Academics: Read Your Institutional Histories!

I am reading Stow Persons’ 1990 The University of Iowa in the Twentieth Century: An Institutional History. (Persons was a professor and chair of the University of Iowa’s history department from 1948 to 1981.) The book actually starts with the university’s founding in February 25th, 1847. I bring this up because reading this book was deeply rewarding and gave me a geological view of my home institution – a sense for how it came to have its present shape, and a sense for how the current challenges the institution faces are ones that have been around since the beginning. I would strongly encourage academics wherever they work to read their institutional history, if it has one. (This is not a given, and it is a great service to the University of Iowa that Persons wrote this one.)

My home university has historically had an intrastate rivalry with Iowa State University. The University of Iowa was set up as the state’s academic institution in 1847. Its chosen location of Iowa City was sensible, as this was the territorial capital. But the choice was “unfortunate” because it was not as central in the state and because the fact that Johnson County was a “wet” county—one that permitted saloons and alcohol—caused some citizens to keep their children away from the university for fear of their moral corruption (Persons, pages 2-3). This is rather similar to the modern fretting about students being taught by “liberal professors” and the bills that propose hiring “conservative professors” in response.

Further, the University of Iowa’s emphasis on liberal arts education caused folks to lobby for a separate agricultural college on the grounds that “students educated at a university would not deign to dirty their hands at honest manual labor” (page 2). But despite the ostensible divorce of the liberal arts at the University of Iowa and technical training at Iowa State University, these two both competed for students and state funding, fighting to establish themselves as the premier with graduate and undergraduate programs that were duplicated—contrary to the legislature’s explicit charter, but in accordance with the wishes of partisans of and stakeholders in each institution (pages 75-76). (The alleged problem of “duplication” was arguably not a real problem anyway (pages 76-77).) This is a theme that was taken up by the Iowa’s Board of Regents in 2014.

The recurrence of these themes in the modern university is what is striking to me. There were problems then with state funding, just as there are now. The state would not even fund the construction of a university library, despite the state education board’s repeated requests for the allocation (pages 79-80). This tidbit is accompanied by a rather amusing and horrifying description of the working conditions at the university library: the librarian describes summers with “unbearable heat in the reading room”, the heating being constantly too high or low in winter, and the windows without any screens, which allowed “hordes of flies which keep the Librarians employed in such unprofessional tasks as arranging new sheets of fly paper” (page 80). This is not so different from the biannual switching from cooling to heating in the English-Philosophy Building, though I happily have no need for fly paper.

There was also an athletic scandal which resulted in a one-month expulsion from the University of Iowa’s athletic conference in January 1929:

…athletes had been given commissions for the sale of yearbooks; athletes were being subsidized from a slush fund; athletes had been permitted to draw on an illegal fund to make payments on tuition in arrears; and the registrar had failed to certify the eligibility of athletes as required by conference regulations. (page 98)

Such athletic scandals, sadly, are with us today.

The most remarkable thing to read about was the development of various colleges and departments, the introduction of a Graduate College, a college of business (“College of Commerce”), and the varying degrees to which the administration worked with, or ignored, the Faculty Senate. It gives me a different view on the present day challenges, how longstanding they have been, how they were overcome (or not) by past academics, and how the institution arrived at its current structure and curriculum. It gives me some respect for the current structure to see its origin story. And it gives me some hope that our present challenges are not new, and have been overcome in the past.

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