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Lasting Lessons from ACT’s Leaders

In honor of the 60th anniversary of ACT’s founding in 1959, ACT’s leaders are sharing their thoughts on our history – and how our past and present help to inform ACT’s future.

Jean Paul Mather had this to say about importance of a strong education:

Children who are not educated, are not educated forever. The resources of ability do not lie in the ground waiting to be tapped. They are lost. There is an irrevocable finality to it.

In 2019, I suspect most people could not identify Mather, including most people at ACT. Although he’s nearly lost to history, Mather was ACT’s first president – and set the stage for the six leaders who have followed him over what are now nearly 60 years.

Jean Paul Mather, ACT President from 1960-1962

The early years

Mather came to ACT in 1960 as it was taking on the established powers of college admissions. For two years the former University of Massachusetts president traveled the country to bring colleges and universities into the ACT fold. At the time, admissions tests focused on the needs of elite schools, while ACT considered all schools—and all students—central to its mission.

Mather returned to academia in 1962 and was followed by Paul Trump—an ACT board member and registrar at the University of Wisconsin. In contrast to Mather’s external efforts, Trump appears to have had an internal focus. He was committed to developing ACT’s people and processes, and succeeded in having ACT recognized as a nonprofit organization, a core feature that defines ACT today.

Paul Trump, ACT President from 1962-1967

In 1967, Fred Harcleroad, president of California State College in Hayward (now East Bay) was named ACT’s third president. Harcleroad had expertise in educational technology and created ACT’s office in Washington, DC; both efforts reflected changes in society that have only accelerated today.

Fred Harcleroad, ACT President from 1967-1974

In the words of future ACT president Oluf Davidsen, Harcleroad was a “thoroughly honest person” and “one of the most well-meaning persons I could hope to meet”—statements people would soon be making about him.

Davidsen had a circuitous path to the presidency. Born in Denmark, he grew up under German occupation during World War II. After the war, he volunteered in rebuilding efforts in Austria and then Italy. It was there he met a young American woman who would soon become his wife. Studying in the United States, he used the emerging technique of “computer-aided factor analysis” in his PhD work, which eventually led to his hiring at ACT in 1962, followed soon thereafter by his promotion to vice president of Operations. When he was named president in 1974, Davidsen leveraged his operational experience to undertake a number of initiatives to diversify ACT’s products and services.

Oluf Davidsen, ACT President from 1974-1988

Recent leaders

Richard L. Ferguson joined ACT in 1972, became president in 1988, retired as CEO in 2010 – and I’m pleased to say I still have the privilege to meet with him today. His contributions are far too numerous to list, but they include growing the ACT test into an industry leader, extending the span of ACT’s programs into both the early elementary grades and the workforce, digitalizing our registration and reporting processes, pioneering our State and District Testing program (in which students can take the ACT and, for some, WorkKeys, at no cost to them), expanding into new markets around the world, enhancing the ACT campus, and creating the ACT Scholars program to support students from historically underrepresented populations from the community college to doctoral levels.

Richard L. Ferguson, ACT President/CEO from 1988-2010

Perhaps the best words I can use to describe Dr. Ferguson’s wisdom and leadership can be taken from a commencement address he delivered at West Virginia State College (now University) in 2003: “Make the small decisions in your life wisely. Most of us are not required or privileged to make many big decisions in our lifetime. What sets the course of our lives, then, is not so much how we make the infrequent big decisions, as how we make the multitude of small choices that life presents us.”

Dick Ferguson was followed by Jon Whitmore, who (perhaps like every other ACT leader) became CEO during a time of significant societal change and disruption. Particularly, Whitmore recognized how social media, educational technology, and internationalism were becoming increasingly important factors to ACT’s long-term success—and spoke of “advancements that were unimaginable a generation ago [that we take] for granted today.”

Jon Whitmore, ACT CEO from 2010-2015

Jon Whitmore retired as CEO in 2015, followed by ACT’s seventh chief executive—me.

ACT CEO Marten Roorda speaking at the #LatinosFutureReady leadership event with Univision

Since becoming CEO, I have focused on transforming ACT into an organization ready to lead in Learning, Measurement, and Navigation for the long term. We are building on our traditional strengths in assessment while expanding our programs to include, through the ACT Holistic Framework, an ever-more inclusive view of human potential and achievement.

Each day we are building the operating system for a new learning ecosystem. Through our team members, technologies, and research and development, ACT is developing exciting new capabilities that will help millions more people, across the United States and around the world, achieve the education and workplace success they seek in our lives.

Enduring Lessons

After learning more about each of my predecessors, I am able to take lessons from each—Mather’s commitment to our customers, Trump’s interest in infrastructure, Harcleroad’s decency, Davidsen’s diversification, Ferguson’s vast vision and detailed dedication, and Whitmore’s focus on the future.

Together, each of our senior leaders played a crucial role in making ACT the organization it is today—one that Jean Paul Mather, our first president, presciently described at the end of ACT’s first year:

The one fact of supreme importance is that the ACT program is now firmly established as part of the bone and sinew of American education itself. It stands for freedom of opportunity in education and is dedicated to increasing the effectiveness of an educational system that is already without parallel in any other nation. In a time of accelerating change that called the ACT program into being, may it help lead through the confusion.

Nearly 60 years after ACT’s founding, it can hardly be said better than that.

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About ACT

ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Grounded in 60 years of research, ACT is a trusted leader in college and career readiness solutions. Each year, ACT serves millions of students, job seekers, schools, government agencies and employers in the US and around the world with learning resources, assessments, research and credentials designed to help them succeed from elementary school through career.