BACK IN January 2009, John Strassburger found himself seated next to a college freshman on a train ride to Philadelphia - and having to bite his tongue.

The freshman was talking proudly about how he was majoring in finance and real estate.

"I was far too polite to say what I really thought," said Strassburger, then president of Ursinus College.

Writing about the experience in the Inquirer, Strassburger said, "I cannot help but think that, while conventional wisdom might hold that we need students thinking about careers for the good of the economy, our country really needs students thinking about big ideas."

That was the philosophy that guided John Robert Strassburger during his 15 years as president of the small but highly regarded liberal-arts college in Collegeville, Montgomery County.

Strassburger, who stepped down as president on June 30 for health reasons but was serving as president emeritus, died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. He was 68.

Writing about that train ride, Strassburger said he "pondered the irony that these difficult times seem to dictate more career orientation for students like my seatmate. But students should be studying real estate less and our founding principles more.

"I can only hope that my fellow passenger will learn in his college courses what Lincoln and all our best leaders have understood: that to create a government based on the idea of the essential dignity and equality of every human being was a radical break from all that had gone before.

"There is no better time than now for higher education to step back and engage these ideals in shaping the education our students receive."

Under Strassburger, Ursinus grew from 1,100 students to 1,700; added majors in art, theater and dance; created and expanded science facilities, residence halls, a field house and a performing-arts center; and made additions to the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art.

Undergraduate research projects were a large part of his educational approach. Students tackled such diverse subjects as women's suffrage, the Union Navy during the Civil War, the manufacture of hydrofluoric acid, HIV infection in the prison system, behavior-modification therapy for autistic children, and others in the same vein.

A native of Sheboygan, Wis., Strassburger spent his childhood in Milwaukee and found out what hard work is as a steelworker and machinist. He also picked cauliflower.

He earned his undergraduate degree from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in 1964, a master's from the University of Cambridge in England in 1966, and his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1976.

He also received a doctor of humane-letters degree from Tohoku Gakuin University in Japan.

Before becoming the 11th president of Ursinus College (founded in 1869) in 1995, Strassburger was dean of the college, professor of history and executive vice president of Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., from 1984 to 1994.

Previously, he served as the director of the Center for Regional Studies at Hiram College in Ohio and taught history there from 1970 to 1982.

Strassburger wrote and lectured on architecture and history and was a tireless crusader for liberal education. He wrote numerous editorials and commentaries for various publications, including the Inquirer.

Some of his ideas were controversial, including his opposition to the SAT, which he said has "outlived its usefulness."

"Those contemplating college need to work hard at writing and math and history and biology, not SAT-type analogy problems," he wrote in the Inquirer.

He is survived by his wife, Gerturde Mackie Strassburger; two daughters, Sarah and Trudy; a sister, Martha Barr; a brother, Gus Strassburger; and two grandchildren.

Services: Are being arranged.