“’The Walls Are Going to Come Tumbling Down:’ An Oral History/Digital Archive of an Unconventional Public College” by Carol Quirke, American Studies, SUNY Old Westbury
First Lady Michelle Obama recently rapped with Saturday Night Live star Jay Pharoah, “If you wanna fly jets you should go to college; Reach high and cash checks, fill you head with knowledge.” Americans are told college is a necessity for a stable lifestyle, and in a world with few union protections, stagnant wages, and corporate “disruption,” this advice seems on target. Yet college costs are ballooning and are mostly borne by students and their families, while the government cuts support for higher education. According to the American Council on Education’s report, “State Funding: A Race to the Bottom,” at the rate of current cuts the average state support for this engine of democracy and individual and societal mobility reach zero in less than fifty years.
How different it was half a century back, when the GI Bill and federally supported loans and grants democratized education, and the Cold War fueled financial support for publicinstitutions. How different when women, African-American, and Latino citizens clamored for access to college and for curricula that reflected their lived experience. Experiments: Old Westbury Oral History Project captures the College at Old Westbury’s origins. Founded by the State University of New York (SUNY) in 1965 and planned in an era of great optimism for higher education, Experiments explores how SUNY invested in a group of citizens—high school students, Long Island residents, national higher education leaders, Peace Corps administrators, conceptual artists, novelists, and political theorists—to get the experimental college off the ground. Small groups planned admissions criteria and curricula, even the college’s physical plant. Once the college opened its doors in 1968, many faculty and students believed they would continue to shape the college’s direction, as the 1966 Master Plan encouraged “admitting students in full partnership in the academic world and granting them the right to determine…their own areas of study and research.”
“Full partnership” became the flashpoint for conflict between students, faculty and administrators. For some, the term included student involvement in every aspect of college governance and administration—developing courses and delineating the curricula, grading, and hiring faculty. Students also demanded that the college become an institution promoting equality, by attracting more Latinos and African-Americans. By contemporary standards the college was exceedingly diverse, nearly a quarter of the student body was comprised of students of color and many students were the first in their families to attend college. But for students active in Students for a Democratic Society, Black Power groups, and the Young Lords, the college could do better.
1968 was an inauspicious year to open a college. Conflict over the college’s mission ultimately led to student sit-ins, police response, and at one point, a fire in the college president’s home. The college president, Harris Wofford, who later became a U.S. Senator for Pennsylvania, left and the college shut its doors. When it re-opened, it seemed as if students had won, as non-traditional students, (housewives who had dropped out of college, and African-Americans and Latinos) became the college’s primary student body. And while the interdisciplinary program that Wofford had sought, grounded in the Great Books tradition was scrapped, new faculty were hired under John Maguire (president emeritus, Claremont College) committed to interdisciplinary scholarship in place of traditional disciplines. Many professors were radical or New Left or embraced critical pedagogies.
I began teaching at Old Westbury in 2004—and learned much about the college’s activist past and non-traditional traditions. But in 2004 this spirit felt diminished—particularly among the students. In an assignment where I ask students to respond to a 2008 New York Times op-ed piece by Charles Murray, too many of the students answered his plea, “Should the Obama Generation Drop Out?” in the affirmative. For these working students college was not a locus of activism or transformation. An instrumental view of college predominated—a college degree would confer economic success they believed.
Experiments: Old Westbury Oral History project explored the college’s unique roots and story in the hopes of rekindling its mission of social justice. Three faculty members from the American Studies department worked closely on the project’s design and implementation, two of whom are historians, one of whom is an experienced documentarian and new media practitioner. Additional faculty in American Studies and Sociology helped with interviewing. Our TV station manager supported equipment and studio needs. A former student filmed most of the interviews and did the labors of transcribing, editing clips, creating an introductory film, and setting up the website. Other alumnae helped by providing primary source material such as photographs and early documents related to the college. SUNY supported the project with an Explorations in Academic Excellence and Diversity award, and the college supported it with a Faculty Development Grant and in-kind resources.
We designed an interactive digital format that allowed many histories to surface; contentiousness surrounding the college’s early years had not abated more than forty years later. We interviewed three college presidents, three former faculty, and six students. We edited their stories into short clips focused on particular themes—for example, the paths that brought each interviewee to Old Westbury, the college’s roots, it’s curricula, and it’s relationship to its times. A primary focus was the college’s diversity—rooted in the first president’s desire that Old Westbury be a college of the world as well as student demands for educational equity and racial justice. Experiments made clear that the college’s diversity had been fought for initially, but that over time faculty, students and administrative commitment was required to maintain our inclusive student body. Also included in Experiments’ archive are transcripts of each interview, photographs and primary documents such as news clips, “lookbooks” of the entering class, early college catalogs, and reports to UNESCO on the college’s prospects. This digital archive allows viewers—students, educational analysts, historians—to make sense of Old Westbury’s story and to do history from multiple vantage points. The archive is far from complete, but the competing narratives and primary sources permit viewers to obtain a sense of the complex currents shaping public higher education from the late 1960s into the 1980s.
Most exciting is student response to the project. Faculty in our First Year program and in basic composition courses use the digital archive to help freshman imagine what their college education can mean by bringing them face to face with other students like themselves who were considering similar questions: “What does learning mean?” “What does teaching mean?” “What’s the purpose of a college education?” “Who decides who needs to know what?” I have used Experiments in an advanced history research course. Students read and abstracted multiple interviews which acquainted them with the oral history interview as a source, which like all sources must be examined as partial truths that provoke further questions and investigation. Abstracting interviews also forced advanced students to synthesize what they had read. Reading an early college catalog allowed students to understand a college’s structure, and how that structure might engage students in their education. Students were astonished by some of the primary sources—particularly the desire for experimentation expressed not just by students or activist faculty, but by the State of New York. Parsing participant transcripts and news clippings allowed students to identify key aspect of Old Westbury’s founding that were linked to the social ferment of the 1960s and 1970s, training students in contextualizing, a critical analytic tool for historians.
The history of colleges and universities is still being written, and this is especially true about institutions which serve non-traditional students. Debate about higher education’s meaning and effects has never been higher. Oral history projects like Experiments shed unique light on such debates, suggest a more expansive agenda for higher education than its instrumental value, and give students a catalyst to reflect on the individual and social meanings of higher education.