In Memoriam: Former Pitzer President Frank Ellsworth

A man in formal attire stands in front of a clock tower smiling at the camera.
Former Pitzer President Frank L. Ellsworth and professor of political science died Oct. 20. In 1979 he was the youngest president ever appointed to head a Claremont College. (Courtesy of Pitzer College)

Frank L. Ellsworth, president of Pitzer College from 1979 to 1991, died at his home Oct. 20. He was 76.

Upon his appointment at Pitzer, Ellsworth, then 36, became the youngest president in the history of the Claremont Colleges, Pitzer President Melvin Oliver said in an Oct. 22 message to the Pitzer community.

“Frank was known for his love of students, his upbeat personality and for his work in strengthening Pitzer financially in both budget and endowment,” Oliver said.

Ellsworth was born March 20, 1943 in Wooster, Ohio to an academic family and graduated from Wooster High School, according to an online encyclopedia

After earning his bachelor’s degree cum laude in liberal arts from nearby Case Western Reserve University in 1965, he went on to earn a master’s in education from Pennsylvania State University in 1967 and a master’s in language and literature from Columbia University in 1969, Oliver wrote.

He began his long career in higher education administration at Sarah Lawrence College, where he served as a professor of literature and director of special programs, an announcement of his hiring said. He was hired as assistant dean of the University of Chicago Law School in 1971, where he served until he moved to Pitzer. 

Ellsworth also served as an instructor in UChicago’s Collegiate Division of the Social Sciences, where he taught the school’s well-known Great Books sequence, according to a biography in his book “From Grantmaker to Leader.”

In 1976, while at UChicago, Ellsworth earned his PhD in education history. His dissertation chronicled the history of legal education and the founding of the UChicago law school. 

During his first semester as president of Pitzer in fall 1979, he told the Pitzer Participant that he hoped “the written record of the Ellsworth years would observe that Pitzer was an institution that realized that it could do pioneering curricular changes within the social and behavioral sciences, but beyond the realization, did something.”

Ellsworth showed a profound commitment to shared governance, his daughter Kirstin Ellsworth said.

“That included students, faculty and staff,” she said. “He was very much interested in mentoring the individual person, and what that person wanted to do within the institution. He had a lot of respect for what the faculty were teaching.”

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Ellsworth was also committed to supporting Pitzer’s core value of intercultural education, she said. He encouraged students to pursue opportunities off the beaten path and integrate their experiences in a foreign country with their work at the college.

“I wanted to help our students and ourselves understand and respect ‘otherness,’” he told the Participant in 1991. “Those were, and remain, important goals for me, for without intercultural understanding, we will not be able to make any major difference in making our societies and countries better communities in which to live.”

Faculty and administrators interviewed in the Participant upon Ellsworth’s 1991 departure from Pitzer noted his exceptional commitment to Pitzer’s mission and to the liberal arts, his mentorship and support of faculty interests, his strong interpersonal relationships and his steadfast leadership.

After serving as Pitzer’s president for 12 years, Ellsworth resigned to become president of the Independent Colleges of Southern California, the Los Angeles Times then reported. He went on to serve at other institutions, including as interim president of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and of Sofia University in Palo Alto, according to his LinkedIn profile.

In addition, Ellsworth’s work in intercultural education at Pitzer led him to help found Global Partners Institute, an organization that facilitates international exchange programs. His LinkedIn profile lists him as the organization’s board chair since 1982.

Ellsworth, an avid collector of Japanese art and other prints, also served as trustee of the Japanese American National Museum and the Japanese Foundation for International Education, according to his book biography.

There is no memorial service planned, Kirstin Ellsworth said, since her father wasn’t one to seek attention.

“If people were thinking, ‘Well, what can I do as a memorial?’ I would say, get out there and mentor people because he was so into mentoring people,” she said. “That would be something he would really like.”

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