Sesquicentennial Memories

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This article was originally written for the Spring/Summer 2003 edition of the Rhode Island College Alumni Magazine. Its length exceeded by a considerable amount the publication's available space and so the editors of the Magazine carefully and expertly condensed the material to meet space requirements. For similar reasons, a differently edited version of this article appeared in the special Sesquicentennial Issue of What's News at Rhode Island College. The greater latitude afforded by web publishing, however, allows us for the first time to present this article as originally written on July 1, 2003.


Leadership and Change

By Michael E. Smith ‘79

There are many ways by which to chronicle the grand history of one of the ten oldest public normal schools in the nation – an institution we now know as Rhode Island College. A common thread throughout the years, however, lies in the extraordinary vision, drive, and dynamism of those individuals who rose to the many challenges of founding, protecting, sustaining, and growing our alma mater. This is an account of some of those special individuals.

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In the middle of the nineteenth century, there came a gradual recognition that our nation's booming economy, especially in the industrialized cities of the northeast, would require a work force with better educational skills. A few education pioneers, such as the great Horace Mann, believed that the key to improving education was the development of a stronger, better qualified cadre of teachers and educational leaders – in short, the elevation of teaching to the status of a profession.

By 1830, Providence was the twelfth largest city in the United States. Its population was growing rapidly and in all respects it was a thriving metropolis. In 1838, Providence became the first city in New England to appoint a Superintendent of Schools and, in the aftermath of the Dorr Rebellion, Rhode Island's first Constitution (1842) squarely placed the responsibility for public education with state government. A year later, Henry Barnard was appointed the state's first School Agent (a post we would now refer to as Commissioner of Education). One of Barnard's charges was to establish a normal school, but while he would take great strides toward improving public education in the state, the goal of founding of a normal school would elude him prior to his resignation in 1849 due to ill health.

Nonetheless, Barnard's passion for the professionalism of education inspired many others to take up his cause. As part of Brown University's academic restructuring under President Francis Weyland, the University in 1850 created a Normal Department under the leadership of Samuel Stillman Greene, Professor of Didactics. Significantly, Greene simultaneously held the position of Providence Superintendent of Schools, giving him a "real-world" understanding of public education. During the 1851-52 academic year, Greene offered his education classes at the Providence High School building on Benefit Street, with 80 students in attendance.

The success of this venture led Greene to open a private normal school on the second floor of the Second Universalist Church' located at the corner of Weybosset and Eddy streets in Providence. Classes began on October 24 with an enrollment of about 80 women and four men, including one African-American. Among those assisting Professor Greene in providing instruction was a former colleague of Horace Mann's, a young mathematician named Dana P. Colburn.

In December 1853 the Providence School Committee voted in favor of establishing a public normal school for prospective city teachers, but shortly thereafter state education leaders were successful in persuading the General Assembly to appropriate $3,000 for a state normal school.

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The State Normal School

The Rhode Island State Normal School opened on May 29 in the same Weybosset Street quarters as Professor Greene's private normal school. Named as Principal was Greene's former assistant, the 31-year old Dana Pond Colburn. The institution was a successful enterprise from the very beginning, with 88 students attending during its first year of operation.

Unfortunately, the issue of public funding for the Normal School was one largely favored by urban interests and, in the days of limited suffrage -- and long before anyone seriously entertained the concept of "one person, one vote" -- the influence of urban legislators was tenuous.

In 1857, just three years after the establishment of the public Normal School, the balance of power shifted and the state appropriation was withdrawn. The school would continue but education officials would have to search for a benefactor. Although there was some initial interest from the village of Woonsocket, it was local leaders in the Town of Bristol who stepped forward with the offer of free accommodations on the second floor of a former Congregational Meeting House that had recently been gifted to the town. Renovations to the Bradford Street structure took longer than expected; accordingly, from September 15 through October 23, 1857, classes were held in temporary quarters: first at an abandoned Methodist church on the Town Common, and then at the Bristol County Court House.

In the 1850's, Bristol was a thriving port and shipbuilding community, but its geographic location far from the much larger urban centers of Providence, Newport, and other West Bay communities would prove to be a factor in the decline of attendance at the Normal School. Nonetheless, Principal Colburn proved a charismatic and passionate leader, and operations continued. Then tragedy struck. Shortly after four o'clock on the afternoon of December 15, 1859, a week before his wedding, Mr. Colburn was thrown from his carriage by his horse, dragged upon the frozen ground, and died.

Daniel Goodwin, a member of the faculty, was installed as provisional Principal but left two months later to pursue theological studies. Goodwin's sister, Miss Hannah W. Goodwin, completed the year as Principal Pro-Tem until Joshua Kendall, age 32, assumed the Principalship. Kendall had previously been director of the Huidekoper Academy for young ladies in Meadville, Pennsylvania.

Despite Kendall's best efforts, the institution's enfeeblement by limited finances, the remoteness of its location, and the growing need for officers to serve in the Union Army (the number of male students had increased) soon proved too much to overcome. With enrollment hovering around 20, Kendall resigned his Principalship effective January 1865 to teach at a private school in Cambridge. His Assistant Principal, Miss Eleanor R. Luther, took over operations until the school closed after completion of the spring semester. It did not reopen in the fall. Instead, the General Assembly voted to subsidize instruction of teachers at private academies, the Providence Conference Seminary in East Greenwich and the Lapham Institute in North Scituate. From 1867 through 1869 the state paid $2,440 in tuition for approximately 150 students enrolled under this program.

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Renewal and Redemption

It wasn't long before public education had a new champion, however. In 1869, Governor Seth Padelford appointed Thomas W. Bicknell, age 35, as Commissioner of Education. Bicknell's passion for the teaching profession led him to organize grass roots support for re-opening the State Normal School. He traveled widely, hosted a massive rally, clambake, and band concert at Rocky Point, and personally lobbied every member of the General Assembly to seek their approval.

His efforts met with success. Now on solid financial ground with a $10,000 state appropriation, the Normal School reopened on September 6, 1871, occupying rented quarters in the former Congregational Meeting House on Hoyle Square in Providence. The Principal was James Carruthers Greenough, LL.D., age 42, who had previously served as Associate Principal of the Massachusetts Normal School at Westfield. The school prospered under Greenough's leadership; so much so that by 1873 it was clear that larger quarters would soon be necessary. While legislative leaders were initially skeptical -- and it was certainly no help that influential Rep. Amos Barstow was the Normal School's landlord – pressure from the education community, the news media, and Providence Mayor Thomas Doyle, who had a former high school building on Benefit Street to sell, eventually turned legislative sentiment in favor of a new and larger home.

After renovations and the construction of an addition to the old Providence High School, the Normal School moved to its new home in December 1878, with a formal dedication held the following month. Principal Greenough continued in his role until 1883 when he became Principal of the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts at Amherst). State Education Commissioner Thomas Stockwell served as Acting Principal until Civil War Brigadier General Thomas J. Morgan, 44, a Professor of Homiletics and Church History at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Chicago, assumed the Principalship in January of 1884. It was under Morgan's watch that the Rhode Island Normal School Alumni Association was formed with Arthur W. Brown '72 as President.

In 1888 Principal Morgan was named by President Benjamin Harrison as US Commissioner of Indian Affairs and George Abner Littlefield, the 38 year-old Newport Superintendent of Schools, was selected as the fifth Principal of the Normal School. Littlefield served as Principal just three years before beginning a law practice, but under his leadership, the first steps were taken toward construction of the Normal School's first, purpose-built home.

Littlefield's successor, William E. Wilson, was a member of the Normal School faculty, a teacher of physical and biological sciences. It was Wilson's vision that led to a significant advancement in the Normal School curriculum: the opening, in 1893, of the first Observation and Training School, located at the corner of Benefit and Halsey Streets. Wilson also established the first cooperative agreements for student teachers with eight communities around the state. It was also under Principal Wilson that plans proceeded for construction of the new Normal School building.

The General Assembly passed a resolution in 1893 committing the state to constructing the new building "…at an expense not to exceed the sum of two hundred thousand dollars." The state turned over the old state prison property at Gaspee and Promenade Streets to the Normal School Building Commission in 1894. Due to the slope of the terrain, additional property was acquired by condemnation. The architect selected for the project was Martin & Hall of Providence with considerable interior design input from Principal Wilson, who recommended that the Observation and Training School be housed within the building and located on the first floor. The lowest bidder, N.B. Horton & Co. of Providence, was named prime contractor and groundbreaking took place on May 14, 1895.

Unfortunately, William E. Wilson would not be allowed to serve as principal in the new building. Former Commissioner Thomas Bicknell, in his 1911 book, "History of the Rhode Island Normal School," hinted of political maneuverings behind Wilson's resignation in 1898. Wilson would go on to serve with distinction as Principal of the Washington State Normal School at Ellensburg.

Instead, Frederick Gowing, Ph.D., the 38-year old New Hampshire Commissioner of Education, would serve as the first Principal in the new building, which was dedicated during festive ceremonies held on September 7, 1898. Dedicatory speeches were made by the US Commissioner of Education, William T. Harris, Rhode Island Governor Elisha Dyer, and Henry Barnard himself, now 87 years of age, no doubt delighted to see his early vision turned to majestic reality.

Principal Gowing's tenure would be brief; he departed in 1901 to accept a position with textbook company D.C. Heath. His successor would be Dr. Charles Sumner Chapin, 42, former Principal of the Westfield Normal School in Massachusetts. Highlights of Chapin's principalship would include a reversal of a decline in enrollment and the expansion of the number of training rooms in school districts throughout the state. Chapin resigned in 1907 to accept a position as Principal of a new normal school in Montclair, New Jersey. (The Montclair Normal School is now Montclair State University and one of its original buildings – then a residence hall, now a classroom building -- was dedicated in Chapin's honor in 1928.)

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First Normal School in New England to Become a College of Education

After Chapin's departure, leadership would pass to Dr. John Lincoln Alger, 44, Principal of the Vermont Academy. Alger would preside over our institution as Principal or President for 31 years, still a record for the longest continuous leadership by a single individual. His tenure was marked by a series of key changes and important accomplishments, not the least of which would be the transition of the Normal School into New England's first College of Education (1920). He also restricted admission to high school graduates and extended the required program to 2 _ years (1908), began Saturday classes for teachers (1909), instituted entrance tests (1913), established the first summer school for in-service teachers (1918), entered into a cooperative agreement with the Rhode Island State College (now URI) permitting students to receive a baccalaureate degree and Normal School diploma in four years (1919), established a graduate program (1925), extended the required program to three years (1926), helped design, with Clara Craig, a new, purpose-built observation & training school on the campus that was opened in 1928 (renamed in 1920 in honor of Henry Barnard), instituted intercollegiate athletic competition (1929) and encouraged publication of the first student newspaper (1927) and yearbook (1929). Many other traditions were established, such as the May Day exercises and the adoption of the Anchor as the symbol of school spirit.

Upon Alger's retirement at the end of the 1939 academic year, Professor Robert Marshall Brown, age 69, was named acting President. During Brown's brief turn at the helm, the College would open its first RIC Bookstore in a former closet, a nickelodeon was installed in the gymnasium to provide music for dancing from 12:15 to 1:00 each afternoon, and plans were made for the first Stunt Night as a benefit for the Men's Athletic Association.

Dr. Lucius Albert Whipple, 52, would begin his duties on December 1, 1939. A native of Harmony, Rhode Island, Whipple had previously served as Superintendent of the State Home and School for Children, as Superintendent of Schools in Lincoln, and as Principal of Pawtucket High School. Under Whipple's leadership, the curriculum was revised, including the institution of programs specifically designed to prepare teachers for secondary schools. In 1943 the College received its first-ever accreditation by the American Association of Teachers Colleges. In that era R.I.C.E. could boast of being one of the few accredited institutions of teacher education in the country. In 1945, facing the return of members of the armed forces, Whipple recognized that the College would need to expand its physical plant and began to press for enlargement of the existing campus. The College also would gain its first Vice President, Frederick J. Donovan, in 1944.

President Whipple resigned in 1951 due to ill health and would pass away the following year. Vice President Donovan, who was much beloved by students, was named acting President. It would be under Donovan, however, that critics of the College of Education would launch their most ambitious attack on the continued existence of the institution as a separate entity, including a long series of critical articles published in The Providence Journal.

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Era of Rapid Growth

Fortunately, friends of the College – aided in no small measure by the strong advocacy of the alumni – would carry the day. William Clement Gaige, 42, Superintendent of Schools of Claremont, California, was selected as the College's third President in 1952. It would be under President Gaige, with the strong support of Governor Dennis J. Roberts and James P. Adams, the influential Chair of the Board of Trustees of State Colleges, that the College would secure a new campus (1958), accreditation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (also in 1958), and a new name: Rhode Island College, which reflected its new and expanded mission of offering liberal arts programs (1960). In addition to these accomplishments, the College began a rapid academic and physical expansion, including construction of Thorp Hall (1961), the Donovan Dining Center (1962), Adams Library and Clarke Science (1963), the President's House, Weber Hall, and Walsh Center (1965), and Horace Mann Hall -- later renamed to honor Gaige (1966). The Rhode Island College Foundation was also established (1965), as was the Upward Bound program (1966).

President Gaige retired in 1966 and Vice President Charles B. Willard was named Acting President. Under Willard's acting presidency, the Music Wing of Roberts would open (1967), as would the Student Union, amid a lively "Student Power" demonstration on February 28, 1968. New academic programs were also approved, including the Bachelor of Science in Music Education and a program for the preparation of social workers.

Joseph F. Kauffman, 45, Dean of Student Affairs at the University of Wisconsin, would take office as the College's fourth President on July 1, 1968. Kauffman's presidency took place against the challenges emanating from growing student unrest, the war in Southeast Asia, the birth of the environmental movement, the civil rights struggle, the emergence of empowerment for women, the rise of professional unionization, and the lowering of the age of majority from 21 to 18, yet his administration would be characterized by rapid enrollment growth, new programs, a significant increase in the number of faculty, new construction, and campus expansion. Significant accomplishments of his 4-year presidency would include student advisory committees for each academic department and the purchase of 6.5 acres on western side of campus, including Alumni House, Doorley's Barn, and three other structures (1968), Browne Residence Hall, new majors in Art Education, Economics, and Nursing (1969), a revamped General Studies program, establishment of the Bureau of Social and Educational Services, creation of an office of part-time undergraduate studies, completion of the Administration Wing in Roberts, and the opening of the Faculty Center (1970), the new Horace Mann Hall, the tower addition of Craig-Lee Hall, the renovation of the former Student Center to serve as the Art Center, Willard Residence Hall, inauguration of the first separate graduate commencement ceremony, new majors in Speech Communication, Theatre -- and secondary education tracks in those areas (1971), and establishment of the first student exchange and study abroad programs (1972).

With President Kauffman's departure on January 8, 1973, Vice President Charles Borromeo Willard once again became acting President. This time, however, the Board of Regents, after an unsuccessful wide-ranging search that drew over 200 applicants, on April 5 prevailed upon Dr. Willard, now 61 years of age, to accept the Presidency in full. He thereby became the first alumnus to become President of the institution. Under the Willard presidency, a Rathskellar opened in the lower level of the Student Union, Special Collections was established at Adams Library, and the first nursing degrees were awarded (1974), Fogarty Life Science was dedicated and Cooperative Education made its debut (1975), a snack bar addition to the Donovan Dining Center was dedicated, ground was broken for an addition to Adams Library, the RIC Women's Center was established, the Bachelor of General Studies degree was approved, and fall semester exams were held for the first time prior to the semester break (1976). President Willard retired effective June 1, 1977.

With the announced retirement of President Willard, the Board of Regents on January 19, 1977 chose Dr. David Emery Sweet, age 43, as the College's sixth President. Sweet, a political scientist, had been President of Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota. President Sweet inaugurated a program in Gerontology (1977), gained approval for a Master of Social Work program, oversaw the first publication of What's News at Rhode Island College, and opened the addition to Adams Library (1978), cut the ribbon on a new softball field and established the School of Social Work (1979), began an academic collaboration with the Trinity Repertory Company (1980), promulgated the first sexual harassment policy (1981), initiated the first full-scale winter commencement since 1894, and began making the campus "barrier free" to students with handicaps (1982), with the assistance of the Rhode Island College Foundation, acquired the former NEA building on Hennessey Street (1983), gained approval from the Board of Governors for the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, moved the School of Social Work to the former NEA building, and established the first e-mail system on campus (1984).

President Sweet died unexpectedly on September 16, 1984, the institution's first Principal or President to die while in office. The Board of Governors named John Nazarian '54, Vice President for Administration and Finance, as Acting President.

Under Nazarian's acting Presidency, the College acquired 1.9 acres of land from the former Children's Center, initiated a new "dry campus" policy due to an increase in the state's legal drinking age -- thereby closing the Rathskellar -- and established new degrees in Public Administration, Accounting, Marketing, and Computer Information Systems (1985).

On October 15, 1985, the Board of Governors selected Dr. Carol J. Guardo, 46, as President. Dr. Guardo had been Provost and Professor of Psychology at the University of Hartford and achieved the distinction of being the only woman to have held the position of president at any public institution of higher education in Rhode Island. Under President Guardo, an on-line course registration system was inaugurated (1986), a College-wide Committee on Human Relations was established (1987), a new mission statement was adopted (1988), the conversion of Whipple Gym to an academic building was completed, and the Recreation Center opened (1989). President Guardo resigned effective January 1, 1990, at which time Vice President Nazarian, now age 59, was once again named acting President.

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Preparing for the 21st Century

This time John Nazarian served in an acting capacity until his selection as the institution's eighth President on May 9, 1990, the second alumnus to achieve that distinction. It is probably too early to evaluate the Nazarian Presidency in the light of history, but he has been widely hailed as "the right person at the right time" to lead the state's oldest public institution of higher education. Under President Nazarian, the College broke ground for its fifth residence hall (1990), initiated a telephone registration system, gained title to the old Chapin Mansion from DCYF, and initiated a collaborative MPA program with Providence College and the University of Rhode Island (1991), organized the continuation of the health education and athletic programs after the January 5th Walsh fire, suffered the untimely death of Thomas R. Pezzullo, Vice President for College Relations, at the age of 49, and gained title from Governor Sundlun of the remaining DCYF property (1992), oversaw the establishment of a "no-smoking" policy and broke ground on the Chapin Mansion project, an expansion of the Donovan Dining Center, and construction of a new Health, Physical Education, and Athletic Complex (1993), presided over the largest Commencement in College history – 1,728 degrees, (1994), establishment of the MFA in Theatre program, the Ph.D. in Education program and the campus-wide Dialogue on Diversity (1995), solicitation of the first private $1 million gift in College history (from philanthropist Alan Shawn Feinstein), adoption of General Education 2000, and gaining voter approval for more than $17 million in technology and capital improvement bond issues – the most ever for the College (1996), securing of architectural artifacts from the 1898 Normal School building, which was demolished to make way for the Providence Place Mall, and dedication of the Technology Center at Horace Mann Hall (1997), welcoming of the Education Management Collaborative to the East Campus and groundbreaking for a long-sought Performing Arts Center (1998), approval of a new Finance major, an new College Website, and the transformation to a Y2K-compliant administrative software system called PeopleSoft (1999), demolition of three former Department of Administration maintenance buildings on the East Campus, approval of a new Dance major and the MA in Art with a concentration in Media Studies, and dedication of a new Center for the Performing Arts (2000), approval of a concentration in Operations Management in the Bachelor of Science in Management program and also a new Bachelor of Science program in Chemical Dependency/Addiction Studies, launching the College's first-ever capital campaign ($25 million!), redevelopment of the Mt. Pleasant Avenue entrance, and the opening of two reconstructed DCYF buildings (#4 and #5) on the East campus (2001), acquisition through the College Foundation of the former Hennessey Dance Studio, renaming the Center for Management and Technology as the School for Management and Technology, acquisition (through a long-term lease) of the Obediah Brown playing fields, opening of the reconstructed Building 10 as the new home for offices of the Division of Development and College Relations, and reconstruction of Parking Lot A (2002), naming of the Murray Center to honor two alumnae, featured participation in the Rhode Island Treasures exhibition at the Providence Convention Center, groundbreaking for the new home of the School of Social Work, completion of Student Union renovations, finalization of plans for Alger Hall renovations, upgrading of Parking Lot J, completion of a feasibility study for a sixth residence hall, initiating a feasibility study for the future home of the College's art programs, and launching of the College's Sesquicentennial (2003).

In 2004, President Nazarian celebrates his Semi-Centennial in the employ of the College as the institution celebrates its Sesquicentennial.

It has been quite a long road for this magnificent institution and I suspect that this is a narrative that will continue indefinitely for future historians to chronicle. Clearly, ours is a remarkable shared story, and I hope that you have found this voyage through more than 150 years entertaining, informative, and perhaps even inspiring. As fellow alumni, we share in our institution a glorious heritage. May those who follow us find in it the same opportunities that we have enjoyed.

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