Monday, February 25, 2019

Dr. Robert A. Thornton and Black Studies at CMU

by Bryan Whitledge

On June 1, 1969, the administration at Central Michigan University took a proactive step to improve diversity at CMU. President William Boyd hired Dr. Robert A. Thornton, a dean and professor of physics at San Francisco State University, to be a racial affairs consultant at the University. Dr. Boyd came to Mt. Pleasant from UC Berkeley in the summer of 1968 and, as he noted in a 2014 oral history interview, CMU struck him as a relatively homogeneous campus made up mostly of white students from Michigan.

Before Dr. Thornton came to campus, strides were already underway to improve curricular offerings in African-American studies. Just a few months into Dr. Boyd’s tenure, CMU convened the "Ad-Hoc Committee on Black Experience" with a charge of developing curricula and programming dedicated to exploring and informing the CMU community on matters of black culture. Additionally, the History Department was given permission to fast-track filling positions with professors to teach African-American history courses, and other departments, including English and Political Science, were encouraged to bring forward proposed courses that would incorporate the emerging discipline of African-American studies.

But Dr. Boyd knew that expanding curricular offerings in the humanities and social sciences was not enough. He drew upon his Bay-Area connections and requested that Dr. Thornton come to CMU to serve as a special assistant. His charge was "to help departments develop courses related to black studies, establish better relationships with predominantly black high schools, and recruit black students and faculty members." Dr. Thornton was a distinguished physicist and administrator who knew academia very well. He also came from San Francisco State University, which gave him a particular insight into the development of black studies curricula – only five months earlier, San Francisco State had officially created the first Department of Black Studies in the country. Dr. Thornton was a man familiar with the cutting edge of the black studies movement and he was asked to impart his knowledge to the CMU community.

Dr. Thornton arrived in Mt. Pleasant on June 1, 1969 and stayed at CMU for two months. He then returned for another two weeks during the following winter break. The programming developed by the administration, with the help of Dr. Thornton, resulted in several changes on campus directed at the African-American community and those interested in black studies. The University sponsored a Black Symposium, bringing black scholars and artists to campus to give students on the majority-white campus insight into black culture.

Another initiative was the creation of the African-American Cultural Center in 1969-70. It was established in the "Old Library," known today as Ronan Hall, as a place for all students on campus to go, but specifically geared toward African-American students for academic resources, cultural programming, and a location for studying. Just one year later, students, faculty, staff, and administration developed programming for the first African-American History Week at Central in 1971 with various performance art exhibitions, forums, and guest speakers aimed at increasing awareness and a sense of community at CMU.

Not all of the efforts undertaken during the Boyd administration resulted in success. Despite an effort to recruit African-American faculty, in 1974, ten of the 604 faculty (1.6%) identified as minority with eight African-American faculty members or 1.3% of the total faculty. The course in History about the African-American experience was taken off the books after only year because the university could not find a qualified instructor.

In the years immediately following Dr. Thornton’s time on campus, small and meaningful steps were taken to improve diversity and cultural understanding. While Dr. Thornton was not an instructor at Central, he made an impact on the many students who took part in the black studies programming he helped to establish. In 2019, the 50th anniversary of his visit to our university, we reflect on Dr. Thornton’s groundbreaking tenure at Central. His contributions to physics, academia, and our society serve as an inspiration to academic pursuits here in Mount Pleasant and beyond.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Historic CMU Emergency Shutdowns - Part III

by Bryan Whitledge

Clarke Director Frank Boles
in winter, 2014
Earlier in the week, we posted a piece about historic shutdowns, focusing on the Great Blizzard of '78 and a three-week closure due to a flu epidemic in 1968. In searching for those stories, we missed two major events pointed out to us by Central alumni who remembered their Mother-Nature-induced vacations from classes. So we jumped back in our time machine and revisited the Flood of '86 and the Not-So-Fired-Up Power Outage of '85 in a subsequent blog post. Well, as great as our time machine is (which is really just a collection of digitized newspapers and some super-savvy archivists and librarians who are good searching for information), we've been tipped off by CMU alumni and friends of the Clarke who remember other major weather events that caused trouble for the CMU campus. Thanks to all who have brought these to our attention. With that, we bring you Part III of emergency campus shutdowns. The only thing that seems to make the recent ice storm bearable is reading about the miserable weather suffered by others who have walked the grounds of the CMU campus over the years.

First off is a terrible winter storm that may or may not have caused cancellations at CMU. On Tuesday and Wednesday, January 26 and 27, 1971, a winter storm slammed the Midwest and dozens of schools and businesses closed that day. The Michigan Daily at the University of Michigan reported on it; the Farwell News from of a town just a few miles north of Mt. Pleasant reported on it. And the CM Life reported on it on January 27: "The extremely cold winds and snow closed schools and businesses all over the state, and more bad weather is in store all day today." The blurb was part of a caption featuring an image of a young woman bundled up in a very fluffy, shaggy coat (straight out of 1971 for those who enjoy reminiscing about fashions of the past). It's clear that the weather was awful. But despite that, it seems that Central students trudged through the snow and faced the winds to head to class with no closures or cancellations mentioned in the CM Life.

Spectators at the Polar Plunge supporting Special Olympics, February 2008

The second set of campus closures to mention came more recently, in January and February of 2008. In March that year, the CM Life reported on Academic Senate discussions about adopting a formal "snow day" policy. As the reporter pointed out in the first sentence, that semester was unusual in that there were five days of cancelled classes. Because of the extreme circumstances, the majority of senators did not believe a formal policy was necessary. As one senator was quoted: "I think, while it certainly did impact this semester, time spent on a policy for something that may not happen again for 20 years would be a waste of time." Flash forward 11 years, to 2019 -- and it looks like we are nine years ahead of schedule. In just two weeks, snow, ice, bitter cold, and a polar vortex have forced CMU to cancel or delay classes five times.

As Benjamin Franklin and other great thinkers have said, death and taxes are the only certainties in life. But it seems that horrible weather in Michigan leading to campus shutdowns at CMU every few years could be added to that list.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Historic CMU Emergency Shutdowns: Part II

by Bryan Whitledge

Yesterday, we posted a piece about historic campus shutdowns that we found via the digitized historic campus newspapers (and you can read all of the CM Life and the yearbooks via!). In our haste to journey back in time to the Great Blizzard of '78 and the flu epidemic of 1968, we skipped two major campus closures. Thanks to members of the CMU Alumni for remembering these extended "vacations," as CM Life referred to them.

First up, Monday, March 4, 1985. That day, a snowstorm passed through Mount Pleasant and brought campus operations to a standstill. Just one week before spring break, students got an extra vacation day. From the reports, it seems like everything would have been up and running the next day and students would finish out the week before heading to Panama City or Daytona... or Lansing. But at 7:00 am Tuesday morning, a lightning bolt struck near Foust Hall and sent a surge of electricity through campus. Most campus buildings lost power and campus was closed for another day. Repair crews worked like mad, but the power was still out for most of campus on Wednesday as well, and campus remained closed. At that point, President Harold Abel met with other campus administrators and decided to cancel classes through the end of the week.

For CMU students in 1985, spring break started a week early. It wasn't until Friday, March 8th that the power was completely restored. With the university closed, followed by spring break, CM Life's first opportunity to report on the less-than-fired-up campus wasn't until the week of March 18.

Just 18 months later, in September 1986, another storm brought campus to its knees. This time, it rained and rained... and rained. From September 9 to 11, it rained nearly 12 inches! Because the campus was inundated and the campus power infrastructure was damaged, University administrators cancelled classes on Thursday, September 11 for two days. University staff members thought they would be able to assess the problems by Friday and have everything back up and running for classes the next week. But that wasn't the case. Campus staff couldn't access the power system until Monday. Then, it took another two days to fully restore power to the campus. In total, students were given five days of "vacation."

We appreciate the memories of Central alumni who fill us in on the stops we missed on our journey back in time. Yesterday, we mentioned that today's students join the ranks of those who survived the Great Blizzard of '78. Today, we can add to that those who survived the Not-So-Fired-Up power outage of '85 and the Flood of '86.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Historic Central Michigan University Shutdowns

by Bryan Whitledge

On Monday, January 28, as a powerful snowstorm pounded Mt. Pleasant, Central Michigan University cancelled that day's operations at 9:00 am. Two days later, because of temperatures and wind chill values well below zero degrees Fahrenheit, CMU shuttered again for two days. These campus closures sparked curiosity around the campus – has Central cancelled classes for multiple days at a time in the past?

In our memories here at the Clarke, we couldn’t definitively remember any such occasions. But with over 100 years of campus newspapers at our disposal, we knew we could find the answer! Immediately, we headed to for our journey back in time.

We set our eyes first on 2014, remembering the last polar vortex that chilled Mt. Pleasant to the bone. We found that CMU closed twice that winter: January 28 due to the bitter cold, and the evening of February 21 due to snow. Central had closed multiple days in 2014, although not consecutively. We were early in our journey, so it was no surprise that we didn't have a positive answer, yet. The next stop for our time machine was February 2011. That month, Central cancelled classes twice. But again, not consecutively. On February 2, a winter storm closed classes all day. On February 21, all morning classes were delayed due to poor road conditions. The search would have to continue to find out if Mother Nature had previously wreaked havoc in Mt. Pleasant à la January 2019.

As our time machine cruised through the 2000s, the 1990s, and the 1980s, we found a couple single snow days – February 16, 2006 and December 4, 1990 – but no major shutdowns. Like any trip down snow-covered roads, we were diverted off our course. In this case, we took a detour to see some fun artifacts of the past, like an ad from 1990 for an IBM Personal System/2 computer with 1 megabyte of memory and 30 megabytes of hard disk storage for the tidy sum of $1,649! Or you could swing by WhereHouse records to buy 1995’s hottest soundtrack, Men In Black, for $8.99…on cassette!

But we quickly moved through the detour and got back on the path to solving this campus closure curiosity. As we moved beyond 1980, we came to January 25-27, 1978. For those of a certain age who lived in Michigan at the time, they know exactly what we are about to describe. For those who were not yet alive, they, too, know exactly what we are about to describe, thanks to a relative, friend, neighbor, teacher, or some random person in the grocery store on a snowy day – because anyone who survived it can't seem to go a winter without mentioning... “the Great Blizzard of 1978.” And there is a reason people who lived through it remember it well. Considered one of the worst winter storms in US history, Mother Nature and her friend Old Man Winter slammed the Great Lakes region with multiple feet of snow and wind chill values that plunged below -50 degrees F. As a result, schools, universities, businesses, and municipalities throughout Michigan cancelled operations. Governor Milliken declared a state of emergency. Traverse City was declared "unofficially closed."

For two days, Thursday, January 26 and Friday, January 27, CMU told students, faculty, and non-essential staff to stay away from campus. With classes cancelled, students managed to keep busy, thanks in part to the Intramural Department at CMU. The IM staff hosted a disco dance night with over 1,500 attendees in the Rose Arena. They also sponsored a snow sculpture contest for the residence halls; Trout Hall won with a Wizard-of-Oz-themed sculpture. Off-campus, some enterprising businesses – specifically Tom’s Foolery and the Wayside, capitalized on students looking for a way to pass the time with all of their regular curricular engagements removed from the agenda. The Wayside, which opened at 2:00 pm on Thursday, reported over 500 people inside by 2:30 pm.

CM Life spread with photos from the Great Blizzard of '78

We finally answered the question of whether there was a previous instance of a consecutive-day closure in CMU’s history. But the Clarke staff didn’t stop there (our time machines can handle a lot more than those 1990 IBM PS/2’s with 1 MB of RAM). As we kept heading back in time, we came across another winter-related, although not weather-related, closure. This one was much longer than any other on record. Fifty years ago, in December 1968 and January 1969, Central officially closed down for three weeks because of an influenza outbreak.

Back in 1968, the fall semester started on September 14 and ended on January 24 with a 2-week break, from December 21 until January 6. The flu epidemic, which killed over 30,000 people in the US and approximately one million worldwide, caused the CMU winter break to start one week early. By Saturday, December 14, over 1,000 of the 6,000 students who lived in campus residence halls had already reported being ill. In response to the health emergency, and for the safety of everyone at Central, university administrators cancelled all operations from December 14 until January 6. Although students only missed one week of classes, the official closure lasted over three weeks, making this the longest emergency closure in Central’s history.

As far as we can tell from the campus newspapers, CMU has closed down for consecutive days three times in the past fifty years. Despite all the environmental risks that come with living in the middle of Michigan – polar vortexes and blizzards, ice storms and snowstorms, floods and flu – Central staff and faculty have done a great job keeping the university open for business. When CMU has shuttered for multiple days, it has been because of extreme circumstances. And just like people of a certain age reminisce about the extreme circumstances of "the Great Blizzard of 1978,” today’s students will one day be of a certain age and they will probably boast, “Back when I was at CMU, during the polar vortex of 2019…”