50 years later, fight over ISNU name change resonates
Fifty years and three careers later, Carolyn (Heckert) Shawaker ’62 stands by her letter to the editor.
She wrote it in August 1962, at the height of a vigorous five-year campus fight over whether to remove the “normal” from Illinois State Normal University. Shawaker was a supporter of the change, and it was personal. In her letter to the Vidette, she recalled her then recent trips to Washington, D.C., and Texas, in which others openly disrespected ISNU just because of its name—slights she still remembers today.
Shawaker’s involvement in the grass-roots political campaign to change the name stuck with her. After a 40-year teaching career, she became mayor of her town in Maryland, then an administrative law judge.
“If we wanted to be a grown-up university, we had to name ourselves as though we were,” she said in a recent interview. “I still feel the same way.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Illinois State’s name change, from ISNU to ISU, a formative moment to reflect upon as campus celebrates Founders Day this month. On the surface, the name-change battle that ended January 1, 1964, pitted feisty young male faculty against the veteran female educators who valued ISNU’s history. Yet there were larger forces at work too—sometimes covertly—and undercurrents in higher education so strong that change was all but inevitable.
ISU won out, of course, and that symbolic pivot set the University on the path it traveled for the next five decades—one that never veered as far from teacher preparation as opponents feared.
“Everything you see today, I would contend, was due to that change in name and subsequent change in the structure of the University,” said Warren Harden, a former economics professor and administrator who led the name-change efforts. “It would not be like this today if it hadn’t happened.”
ISU was founded in 1857 as a “normal” school to train teachers—the word “normal” a reference to the French term for “model”—before evolving into a teachers’ college at the turn of the century.
In the 1950s there were big changes taking shape in higher education, increasing demand for college degrees —and professors—at ISNU and elsewhere. A postwar, post-Sputnik mindset was freeing up more tax dollars for campuses. A changing economy meant businesses needed more trained manpower. At ISNU the number of undergraduates doubled to 6,055 students from 1957-1963.
After World War II—punctuated by the Manhattan Project—there was new respect for the educated person, said Daniel Clark, an associate professor at Indiana State University who has researched the ISNU name change.
“That impacts the ISU debate, because there’s this new crop of faculty on campus, with freshly minted Ph.D.s from big schools, and they don’t want to teach only at a teachers’ college,” Clark said.
ISNU was one of five state teachers’ colleges, but Carbondale, Macomb, and Charleston changed their names in 1947, DeKalb in 1955. Why was ISNU so late to change?
“ISNU was the first public higher education institution in Illinois. They had a very proud tradition of training teachers,” Clark said. “That insulated it. They didn’t feel like they had to change. It’s remarkable that ISNU didn’t, that these pressures didn’t move upon it earlier.”
That’s where Harden comes in. He was hired at ISNU as an economics professor in 1954. By 1962 he was elected president of an influential faculty group on a ticket promising a name change. Harden and his co-conspirators—mostly, but not exclusively, young male professors—felt that the “normal” name was not just antiquated, but that it was hindering faculty recruitment, faculty research, and their ability to get grants.
Harden got to work recruiting some of his students, including two who would go on to become student body presidents—Charles Dunn ’62 and James Koch ’64. Harden was a “sparkplug” who didn’t back down and wasn’t afraid to make enemies on campus, said Dunn, whose travels around the state as a student leader made him see ISNU in a new light—one with growing prestige, and not just in teacher education.
“They had a lot on the line,” said Dunn, who coined the influential “ISU in 62” catchphrase.
There was healthy opposition to the change. In fact, a serious push in 1959 proved unsuccessful. Opponents “have a right to be outraged that we should be deprived of our alma mater for a silly name change that will do nothing to improve the quality of education received even while it does improve the status of those attending,” wrote one alumna in a letter to the editor of the Vidette in 1962.
“By no means was there complete unanimity among faculty, alumni and students” on the change, with many concerned about undermining ISNU’s “great reputation” or that it would lead to change in “purpose,” wrote distinguished campus historian and author Helen Marshall in The Eleventh Decade, chronicling ISNU/ISU from 1957-1967.
In his sesquicentennial campus history book, Educating Illinois, Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus John Freed lays out the gender politics at play behind the scenes. ISNU was, after all, an institution where women held great power, at a time when that was rare. But missing historical records make it difficult to answer key questions about the full scope of the opposition and their motivations. Dunn respected the opposition’s central point—normal schools had a great history in the U.S.
“The opposition had an excellent case,” Dunn said. “But our side was saying yes, this is a great history, but ‘ISU in 62’ will build on this history. It’s a logical next step.”
The tactics were sometimes less than fair. At the time, Harden denied his push for a name change meant he wanted to change ISNU’s mission. Today, he says that’s exactly what he wanted.
And Marshall, a major opponent to the change, in her campus history book Grandest of Enterprises selectively omits statements from university founders that show their broader intents for the university beyond teacher training. If she hadn’t, “it would have been game over,” Freed said.
Then-ISNU President Bob Bone was publicly neutral but privately supported the change—a political decision that ultimately paid off. In fact, Bone listed “deleting Normal from name and public’s image of ISNU” and the creation of a graduate college and doctoral programs on a document he wrote in 1957 called “My Ten Year Goals for ISNU,” a document only recently released by his family. Bone preferred leaders like Harden carry the ball.
“They (the opponents) were fighting the inevitable,” Freed said.
Hancock Stadium and Horton Field House opened in 1963, expanding campus westward, and those changes coupled with the increase in enrollment were palpable, said Lynda Lane ’66. The “normal school” concept had an old-fashioned connotation, she said, in light of all those changes.
“We were education majors,” said Lane, a longtime teacher and former president of Illinois State’s Alumni Association. “We were proud of what we were doing, and I think we wanted it all to look and feel and be a more progressive (name).”
Lawmakers in Springfield approved the change in summer 1963, but it didn’t take effect until January. The institution was technically named Illinois State University at Normal until 1967.
At first, the changes were small. Lane remembers having to adjust to the pace of a different I-S-U chant at football games—one letter shorter. Bill Tracy ’64, a former Vidette editor who reported on the name-change debate, was in the first class to graduate under the ISU banner.
“Everyone was really excited about that,” said Tracy, who taught English before going into counseling. “We were proud to be the first class to be able to graduate with ISU on our diplomas.”
ISU’s bigger changes began in 1966, when it was recognized formally as a multipurpose “developing” liberal arts university by the Illinois Board of Higher Education, only to have its teacher-training mission partially reinforced by that same board five years later—just as the job market for teachers sank. That lack of a clear mission contributed to ISU’s struggle to find an identity in the 1970s and 1980s, Freed said.
And ISU kept growing: Campus added 1,000 new students every year between 1958 and 1970. By 1976, only half of ISU students planned to pursue a career in education, as other colleges such as business and arts and sciences grew. By that time, the economy crashed and state support was drying up.
All that turmoil leads to “what if” speculation: What if leaders had changed the name five years earlier, or five years later, or fought harder to keep its mission? What if leaders had chosen a different name?
It took some time, but ISU would eventually become the University that Harden and his colleagues envisioned—one in which faculty research, teaching, and public service work together as complementary institutional strengths, not as either-or choices. And by changing when it did, the centrally located ISU never became a “directional school”—Central Illinois University was kicked around as a possibility—and is a premier undergraduate institution.
“In the long run, the mission we’ve now gotten for ourselves has turned out to be a very good one,” Freed said. And that mission still includes teacher preparation. Today, about one in four first-year public school teachers hired in the state come from ISU, which touts the largest teacher preparation program in Illinois.
“The fears that the opposition had did not materialize,” Dunn said. “We still do a great job on education. But we’ve added to it.”