The controversy behind Illinois State’s evolving motto
Four little words that have been missing for more than 20 years are still enough to get Illinois State alum Katie (Reising) McGreevy ’82 all fired up—at least enough to post an angry Facebook comment.
Those words vanished in 1992 when Illinois State’s official motto changed from “And gladly would he learn and gladly teach” to “Gladly we learn and teach.” To this day, when alums like McGreevy see the new motto on Illinois State’s seal—even on Facebook—it’s enough to reopen a long-closed debate.
That 1992 change, which swapped “he” with “we” to make the Chaucer-penned motto more gender-neutral, was part of a larger University rebranding effort that’s still paying dividends. But it also cooked up a lingering controversy with an unusual combination of ingredients—Middle English, alleged sexism, and a divisive $70,000 study.
“They should have never changed the motto from Chaucer’s quote,” said McGreevy, a College of Education grad and now a semi-retired educator from the Rockford area. “Society shouldn’t be able to dictate that it’s not good enough, or politically incorrect. I didn’t look at it as being chauvinistic or anti-woman. I was never offended by it.”
Let’s start with the Middle English.
The University’s original motto was actually “And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche,” taken from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Old yearbooks and other documents suggest that motto was created sometime in the late 1900s or early 1910s, said University Archivist April Anderson.
The “he” in the motto refers to the Clerk, a sympathetic character who is poor and malnourished but obsessed with reading, books, and learning. It’s a fitting motto for Illinois State, founded as a teacher’s college, but it wasn’t really Chaucer’s invention. Similar expressions are found in literature dating back centuries before Canterbury Tales.
“In many other places, there are looming literary and philosophical figures who are saying similar things before Chaucer did,” said Susan Kim, professor of English at Illinois State and a medievalist. (That means she can actually read aloud Middle English, which is challenging.)
The motto was first changed around 1957—Illinois State Normal University’s centennial—when a new seal was introduced, cutting out the Middle English to make it easier to spell, read and pronounce.
That version (“And gladly would he learn and gladly teach”) lasted until 1992, when Illinois State President Thomas Wallace introduced a redesigned seal with the new motto, “Gladly we learn and teach.”
It was a dramatic shift, and just the tip of the iceberg. That new seal was part of a larger set of recommendations from a New York-based consulting firm hired by Wallace to study Illinois State’s image and identity. Wallace was trying to shift Illinois State’s campus culture to focus more on private fundraising and marketing as state support fell.
“In the 1990s, some people at ISU were just continuing to pretend that the state was going to wake up and give us all this money,” said Wallace, now retired and living in Florida. “For any institution, in its history there comes a time when you really have to make that transition.”
At the time, Illinois State’s reputation was not as good as it is today—more “I Screwed Up (ISU)” references and fewer national rankings. “You had to be very clear about who you are and what you stand for” if people were going to understand the value of Illinois State, said Curt Carlson. He was a key figure in the identity study as the director of University Relations.
The new seal was graphically redesigned, shortening the motto and making it “bolder” and easier to reproduce on printed publications, Carlson said. To broaden its appeal, “he” became “we.”
Carlson knew there would be pushback and controversy when the new seal and motto were unveiled. During one meeting, a department chair suggested (only half-joking) that the new motto should be changed to “Gladly would we learn, and gladly would we market.”
“This was a time when the word ‘marketing’ was still a very uncomfortable word in higher education,” said Carlson, who left Illinois State in 1994 and is now retired.
Chief among the opponents was Distinguished Professor of English Rodger Tarr. His students wrote a letter to The Vidette and to Wallace, defending the Chaucer line and denying the motto was sexist. After all, Chaucer was referring to a specific character—the Clerk—not making some generic reference.
“No sexism was intended or implied, nor could any educated human being infer such,” Tarr said.
He also objected to another abandoned recommendation that the motto’s wording be flipped—“And gladly we teach and learn”—because it was a better visual sequence. That never happened.
“Dopes! The whole point of Chaucer’s sequence is that one ‘learns’ first and then ‘teaches,’” Tarr said. He was interviewed on NPR, and even the Chicago Tribune covered the controversy. The Vidette’s news editor penned a lengthy column with a hyperbolic headline: “An English major’s nightmare.”
“The credit goes to a host of caring students who were wise enough to understand that any change in the motto—in my judgment the finest motto a university could adopt—would alter forever the intellectual history of Illinois State University,” Tarr said in an email. “I will forever be proud of these students for their courage and for their wisdom.”
There wasn’t much pressure from female students or faculty to make the change, Wallace said. And the Middle English spelling was already long gone.
“As I recall, nobody other than the English faculty knew that the original motto came from Chaucer anyway,” Wallace said. “We were using the idea. We weren’t using it for a literary magazine.”
President Emeritus David Strand, who was vice president for Academic Affairs and provost in 1992, supported the seal and motto change.
“As provost, I was attempting to bring more diversity to the University through the student body and faculty and staff,” Strand said. The gender-neutral motto was a helpful improvement since some people viewed the existing wording as a deterrent to enhancing diversity, he said.
In reality, the motto controversy was just a sideshow, part of a larger pushback against Wallace and the way he ran the University, said Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus and campus historian John Freed. Wallace later resigned in 1995 under pressure—his tenure among the most pivotal and controversial in ISU history.
“That change in motto became a symbol of Wallace’s autocratic, high-handed way of doing things,” Freed said. “It was one more way for people to beat up on him.”
Even the identity study’s $70,000 price tag led to criticism of Wallace in the media.
“I expected that,” Wallace said. “Money hadn’t been spent on these kinds of things at Illinois State.”
So did it work? Did “Gladly we learn and teach” single-handedly improve Illinois State’s reputation? Did five little words, for example, lead to Illinois State’s consecutive record fundraising years in 2014 and 2015?
Obviously not. But taken together with other changes made at the same time, Illinois State’s identity has grown clearer in recent years. Now a Top 100 public university, ISU’s “STATE Your Passion” slogan can be spotted on T-shirts and billboards around campus and across the state. Even the award-winning magazine you’re now reading traces its roots to that controversial $70,000 study.
“It was a first step and an important step to establish ourselves with more prominence and respectability within the state and nation,” said Strand, who succeeded Wallace as president.
That may not do much for McGreevy and some of the other alumni still annoyed by the change. Lucky for them, the old mottos still loom large at Illinois State—literally. Inside Illinois State’s primary administrative building, Hovey Hall, a way-finding sign still uses Chaucer’s Middle English motto.
A giant stained glass seal hangs inside the main floor of Milner, with the “Gladly would he learn…” motto. The call signs for Illinois State’s public radio station, WGLT, reference the motto too.
“I just thought the original was an extremely appropriate motto for ISU,” McGreevy said. “And Illinois State is still at the forefront of graduating teachers.”
More changes are coming: This fall, Illinois State’s new mobile application unveiled a brand-new, limited-use version of the seal—with no words or motto at all. They’re too hard to read on small phones and devices, which shrinks everything down to fit in the palm of your hand.
If Chaucer had only known about iPhones, maybe he would’ve trimmed back the line himself.