The Architects of Sierra Nevada College: Part 1
By William Casey
The Early Years: 1969 to 1979
Sierra Nevada College was created by three men who dreamed of an institute of higher learning in the Sierra Nevada. John James, Gilbert Ralston and Friedrich von Brincken arrived in Incline Village having already taken part in several attempts to found small colleges before taking the steps that would eventually lead to the creation of SNC. Beginning in March of 1969, they purchased a parcel of land and three buildings, lobbied for licenses and established the Ralston School for the Communicative Arts, the Sierra Research Institute and Sierra Nevada College.
Each of the earlier private colleges in which Ralston, von Brincken and James had been involved played a role in SNC’s eventual success, and the stories of these other colleges founded in Northern Nevada and Lake Tahoe in the late 1960s provide a backdrop for the history of SNC.
Toward the end of the decade, several attempts were made to found a third college in the state. In Carson City, Carson College lasted less than a year and Kit Carson Junior College never even got started. Tahoe Paradise College survived briefly on the south shore of Lake Tahoe. On the north shore of the Lake, the Ralston School of Communicative Arts, the Sierra Research Institute and SNC began offering classes around the turn of the decade.
The fates of the other colleges founded in Northern Nevada in the late 1960s are important to understanding the challenges that were overcome at SNC. In September of 1966, the first four-year college emerged in Carson City. Carson College survived nine months and provided an object lesson for private colleges everywhere.
On March 23, 1967, Nevada’s Carson Chronicle reported that Carson College’s president, Dr. M.C. Ballenger, has denied that the College would be forced to suspend classes due to financial difficulties. Ballenger, Carson College’s second president, had recently returned from a fundraising trip toWashington, D.C., New York City and Colorado, and was confident that Carson College’s troubles would soon be solved. Although the College had no financial backing, no donors and no more than 50 students enrolled at any one time, it managed to acquire $269,000 in debt by May, including $33,116 owed on Ballenger’s house, $14,606 in monthly payments for automobiles, furniture and equipment, $80,179 in back rent, utilities and bills and $130,748 in back pay to full- and part-time faculty members.
Though Ballenger maintained the college’s feasibility in spite of these debts, the Tahoe Daily Tribune announced on May 18 that the college might be forced to shut down due to lack of funds. Less than two weeks later, it announced that Carson College, “once hoped to be one of the outstanding private institutions of higher learning in the west, drowned in red ink.” By June 22, Carson College had filed for bankruptcy. However, a number of its undaunted administrators and faculty decided to have another go at higher education.
In November, the first president of the now defunct Carson College, Dr. Edwin Richardson, announced that he and several notables planned to open a community college in Carson City. Richardson determined that Kit Carson Jr. College could be headquartered, rent free, in the local First Presbyterian Church. He planned to use local professionals to teach workshop and seminar-type vocational courses offered during non-working hours. However, in spite of Richardson’s admirable plans, the Board of Education, charged with “preventing the establishment of colleges which by reason of inadequate financing, facilities or requisites, will not succeed,” turned down Kit Carson Jr. College’s application.
The second college try took place at Meyer’s, which was an old stage stop near the junction of Highways 89 and 50. Real estate speculators were developing a property, which they named Tahoe Paradise. Included in their project was a large, but mostly vacant, motel. The founders of Tahoe Paradise College leased this building for a modest rent. Students lived in some of the motel rooms, and other rooms became classrooms and labs. Ralston, along with other faculty and some of the administration from Carson College, were involved in the founding of the School.
Tahoe Paradise College was renamed Tahoe College in order to distance it from the real estate speculation business. The College was able to attract more than 200 full-time students at its peak, and it achieved modest academic success when it became a candidate for accreditation with theWestern Association of Secondary and Higher Schools.
Ralston remained involved from the founding in 1967 until early 1969, when a “mysterious political event” took place and he, along with fellow faculty members, Friedrich von Brincken and John James, left the College. Ralston said that he was never certain if they were fired or left of their own free will, but whatever the reasons, the three decided to try the education business on their own.
In September 1967, Jim and Mary Wilson founded Tahoe Paradise College on the south shore of Lake Tahoe. Jim Wilson was also the president of Tahoe Paradise Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Whittington Oil. Ralston took his writing and teaching talents to Tahoe Paradise College. By this action, Ralston, along with other faculty and some of the administration from Carson College, got involved in the founding of this new college as well.
The Tahoe Daily Tribune ran a large article on the September 9 opening of the College. The reported aims of the College included, “The College is concerned with those great humane values, which are a vital part of our cultural tradition. Technical competence is essential, particularly in the professional fields, but it is difficult to be even a good technician without the breadth of view, the clarity of thought and expression, and awareness of the world as a whole, which are associated with liberal education. The complexity and the rapidly changing character of today’s world make it more and more important that man be well versed in the fundamentals, that he learn in depth rather than superficially and that he inquire into the heart of basic knowledge: knowledge of man, of our society, of the physical world – and of reality itself.”
Elsewhere in the same article, it is reported that “The College operates on the assumption that the private Liberal Arts College has a particular and unique contribution to make to our society. In this period of rapid expansion of enrollment and increasing costs in higher education, public tax-supported institutions will have to bear the greatest part of the burden. However, it will be the role of the private Liberal Arts College to maintain the free and humane tradition, to uphold quality, and to preserve the role of the individual. The Liberal Arts College can avoid the dehumanizing process, which is affecting other areas of our life.