Thursday, May 10, 2007
Professor writes OU historyBy Rebecca Wyatt Thomas, OU Web Writer
While OU is young compared to many universities around the country, in the first 50 years Oakland has come a long way and impacted the surrounding community and the students, faculty and staff who have spent time on campus.
“I’ve heard many stories about people’s experiences with OU and one of the things that really strikes me is the impact that this place has made in their lives,” said OU alumnus Bill Connellan.
More than 10,000 students have participated in the Reading Clinic through the School of Education and Human Services, the Meadow Brooks have provided a cultural impact on the surrounding community and many alumni have fond memories of OU. Connellan decided to make it his goal to capture that through a book about OU’s history.
Connellan, associate professor of journalism, came to Oakland in 1963 where he studied political science and history. He later covered the higher education beat for The Detroit News. Connellan returned to Oakland University 1970 and founded the journalism program in 1972. He taught part-time and served in a number of administrative roles before switching to a full-time faculty position in 2000. From 2001-04, Connellan took a leave from OU to serve as a senior vice president of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau.
When he returned to OU, Connellan decided to work on a project to tell the story of a place that has become such a big part of his life.
“I thought, ‘we’re coming up on 50 years, it would be fun to do a history of Oakland University at 50 years.’ The more I thought about it, the more intrigued I became because most of the people who were around 50 years ago are still around today,” Connellan said.
George Matthews, a former history professor and College of Arts and Sciences dean, had talked about doing a history of the university years ago, but only got as far as the outline. Connellan realized early on how big the project was going to be and enlisted the help of students.
Through a special topics course offered in fall 2006 and winter 2007, and independent studies this spring and summer, students were able to get involved in the research while learning themselves.
Two students in the fall 2006 class were Adam Roberts and Karen Auchterlonie. They were part of a group interviewing past and present leaders in the School of Health Sciences. The entire class was provided some background information on Oakland University and the students were responsible for researching and interviewing history-makers from different schools at OU.
“The best thing about working on the project was that in any department as a student, staff member or professor, most of your knowledge about the university is relegated to the school you are in,” Auchterlonie said. “Through this project, we learned so much about the School of Health Sciences, which I knew very little about.”
The group brainstormed questions before meeting for each interview, and one student would lead the discussion and the others would add questions. Auchterlonie said the opportunity helped her develop interview skills she can use in the real world.
“The course offered a lot of great opportunities to meet with a lot of high ranking government officials,” Auchterlonie said. “It was very intimidating but very rewarding.”
Roberts had the unique opportunity to travel with Connellan to meet with former governor Bill Milliken, who was governor when OU separated from Michigan State University in 1970. Milliken appointed the first eight trustees at OU. On the drive to Traverse City to interview Milliken, Connellan told Roberts to begin thinking of questions because he was going to get the opportunity to interview him as well. Roberts also went along to interview former governors James Blanchard and John Engler.
“I’ve always loved history and I’ve always liked looking back and seeing the process of how something is formed,” Roberts said. “The idea of this project is to get a broad swath of history from its participants and reconstruct OU’s history.”
While the governors had a large impact on Oakland’s history, the university presidents have the greatest impact and that’s how Connellan plans to organize the book. He got the idea from a class he took from former OU professor Shelley Appleton. Appleton organized history according to presidential term, and it made the most sense to Connellan for this book as well.
“Everything seems to track the presidential eras at Oakland University,” Connellan said. “We have long-serving presidents who had a lot of impact on the university.”
Past presidents Woody Varner, Donald O’Dowd, Joseph Champagne, Sandra Packard and current president Gary Russi each made OU history with their actions and changes to the university.
In addition, Connellan is meeting with OU alumni and former OU administrators through scheduled meetings on campus, traveling to meet with some of them around the country and over the phone.
“The personal reminiscences that we are able to capture are just fascinating,” Connellan said. “The personal interviews trigger things that may not even have been in the archives. Some of them are such touching stories.”
Connellan shared the story of Gary Laidlaw, who graduated from OU in 1964. He is probably the first OU student or alumni to set foot on campus. His father was a farmer and came to the Dodge farm, which became the land for OU, to purchase cattle. After high school, Laidlaw wasn’t going to attend college. As valedictorian of his high school class, he gave a speech at graduation and an OU representative was giving the keynote address. He was so impressed by Laidlaw that he offered him a scholarship.
All of these memories will be added to OU’s archives. Connellan and his students are videotaping each interview, which Connellan will use later when he begins to write. There is still more research to be done. This spring, the independent study students will work on the College of Arts and Sciences interviews and history. In the fall, Connellan plans to focus on the Meadow Brooks, Athletics, finishing up any remaining interviews and research through OU’s archives. He will then begin writing and hopes to have the book completed by the 50th anniversary of the first student being admitted to OU in 1959.
“I commend him for taking on this giant project,” Auchterlonie said. “I am excited to find out what the book will look like when it is finished.”
Roberts said he feels like the students contributions helped Connellan get through some of the work quicker so he can get to writing it. Roberts said his group had 13 hours of video footage from the School of Health Sciences alone and he’s glad to help contribute some of the legwork to the project.
“It’s a great learning experience,” said Roberts, who hopes to become a feature writer after graduation. “It was a good opportunity to meet new people and talk to them about their experience. It especially helped me with my interviewing skills. You can’t be intimidated by interviewing people.”
Connellan is still collecting interviews and stories.
“It was a different era in higher education in the country and you couldn’t duplicate the environment here at Oakland University,” Connellan said. “If people have things to say about their experiences, I have a video camera.”