SFSU Public Affairs Press Release
Published by the Public Affairs Office at San Francisco State University, Diag Center.
SAN FRANCISCO, CA-- March 10, 1999 -- A Look Back to the Early Years by Michael Johnson with Edward Wilkinson
"The story of San Francisco State University is the biography of an especially American dream: the belief in self-betterment through education. The school has never been a place where the scions of the wealthy and the powerful come to receive their final polish before taking the places prepared for them in the world. From the first teacher training classes in 1855 to the advanced graduate seminars today. San Francisco State has been a place for working people.
"San Francisco State began as a vocational trade school: a ‘normal school,’ whose primary mission was to train young ladies for the profession of teaching.
"The School and the City have inevitably been partners ever since the beginning. The moods of the City always find their reflection—and, at times, intensification—at the school. San Francisco State, in turn, has educated tens of thousands of men and women who have given shape and definition to San Francisco itself."
Because its current campus near Lake Merced was created recently, beginning in the 1950s, and because it is probably most famous for the strike of 1968-69, San Francisco State is thought of even by many San Franciscans in terms of the last couple of decades.
The thousands of San Franciscans who earned their degrees and credentials in the ramshackle building of the "old" campus at Buchanan and Waller know better. For half a century, that hillside above Upper Market (near the new U.S. mint) was home to San Francisco State.
But even that noisy, happy firetrap of a campus, founded in 1906 in an abandoned orphanage chapel, was a "new" campus, as Prof. Arthur Chandler makes clear in his book, "The Biography of San Francisco State University."
Chandler, a professor of humanities, grew curious a few years ago about the school’s past. He decided to look into it "just a little bit," and found himself drawn into a story that goes back to the birth of the City. The story actually begins right after the Gold Rush, during an economic boom of such a magnitude that "most of the people who took jobs with the local school systems were down-and-outers who had failed at whatever else they had tried," Chandler writes. "No experience was necessary."
In the fall of 1855, pushed by an outraged public, the city fathers established a weekly "normal" (teacher training) class, and hired a man named John Swett to teach it. His credentials were only that he had attended a normal school himself, but he did a good job. In 1857, Swett and three other teachers began the San Francisco Normal School, under the direction of Principal George Minns. Minns had been thrown out of Harvard for dynamiting a dormitory, but he must have become a solid citizen: Harvard la ter readmitted him to finish his degree.
From 1857 to 1861, the population of school-age children in California jumped from 35,722 to 68,395. In 1862, under pressure from the state’s educators, Governor Leland Stanford created California’s first state-supported institution of higher learning, the California State Normal School in San Francisco.
Many legislators, however, felt that, in the state schools chief felt, "a school of this character cannot flourish in a great city. To locate the normal school in San Francisco would be dropping a drop of literature into an ocean of Mammon."
Even though few of the students or faculty members wanted to move to "the cow pastures," as one of them put it, in 1871 the California State Normal School moved to San Jose, where it eventually became San Jose State.
Meanwhile, back in the "ocean of Mammon," the Board of Supervisors had decided in 1864 that the morals of boys and girls would be best preserved if they attended separate high schools.
For the most part, Chandler says, the resulting Girls High School was a place for young ladies to acquire the necessary polish to make them suitable candidates for marriage. "But some women, by choice or necessity, would need careers," he writes. "Principal Ellis Holmes (one of the original four teachers in the San Francisco Normal School) realized that teaching was one of the few honorable professions open to women in those days, and so in 1867 he began a normal class that would serve the vocational n eeds of his young ladies."
With the departure of the state normal school to San Jose, Girls High and Normal School became the only publicly-supported institution in San Francisco where a young woman could learn to teach.
And it became the first direct ancestor of San Francisco State University.
In 1895, after more than 1,500 young women had finished their teacher training there, the normal school classes were separated from Girls High School, and once again, the San Francisco Normal School came into existence, this time in a building on Powell Street, between Clay and Sacramento.
The school was not popular with local politicians, however, and in 1899 the Supervisors withdrew tax support for San Francisco Normal School.
A contingent of teachers, students, and local supporters of the school went to Sacramento and petitioned the legislator for $200,000 to convert the school into a state normal school once again. In a statement that echoes into the present, State Assemblyman Dickinson declared that "the only ones who wanted the school were pupils who are now
attending it, who are being stirred into agitation by the teachers, themselves, who wish to hold their positions."
Nevertheless, by a narrow margin the legislature approved the new San Francisco State Normal School. Of course, it did cut the budget to $20,000, and told the school to make it last two years.
The new school was lucky in its trustees’ choice of a first principal: Frederic Burk. Burk’s feelings about the role of teachers in society were almost religious. He also believed that practical experience was the best teacher, and the motto he chose for the new normal school was Experentia Docet, ("experience teaches"), which is still San Francisco State’s motto, and still the San Francisco State method.
The entrance requirements for the new school, which was still in the building on Powell Street, were the most rigorous of any of those of the state normal schools.
Burk’s methods were studied by teachers throughout the world, and San Francisco State Normal School became a beacon of experimental teacher education.
In the meantime, the "old, inconvenient and depressing" building on Powell was destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906. It was then that the school moved to the "old campus" at Buchanan and Waller.
In the years that followed, the nature of the school began to change as departments formed, professors were ranked and the curriculum expanded. Burk fought all these things as being hostile to collegiality and the original goal of teacher training, but by the time he died in 1924, his school offered a bachelor’s degree option and its name had been changed to San Francisco State Teacher’s College.
Burk also didn’t feel that men should attend San Francisco State, but the first male student entered in 1915, and the precedent was set. By 1930, the ratio of women to men on campus was 23 to one. In 1936, it was two to one.
In the meantime, in 1935, the school once again had been renamed. It was now San Francisco State College.
This reflected the presidency of Alexander Roberts, who had assumed the post in 1927. Roberts believed in the importance of teacher education—as SFSU continues to do today—but he wanted to offer more.
Roberts also introduced the trappings of traditional college life to San Francisco State: yearbooks, college newspapers, pep rallies, athletics, sororities. None of these had existed under Burks, who felt that the education of teachers was a serious business, not to be confused with adolescent rites of passage.
In 1934, the Hetch Hetchy water project was completed, and some of the land around Lake Merced, which had been saved by the City for reservoirs, was no longer needed. Roberts talked the state into buying what eventually became 97 acres. There was general elation.
The wheels of government move slowly, however. It was 1939 before Roberts posed with an axe to publicize the clearing of brush at the new site, and because World War II intervened, he was retired before the new campus became a reality in 1953.
Under J. Paul Leonard, San Francisco State entered its "second golden age." As the ‘50s unfolded, many of its programs and teachers rose to national prominence. Master’s degrees were being offered; the Theatre program thrived under Fenton McKenna; the Music program sheltered such students as saxophonist John Handy, pianist Vince Guaraldi, and singer Johnny Mathis; the Poetry Center was begun by Ruth Witt-Diamant; and major writers and scholars such as John Beecher, Kay Boyle, Kai-Yu Hsu, S.I. Hayakawa, and Walter Van Tilburg Clark gave the college the prestige of their names and achievements.
However, Chandler writes, "Few prophets could have predicted that the easy-going college of the 1950s would be transformed into the avant-garde school of the 1960s.
By the mid-‘60s, San Francisco State was becoming what Chandler calls a "lightning rod" for the changes in American life.
The Vietnam War and increased awareness of racism in society resulted in pressures from the left on campus, which were answered by demands for order and a traditional campus environment on the right. Caught in the middle, the administration wavered. The presidency of the college changed hands three times in 1968. When the administration could not or would not accede to 15 "non-negotiable demands" from students, Chandler says, "the longest student strike in U.S. history" began in November 1968, resulting in more than four months of disruption and violence.
The strike ended, in the long run, with the establishment of what is still the only school of ethnic studies in the United States, and helped send the man who was on the spot as acting president, scholar S.I. Hayakawa, to the U.S. Senate.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, San Francisco State once again reflected the mood of San Francisco and of the county. "Weary of confrontation. . . the community of San Francisco State turned to more private concerns," Chandler writes. It was a time of healing, with the flamboyant Hayakawa giving way to the cool and temperate Paul Romberg as president in 1973. During Romberg’s ten-year stay in office, during which the former normal school became San Francisco State University, the campus kept a low profile in San Francisco, even as it continued to build and add programs.
In 1983, Shanghai-born Chia-Wei Woo became the 11th president of San Francisco State. Woo and the rest of the University community embarked on a course designed to reinforce the ties between the City and the school that helped shape it.
Woo was succeeded in 1988 by Robert A. Corrigan, who continues as president today. Corrigan is a professor of English and humanities, and he has a strong interest in ethnic studies, having established the Afro-American Studies and Women’s Studies programs at the University of Iowa, where he taught from 1964 to 1973.
Corrigan’s arrival at SFSU coincided with a renewed energy in special programs for the University. His first year, however, was disturbed by the magnitude 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake on October 17, 1989. The University community had no loss of life or grave injury, but the library and Verducci Hall dormitory were seriously damaged.
SFSU’s faculty continued to make their mark. Engineering Professor Ralf Hotchkiss won a $260,000 MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" for his innovative wheelchair designs in 1989. In 1992, Professor Wayne Peterson won the Pulitzer Prize in music for his composition, "The Face of the Night, the Heart of the Dark." SFSU made national and international headlines in 1995 as astronomers Geoff Marcy and three-time SFSU alumnus Paul Butler discovered two new Jupiter-sized planets beyond the solar system. T he two astronomers have since discovered more planets than anyone else and made the University a leader in the field. Underscoring the University’s success in attracting recognition, faculty grants and contracts have risen dramatically over the last 10 years, from $9 million to a high of $27 million.
Throughout the 1990s the University continued to improve and expand its facilities. In 1993 SFSU opened the Conservation Genetics Lab, one of a handful of such labs in the world. Also that year, the College of Extended Learning unveiled its new Downtown Center, which tripled the University’s downtown space for professional job training. Located at the edge of San Francisco’s Multimedia Gulch, the Center houses SFSU’s nationally acclaimed Multimedia Studies Program, the largest in the nation. The Uni versity opened the new Humanities Building, the largest classroom building on campus, in 1994.
President Corrigan has connected SFSU back to its roots with his emphasis on service learning, the coupling of classroom instruction with community work. In 1996 he was tapped by President Bill Clinton to chair the national committee of the America Reads literacy program. Today, the University offers more than 200 undergraduate and graduate degrees. Forty-nine departments offer courses with an internship-, service-, or field-based learning component, enrolling approximately one in 10 students in any given semester. By graduation, over 20 percent of SFSU students have had such a community service experience.
Even with the end to state affirmative action, SFSU ranks ninth nationally in graduating students of color with bachelor’s degrees. Special programs such as "Step to College" and "Summer Bridge" provide a pipeline and support network for underrepresented students.
As SFSU celebrates its centennial, the words of 1995 commencement speaker Hillary Rodham Clinton ring especially true. SFSU is a "great public university. . . . A university that takes the education of all people seriously: women, minorities, immigrants, refugees. Everyone who is willing to work hard and accept responsibility is welcome here." One hundred years later Frederic Lister Burk himself could not have said it better.
San Francisco State University is a highly diverse community of 27,000 students and 3,500 faculty and staff. It is one of the largest campuses of the nationally-recognized 23-campus California State University system. Founded in 1899, the University is approaching its 100th year of service to San Francisco, the Bay Area, California and beyond.
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