Clancy Herbst (ChemEngr'50) never had the opportunity to take a small seminar-style class when he was in college. Neither did he experience the Socratic method, a form of inquiry in which a teacher leads students in an exploration of their positions by asking a series of questions.
More than three and a half decades after Herbst graduated from CU-Boulder, the legendary philosopher and teacher Mortimer Adler would help him change that for the students who came after him. A University of Chicago professor who also taught philosophy to business executives like Herbst at the Aspen Institute, Adler believed that Western civilization's greatest thinkers should be made accessible to everyone. He promoted the use of a Great Books curriculum as part of an integrated approach to the teaching of philosophy, science, literature, and religion.
Herbst was so struck by Adler's two-week seminar that he approached Adler and asked with his typical self-deprecating humor, "What could they do in the engineering school at CU-Boulder so they don't graduate any more like me?" Funded by a generous endowment from Herbst and his wife, Linda Vitti, Adler's answer is embodied in the Herbst Humanities Program.
Founded in 1989 to teach literature and the arts in a meaningful way to engineering students, the Herbst Program celebrates its 20th anniversary this fall. Herbst dropped by the program recently to share reminiscences, including a collection of old photographs and a humorous poem he wrote as a tribute to Adler in 1985.
"Clancy and Linda had the vision and courage to establish a program that in 1989 was somewhat controversial," says program director Diane Sieber. "They were confident that engineering students were ready to examine and apply to their own experience complex foundational works of literature, philosophy, metaphysics, sociology, and science.
"Their generosity has allowed students to live these texts in small and highly interactive discussion classes under the guidance of exceptionally gifted faculty. I am very proud to be a part of this dedicated academic community."
When establishing the humanities program endowment, Herbst said: "Engineers can get so pigeon-holed and wrapped up in their work that they don't take time to read things that broaden their outlooks." At 80 years old, Herbst still splits his time between Aspen and Chicago, where he worked his way up to the top of the Resinoid Engineering Corp., an automotive parts manufacturing company started by his father. The younger Herbst joined the company in 1950 when it had only five employees, and is currently its chairman.
He earned an MBA from the University of Chicago in 1971 and was a pioneer in introducing quality products using modern management concepts. He also owned Watliff, Ltd., a supplier of electric motor parts, and was chairman of the board of Northwestern Tool & Die Manufacturing.
Herbst received the college's Distinguished Engineering Alumni Award in 1992, the year after he was awarded the University Medal for his two decades of service to the CU Foundation Board of Trustees. Herbst was chairman of CU's Frontier 2000 capital campaign from 1986 to 1993, and served as honorary chairman of the Beyond Boundaries campaign from 1996 to 2003.
"CU is a superb institution of higher education that comprises outstanding teachers and dedicated, hardworking leaders," he says. "Coloradans in particular should value that."