Washington State University, Part 2

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 5/26/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5704

Washington State University was born in 1890 as the Agricultural College, Experiment Station and School of Science of the State of Washington. The school underwent a series of transformations during its second half century but retained its role as “The People’s University,” steadily increasing access to higher education for people throughout the state. Part Two of a two-part Snapshot History examines developments from the 1940s to the present.

Guns and Butter

Washington State College became less insular during its second half century. World War II, automobiles, television, various international events, and the diversification of the student body all served to reduce the school’s isolation.

Daily life on campus was relatively unaffected for a year or two after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II in December 1941. However, by the end of the 1942-1943 academic year, the impact of the war was obvious. Cougar football was suspended for the duration (and Butch the Cougar became the official mascot for the battleship U.S.S. Washington). Men’s dorms and fraternities emptied as students went into the military. Their places were soon filled by military personnel sent to the college for special training. The War Department contracted with WSC to train members of the Army Signal Corps, provide Japanese language instruction, and operate a preflight school for bomber pilots and crews. At one point there were 1,900 military trainees on campus.

Students began to think of news from the outside world as a daily necessity. They listened avidly to the radio. Much of what they heard came from Edward R. Murrow, the famed broadcaster, who graduated from WSC in 1930.

By early 1944, even the servicemen were gone from campus. “It was like a girls school,” one female student recalled (Stimson, 152). Women took over campus duties, from putting out the student newspaper to running the student government.

There was some consolation that year, with the introduction of Cougar Gold, a sharp white cheddar that has become a trademark of the university. The cheese was developed by Dr. N. S. Golding, a dairy bacteriologist, who in the late 1930s began studying molds for use in the production of cheese. Cougar Gold -- packaged in distinctive cans -- is still sold by the WSU Creamery and available by mail order around the world.

The GI Bulge

After the war the college struggled to accommodate the “GI Bulge” -- a massive influx of military veterans. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (“GI Bill of Rights”) guaranteed veterans free tuition and a monthly living allowance while in college. Wilson M. Compton (1890-1967), who replaced Ernest O. Holland (1874-1950) as president in 1945, promised that no GI who met basic admissions standards would be turned away from WSC. The problem was finding enough living, dining, and classroom space for them.

The veterans who arrived in the first wave, in September 1946, were assigned bunks and hammocks set up in the women’s gym. Compton then bought migrant housing from a dealer in Oregon; the wooden buildings were shipped to the campus in sections. The federal government provided several “demountable temporary housing units.”

Parts of the campus began to look like military cantonments, an effect heightened by the construction of four large dorms at the foot of Campus Hill. Each consisted of a two-story barrack enlarged by a series of wings. They were designed to house 385 people, but at times were crammed with nearly 500 students. The buildings became infamous for their varied discomforts -- the floors were springy, the windows rattled, and the heating system was built in a way that made the rooms closest to the furnace too hot while leaving those at the end of the wings too cold. Perhaps worst of all was the mud. The dorms were built on farmland and fresh fill. The mud was so inescapable that the area was known as “Mud Flats.”

Campus life became less cohesive after the war. Upperclassmen no longer had much influence over incoming students. It was one thing to tell an 18-year-old farm boy that he had to wear a freshman beanie, but harder to exert the same control over a 22-year-old veteran. The veterans were a heterogeneous group, of many different ages and from different parts of the country, and they didn’t necessarily share traditional views about what college life should be like. In addition, many of them were married, and were more involved with family life than with campus activities.

Post-war conditions were so crowded that Compton explored the possibility of moving most of the institution to Spokane. He complained about the “lack of imagination” demonstrated by those who selected the Pullman site in the first place. Still, he acknowledged that “Each course of brick that we lay and each stroke of the hammer further commits W.S.C. as an institution to its traditional location” (quoted in Frykman, 134). By 1947, he had conceded the inevitable: the state college would stay put.

Coming of Age

In 1959, the Legislature formally recognized what had long been true: the former Agricultural College, Experiment Station and School of Science of the State of Washington had become a university. A bill to change the name of Washington State College to Washington State University, effective September 1, passed the Legislature with no dissenting votes. Even the University of Washington endorsed the change.

One measure of the institution’s new academic stature was development of an honors program, established in 1960 under the direction of Sidney Hacker, a professor of mathematics. The WSU Honors College is now one of the nation’s oldest and most respected university programs for academically talented students. Money magazine ranks it in the top eight among more than 430 programs.

In 1962, WSU joined the Athletic Association of Western Universities, which later became the Pacific-8, then the Pacific-10 Conference.  This athletic conference membership ensured that the UW Huskies and the WSU Cougars would compete in a well known cross-state rivalry, with the most visible event being the annual Apple Cup football game in November.

The university also developed a nuclear research program in the early 1960s. A low-grade nuclear reactor completed its first chain reaction on March 9, 1961. The swimming pool type reactor (the fifth of its size in the U.S., after similar models at North Carolina State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, and Pennsylvania State University) was financed by grants from the Atomic Energy Commission and other federal agencies. By September 1963, it was being used by eight classes, 30 graduate students, and 40 faculty members.

Construction of the reactor was part of a series of steps to improve the research capabilities and graduate programs at the university. A number of new fields were opened for doctoral studies, including an interdisciplinary American Studies program, the first such program in the Pacific Northwest.

At the same time, WSU began to experience the first of several transformations associated with the arrival of the “Baby Boom” generation. Enrollment surged as the sons and daughters of the World War II generation reached college age. The first “skyscraper dorms” (Orton Hall and Rogers Hall, housing more than 1,000 students between them) were built in 1964 to accommodate the newcomers. Students would soon be complaining about the impersonal, hotel-like quality of these dormitories.

Protest Redux

The number of students at WSU doubled and then doubled again as the baby boomers --  people born between 1946 and 1964 -- reached college age. By the end of the 1960s, nearly 14,000 students were on campus: roughly quadruple the enrollment in the 1940s. The sheer weight of their numbers made these students hard to ignore.

As had been true of their predecessors, WSU students in the 1960s complained about rules that limited dormitory hours and otherwise restricted student social life. They also sought a greater role for students in university affairs, including decisions about curriculum. They demanded that the curriculum be made more “relevant,” with courses on such subjects as race relations and women’s history. Later in the decade, a small but vocal segment of the student body began to organize “teach-ins,” marches, and rallies to protest American involvement in the war in Vietnam.

The first “peace march” on campus took place on December 8, 1961. It was led not by students but by women faculty, faculty wives, and women from the Pullman area, objecting to the nation’s nuclear weapons policy. By the late 1960s, antiwar demonstrations by students had become almost commonplace at WSU, although they rarely disrupted campus life. For example, in 1969 about 50 members of the local chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and a few sympathetic faculty members sat down in a building used by military recruiters. However, they did not try to prevent prospective recruits from entering. The recruiting went on as scheduled, and the demonstrators eventually left peacefully.

These demonstrations were modest compared to those at many other universities. They rarely involved more than a few hundred students. As one historian has pointed out, “There were no riots, no bombs, no state troopers, no faculty or administrator hostages, and little disruption of classes” at WSU (Stimson, 225). Still, student unrest added to the challenges of managing what was becoming an increasingly complex institution.

In 1966, C. Clement French (1901-1988) announced his retirement after 14 years as WSU president, saying the “pressures have become steadily greater and the days more tense, even in a good situation as we have here.” He was replaced the next year by W. Glenn Terrell (b. 1920), former Dean of Faculties at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle.

Terrell, only 47 when he took office, soon became known as a “student’s president.” He sought increased funding for undergraduate education; increased support for graduate studies; a greatly enhanced program in veterinary medicine, improvements in biological science, humanities, and nursing education, and a new Center for Applied Research in the Social Sciences. However, fractious students in the late 1960s and a financial crisis in the 1970s shadowed much of Terrell’s tenure as president.

Campus Tensions

One factor in the increasing politicization of the campus was the hostile reception given a group of 54 African American students from Seattle’s Garfield High School, who arrived for a campus visit on the evening of May 9, 1968. The visit was part of a nascent effort to recruit minorities to WSU. Due to an oversight, dormitory officials were not on hand to welcome the students and assign them to rooms. The students were forced to wait for hours while efforts were made to find other accommodations. The tense situation worsened when a few WSU students began taunting the visitors with racial insults. At 2:30 a.m. the next morning, the Garfield students boarded a bus to return to Seattle. President Terrell promptly issued a public apology, but the school’s image suffered a blow.

Racial tensions escalated early the next year, after an intramural basketball game between teams from a white fraternity (Alpha Gamma Rho) and a black dormitory (Goldsworthy Hall).

A white player from the fraternity hit a black player from the other team during the game. A week later, a dozen members of the Black Student Union, three of them carrying guns, went to the fraternity. Five of the blacks were arrested, pled guilty, and were sentenced to several weekends in the Whitman County jail. The incident focused attention on the isolation experienced by black students at WSU, who comprised only a small fraction of the student body at the time (roughly 200 students out of a total enrollment of about 14,000).

Protests continued in the early 1970s, covering topics as diverse as the war in Vietnam, racism, and the sale of grapes harvested by nonunion labor. More than 3,000 students participated in an anti-war demonstration on March 7, 1970. When Henry M. Jackson, then Washington’s junior senator and a supporter of American involvement in Vietnam, spoke at WSU on April 22 that year, he was pelted with marshmallows. Between 500 and 800 students and a few faculty members occupied the Administration Building for one day to protest the shooting of four anti-war demonstrators at Kent State University in Ohio in May 1970.

In another sign of political edginess, the 1970 Chinook (the student yearbook) was dedicated not to a respected professor but to the threat of pollution. The opening essay scolded Americans for their affluence, and warned, “We are a cancer within the environment, and soon the organism must perish” (quoted in Stimson, 218-219).

By the mid-1970s, political issues had given way to economic concerns. In 1977, in the midst of a nationwide recession, Washington voters approved a measure to remove the sales tax on food and medicine. Net state revenue fell by $127 million the next year, forcing WSU to cut its budget by 8.5 percent. Further cuts followed over the next few years as state support of higher education continued to fall. In response, WSU merged its Colleges of Agriculture and Home Economics, eliminated several Ph.D. programs, and postponed scheduled salary increases.

The intercollegiate athletic department remained relatively unscathed during this period, a source of considerable resentment among some of the faculty. In March 1981, a group of professors from the College of Engineering accused the university of transferring instructional funds to athletics. President Terrell admitted that such transfers had been made, but he insisted that no state laws had been broken. Subsequent analysis of the 1981-1983 biennial budget showed that intercollegiate men’s sports at WSU received $1.2 million in state funds, along with $7.5 million from other sources -- a total that amounted to 3.5 percent of the university’s total budget. (In comparison, women’s sports received $300,000.) The issue of athletic funding became so contentious that it led to an effort to force Terrell to resign. He held on until 1985, then announced his retirement, after 18 years in a challenging job.

The Smith Years

Samuel H. Smith (b. 1940), dean of the College of Agriculture at Pennsylvania State University, took office as the eighth president of WSU in 1985. By the time he retired, in 2000, he had overseen the development of branch campuses in Spokane, the Tri-Cities, and Vancouver. The branch campuses, along with the creation of 10 Regional Learning Centers and the expansion of Distance Learning Programs, meant that students in virtually every corner of the state now had access to degrees from WSU.

Nearly $760 million in capital improvements were completed during Smith’s tenure, including the New Library in the heart of the main campus at Pullman, a world-renowned Veterinary Teaching Hospital, and an Animal Disease Biotechnology Building. The university also greatly improved its computer and online resources, earning Yahoo’s rating as the number one “wired” public university in the nation in May 1999. Once disparaged as “Moo U,” Washington State had moved to the technological cutting edge, thanks in part to generous gifts from Microsoft co-founder (and WSU alumnus) Paul Allen and others.

Smith became known as a consummate fundraiser, so much so that the joke when he walked into a room was “Watch your wallet.” He helped raise more than $475 million in gifts and private grants during his 15 years as president.

However, his success in raising money did not always translate to harmonious relations with faculty members. Some professors complained that Smith made decisions without consulting the faculty; that he gave too much attention to the branch campuses and not enough to the main campus at Pullman; and that he focused more on expanding access to WSU than on improving academic quality. It didn’t help that of 23 peer institutions (land-grant research universities with veterinary programs), WSU ranked second to last in faculty salaries.

Still, the WSU faculty gained a new level of national recognition when  biochemist Clarence A. "Bud" Ryan was selected for membership in National Academy of Sciences, the first WSU professor to receive that singular honor.  By 2004 seven members of the university's faculty had gained membership in the National Academy of Sciences or the National Academy of Engineering.

Like his predecessors, Smith struggled to control rowdy student behavior, often related to alcohol consumption and invariably associated with negative publicity. WSU officials had long been concerned about the university’s reputation as a “party school,” but several incidents in the late 1990s and early 2000s forced them to take a harder line on alcohol abuse. Twenty-three police officers and four students were injured during a five-hour, alcohol-induced student riot on Greek Row in May 1998. Two years later, about 500 students were involved in a standoff with police on the same street, in another incident blamed on alcohol. In September 2000, a black student from Seattle was beaten in a fight between members of two fraternities. The incident was one of 45 reports of violence on campus during the first month of school that year. Police estimated that 95 percent of them were alcohol-related.

Since then, the university has worked assiduously to shed its bacchanalian image. Students cited for underage drinking or other alcohol-related violations, whether on campus or in Pullman, face escalating sanctions, beginning with a 12-hour alcohol-abuse class for first offenses. Students who commit a third offense can be suspended for a semester and required to complete outpatient alcohol-abuse treatment before being readmitted. School officials were ecstatic in August 2000 when The Princeton Review bumped WSU out of its spot as the number nine party school in the nation and, indeed, excluded it from the top 20 altogether.

“The People’s University”

V. Lane Rawlins (b. 1937), who replaced Sam Smith as WSU president in June 2000, took over an institution that had quadrupled in size in 50 years. However, the main difference in the student body was not its size but its diversity. The typical student of the 1950s was white, middle class, 18 to 22 years old, and from a small town in Washington. Today, nearly 15 percent of WSU’s students are racial minorities, more than a third are 23 years old or older -- often much older -- and nearly 15 percent come from outside the state (including 3 percent from foreign nations).

For Rawlins, his selection as WSU president represented a homecoming. He began his academic career at WSU, joining the faculty as an economics professor in 1968, fresh out of graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. He worked his way up to department chairman and then to vice provost before leaving in 1986 to become vice chancellor at the University of Alabama. He moved on to serve as president of the University of Memphis in Tennessee in 1991.

He returned to WSU with a pledge to raise salaries for faculty, administrators, and teaching assistants, and to push the Legislature for more money to recruit and retain top faculty members. He also promised that the hallmark of his administration would be a quest for quality. "We've kind of gotten to the point that the concern for access outweighs everything, but I think a much bigger question is, access to what?" he said (The Seattle Times).

More selective admission standards, better research facilities, and changes in the undergraduate curriculum have translated to a steadily improving academic reputation for WSU. U.S. News and World Report ranked it as one of the top 50 public research universities in the nation in 2004. The only other institution to make the top 50 in the Pacific Northwest was the University of Washington. The report cited WSU’s undergraduate core curriculum, which includes expanded writing requirements, as a particular strength. The university is one of 13 institutions, including Duke and Harvard, that make the writing process a priority at all levels of instruction and in all areas of the curriculum.

With all these changes, the school still honors its roots as a land-grant college. In a meeting with a group of alumni shortly after being appointed president, Rawlins told a tale about a fellow who kept the same ax for 40 years. " `Well,' the man says, `I changed the handle four times and replaced the head three times, but it's the same ax.' " His meaning was clear: Administrators come and go, but the school remains.

To see Part 1, click "Previous Feature"


George A. Frykman, Creating the People’s University: Washington State University, 1890-1990 (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1990); William L. Stimson, Going to Washington State: A Century of Student Life (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1989; Washington State University, “WSU Highlights by Decade,” WSU Website accessed on May 20, 2004 (http://www.wsu.edu/WSU-history); Eli Sanders, “The ‘S’ in WSU Stands for Smith,” The Seattle Times, May 7, 2000; Ray Rivera, “Blow to Bacchanalian Image Thrills WSU,” The Seattle Times, August 25, 2000; Ray Rivera, “Farm Boy is Back Home Reshaping WSU’s Image,” The Seattle Times, September 11, 2000; Ray Rivera, “Police Tie Booze to Violence at WSU,” The Seattle Times, September 24, 2000.

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