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Thursday, July 9, 2015 12:13 am

My memories of Sangamon State

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 In the summer of 1970 a small storefront office opened on Washington Street. People began showing up to register for higher education classes. This was something new; a public university was coming to Springfield.

Like all government projects it was behind schedule. A campus of several one-story metal buildings was nearing completion by the lake, but until it was done, there were storefront offices and classes in the First Methodist Church.

I was one of those charter students. We were a motley crew....people of all ages and backgrounds. Old ladies, young community college graduates, people who had dropped out, flunked out or previously couldn’t afford much college. There were anti-war peaceniks and ex-Marines who had seen hard duty in Vietnam.

We were there to take a chance on a brand new adventure.

We all shared two characteristics: we were local and we had all been someplace else before Sangamon.

This was due to the nature of the university. It had no housing, hadn’t reached beyond central Illinois to attract students and instruction started at the junior year as an intended capstone to the new community colleges in the state. We had all taken college courses elsewhere and we came to Sangamon with firm ideas of what we did and didn’t want the place to be.

American higher education was in turmoil, causing political, educational and student leaders to question the structure and curricula of universities. Students in many old-line schools were sitting-in to protest the status quo.

So both the people who planned SSU and its first students agreed on one shared expectation: Sangamon ought to be different.

The Board of Regents brought in as president a man with a political science doctorate and experience as a member of the Vermont state Senate. Bob Spencer was given a mandate – get it started and make it unique.

To do that, Spencer brought in a fascinating group of faculty. Many were solid, scholarly and experienced academics. But there were also characters who struck conservative Springfield as being wackos, kooks, maybe even communists.

Faculty members were free to create their own courses. Everything was unstructured, in fact classes were offered for several months before we realized that the Board of Higher Education had not yet given the university the authority to grant degrees. There wasn’t even a required curriculum leading to a degree.

Everyone was encouraged to do his own thing. Grades? Didn’t have them. A hierarchy of faculty titles? Didn’t exist. Tenure? A divisive concept. We had a program called Individual Option. It could have been called “making it up as we go along.”

Some of the classes had unintended consequences. An offbeat psych class called Psycho Drama generated a lot of divorce work for local attorneys. It was just one example of Sangamon opening new vistas for women and students in general. Often the lives they had led to that point didn’t look so good under the examining eye of the newly educated.

One thing that united most on campus was the mission statement which directed Sangamon to be the public affairs university for Illinois. It was logical because of the location in a town which had been the only state capital in the United States without a public university.

The institution changed me, changed all of us. At whatever point in our lives we came, late or early, after previous success or failure, it affected us all profoundly.

Also, much changed in Springfield with the coming of Sangamon State. Sure there was town and gown friction, but the public affairs mission resulted in community work and volunteerism by both students and faculty.

One of the questions in the early years asked if an independent upper-level university could survive. The answer turned out to be “No.” Sangamon State was absorbed by the University of Illinois system.

But the experience of those first years is still a part of our local university. The commitment to public affairs lives on in the work of the many governmental interns UIS places in state government. Springfield is less parochial than it was before.

Though the Sangamon State name is gone, those early pioneers started an institution which continues in spirit, still growing, still educating, still a vital actor on the Springfield stage.

I think all of us from the early days of the university are proud of what we started and what it has become.

Phil Bradley of Chatham was one of Sangamon State’s first students. He was also speaker of the University Assembly, first student commencement speaker and the university’s first alumni director.

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