|Edgar F. Beckham
was Wesleyan's first African-American dean of the college. In 1991 he
received Wesleyan's Raymond E. Baldwin Medal for service.
Higher Education Innovator, Leader Dies at 72
Edgar F. Beckham, one of the nation's most
influential and beloved leaders in higher education, died Wednesday in
Middletown at the age of 72. He was a resident of North Haven.
As the first African-American dean of the college at Wesleyan University,
Beckham led efforts to build understanding that diversity is integral to
excellence in American education. While he served as dean, Wesleyan
University became a national model for excellence in education for students
of diverse backgrounds. Beckham also served as the chair of the Connecticut
Board of Education, working to bring the lessons learned at Wesleyan to the
public schools of Connecticut. In the 1990s, he headed one of the most
far-reaching and effective change efforts ever launched in higher education:
the Ford Foundation's Campus Diversity Initiative. Then in 1998, he joined
the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) as a senior
fellow, where he continued to guide colleges and universities throughout the
United States on matters of educational quality.
Beckham's civic contributions were many. In addition to his service to
Connecticut education, he served as chair of the boards of Middlesex
Hospital, the Donna Wood Foundation, and the Connecticut Humanities Council.
He also served as a trustee to the Connecticut Housing Authority, Mount
Holyoke College, Vermont Academy, Connecticut Public Broadcasting and the Association of
Beckham was honored with numerous awards. In 1997 he received the
Outstanding Contribution to Higher Education Award from the National
Association of Student Personnel Administrators. In 1991 he received
Wesleyan's Raymond E. Baldwin Medal, awarded for extraordinary service to
Wesleyan and to the public good. In 1996, he was named Dean of the College
Emeritus, and in 1998 the Wesleyan Alumni Association honored him with its
Distinguished Service Award. Beckham received the honorary degree of Doctor
of Humane Letters in 1997 from Olivet College and in 2000 from Clark
"Edgar Beckham's legacy is his message that diversity is about much more
than adding people of color to white campuses," said AAC&U president Carol
Geary Schneider. "He led a movement to enlarge the content of the
curriculum, create intercultural community on campus, add new dimensions to
liberal education, and build new civic capacity for democracy. He enriched
us all with his life, his work, and his love."
Edgar Beckham was born August 5, 1933 in Hartford, Conn., the son of
Willabelle Hollinshed and Walter Henry Beckham. He grew up in a diverse
neighborhood in Hartford and attended Weaver High School.
In 1951, Beckham enrolled at Wesleyan University, the recipient of the Lewis
Fox Scholarship for his outstanding academic record at Weaver High School,
and of several other named scholarships. He pursued a pre-med course of
study, and was editor-in-chief of the Argus, Wesleyan's student
newspaper, a member of the choir, and a fraternity member of Delta Sigma.
Between his junior and senior years at Wesleyan, he served for three years
in the U.S. Army in Germany where he trained as a neuropsychiatric
technician. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 1958 with a bachelor's
degree in German. That same year, he married Ria Haertl of Stuttgart,
He earned his master's and completed his doctoral course work in Germanic
languages and literatures at Yale University. He began his academic career
at Wesleyan in 1961 as an instructor of German. He spent 28 of the next 29
years at Wesleyan, serving in various posts including lecturer in German,
director of the language laboratory, associate provost, and, from 1973-1990,
dean of the college. "Edgar Beckham guided Wesleyan through the very
difficult and utterly transformational period when we learned the hardest
lessons about what it meant to be a diverse community," said Wesleyan
President Doug Bennet. "He succeeded by keeping us focused on what we could
accomplish for ourselves and the larger society as we succeeded."
Beckham also taught Freshman Humanities and courses in African-American
studies at Wesleyan. While at Wesleyan, Beckham was the coordinator of
Explorations in the Black Experience, an experimental high school course in
black history designed and taught by Wesleyan undergraduates. He was also
coordinator of studies for Wesleyan Upward Bound, an anti-poverty program
for high school students.
Beckham spent the 1966-1967 academic year abroad in Germany where he taught
English language and African-American history and literature at the
University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. He also lectured extensively at America
Houses throughout the Federal Republic of Germany on the state of civil
rights and racial consciousness in the United States.
In the fall of 1990, Beckham accepted a position as program officer for the
Ford Foundation's Education and Culture Program. In this capacity, he
affected the curriculum and co-curricular activities at hundreds of American
college campuses. He organized international seminars on campus diversity in
India, South Africa, and the United States, and he wrote and edited
materials for the three volumes of essays based on the seminars. Beckham's
singular contributions to the Foundation's work on access, diversity as an
educational asset, and multicultural education earned him the unprecedented
title of Senior Program Officer. "Edgar was the philosopher-king and the
moral conscience of the Education and Culture Program," said Alison R.
Bernstein, a current vice president of the Foundation who worked closely
Beckham is survived by his wife, Ria; son Frederick and daughter-in-law
Julie; a sister, Ruth Beckham Holloman; a brother, William Beckham; a niece,
Merle Holloman; and a nephew, Wendell Holloman.
A service was held May 30 at Wesleyan University's Memorial