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Institutional History Archive

When I Came to the College in 1966, Along with some Reflections upon Leaving in 1999, by Harold Otness February 24, 1999 Retirement Lecture

When I came to the College for interviews in the spring of 1966, I parked my VW Beetle in the unpaved dusty parking lot among the neglected and dying almond trees adjacent to Central Hall. All campus parking was then free and there was no visible lot maintenance. I stayed overnight in the motel at the back of what is now the Dairy Queen.

In contrast to today, I was recruited, and I was here to weight the merits of Southern Oregon College, as it was then titled, against two other schools which had made me offers. I was just completing the library science graduate program at the University of Portland, had no library experience, and was flattered to find myself in such demand.

Actually it wasnít me, but rather the times, and the unique positions of SOCís almost out-of-control growth, a then-massive infusion of federal funds for academic library expansion nationwide, coupled with acrimonious faculty resignations and terminations at SOC over the year. I was aware of the first two conditions, but ignorant of the third.

There were apparently no committees then in place to hire people at my level. The Library Director was Ed Carroll, himself just arrived the year before and under intense fire from the old-timers in the library and some of the teaching faculty as well. I didnít know this at the time and I was simply not introduced to his critics in the library or elsewhere during my visit.

Following the practice of the day, after meeting with Carroll, I was subjected to interviews, not by the other librarians, but rather by the administrators in Churchill Hall. First was Esby McGill, the Dean of Faculty and a rather machine-like and cold bureaucrat who seemed to be annoyed by the fact that I wasnít married. Then I met his opposite, President Elmo Stevenson, relaxed and friendly. He wanted to know if I fished. Caught off guard, I lied and mumbled that I did. He seemed greatly pleased and said that we would do so together soon. I hardly saw him after that, and we certainly didnít go fishing together.

The librariansí rap on Stevenson was that he came to the library once a quarter to make sure Field and Stream was in its place on the shelf. But I immediately took a liking to him and was sorry to discover that the last couple of yeas of his presidency were subject to so much turmoil. Times were changing in higher education, and he could no longer run the school out of his back pocket.

But President Stevensonís problems were mostly beyond my awareness and concern. The library was in Central Hall with the catalogs (then of course in card format), reference books, reserves, and circulation desk at the top of stairways that still serve the center of that building. Why that heavily used public area was on the second floor (which is now English Department offices), was just one of several mysteries I was to encounter. Carroll, fresh out of a doctoral program and UC Berkeley, had initiated major changes that were bringing the library up to what was then expected of an academic library--conversion from Dewey to the Library of Congress classification system, opening the serial stacks, a pro-active bibliographic instruction program, and integrating the serials with the monographs by subject. Books were added in numbers previously unheard of, and real academic, scholarly journals were being ordered for the first time.

There were two factions among the librarians, as there no doubt were in most of the teaching departments. First was the old-timers who resisted change, and the newcomers, all of us hired by Carroll, who embraced them. Of the latter, we were, with the exception of one person, young and just beginning our careers, and very much outside the power struggles then going on elsewhere on campus.

Of my group, I was the only one from Oregon. But I was from "upstate" which was then almost as bad as being from California, where most of the new faculty originated. Although I had grown up in Portland and attended another state school, I (and presumably most other Portlanders as well) knew almost nothing about SOC. What I did know about the college was not promising. In the eyes of "upstaters" SOC had little academic visibility outside of its region and virtually no programs to offer which the other state schools did not also have. SOC was essentially a regional teachers training school undergoing a rather rocky metamorphose into a general liberal arts, but still regional, college.

This could be seen in the libraryís collection, which was modest in numbers and unambitious in scope. The library was a busy place but the needs of the students were basicóreserve readings, maybe a popular magazine article or two, and a place to study and socialize.

The campus environment was activity-oriented, and we were all a part of it. One of my first extra-curricular obligations was chaperoning a student dance in what was grandly called the Britt Ballroom. In those days campus events called for such measures. To encourage faculty participation in student activities, almost all campus events were free to the faculty. The main floor of Britt served as the student union and the faculty had their own room just off the food service area approximately where the Communication Department resides today. In my first visit there for coffee the football coach was telling what we would today term "politically incorrect" jokes to an amused audience. As a student I had long wondered what professors discussed among themselves, naively assuming that it was always scholarly matters.

But as a young single person I did not quickly integrate with the older faculty who had been around for awhile. The year 1966 saw the largest influx of new faculty in the history of the collegeóover fifty new appointments. Among us were a number of single people and, being pariahs among a largely married faculty, we banded together socially with potluck and restaurant meals. We were all so fresh to our professions, and more than a little intimidated by the old-timers, that we were mere observers to the inner workings of the college.

I began my tenure July 1, 1966 (for $6,600 per year on a twelve month contract), in the middle of summer session. In those summers the campus swarmed with returning teachers working on advanced degrees and accumulating more credit hours in order to move up the salary scale. Summer session was a far busier time in the library than it has been in recent years. We then had a library science program to certify school librarians and we taught many of our classes and had our best enrollments in the summer.

Quickly enough summer ended and we went into a full week-plus of fall faculty meetings. These were held in Mulkey Auditorium, upstairs in Churchill Hall, and every administrator in the college was allotted a generous amount of time to go over the cornucopia of rules and regulations that even then were in effect. President Stevenson gave enthusiastic pep talks, Dean McGill droned on officiously, and Don Lewis, then called simply the Business Manager, revealed the Byzantine inner workings of his domain. There were detailed reports of enrollment projections, descriptions of employment benefits, and announcements of upcoming events. Today we complain of two days of fall faculty meetings which are, in comparison, crisply conducted.

Each fall President Stevenson gave a dinner for new faculty, for which he supplied the steaks from cattle he raised on his ranch across the valley. We were all asked to stand up and introduce ourselves. This was my first attempt at public speaking and I doubt that I made much of an impression on anyone. Looking back on those times, I must have had a very low profile on campus. That probably explains why I avoided the heated conflicts that sometimes soured the working relationships of others, and perhaps shortened their careers.

There are many Stevenson stories still circulating, and they no doubt have become exaggerated with time. Yes, we were expected to wear neckties. Stevenson reminded us, as SOC faculty members, of our obligations to participate in community organizations. He himself put considerable effort into this task, maintaining active memberships in many groups. But I felt no personal pressure to do so, and I didnít.

President Stevenson told us that to better understand the culture and needs of our students, we should go out to communities like Butte Falls, Grants Pass, and Eagle Point and walk the streets and engage the locals in conversation. We urban sophisticates scoffed, but I later came around to thinking that this was good advice then, and it remains good advice today. I think the college was closer to its region and reflected it culture better in the past than it does today.

Stevenson was a genuine friend of all students. Accounts of the racism of the past in our region are exaggerated today. It is too easily forgotten that Stevenson brought a very dark-skinned Ethiopian student here to go to school, and this student lived with the Stevenson family and was proudly introduced at Kiwanis and Rotary meetings.

We picked up our paychecks during the last half hour of the last working day of the month at the Cashierís window in Churchill Hall. It was while standing in the line that eagerly formed there that I first met Angus Bowmer. He was cheerful and not at all put out by having to wait in line behind a college newcomer of no stature. He struck me as being an exceptionally happy person for someone in the arts. I never did see him in the library.

Our credit union was, for awhile, in someoneís home on Linda Street where business was conducted, during limited hours, in the living room. Downtown was a Pennys, two barbershops and a hardware store on the Plaza, as well as other non-tourist businesses including a secondhand store in the block that now houses Bloomsbury Books. That store was heavily patronized by new faculty furnishing their apartments. The Shakespeare Festival had only the outdoor theater and a summer-only schedule of performances. The best restaurant in Ashland was at Oak Knoll Golf course, but the best restaurant in the valley was Mon Desir near Central Point. But we all ate more meals at the Talent Cafť run by three stern women (no menus, no cash register) who wouldnít serve you their homemade pie until you finished your main course. The main courses, (always two to choose from), were most likely fried chicken and meatloaf, and when they sold out, which they always did, they closed for the night. I saw President Stevenson, with some important-looking guests turned away because they arrived too lateóprobably about 6:30 p.m.

In the late 1960s there were far fewer campus committees than exist today; in fact there was little campus governance that I was aware of. The Faculty Senate was then being reconstituted following the mass resignations of the previous year. The campus buildings were Churchill, Britt, Central, Taylor, and the original wing of the Science building, plus various dorms. Siskiyou Commons was then a cafeteria. Across Siskiyou Boulevard were the gym and athletic fields, but no dorms. Where Stevenson Union now stands was the old Ashland Hospital building, then being used by the Theater and Speech Departments. Pine Hall was here, of course, one of the last of the World War II barracks building moved here from Camp White, and held together today, I suspect, only by multiple layers of paint.

Old-timers can appreciate the landscaping today. In the 1960s this was a dry and wind-blown hillside with only a few scraggly trees. The current library building was then under construction on the site of what previously had been a pond into which students were occasionally flung. The college was not an imposing physical presence in those days. A mean local joke was, "What is the difference between SOC and Ashland High School?" There were several answers, including, "two blocks," and "ashtrays." Yes, there were ashtrays in the hallways, and a few professors (but not students) did smoke in class while lecturing.

Yet there was a quiet local pride in the school and a loyalty to it that has diminished somewhat over the years, due, I would speculate, to migration into the region and the growing awareness of what has been accomplished in higher education elsewhere. Homecoming was a meaningful event with a parade from the Plaza to the college, and there was a bonfire near the football field. There was an innocence and an eagerness to learn that was soon to be sacrificed to the national political upheavals of the late 1960s.

Most students were still the first in their families to attend college, and they were proud to be here. Although the faculty has often complained privately about the lack of academic rigor here, I believed then, and I continue to believe today, that a good education can be acquired here with the careful selection of major, instructors, and the serious self-generated and self-disciplined pursuit of knowledge. I believe that our best students would do well at almost any school. But like other faculty here, I have sometimes been embarrassed and distressed by our failures to uniformly enforce reasonable academic standards.

We have more older students now, and our "nontraditional" students are becoming our traditional students. We have more international students who give us a cultural richness that was lacking in the past. Overall our student body is a less homogenous group to work with, and I fear we give too much attention to the marginal students in sometimes questionable and often self-serving efforts to keep them here, at the expense of our better students.

That said, now that I am almost safely retired and thus bulletproof, I will expand to note briefly two problems endemic to SOU. We offer more degree and certificate programs than we have the resources to reasonably support, and too much of our instruction is in the hands of temporaries and part-timers. I say this as a librarian who has worked with a cross-section of the university for over three decades, and has seen first-hand the resulting frustration of students when we donít have the books and journals they need and their instructors donít realize it because they are not full participants in our university community, and are just, so to speak, passing through. I say this not in criticism of them, but in criticism of the system that subjects them to what is simply economic exploitation.

These problems are not unique to SOU. We can blame inadequate funding, a multitude of foolish and cumbersome regulations, and unrealistic expectations on the part of our various publics, but the bottom line is that they weaken us academically. I suppose that in a perfect world the teachers would be full-time and tenure-track, and the facilitators and functionaries would be part-time and temporary. And there would be plenty of money for all worthwhile causes.

Speaking of money, I regret to report that from my years here budget crises are the norm, and the survival of one is all too often simply the beginning of the next. On the positive side, their bark usually exceeds their bite, but faculty morale is bruised and the institution does indeed suffer a loss of prestige in the eyes of its publics every time the cutting ax is threatened.

All too often budget crises are addressed by attempts to bring in more students and take more of their money through increases in tuition and a proliferation of fees. This addresses the supply side, but ignores other issues such as uneconomic small programs and wasteful practices. In the early 1970s we had approximately the enrollment we have today, even though the population of the region has increased considerably. I favor vigorous recruitment efforts to provide the opportunity for higher education for the young people of our region, but I am less enthusiastic about some retention efforts which can too easily lead to cajoling, pandering, and otherwise compromising our academic integrity. If we maintain respectable academic standards, and enforce them uniformly and fairly, we will have served our region well. The numbers, I would like to think, will take care of themselves.

As for my career here, it has been an education in itself and I am fortunate to have been part of this academic community. I would like to think that I have grown with the institution as it changed from Southern Oregon College, to Southern Oregon State College, and now, finally, to Southern Oregon University. I have learned much from my colleagues, and even more from our students.

Even after over thirty years of working with students face-to-face, I remain puzzled over how, when, and where learning actually takes place. What is good teaching; what resources are required; and just what should be taught? And what is the libraryís role in all of this.

The library, I think, is much more than books, journals, and electronic gadgetry. It is an environment in which learning is encouraged. It is a place where students can come into contact with ideas, with cultures, with the arts. It offers the freedom to search, to question, to discover. To me the library is the center of learning--here we gather the world of experience as it is thoughtfully recorded by those who have gone before us, and arranged it in ways in which it can be found. The library is a place where the past can help us to understand the present. It is not just an electronic data transfer system/entertainment theme park. It is not just the Internet, Yahoo, and cutting and pasting of data to fulfill assignments. It is the very soul of the university, its shrine, its chapel, and I feel privileged to have been able to spend my years in it, and be paid for it as well.

The college (and I still call it that) has always been fair in its support of my scholarly activities. I have been able to participate in conferences, sabbaticals, travels, and publication activities, even in the worst of budgetary times. Although often tempted to do so, none of us should ever blame the institution for keeping us from doing our best as educators.

In recent years I have watched my contemporaries go through the retirement process, and pondered how I would face it when my time arrived. Now that I face it, I find it to be a time of mixed thoughts and mixed emotions; inseparable feelings of accomplishment and embarrassments over tasks unfinished; sorrow and celebration, regrets and ultimately relief.

Frustrations have been unavoidable. As a librarian I have tried to impose order where there is none; balance the need for conservation with the need to disseminate; struggled with a governance system that can sap initiative; deal with the occasional display of immaturity that is inevitable when working with students; and cope with flawed and ever-changing technology; all the while trying to maintain an environment of open inquiry and learning in the library.

Over two hundred years ago Voltaire noted "The multitude of books is making us ignorant." A hundred years later Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote "It is not observed that librarians are wiser men than others."

I once felt compelled to rewrite a passage of another well-known work, as follows:

"In the beginning there was the Book, and the Book inspired and angered others to write books, and when the people could no longer cope with all the books they had created, they begat Libraries, and the Lord said, "I donít know what else we can do.í"

Nor do I.

Thank you.


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