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The World is Upside Down: Lessons from our History at OCU

By Dr. Randy Mills, Professor of Education, Editor of the JLAS

It is wise and helpful to place our present problems in historical context. This is especially true when it comes to the present COVID-19 crisis at Oakland City University. First, here are the words of Oakland City’s president taken from our school’s student newspaper.

The world is upside down. Politicians are bewildered, business people are dazed, millions are unemployed. Such experiences try the souls of every citizen. But we must live and carry on. Education must go on despite hardships. In the present crisis, no one will be able to do exactly what she or he wants to do. We invite the students and faculty of Oakland City to unite in the common fellowship of suffering.

These could have easily been the words of President Dempsey but are in fact the words of Oakland City College president William Dearing, spoken at the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929. How interesting that President Dearing’s concerns ninety-two years ago

capture much of the reality of our situation today.

Of course, Oakland City College did survive the terrible decade of the Great Depression, but there were other crises in our beloved school’s history that soon followed, crises whose stories, like those of how we got through the Great Depression might instructed and guide us as we struggle with the COVID-19 crisis today.

In 1942, as the Second World War began to pull men and women into the war effort, Oakland City College witnessed only thirty percent of their student population returning to campus after Christmas.

Only thirty percent.

As it was in the early 1930s, there was talk of closing the college. Dr. James Cox, Oakland City College’s president at the time, however, announced, “We feel we owe it to the institution and to the students who planned to attend that Oakland City College, unlike many other small colleges, should not close its doors.”

Again, our school survived.  

Once, in my lifetime, forty-six years ago to be exact, Oakland City College again faced the very real possibility of closing. This time the crisis was caused by the Vietnam War’s ending, an event that left many colleges with fewer students and stuck with unpaid-for dormitories.

Oakland City College was one such school, finding itself sinking in debt and being forced to consider closing or selling the buildings and campus to another university. A headline in a local newspaper in March of 1974 declared, “OCC Faces Dire Financial Crisis.” The process from near bankruptcy to a foreseeable path to financial health was long and trying, leading one reporter on the college newspaper to write an article with the headline, “Is Oakland City College dead or alive?”

Again, the school was able to pull through the crisis and OCU eventually ended up on more solid financial ground. What you see at OCU today are the fruits of those efforts—beautiful building and a vibrant student body.

It the late mid-1980s, while working on my doctoral degree at Indiana University, I took a class that covered topics in higher education. The professor, a well-known national leader in issues involving universities and colleges began the first day by telling us of a case study he was working on, one that concerned two small private liberal arts colleges and their struggles after the Vietnam War ended and enrollment contracted in schools across the nation. The first was in a rich suburb of Chicago and the second in the rural southern Midwest. 

Image my shock when I discovered the latter place was Oakland City College. Dr. Chamberlain knew our story, the ones I have briefly shared today. He ended his discussion that day on this note, “The wealthier school in the suburbs eventually closed down while the tiny school in southern Indiana endured and continues on today. The school that survived did not have the financial resources that many schools had but possessed some intangible qualities that many observers would likely have missed if they had bet on which school would make it.”

 It would behoove all of us who love Oakland City University to learn about the dramatic circumstances and the heroes of the events I have touched upon today. But it is not enough to learn the details, not if history is to indeed teach us.

I think a lesson can be gained by examining what I call the how of these stories— how did the school overcome seemingly insurmountable problems, and what lessons could we learn that could be of some help during today’s COVID-19 crisis at the university and for future crises. What might be the intangibles the Indiana University professor alluded to?  

Stay tuned as these stories will be presented in a forthcoming series and in greater detail.

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