Founder Oren Cheney would not recognize his little “high-powered prep school,” nor likely its $42,000 annual price tag.

Twenty acres of donated pasture – now 109, groomed and largely developed.

Its faculty of six – now 170.

A student body dominated by Maine farm boys – at last count with students from 40-plus states and 68 countries.

Bates College set a record this year, its 150th: 10 applications for every opening in the upcoming freshmen class.

It received enough foreign interest to fill all the spots twice.

“He would be very surprised. It would have grown beyond his wildest imagination,” said University of New Hampshire Professor Emeritus Charles Clark, an author, historian and Bates graduate who penned a book to celebrate the sesquicentennial.

This year, the school is reflecting on its past, experiencing an enrollment peak, making plans for the next 25 years and becoming even more active in its host community.

Bates College had a bumpy start. It wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without the 11th-hour finagling of Cheney, a former Free Soil legislator, at the State House, according to a memoir by his widow. (A southern Maine lawmaker wanted to split the college’s seed money with his own district.)

When Maine Seminary School was chartered in 1855 it didn’t have strict theological intentions, Clark said: “His vision was it would be a high-powered prep school.”

Locations in Pittsfield and Unity were both considered before Lewiston became the new school’s home.

Later named Bates College, it was the first higher education institution in New England to admit women and accept black students from the start. It even made semesters flexible to accommodate poorer students who worked to pay their way.

Senior Tim Larson wrote his thesis this year on Bates’ beginning after he wondered whether those progressive early landmarks had been “romanticized a bit.”

They weren’t.

(However, Larson found information that suggested Cheney, under pressure from male students, asked some of those first female students to leave on the grounds they weren’t as prepared as men.)

According to Clark, the college’s roots were deeply religious, founding trustees being Free-Will Baptists, and Cheney’s principles were simple: openness, academic rigor and “democratic simplicity.” In that spirit, there would be no Greek life on campus and no athletic scholarships.

A few early “secret societies,” precursors to fraternities and sororities, never took off and those ideals largely remain, said Clark, himself a ’51 alumnus. Halfway through the 20th century, Bates stopped portraying itself as a Christian college.

Cheney spent many of his 40 years as president soliciting donations to keep his school running.

Current President Elaine Tuttle Hansen can relate.

Last summer, Bates announced a $120 million campaign for new buildings, financial aid and competitive salaries; the effort has raised $85 million so far.

Included in that effort is raising money for the endowment. Bates has half of Colby’s endowment and one-third of Bowdoin’s.

With less of that annual interest at its disposal, Bates relies more on tuition for operating costs than its peers, Hansen said.

“My job is (to see) that Bates develops a culture that sustains it for the next 150 years,” she added.

Among the donations to the capital campaign: a $1 million gift three weeks ago from an international “friend” – someone who hadn’t gone to Bates or had children or parents who attended. They admire what the college does, said Bill Hiss, vice president of external relations.

Cheney’s largest initial donation to the school, $50,000 from Boston industrialist and mill owner Benjamin Bates, wasn’t a trade for naming rights. She’s read that Bates was embarrassed by the honor.

Hansen said they’ve joked what it would take to change the name today. Maybe something between $500 million and $1 billion.

Rank and community

Last month, the Princeton Review college guide named Bates No. 1 in its 2006 edition of “America’s Best Value Colleges,” even with tuition, room, board and fees costing $10,000 more than the average job pays in Maine. (Bates was fifth the year before.)

Hansen was pleased the ranking also brought attention to Bates’ financial aid efforts. Forty percent of the student body gets need-based scholarships that cover an average 56 percent of tuition. About half of students get some combination of scholarships and loans.

Hansen’s been in contact with more teenagers’ parents this year – her daughter is a junior at Lewiston High School, sampling colleges herself – and heard the reaction, “Maybe we should look at private colleges” after all.

It “helps people overcome what we worry about, which is sticker shock. We want talented people to look at” Bates, Hansen said.

National rankings through the years have scored Bates’ campus food highly, the radio station great and students, at one time, more likely to be the “Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging” sort.

The rank that’s nagged at Bates: poor community-college relations. Based in part on student surveys, seven of the last 11 annual ratings by the Princeton Review have listed the college as having among the worst “town-gown” problems of more than 300 colleges nationwide.

“That one was shocking to us because it was not consistent to what we were hearing from students,” Hansen said. “It’s something I pay a lot of attention to, but it’s hard to measure.”

For 10 years, the college has tracked student time spent annually in Lewiston-Auburn, whether tied to course work or straight volunteering. This year it’s expected to eclipse 50,000 hours.

Projects have ranged from restoring local homes with Rebuilding Together to work at the B Street Health Center piloting the concept of group patient visits.

Hansen said she hears comments from students like Lewiston is a nice sized city “to make a difference.”

Mayor Lionel Guay grew up a few streets away from the college, when Bates “was a separate entity,” something outside the city.

“It has evolved as a very, very integral part of the community,” Guay said. “Just the presence in Lewiston alone gives Lewiston much more clout as far as education, as far as people moving here.”

The head of the local chamber of commerce calls it the city’s tourist destination, considering the people who come for college events, perspective students and parents.

“To me, they’re the major tourist attraction here,” said Chip Morrison. “It’s a huge asset. They’re a major part of our economy.”

Two years ago, the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce started a walking tour of L-A for incoming freshmen to encourage them to discover downtown.

Bates estimates the college, its students, staff and visitors spend more than $70 million here a year.

It’s also the fourth-largest employer in the county, according to the Department of Labor.

‘Enduring values’

After a slow, decades-long creep, Hansen said enrollment peaked this year. There’s a desire to keep on-campus enrollment to 1,700 students. (At any given time, another 100 to 150 are studying abroad.)

Half the student body is from New England, about 12 percent from Maine, according to Hiss.

Top reason for applying to Bates, based on its freshmen survey: good academic reputation.

When Hansen arrived three years ago – as only the school’s seventh president – Bates was readying plans for a student union. Fund raising hadn’t gone well.

Instead, consultants were hired for a complete inventory of the campus: building conditions, space needs, repair vs. replacement costs, etc.

Student life was highlighted as a place for improvement.

In the first phase of its new 25-year master plan, the college will build a dining facility near Alumni Gym, with possible groundbreaking in September 2006. Construction will probably take two years, Hiss said.

Less certain, for now: the location of a new cluster of village-style dorms with 150 beds to slowly replace less-ideal housing on Wood and Frye streets. The corner of Mountain Avenue and College Street, around Rand Hall, has been most heavily eyed, but could require a zoning change. Homeowners have voiced concerns.

Two other sites exist on campus for similar clusters.

Into the future, Hansen sees the college changing with the times, but remaining a residential experience for traditional students.

“Its enduring values are such a good foundation,” she said. “I hope we’re a more diverse community in 50 years. Our students are going to live in a world where national boundaries aren’t as fixed as they were in the past.”

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