Deep Springs College President profiles its founder.
A new book on the history of Deep Springs College penned by former student, “staffulty,” board member, and president Jack Newell probes the personality, electricity and philosophy of its founder, Lucien Lucius Nunn. Newell has invested years of research into a book that answers the questions of how the school was founded and why—on whose dime, and why out in the middle of nowhere.
Newell discussed his book, “The Electric Edge of Academe: The Saga of Lucien L. Nunn and Deep Springs College,” followed by a Q and A at Spellbinder Books this week. An historian of colleges and universities, Newell admitted the book has been a dream of his since graduate school. Deep Springs has been a part of Newell’s life just as long. He spent “literally my entire adult existence,” at or involved in the 4,500 acre ranch, located along a stretch of Highway 168-East between Gilbert and Westgard passes, about 35 miles east of Big Pine.
This desolate, quiet place is exactly what Nunn had in mind when he began his crusade into education, but it’s far from where he started.
Born in 1856, Nunn came out West from Ohio, settling in Telluride, Colorado and becoming a successful realtor and owner of newspapers, banks, and gold mines.
Nunn was a “rough and tumble” Wild West entrepreneur, Newell explained, although he didn’t look like one at 5-foot-2 and a hundred pounds. But like many at the time, he got bit by the grandeur of the West and stayed.
Business was good in Telluride until all the timber near Nunn’s Gold King Mine was used up for fuel and there was no affordable alternative to get power to the operation. The mine was isolated, so transporting the ore out, or importing fuel in for steam engines was financially out of the question, and transmitting electricity over long-distances was not common at the time.
These were the years when Nikola Tesla and his alternating current (AC) and Thomas Edison and his direct current (DC) were in the midst of the “Battle of the Currents” to see who would dominate the burgeoning electricity market in 1890. And the days when electric lines were straight as an arrow because it was thought electricity would not stay on an angled line but shoot off the wire like a lightning bolt. Nunn needed an unprecedented two-and-a-half miles of transmission lines, the distance from the water and hydro-electric generator to the mine site.
Nunn asked Westinghouse to invest in a long-distance electric project, but they refused. So Nunn put up his own money for a motor, hardware and wire. After the lines were connected and taut, the switch was pulled, creating a blinding arc, Newell explained, and power at the mine. Newell said he believes the contest between the town of Bodie and Nunn as to who was the first to transmit electricity over a long distance belongs to Nunn.
The Gold King Mine was not successful, but Nunn became a hydro-electric magnate with plants all over the West, his biggest achievement being the Ontario Power Plant at Niagara Falls.
The newness of electricity transmission and AC, the isolated locations of his facilities and the incredible amount of back-breaking work needed to run and manage these plants, were factors in Nunn’s need for a highly qualified, educated and specialized work force. He began training his own employees, recruiting men right out of high school for a three year apprenticeship and a higher education. The three years involved on the job training of electrical engineering on site, alongside the study of literature and philosophy, just as Nunn had studied as a student. He sought out professors on sabbatical, offering them a perfect, secluded spot to write a book, for example, in exchange for teaching a couple classes.
This, Newell explained, is how the college got started.
Newell said Nunn eventually wanted a permanent campus, someplace isolated, and heard about Deep Springs and the ranch there for sale. Nunn had tuberculosis at the time, so wasting no time, he had his electricity partner buy him out and pursued the college. Nunn finally acquired the Swinging T Ranch in Deep Springs Valley and the college accepted its first 20 students in September of 1917.
The enrollment has stayed at 25-30 a year for most of its near century, accepting just a dozen or more new students annually. This makes it one of the most difficult colleges to get into in the country. New students are ultimately chosen by the current students.
The all boys school has tussled over the idea of co-education, and now the by-laws are being re-written to change a single word, “men,” to “people” and allow females into the student body. Newell said some trustees have filed suit over the change, claiming it goes against the founding principles of Nunn. But Newell said the acceptance of females into the college would surely be a reality.
Nunn writes many times about creating leaders, not just male leaders. Because more than just educate, Nunn wanted to forge stewards, “prepare trustees of the nation” for a “service to humanity.” Nunn’s education philosophy revolved around three pillars: academics, labor and self-governance. These guiding principles are at the heart of what drives the school today. Students work on the ranch, the farm, garden, milk cows, build fences, herd cattle, butcher cattle, bake bread and wash dishes, and study chemistry, philosophy and literature.
Self-governance is a major component to Nunn’s educational program; students choose what classes will be taught, pick the professors and have a hand in nearly everything at the institution. Nunn wanted the students to feel vested in the college, so there is no tuition and every student becomes a part owner of the college, and responsible for its direction and sustainability.
The lessons learned at Deep Springs, from the hardcore academic programs to the demands of physical labor and the trial-by-fire self-governance, all go toward helping the student decide what his ability is and what contribution he will make to the world. “There is great genius in this – ‘What is my possibility?’” Newell said.
Newell first came up Highway 395, climbed Mt. Whitney and rode through Deep Springs Valley in 1955, gaining admittance as a student the next year. At the ripe age of 25, not much older than the average age of the students, he was asked to teach, or as it’s called at Deep Springs, be a “staffulty” member, as all staff and faculty teach. He became a trustee in 1986 and appointed president of the college after two-terms in 2002. Newell has since retired but Deep Springs remains near and dear to his heart.
Deep Springs seems to leave an indelible mark on those who have experienced it. Nunn chose the remote spot for its solitude, but also for the coveted spirituality of the desert. Newell quotes from Nunn, “The desert has a deep personality; it has a voice. Great leaders in all ages have sought the desert and heard its voice. You can hear it if you listen, but you cannot hear it while in the midst of uproar and strife for material things.”
Nunn died in April 1925, but the college and his legacy continues to thrive; for example, Zachary Mider, class of 1996, won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his work at Bloomberg News. To paraphrase a slogan on a Deep Springs T-shirt, Nunn and Karl Marx both founded social systems in 1917, only one survives today.