How do you raise a university? 25 years in the life of UMBC

September 20, 1991|By David T. Lewis

IT WAS 1966, and what a funny, strange and difficult time to start a university!

Who could have imagined the race riots just 18 months ahead, the Vietnam War riots that were to follow and then, in 1969, the sit-ins? We forecast nothing of the sort. We were in the business of opening the University of Maryland Baltimore County, which we did just 25 years ago this week.

On that bright September morning, over 750 students -- 200 more than expected -- showed up. We had recruited them largely from Southwest Baltimore. A majority of those pioneers came from families where college educations were not the norm.

As students, they were sober, hard-working, parochial and not terribly sophisticated. Indeed, many had never been to the nation's capital. Their professors were in sharp contrast. Many had just completed doctorates at the preeminent public universities of the Midwest and had taught undergraduates from intense academic environments. Those colleges had made certain that their students would succeed and had provided the wherewithal to assure it.

UMBC students continued in their innocence. Most were freshmen, still imbued with high-school attitudes. And because there were few upperclassmen and no graduate students to make them worldly-wise, few ever thought of cutting class. Most of those first students were commuters. They came to class and returned to job or home immediately after, often to a home that didn't fully understand the higher education experience. At the newborn UMBC, there were no midnight meaning-of-life conversations with peers such as dormitory life inspires.

Another telling influence was UMBC's smallness. Everyone knew everyone else, and the dean of faculty, Homer Schamp, knew all of the faculty and most of the students by name.

But change is a constant. We began to draw students from elsewhere in Maryland and from out-of-state, and different points of view began to emerge. Students began to look different. Khakis and the chinos soon gave way to T-shirts and jeans. Beards began to appear, along with Beatle-like hair to the shoulders, sandals instead of shoes and skirts that brushed either the floor or the thighs.

And everybody wanted a voice in everything, including the educational process.

Within a year of its founding, UMBC students were fully invested in the '60s and its causes, fanned now by several liberal faculty members who filled the leadership vacuum left by the non-existent upperclassmen. But remnants of the early innocence lingered through the end of that decade. I remember one young man who was participating in a sit-in. It had begun earlier in the administration building and was progressing toward the academic building.

The student, who was occupying my office, rose up and meekly asked me if he could use the phone. "We're having a sit-in, Mom," I heard him whisper. "I wonder if I can stay over?"

Students, I imagine, are more a reflection of the epoch in which they go to school than of the school itself, and although UMBC seemed to be an exception to the rule in its early years, its students soon began to resemble others around the country. They bore the marks of the '70s recession and Watergate, which followed the Vietnam crisis and the riots.

Though they had been the "We" generation, they became the "Me" generation. By the mid-'80s, the radicalism and liberalism usually associated with academe had given over to conservatism of the first order, in some cases even among the faculty. In 1985, one registrar for the League of Women Voters claimed that she had registered three times more Republicans at UMBC than Democrats.

Through my career, I've been very close to students. I've taught them, advised them and corresponded with some of them for over 40 years. The students I first taught after World War II were some of the best I ever had. The '50s students were career-oriented, conservative in political outlook and academically well prepared. The '60s students experienced two watersheds -- 1964 for the elite schools whose students marched and fell in Mississippi, and 1968 for everyone else. The '70s saw grade inflation and a decline in the academic skills of many of our freshmen. Today, students are extremely career-oriented.

But lest one sees this as the pendulum swinging back to the '50s, one should remember that each period bears some of the earlier imprint, and so new ideas and outlooks are blended with the old; they do not supplant them. My bet is that tomorrow's students will be serious, but they won't be as rigid and conformist as those we taught in the 1950s. I hope they'll be more liberal, too. All in all, that isn't a bad combination.

David T. Lewis is professor emeritus at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where he was the first dean of social sciences.

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