleta, Calif., near Santa Barbara. It meant "challenging the Board of Trustees on occasion, offending the faculty, and in general being the kind of buccaneering leader that is harder to get away with these days."

One of Eskow's first acts as president was to reclassify faculty ranks, based on his conclusion that the instructors were "overranked and underpaid." A bitter fight ensued in which some faculty members resigned. Eventually a compromise solution was forged consisting of a two-tiered ranking system with accompanying pay scales. Within a few years this hybrid plan was discontinued, but the enmity it engendered lasted much longer.

Eskow acknowledge that he had little interest in the daily grind of managing a college, the quotidian business at which Frank Mosher excelled. Eskow's bailiwick was taking risks, launching initiatives – and the sooner the better. "I confess to putting in too little time on remembering the rules, and less on obeying them," he said.

Nothing better illustrates Eskow's attitude toward bureaucratic imperatives than his response to Dr. Ernest Boyer, a SUNY chancellor, when asked about the progress of his state-mandated five-year plan for the college: "I'm up to next Thursday."

Although his style proved abrasive to some, Eskow never deviated from the egalitarian mission of a community college. "He really brought the word `community' into the title of the school," said Belle Zeck. "I remember once saying that the trouble with us is we were trying to be all things to all people. And he said that's exactly what we should be trying to do. That is how a community college is different from a traditional college."

Eskow stressed that theme from the beginning. His second month on the job he conceived Inauguration Week, a series of events, panels and workshops form which evolved the college's plan to serve as a community resource through the use of facilities such as the cultural arts center, field house and modern library.

The opening of the Academic I building in the fall of 1964 sealed one chapter of Rockland Community College and ushered in another. Classes shifted to the new boxlike structure, which accented functionality over aesthetic charm.

The classy old Almshouse, meanwhile, became the administration building.  It remains so today, an enduring legacy to the founders' vision.