50th Anniversary Convocation Address
September 24, 2007
Fifty years. For fifty years, in the words of our Alma Mater, SIUE has been a “fount of opportunity.”
When the earliest vision of what would become SIUE took shape, first in the College Planning Committee of the Edwardsville Chamber of Commerce, and then in the Southwestern Illinois Council for Higher Education, World War II had ended barely a decade earlier. Western Europe and Japan still struggled to recover from the devastation of years of war. Russia, Eastern Europe, and China laid in the totalitarian grip of communism with the Iron Curtain splitting east from west. America stood alone as the economic powerhouse of the world, with unequaled manufacturing and industrial might.
Southwestern Illinois reflected that might; steel mills, metal fabrication, chemical processing, petroleum refining, meat packing, railroads, and glass production dominated the chain of industrial cities strung along the Mississippi River from Alton to Cahokia.
Life was good. The industrial might on the Mississippi was the region’s fount of opportunity in the mid-1950s, pouring out well-paying jobs and a middle class life style for even the many residents who had not completed high school. Who cared that only 3% of the population had graduated from college? Who needed a university in the midst of this prosperity and these opportunities?
Some cared; some thought the need was there. Could the founders of SIUE foresee the future? Could they foresee the migration of manufacturing jobs from the industrial cities of the north and midwest to the south and southwest? Could they foresee that “Made in Japan” soon would no longer be stamped on cheap trinkets but would become, instead, a mark of the highest quality manufactured goods? Could they foresee the nations of Europe forming the European Union in the wake of centuries of wars that had ripped the continent apart again and again? Could they foresee the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union? Could they foresee the day when America’s shelves would be crammed with products stamped “Made in China,” not “Made in America”? Could they foresee how information technology would dominate our lives at a time when the most advanced computer performing the simplest tasks filled an entire room? Could they foresee that the number of manufacturing jobs in Madison and St. Clair counties would fall by 60%, from 54,000 in 1957 to 22,000 in 2005?
No. They could not have foreseen those specific events of the last 50 years that have so dramatically changed America. But they could know, and they did know, that through the sweep of history, the future has belonged to the technologically sophisticated, to the innovative, to the educated. And, they knew that despite the fount of opportunity of its industrial base, most citizens of the state’s second largest urban area had virtually no access to higher education. They faced either the high tuition of private colleges and universities or the high cost of moving away to attend college. Few could afford the tuition; for the many with jobs and families, relocation was unthinkable. The founders of SIUE knew the region needed a new fount of opportunity.
I am fond of quoting John Updike who observed in a New Yorker article that “History begins where memory leaves off,” an observation pointed out to me by my good friend William Going who came to SIUE 50 years ago in 1957 as Dean of Faculty. Unfortunately Dr. Going is hospitalized and unable to join us today.
For this year’s new freshmen and new faculty and staff, SIUE is all history; they have no memories of its development, its struggles, its coming of age. They assume, more or less, that what they see now has always been here: the rolling hills and forest of the campus, the striking architecture of Gyo Obata, the wooded trails, the flowering trees of spring, the academic programs, the professional accreditation, the national recognition.
For most of us, SIUE is a mix of history and memory. For me, memories of the university span nearly forty years from spring 1968 when I visited for a job interview. The years before 1968 are history; history I have been taught over the years by founders and pioneers—faculty, staff, alumni, and community members. My favorite teacher, Dolores Rohrkaste, is here today. Dolores was a member of the committees that brought the university to southwestern Illinois. Her family farmed land that became part of this campus. Over the years she has shared many mementos of those early years with me. And for today—and just for today--she lent me the hard hat and shovel that she used at the groundbreaking on May 2, 1963. What treasures they are!
For some, like Dolores Rohrkaste, the university is all memory. They were here in the beginning. They remember struggling to have the needs of the region recognized by the state’s political and educational leaders. They remember the opening of what was called the Southwestern Illinois Campus of SIU in 1957 in the humblest of settings: in East St. Louis in a discarded school building; in Alton on the deteriorating campus of the bankrupt Shurtleff College. They remember when the dream of a campus in Edwardsville was just that: a dream. They remember the struggles to raise the money to buy land. They remember the anger of landowners who fought to retain property that had been in families for generations. They remember the landowner who fired a shotgun at the helicopter giving tours of the proposed campus. They remember the work to pass the state-wide bond issue to construct the campus. They remember when there were but a handful of faculty and a handful of programs. They remember when graduate degrees and professional schools were on the distant horizon. They remember when everyone commuted to class. They remember when Carbondale was the parent, and Edwardsville the child. They remember when the flow from the fount of opportunity was just a trickle.
Who were these pioneers, these people who made SIUE a reality? Like the leaders of most great changes, they were ordinary people who did extraordinary things. They were business people and labor leaders and educators and professionals. They came from across Madison and St. Clair counties to a fateful meeting in Edwardsville that gave birth to the Southwestern Illinois Council on Higher Education. They convinced their neighbors of the need for a university; they raised the money to buy land; they fought for the bond issue to build the first buildings. They were the first faculty and staff who risked their careers on a new institution. Together, they built a new fount of opportunity. Earlier today Chancellor Vandegrift recognized those founders and pioneers who could be with us today. I hope each of you has the opportunity to chat with them and to hear first-hand their wonderful stories and memories.
If you return to campus tomorrow, it will, at first glance, seem unchanged. But it will not be unchanged. Some 14,000 students will have attended classes learning the intricacies of accounting or chemistry or engineering or history or pharmacy or the techniques of the oboe or the subtleties of glazing pottery, or methods of classroom management, moving one day closer to finishing their degrees. Hundreds of patients will have been treated in dental, nursing, and speech pathology clinics. Headstart children in East St. Louis will be a little better prepared to begin elementary school. Experiments in the university’s laboratories will have yielded more data. Lovejoy Library will have a few more holdings. Another faculty paper will have been accepted for publication. Construction projects will be just a bit further along. Tomorrow, SIUE will be a different place, a better place.
And, so it has been for fifty years. Progress has come not in great leaps but in small steps, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year. And over fifty years, those small steps have transformed this university from the humblest of institutions to one of the nation’s premier metropolitan universities.
Yet, while change comes in small steps, in the life of every institution, there are watershed events; events that alter the course forever. For SIUE, some of those watershed events are obvious: the formation of the Southwestern Illinois Council on Higher Education; the acceptance by Delyte Morris of the Council’s invitation to meet and explore the creation of a new campus of SIU; the approval of the Southwestern Illinois Campus by the Board of Trustees; the acquisition of land in Edwardsville; the passage of the $195M state-wide bond issue to expand higher education and construct this campus.
But I would like to share with you seven other events, some perhaps less obvious events, which, I believe, made possible the university we know today. Others, I’m sure, would choose different events; I would be interested in hearing yours; these are mine.
My first watershed event relates to the bond issue. The original wording to be presented to voters simply authorized construction funds for higher education in general. But in June 1960, in the closing days of the legislative session, through the joint efforts of legislators from Chicago and southwestern Illinois, the wording was amended to earmark funds for the vastly underserved urban areas of the state: $25M for southwestern Illinois and SIUE; $50M for Chicago and the Chicago Circle Campus of the University of Illinois.
The local legislative delegation worked to make that amendment possible, a delegation that included the late Paul Simon a great friend and supporter of the university and of higher education. When the votes were counted in November, the bond issue received a majority in just three counties: Cook, Madison, and St. Clair. Illinois’s urban voters had insured that there would be urban public higher education. Harold See—a Vice President of SIU and the highly respected and widely admired leader of the Southwestern Illinois Campus that would become SIUE—was a driving force in turning out the votes in Madison and St. Clair counties.
My second watershed event: the creation of two separate institutions within SIU in May 1968, each institution with its own Chancellor. In that instant, Carbondale moved from being SIUE’s parent to being its sister—a bigger sister, an older sister, a better known sister, a richer sister, but a sister, not a parent. The first Edwardsville chancellor, John Rendleman--a lawyer, a confidant of Delyte Morris, a son of Carbondale, the man who purchased the first parcel of land for the Edwardsville campus—told the gathered university community now “…we can decide our own destiny….” And, so we did.
Third, I would point to the approval of the School of Dental Medicine in December 1968 by the Illinois Board of Higher Education, the IBHE. By making the School of Dental Medicine part of Edwardsville, the SIU Board of Trustees and the IBHE signaled that SIUE was to be a major institution in Illinois, an institution with post-baccalaureate, professional schools. Without Dental Medicine the School of Pharmacy would likely not have been possible. Surely, other post-baccalaureate professional schools will follow.
My fourth watershed event: the Mississippi River Festival, the MRF. I include the MRF not because it greatly enhanced our academic programs, because it did not. Not because it helped save the struggling St. Louis Symphony, although it did. Not because it was a financial success; because it was not. Not because it is where I met my wife, Kay, although it is. I include it, rather, because it brought thousands and thousands of people from across the region to this campus. Missourians, many of whom had never before crossed the river to Illinois, came to where the “Stars Come Out at Night.” Even today, ask persons over 40, particularly Missourians, if they have been to SIUE and their likely response is, “Yes, the first time, for the MRF.” And they will smile and their eyes will sparkle as they think back to those soft summer nights under the stars—and maybe under a low-hanging, man-made cloud--listening to The Who, or Chicago, or Joan Baez, or Judy Collins, or the symphony. The MRF linked the University to the community; east to west; Missouri to Illinois, and its legacy continues. (By the way, Judy Collins returns to SIUE Saturday night for a concert in the Meridian Ballroom.)
My fifth watershed event was less an event than a process stretching over nearly two decades. The early and mid 1970s were a difficult time for SIUE. When I first visited campus, I was told of plans for a student body of 25,000 and a wide range of doctoral programs. Those plans withered in the wake of Vietnam and economic stagnation. For a number of years, the campus floundered. Enrollment sagged, the future was uncertain; morale was low. The university needed a focus.
Focus came from three leaders of SIUE over the next twenty years. The first, Kenneth “Buzz” Shaw headed the campus in the late ‘70s. His vision was for SIUE to become "the best of its kind." His vision cut to the heart of articulating an institutional purpose: focus your resources on being the very best at what you are supposed to be; don’t worry about being something you are not. For SIUE in the late 1970s, his vision meant being an excellent commuter university, not a pale imitation of some ivy covered college.
Earl Lazerson followed Buzz Shaw at a time of renewed national interest in undergraduate education. Under Earl’s leadership, the campus focused its mission, making undergraduate education its first priority. And, following the maxim to “put your money where your mouth is,” Earl squeezed efficiency from administrative operations to create a $1.0 Million Fund for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. That “putting your money where your mouth is” stood in sharp contrast to the lip service being paid elsewhere to improving undergraduate education, and led to the funding of uncounted opportunities for SIUE students—opportunities not available in most universities; opportunities that continue today.
Nancy Belck helped sharpen the focus of SIUE still further, using the springboard of the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities of which SIUE was a founding member. Under her leadership, the university adopted the vision that remains in place today: a vision of being a “premier metropolitan university,” a university fully using its location to enhance the experiences of its students.
Some may find these three visions "the best of its kind," "excellence in undergraduate education," and "a premier metropolitan university" as disjointed themes from three different campus leaders. I do not. Rather, I see them as complementary perspectives, each sharpening our focus, each leading to what we are today: an institution with a clear purpose and a clear mission. We know who we are; we know what we are about; we know our priorities.
My sixth watershed event would surely be on anyone’s list: construction of residence halls. Nothing, nothing has been more important to the emergence of SIUE as a premier metropolitan university. Yes, building apartments on the lake in the late 1960s moved SIUE away from being a totally commuter campus and provided a wonderful environment for families and for upper division and graduate students. But, apartments, distant from the core campus, did not provide the living environment parents wanted for new freshmen.
Earl Lazerson took the risks and overcame the obstacles—both real and bureaucratic-- to build the first residence hall; each chancellor since has added another, with Evergreen Hall having opened for this fall under Chancellor Vandegrift’s leadership. Those residence halls transformed the university. Students living in the heart of campus brought life to the weekends, invigorated student organizations, and opened the SIUE fount of opportunity to the citizens of other parts of Illinois and, indeed, the nation and world. In 1957 scarcely a student was from outside the region; today, more than half of new freshmen are from homes beyond commuting distance. With 3,500 students living on campus, SIUE is a very different place than it was but a dozen years ago.
My final watershed event is one perhaps unnoticed by many: the annexation of the campus into the City of Edwardsville in fall, 2000. The impetus for annexation was financial, taking advantage of the manner in which revenue is distributed to cities in Illinois. But, the significance of annexation is not financial, but symbolic.
From the earliest days the university was both loved and hated. The Edwardsville Chamber of Commerce gave birth to the process that made it possible. Landowners with properties destined to become part of the campus posted signs saying “NOT FOR SALE AT ANY PRICE.” Others, seeing the problems of college towns across America, wanted none of those brought to the quiet City of Edwardsville.
With an overwhelming commuting student body, Edwardsville was decidedly not a college town. Students driving from Alton, Belleville, Granite City, Collinsville could complete their degrees without ever setting foot in the city bearing the name of the University. Edwardsville residents referred to the University as being “out there,” a place separate and apart, near the community, not of the community.
Slowly things changed. Lectures, plays, concerts, summer camps, bike trails, and athletic events drew adults and children to campus. Then, change came quickly with the opening of the residence halls. Hundreds of students, far from home, turned to the city for shopping, restaurants, and entertainment. Stores, once indifferent to student customers, began sporting signs saying “Welcome SIUE Students” in their windows. Edwardsville had become a college town. Annexation cemented this new reality. The close partnership between the University and the city is underscored today by the presence of Mayor Gary Neibur—a great friend and a great supporter of SIUE.
Can we say that the University has lived up to the expectations of its founders as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of its opening? In a sense, there is no answer to that question: the founders didn’t develop a fifty-year plan for us to use to evaluate our progress. But, we do know that they expected SIUE to be the new fount of opportunity for southwestern Illinois. And, by that measure, I believe we can point to enormous success. Perhaps that success is best illustrated by just two numbers: more than 88,000 degrees awarded to more than 78,000 men and women—men and women, many, many of whom would not have attended college without SIUE.
But quantity does not equal quality, and it is fair to ask, “How good are those degrees?” Here too the evidence points to fifty years of success. SIUE’s achievement of specialized accreditation for its academic programs is one indicator of that success. The American process of accreditation is a voluntary, non-governmental system of quality assurance in which programs are evaluated by peers from across the country. Using that system, SIUE has achieved national recognition for programs in accounting, business, construction, computer science, dentistry, education, engineering, journalism, music, nursing, nurse anesthesia, social work, speech pathology, and public administration—essentially, every field in which such accreditation is possible. Accreditation for pharmacy will surely follow the graduation of its first class in 2009, a prerequisite for moving from its current candidacy status to full accreditation.
There are other indicators of success too. The Senior Assignment, a tool for assessing student learning, has attracted prestigious awards from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and from the American Association of Colleges and Universities. SIUE’s growing reputation for excellence is reflected in its ever improving ranking by US News, this year placing in the top ten among Midwest master’s-level institutions.
Success has come outside the classroom as well. SIUE clinics serve thousands of patients each year. Concerts and plays and lectures enrich the cultural life of the region for many thousands more. The Cougars, now in the top echelon of Division II and poised to move to Division I, provide excitement for fans and life-long skills for participants. Through its East St. Louis Center, now located in a first-class facility, the University provides a host of services to the neediest citizens of the region—from toddlers to teenagers to adults.
Before turning to the future, let me note that not all these years have been spent with nose to the proverbial grindstone. There has been lots of fun too: dances and parties, parades, intramurals, painting the rock, Springfest and Homecoming, and, of course, streakers.
Now, what of the future? In Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Cassius says to Brutus: “Men are at some time masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” And so it is with SIUE; its fate lies not in the stars but in us. Or, as John Rendleman said in 1968 “…we can decide our own destiny….” Whether you are a trustee, a legislator, an alum, a friend, a retiree, or a member of the staff and faculty, you hold the fate of this university in your hands—you will decide its destiny. If the future is to be bright, it will not be because the stars have aligned, but because we have worked to make it bright.
To our legislators and trustees I say, “Fight for us.” Fight to provide the funds to make this fount of opportunity continue to flow for the citizens of Illinois, and to keep it flowing without burdening students with high tuition and high debt. But, hold us accountable as well; accountability breeds trust; trust builds success.
To our students I say, “Work hard.” SIUE will be judged by how well you do—both in completing your degree in a timely manner and by the quality of skills and depth of knowledge you bring to whatever career you choose.
To our alumni, I say “Sing the praise of SIUE.” You know better than anyone the quality of this institution from your day-by-day experiences. Don’t be afraid to tell others how good those experiences were. And, I would say also, “Give.” Private funds provide the margin of excellence for public institutions.
To friends of the University, I say “Continue to be a friend.” Tell others—your friends, your neighbors, your relatives, your co-workers—about what you have found here. Encourage them to come to campus, to be part of the university family, to enjoy its many cultural opportunities.
To our retirees, I say “Continue to help build this university.” You were here in the early days; you built this university. But the building continues, and you can continue to be part of it by giving, by volunteering, and by telling others about what SIUE has accomplished in its short history.
Finally, to the current staff, faculty, and administration I say. “Be accountable.” Nothing will be more important over the next decade. By being accountable, I do not just mean spending funds consistent with rules and laws; that should be a given. I mean, rather, that the University demonstrates in concrete ways that its graduates leave with the knowledge and skills appropriate to their degrees.
SIUE has been a leader in assessing student learning as exemplified by the prestigious awards for its Senior Assignment. But, to a significant degree, SIUE scores so well in measuring student learning because so many institutions score so badly. Pressure is building, and will continue to build, in Congress, in the Department of Education and in the accrediting agencies to demand greater accountability and transparency in the measurement and reporting of student learning. And, attempting to avoid accountability by hiding behind mistaken notions of academic freedom will not work here or elsewhere. Moreover, the methodology for measuring student learning can be no less rigorous than what we expect of the highest quality university-based research.
Before closing, I want to thank the university’s photographers for seeing SIUE through camera lenses for fifty years and for providing the photos I hope you have enjoyed today. Let’s take a minute to enjoy a few more….
Early sign on Rte. 66—Obata and Fuller—Obata at Edwardsviolle campus groundbreaking—See/Lazerson/Going 1992—early students—Chimega—planting time capsule 1967—early students—Classroom Bldg. II (now Founders Hall) groundbrealing—early parking problems—first day of school at Edwardsville—Kyna or Chimega?—Student Center under construction—Rendleman Hall under construction—early students—early students in (now) vintage car—students entering Peck Hall—
This final photo, taken a few years ago, illustrates how really talented they are.
At the conclusion of my first address to the community as Chancellor, I told the story of how I had come here with the expectation of staying six months and then going to some “better place.”
I told the story of how I grew up in St. Louis, but had never heard of Edwardsville and knew little about SIU. As an undergraduate at St. Louis University I had friends from Alton and Granite City. But with the arrogance and ignorance of a St. Louisan, I wondered why anyone would live on the east side of the river. And so I came to this unknown place intent on a brief stop.
My first students, in an evening class, were, to me, shockingly different. I was 26; nearly every student was older, some old enough to be my parents. Most were married. They were white and black; from all sorts of small towns with unfamiliar names; they all worked, holding jobs as varied as the American economy. But, beneath the diversity, they were united in their quest for an education. And, they saw SIUE as their fount of opportunity.
I was drawn to the faculty and the staff who had left secure positions at other institutions to come to Alton or East St. Louis or Edwardsville...not because of what was here, but because of their common vision of what this place would become, and because of their determination to be a part of making the vision a reality.
So I stayed. And I put aside the plan to go to some "better place." And then, years later, I realized that right here, right under my nose, SIUE had become that “better place.”
I tell that story again because I realize now that it is not my story, but a story shared by many hundreds of staff and faculty. We came thinking we would move on; but we were captured by the dream of what SIUE could become.
And that story will continue. There are persons here today and persons yet unborn who too will be captured by the magic of this university. There is something special about this place, something addictive. This place where “above the Mississippi plain, your splendor meets the sky.” This special place, “this fount of opportunity where ‘ere in life we go.”
Chancellor Vandegrift, thank you for the privilege to speak at this milestone event. And thanks to all of you for being such an attentive audience.