University Quagmires

The last couple of years have brought reportage (see here and here, for instance) on scholars becoming involved with activities of the U.S. military. One wonders what will develop under the new administration.


April 22, 2009

The last couple of years have brought reportage (see here and here, for instance) on scholars becoming involved with activities of the U.S. military. One wonders what will develop under the new administration.

To remind myself of what developed in the past, I’ve been reading Robert A. Harper’s The University That Shouldn’t Have Happened, But Did: Southern Illinois University During the Morris Years 1948-1970 (Devil’s Kitchen Press, 1998).

Harper’s first teaching job, in 1950, was at SIU-Carbondale, and he was disappointed: “I had never heard of Southern Illinois University,” he writes, despite having gotten his Ph.D. in geography in the same state, at the University of Chicago. This is not unusual; the state of Illinois is tall enough to contain five USDA plant zones, and economic and cultural differences help keep the state’s northern and southern regions far apart.

What’s more, about the time Harper arrived, Carbondale was a railroad town of 10,000, and SIU had been a normal school (a teacher’s college) for 70 years. It had just 3,000 students and eight buildings on its campus. But in little more than 20 years, the university had 25,000 students; schools of agriculture, engineering, law, and medicine; and a second campus 110 miles away with another 10,000 students. This growth was accomplished by SIU’s president in those years, the improbably-named Delyte Morris (shown here with his wife on a 1968 visit to South Vietnam).

The rise and subsequent fall of both Morris and the university he created is what Harper calls “a story of unlikely success and a tragic end.” It does read like an American tragedy, somehow, based in ambition and the fallibility of good intentions, ingenuity, and certainty.

Morris’ brilliance, Harper shows, was to utilize “unorthodox practices that in many respects pioneered new dimensions in higher education”:

[SIU] opened its doors as widely as possible…to the people of its economically depressed region, to minorities and the physically handicapped, and to students from throughout the world. While other schools [especially the University of Illinois, the “powerhouse” of state education] boasted of the academic nature of their curricula, in times before there were community colleges SIU offered courses in trades that were needed by the people of its region but were considered inappropriate for institution of higher education.

Morris then used momentum from this idea to offer off-campus courses in the region and, later, to run “educational and vocational missions” in “developing countries on three continents.” Vietnam was one of these missions, with the first team of 13 “mostly Carbondale faculty” sent to Saigon in 1960 and “a steady stream” of Vietnamese students sent back to Carbondale to attend college.

As you know if you read the blog, I’m originally from Southern Illinois. My dad taught at SIU’s Vocational technical Institute and was assigned to one of those first SIUC outreach teams to Vietnam, where I managed to get myself born. (Love during wartime and all that, lad.)

As early as 1965 there were discussions at SIU about a campus center for Vietnamese studies, and in 1966 the international studies division began to “urge” the creation of a Southeast Asian or Vietnamese center, Harper says. In March 1969, Morris and the board of trustees approved a Center for Vietnamese Studies and Programs at the Carbondale campus. “[I]t’s not surprising that [it] would appeal to Delyte Morris’ better instincts,” Harper writes:

Here was a chance for the university to make a significant contribution to the ravaged country whenever peace was achieved. Morris articulated the need for development of those with expertise in the language, culture, and various disciplines needed to assist in the redevelopment of Vietnam when the war was over [won]. Despite how opponents pictured it, the purpose was not to support the war.

But “the new center was not purely an academic university undertaking; it was to be financed by a contract with the federal government.” That is, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) awarded the university a contract for $200,000 per year for five years, a drop in the bucket of the $1,554,600,000 [according to Foreign Aid, War, and Economic Development (Cambridge UP, 1986)] that Project Aid spent on Vietnam, 1955-1975, for “(1) economic stabilization, (2) relief, (3) political development, (4) economic development and reconstruction, (5) social development, (6) technical support, and (7) other.”

In fact, SIU’s website says, “The University's first major international development activity was a $2,106,766 contract from USAID in May, 1961. This project provided pre-service and in-service training for elementary teachers throughout South Vietnam. During the next five years (1962-66), other major projects were conducted in Afghanistan, Mali, Nepal, and Nigeria. After 1966, activities began to level off with large-scale projects occurring only sporadically in 1969 (Vietnam), 1970 (Brazil), 1978 (Nepal) and 1981 (Malaysia).”

Morris was ambitious for the center, which was to: Support the existing SIU program in Vietnam; endow a chair of Vietnamese studies; host a conference on the role of American universities in postwar Vietnam; consult to the UN, US and other “interested agencies”; train US war vets and “dissenters” to serve in postwar Vietnam; instruct Vietnamese students in ESL; offer courses on Vietnam in various departments; create a journal, library, translation service, a museum, and a “sister-university program with a Vietnamese university.”

Student protests against the war, racism, and other issues were growing on many American campuses. But Douglas Allen writes in the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Vol. 8, 1976, that while anti-war teach-ins began at Michigan, Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard and elsewhere, it was “at places like Kent State, Jackson State, and Southern Illinois University (SIU) at Carbondale, that many of the most bitter and protracted struggles were waged and in many instances crucial victories won. The story of the struggle to defeat the Center for Vietnamese Studies at SIU exemplifies the finest tradition of linking scholarship with real struggle, of unmasking official lies and generating popular widespread support on a critical issue of war and peace….”

One of the main campus buildings at SIUC had already been burned to the ground in 1968, suspected to be arson. In May 1969, eight members of the student government staged a sit-in in front of the president’s office, in protest of “regulations of women’s hours”; the next day 1,500 students demonstrated. The SDS and other anti-war groups were active on campus (and are described by Harper as calming down angry crowds and picking up trash after protest events). Morris too was becoming personally unpopular across the state for pushing hard to spend loads of money on new projects, including a new president’s house, a golf course, and an amphitheater at the satellite campus in Edwardsville.

And in September of 1969 the Center for Vietnamese Studies opened, “just as national opposition to the war in Vietnam was escalating on campuses across the country.” Student protests against the new center came quickly and vigorously, with themes such as, “Off AID, CIA, and Wesley Fishel.” (Harper explains, “Fishel was the focus of a national controversy over his possible connections to the CIA while at Michigan State University and was a consultant to the SIU center.”)

The center received unwanted national attention before it ever got up and running. C. Harvey Gardiner, a research professor of history at SIU published an attack on the center in local papers that read, “Why should a state university supported by the taxpayers of Illinois have a program that can approximate an academic antechamber to the whorehouses of Saigon? All the pollution in this world is not in air and water; some is in academic circles.” This was picked up elsewhere. Twenty-five hundred people marched peacefully in the Carbondale streets; the Illinois National Guard was called out. (Illinois government has never had a problem sending the National Guard to Southern Illinois.) The Chronicle of Higher Education described the AID grant to the center as “the largest single institutional commitment to Vietnamese studies in the country,” and the University of Chicago branch of the National Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars released a petition of 58 of its members that “condemned ‘the threat to academic freedom presented by the (AID-funded)’” center.

Then Kent State happened, and it seems a miracle that the same disaster didn’t occur at SIU, where students marched by the thousands—some vandalizing property and occupying buildings—and were put to rout by police and National Guardsmen with tear gas. (See this very good senior thesis written by a student at SIU in 2002.) The campus was shut down, classes ended early—my brother-in-law had no finals that year—and as Harper says, “Delyte Morris’ career—and his personal life—largely came to an end at [an] August 1970 meeting of the SIU trustees when he was, for all intents, sacked with little concern for his personal feelings.”

A number of factors led to Morris’—and the university’s—downfall, including the center, disgruntlement across the state at his “empire building,” financial malfeasance, even perhaps early-onset Alzheimer’s, but most of all, a system so unwieldy that the center couldn’t hold when the man who'd held it together for 20 years with his magnetism finally weakened.

After-echoes of the effort remain in the form of this Summer Institute that brings students from Southeast Asia to Carbondale. The public relations service at SIU says it’s “one of just seven universities in the country involved in this U.S. Department of State program…. ‘We’re the heartland,’ [a co-director of the Institute] said, explaining the appeal to the Department of State in sending students to a Midwestern university.”

And by pure coincidence—I think—there’s another SIU in Saigon now, with a nearly identical URL to the university in Southern Illinois that once was so interested in Vietnam.


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