History of SSU-UIS: Floppy Hats

(The following article is one of three that were printed in a special section of the State Journal Register published in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of SSU/UIS.)

September 21, 1995

‘Blue memo’ and ‘floppy hats’;
Experiments in instruction were theme of early days

By Doug Pokorski

Sangamon State University’s first decade began with the idealism of the 1960s, money to burn on innovative new programs, and a frenzy of meetings.

It ended with a trend toward the traditional, recognition that resources were finite, and the ouster of SSU’s once- popular founding president.

In between Sangamon State’s formative years, a colorful era that has left an enduring mark on both the university’s real identity and its public image.

In a way, the 1970s began with what was known as the “blue memo,” an essay written by the founding President Bob Spencer as a recruiting tool to attract faculty members. The memo set out Spencer’s vision for what the university would or should become.

“The blue memo became sort of a Bible for people,” said David Everson, a charter member of the faculty. “In early years, people made frequent references to it.”

The memo outlined the ways in which SSU would be different from existing universities. That was important at that time, because many faculty members across the country had become disenchanted with the higher education establishment.

Too many schools neglected undergraduate education and overemphasized research and scholarly articles, said Cullom Davis, another member of the founding faculty.

“The year 1970 was really a bad year on campuses,” Everson added.

“We had (fatal shooting of students at) Kent State. Southern Illinois University (where Everson had been) was closed for the entire month of May by student protests.”

What Spencer offered dissatisfied scholars like Davis and Everson was an atmosphere in which faculty would be free – no, not just free, but encouraged – to concentrate on teaching undergraduates. Rigid administrative structures would be done away with, and the university would be governed democratically with the participation of all the faculty, staff and students. “

We were trying to respond to all the ills of higher education at the time,” Davis said. “ That was pretty much the rule for the early faculty. There was a strong disenchantment (with traditional higher education). Some of us felt they were victims, that they had been refused tenure because they had not done research. We were refugees from the problems in education.”

In addition, Spencer had taken an element of mandate given to SSU by the state – that the university emphasize study of public affairs – and expanded on that to make it an essential part of virtually everything the university would do. Spencer added elements of his own to his vision for SSU, including the importance of “experimental learning,” the kind of learning-by-doing that would cause SSU to become a national leader in Internship programs, and the central role of the liberal arts and sciences and of a good library to effective higher education.

Also added to the Spencer’s vision of the university was the need for innovation. That view came naturally to the liberal faculty Spencer had attracted, but it was also a part of a directive from state higher education officials that SSU be “different” from existing universities in significant but unspecified ways.

“There was a strong feeling that we could not borrow any blue prints off the shelf, that we had to innovate,” Davis said. “In some cases, that was naïve, and in some cases it was a mistaken belief.”

Some early SSU innovations, such as team teaching in a multidisciplinary setting, have stood the test of time. Experiential learning has become common at schools across the country, as have other ideas SSU pioneered. Other steps worked well at first but later became impractical. For example, Everson said, in the early days it was common practice to give every student in a course a detailed written evaluation of his or her performance. While the practice was valuable, Everson said, it became unworkable and was gradually dropped as enrollment grew. Other innovations were simply ludicrious from the start. For example, since all other universities of the time listed course schedules by department, subject or some other logical principle, the push for innovation at SSU meant none of those methods could be used.

Instead, courses were listed alphabetically by the name of the faculty members teaching them, which meant a student would have to go through the list course by course to find a specific class.

Another innovation that faded on its own was giving students the option of not being graded in a course. Pass-fail courses were appealing at first, especially to older learners who were uncomfortable bringing grades home to their own children. But once it became apparent that employers expected to see grades on graduates’ transcripts, students increasingly opted for more traditional evaluations.

The emphasis on change spilled into the personal lives of the early faculty and administrators. Former faculty member Mike Lennon remembers that there were so many divorces on campus in 1970s that some people took to calling the university Divorce U.

SSU was also home to an unusual number of former priests in those early days, Lennon said.

SSU’s early non-conformist approach to academic life had some amusing results, as well. There was, for example, the “dog memo,” issued by Dean of students Robert Macalister during the winter of the first year of classes. “The presence of dogs in the class rooms is distracting to some of the students,” MacAlister wrote. “The presence of dog excretion in some of the lounges is not pleasing to some of the members of the campus community. A few people have found themselves tripping over dogs as they walked out of offices.”

MacAlister appealed to dog owners to keep their pets off campus.

“It is my earnest hope,” he wrote, “that we can have innovative education without going to the dogs.”

The early 1970s at Sangamon State or sometimes referred to as “floppy hat era” as a result of another incident involving the non-conformist faculty.

Springfield state Sen. G. William Horsley set off the flap in the spring of 1971, when he took the unprecedented action of refusing to sponsor and appropriation bill for SSU. For a legislator to refuse to support an appropriation that would be spent in his own district was the kiss of death for the spending measure.

Horsley said he was concerned about radical activities taking place on campus and the faculty “carrying on the way they do.”

“I’m sick with what’s going out there,” Horsley said. “They don’t want any grades, honors, anything to justify their graduation.”

As an example of the kind of scandalous behavior he was talking about, Horsley cited an incident in which SSU faculty member Gus Stevens did not remove his floppy hat while taking photographs during a university function at which women were present. Horsley said it was “about time” administrators took charge of the situation on the campus.

After much debate, Horsley relented and agreed to support the spending bill. The faculty went on to celebrate periodic “floppy hat days” to show their solidarity with Stevens.

One more serious note, SSU’s early years were a time of intense activity by faculty members to build a university from ground up.

“I remember the absolutely frenetic pace of efforts on planning and recruiting,” Davis said. “Every day I was doing a little bit of everything-working with the architects, the faculty, working on admission requirements and curriculum.” Said Everson: “The first few years were very hectic. It seemed as if I were in meetings 24 hours a day.” While there wasn’t enough time to do all the jobs that had to be done in the early 1970s, there was more than enough money. SSU’s founding came at the height of big budgets for higher education.

“We had money to burn,” said Judith Everson, David’s wife and also a founding member of the faculty. “SSU was born at a time when it appeared that higher education and state budgets would expand indefinitely.” “We had so much money we didn’t know what to do with it,” said biology professor Ann Larson.

At one point, Larson said, the science department took a catalog of microscope equipment and supplies and ordered on of every item listed, just to find a way to spend a part of its budget allocation. Even years later, the catalog company would SSU when it was having trouble filling an order for an unusual and out-of-stock item, Larson said.

The era of budget largesse ended fairly quickly, Judith Everson said. Within a few years, funds were not as readily available, she said, and the resulting financial contraction hurt SSU more than older schools. “We had had less time to develop pockets of fat,” she said. “ And we did not have a lot of wealthy alumni to turn to.”

As the 1970s progressed, some changes started to occur on the SSU campus – one of the earliest being the ebbing of the flame of constant innovation. Faculty and administrators began to find that there were good reasons why other universities all did certain things the same way.

SSU students, who tended to be older than “typical” University students, were also more conservative. They wanted an education that looked familiar, the kind of other universities provided, and they wanted transcripts that would help them get good jobs.

Some innovations became institutionalized, as founding faculty members became the establishment. More stable structures came to replace the flux of early years.

And some early ideals began to suffer from pressures of real world. Spencer early on advocated a participatory democracy as the method to govern the university, but his bosses at the university’s governing board were concerned with the results, not with how democratically they were arrived at. The other problem was that another democratic governance, no one was really accountable for seeing to it that things got done. At the same time, Spencer came to be seen as an increasingly arbitrary in his administrative style.

Spencer said he believes he and other university presidents in the late 1970s also were victims of an anti- establishment backlash that was connected with the resignation in disgrace of President Nixon.

“There was a rough parallel between the American Presidency and university presidencies and institutions,” Spencer said. “People thought there must be corruption (in all presidencies).”

Faculty members also were concerned that Spencer was no longer up to the task of leading the university to the fulfillment of its vision. In 1977 the faculty voted “no confidence” in his leadership, and in December of that year – after more than eight years as president – Spencer resigned, becoming just another member of the faculty. Spencer was replaced by Alex Lacy, then director of public programs for the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1978.

The university, now the University of Illinois at Springfield, no longer stands out for its innovative approach to every situation. The importance of Liberal arts and Sciences also may have slipped in relation to pressures to provide job related training. However, Spencer’s vision for the university stands out clearly on the campus today. The school’s emphasis on public affairs can be seen in a variety of programs begun during tenure, including Illinois Issues magazine, the university’s public radio station WUIS/WIPA, several research centers, the annual public affairs colloquia and other offerings.

His views on the importance of experimental learning live on in the various internship programs the university offers.

Perhaps most of all, the fierce commitment to teaching and undergraduate education that Spencer made the hallmark of SSU’s first decade lives on.

“By and large,” Davis said, “his original mission has taken root.”

The radical image of the original SSU faculty has also taken firm root. Dropping a batch of liberal academics from all over the country into the middle of a midwestern cornfield was bound to lead some conflicts.

In part, SSU faculty members are probably unfairly characterized by locals based on activities of faculty at other universities across the country. After all, though some Springfield residents might be surprised at the fact, students at SSU never rioted the way they did at some other universities.

Whatever the reason, the image of the typical SSU faculty member has not been erased.

Earlier this fall, for example, David Everson dropped his car off at a local dealership for service. A woman at the garage asked what he did for living. He told her he was a member of the faculty at SSU.

Noting his business shirt and tie, the woman expressed her surprise. “You don’t look like an SSU faculty member,” she said. “You are not wearing a sweat shirt. You don’t have a beard.”

Said Everson: “The image of the way–out faculty still lingers in the Springfield community.