Ten years after, or whither SSU?
Grading Illinois’s new university on the curtve
May 20 and May 27, 1982
We all had such hopes for Sangamon State University, “we” including townspeople of Springfield and the hopeful young academics who populated it. The school made a happy difference in my life, certainly; I became friends with several of SSU faculty and students and made both a good living and a reputation working for SSU’s Illinois Issues magazine.
And it gave me something to write about. I was critical, certainly, I hope fairly, but I understand why some members of the university community believed that my complaints owed less to SSU’s failings than to my own misconceptions. Maybe a state university in the capital, being both a State of Illinois and a Springfield institution, was doomed no matter who ran it.
This piece ran in two parts, which are here combined.
Note: Readers should know that after years of stagnant growth, SSU in 1995 was absorbed by the University of Illinois, becoming today’s University of Illinois Springfield offering conventional four-year undergraduate degrees.
Last week Sangamon State University celebrated its tenth commencement. It took me more than ten years after I had reached my own, putative "adulthood" to actually grow up, so I cannot hold it against SSU that it has taken it this long to mature as an institution. Universities, I suppose, are more complicated than people.
SSU was founded in 1969 as Illinois' first public affairs university. It was the offspring of the ambitions of local boosters who envisioned a four-year liberal arts college in the usual style ("Could we see something in ivy, please?") and the prudence of a legislature eager not to irk established schools like the University of Illinois. The result is what may be the oddest hybrid in all higher education—a senior-level statewide commuter school.
Since 1969 SSU has charted an erratic course. Alas, I lack the space to delve into the school's chronic budget and enrollment problems, or its internal politics which makes it seem to outsiders so like a banana republic with bookshelves, or the difficult relationship it has had with its host city, or the personalities of its presidents. The question I address today is a simpler one. How close has SSU come since it graduated its first students to realizing its goal of (to quote the current catalog) "reaching out into the community and responding in meaningful ways to . . . the demands of contemporary society"?
SSU's own hopes for itself are reflected in its official rhetoric. SSU people use rhetoric the way roofers use nails, to fasten down things which otherwise would fly away at the first wind. The glossary includes mandates, public affairs thrusts, meaningful interactions, synergies, cutting edges, and the like. Indeed, it may be argued that the most innovative thing about many of SSU's programs is the talk used to describe them.
And behind the words? If I were forced to sum up SSU's first decade, I would say that SSU is a body of good ideas badly implemented. Generally speaking, its programs seek to combine a formal academic perspective with real-world experience (achieved largely through extensive internship programs). No institution in the state expresses such disdain for ivory towers as does SSU. This insistence on experience permeates its programs from law to hospital administration. It especially animates the various non-classroom programs: WSSR-FM, its public radio station; the multidisciplinary Sangamon River Basin Project; Illinois Issues magazine; the Public Affairs Reporting program; the four special study centers; the Oral History Office; and the annual week-long colloquia known as "intersessions."
Each of these endeavors is admirable in its way. Each is consistent with the broader aims of the university. And each should work better than it does. To many of us outside the university there remains the sense of weightlessness, of connections not quite made, of opportunities missed. Some of us have come to see SSU's campus—located as it is near Lake Springfield, several miles from the statehouse, isolated and on the periphery of things—as a metaphor for the school's larger relationship with the capital.
Perhaps we expected too much. Perhaps the university promised too much. In either event there are several factors which weigh against SSU's success. One is the fact that the people at Illinois's public affairs university have not settled on what they mean by the phrase "public affairs." In one sense this is healthy; one wouldn't want the concept to stiffen into dogma. At one extreme, the concept might require that the university content itself with turning out enlightened, public-spirited citizens on the ancient Greek model. At another extreme it would leave the school acting as a cut-rate consulting agencies.
Definitions fluctuate, usually with budgets. Lately, however, the administration of SSU president Alex Lacy has taken to defining SSU's public affairs mandate in terms of training for public administrators. In the current undergraduate catalog, for instance, Lacy tells prospective students, "You may learn and prepare for your career" at SSU, reassuring them (in what sounds like a warranty pledge) that SSU's grads are "qualified professionals." This is a canny marketing strategem. But one is entitled to ask, "Qualified for what?" To work? Or to think? It's a question that probably would have been asked ten years ago. Lately it doesn't seem to get asked so often. SSU will be advertising on the backs of matchbooks next.
The fact that the school must resort to such hardball come-ons is only one reflection of the distortions caused by its continuing institutional crisis. SSU remains a small school with few powerful friends in the General Assembly, surrounded by larger, ambitious institutions eager to gobble it up, desperate to justify itself to a skeptical legislature. It needs friends, as all such institutions do. More importantly, it does not need enemies.
Just last week, as he received SSU's first honorary degree for his role in founding the school, Springfield attorney George Hoffman recalled, "What we wanted and got was an independent college." But while SSU may be independent, it is not free. For all its vivid rhetoric it has a curiously pale presence. It plays things safe, and on those several occasions when its various adjuncts might have commented profitably on some issue of controversy it has kept quiet. Not that there haven't been occasional stirrings. But they've been by individual faculty members, largely acting alone as citizens. Without the weight of the university behind them, their complaints about racism and corruption and the like bounce harmlessly off local consciousness. While the more radical faculty members thus vent themselves in irrelevance, the official university organs soldier on as training centers for the establishment.
* * *
To understand Sangamon State University, it is necessary to understand that it was not born, as is popularly believed, during a period of academic turmoil and experimentation in the late 1960s. It was born during the period of reaction to that turmoil. That fact, plus the fact that it was born in a city which had had no experience of a university before, led to its reputation as a "radical" hotbed.
SSU, it is now clear, earned its reputation for daring much too cheaply; I mean, in 1970 Springfield, "Laugh-ln" was considered radical.
One of the problems in running Illinois' first public affairs university is that the word "public," though it is only six letters wide, encompasses such a varied territory. There is a complicating confusion which underlies the work of much of Sangamon State University's various non-classroom centers and projects. In the Springfield Energy Project and the Sangamon River Basin Project, for example, "public" has meant not just for the public but with and by the public. Organizers sought involvement from the broader community for both philosophical and political reasons.
This is sometimes called "creating a broad-based coalition." It is also sometimes called "co-opting one's opponents." The result is superior public relations. But it is my view that saying useful things about the environment (in the case of the river basin study) or local energy policy (in the energy project) requires that one occasionally be rude to certain people and institutions which are doing manifestly bad things. One is understandably reluctant to criticize (say) local banks if they are members of one's steering committee. Consider Illinois Issues. That magazine—to which I am a regular contributor—includes on its board some key actors in several of Illinois' more controversial issues, such as Illinois Power Co. Phrased another way, one cannot go to bed with the power elite and then criticize the drapes in the boudoir. Instead of a voice we hear only an echo; close your eyes and you can't tell whether it's the university talking or the League of Women Voters.
The contradictory demands of SSU's mandate and its delicate fiscal situation are familiar to most schools, of course. The problem is that such demands fall more heavily on a small school. Survival, especially survival as an independent entity, is a virtue in itself, I suppose. But what purpose does independence serve if SSU is too timid to exercise it?
A confusion between public research and public relations has also complicated the evolution of the four study centers. These centers—specializing respectively in legislative, legal, policy, and urban matters—would seem to be (again quoting the university) at the cutting edge of SSU's public affairs thrust. Yet what dull blades they've turned out to be. The Center for the Study of Middle-size Cities, for example, promised to be a vehicle for study of the U.S.'s fastest-growing urban system, one furthermore which is typical of central Illinois, the kind of city in which millions live but few know anything about. Beyond that, it offered a chance to fuse the real world of budget cuts and sewer referenda with that of the campus, with each informing the other to their mutual advantage. City hall would be provided with perspective, precedent, and distance, while the campus would have a chance to get its hands dirty.
For example, in April the Springfield city council agreed to cooperate in a five-year study by the center (since renamed the Center for Community and Regional Studies) which would determine long-term revenue needs, among other things. Said one council member, "Normally the city can't afford to stop and take a look at some of these things. A little academic analysis is a good idea." (As supply-side economist Paul Laffer says in a recent profile, "You should never let a professor run your country. But you should listen to what he has to say." )
So far, however, the work of the centers has been disappointing. To date the Center for Community and Regional Studies has been used by municipal officials in much the same way they use CETA workers, as a way to get certain jobs done without having to pay for them. Study projects have been either irrelevant (such as a survey of public opinion on the quality of life) or too narrow. Too often the agenda of such cooperative studies is set by the sponsoring agencies. A study of airport expansion in Springfield confirmed that much money could be made, thus confirming the boosters' case for expansion. But how much more interesting it would have been if the center had explored the question of whether public money invested in airports made sense in terms of energy and people served, compared to, say, investments made in railroads or more efficient use of cars.
A similar case is the Public Affairs Reporting program. This program places journalism students in Statehouse news rooms as interns, there to master the actual craft of reporting while they continue their studies in the classroom. As a general approach it is a good one. But journalism professionals often deride it as little more than a dating service for job-seeking grads and employers. If one orients one's programs toward "real" results one risks stressing the "working" part of working journalist at the expense of the "journalist." The fact that one is hired to report is not in itself proof of competence; indeed, given the parlous state of journalistic standards, it may suggest the opposite. There is a broader failure here, which repeats itself in a half-dozen similar programs at SSU. It is one thing to say that at SSU, "The campus is the community." It is another to allow the community to become the campus. In the case of the PAR program, one can argue that the statehouse is the worst possible place to learn public affairs reporting, precisely because there is so little of it being done there.
The most ambitious mechanisms for the kind of interaction which SSU is pledged to stimulate are the annual intersessions. Intersessions remain one of SSU's most useful contributions to the process of public debate on matters ranging from women's rights to energy and the Constitution. Sadly, intersession planning has been taken over in recent years by ideologues on the faculty, with the result that the intersessions have been transformed from colloquia into lectures. (A recent energy intersession was notable for the absence of spokesmen for the oil or nuclear industries.)
Doubtless, others will disagree with my views on the university. I welcome that. In fact, I'm not sure that the biggest threat to the university comes not from the budget-cutters at the General Assembly but from the fact that people have quit arguing about what the university means. They've quit because either the principal institutional questions have been answered—in which case it would stagnate—or because they don't think it's worth the effort anymore. I fear we may be drifting toward the latter kind of indifference.
I'd like to propose a cure. I can think of no more fitting topic for the next intersession than Sangamon State itself, in which university spokesmen would be invited to engage in public debate with community people, graduates, interested laypeople, and the like in a week-long debate about the purposes of SSU. I'll even suggest a title in the SSU style: "SSU: Mandates and meanings."
And I'll give a speech if they want. ●