From protester to college president: Alumnus George Pruitt was campus leader in turbulent times
This story was originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Illinois State magazine.
A tug-of-war was going on for America’s soul. Activists of all political stripes were spilling out onto America’s streets in the 1960s and early 1970s, battling over civil rights and protesting the Vietnam War. Universities were a major battleground for this raucous debate. Protests—violent and nonviolent—populated campus quads from coast-to-coast.
Illinois State University was part of this mosaic of protest. George Pruitt, a biology major and chemistry minor from Chicago, was at the epicenter of the traumatic events that rocked the University. Pruitt ’68, M.S. ’70, recalls that he was among the fewer than 200 black students who attended Illinois State at a time when the campus enrolled about 17,000 students.
Looking back on those turbulent years, Pruitt said: “Substantial change took place at Illinois State. And Illinois State was the only public university in the state where significant violence didn’t take place.”
Over the next three decades, Pruitt’s journey took him from student protester to president of Thomas Edison State College.
Pruitt arrived in Normal after five semesters at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign. He quickly teamed with other African Americans on campus, including Charles Morris, a mathematics professor; Harry Shaw ’59, M.S. ’65, a development officer; and James Tate, the University’s only African American graduate student and a graduate of the Chicago high school Pruitt had attended.
This trio and others had the goal of prodding the University into “paying more attention to underserved people of color,” Pruitt recalled, adding that they were looking for “something dramatic to get the attention of the University.”
That attention-getter was a 60- to 90-minute takeover of the president’s office by about 50 students.
President Samuel Braden appointed two negotiators to deal with the situation, including Kenneth A. (Buzz) Shaw ’61, L.H.D. ’87, a presidential assistant and later chief executive of Southern Illinois University, the University of Wisconsin System, and Syracuse University. Out of this experience, a lifelong friendship matured between Pruitt and Shaw. Joining Pruitt on the negotiation team were three other students: Al Perkins ’70, Ronald Montgomery ’74, and Deborah Lindsey.
Pruitt and Tate—a “good cop/bad cop” tandem, respectively—managed the talks on behalf of the student protesters. “A catalyst was needed to drag the University out of the 1950s,” Pruitt said. The job was made easier, he explained, because “on the other side of the table we were talking to people of goodwill, people we could trust”—people like Braden and Shaw, who he describes as men of “vision and courage.”
“I felt that we were partners, not adversaries,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt served as the first president of Illinois State’s Black Student Association (BSA) at a time when the University took important steps to recruit more black students, faculty, and staff. Academic policies were reviewed to make them more multicultural, Pruitt said, with the goal of “making Illinois State a more hospitable place” for a diverse population.
“The first class we recruited brought 150 black students—smart and assertive students—to Illinois State. We were looking for strong and self-confident people,” Pruitt said. “We were happy with this first group of students—a group that doubled the University’s African American student population.”
While Pruitt recalls that “exciting and wonderful things” were happening on campus at the time, he also remembers the atmosphere as “overtly hostile” and “threatening” to African American students.
“There were racial epithets,” he said. “I was the only black student in class and other students would avert their eyes from me. There wasn’t a place for me to get a haircut, and I was threatened because of my political activity.”
However, these incidents were tempered by others. “I had a white roommate and he was a wonderful guy.”
After a flirtation with taking a job with the phone company following graduation, Pruitt opted to remain at Illinois State to work on the University’s landmark High Potential Student Program. He also completed a master’s degree in counselor education.
At age 22, he was an assistant to a dean and an assistant to the director of the High Potential Student Program, which was prospering. It successfully drew minority students to Illinois State and became a model for such programs.
But turbulent times were still ahead as the nation struggled with issues of equality. Pruitt remembers when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. “I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. Students set a small fire in the science building—Felmley Hall. There was little damage. It was a mindless, stupid act,” he said.
Another vivid memory involves the flagpole on the Quad, which became a center of protest in 1969 after two Black Panther Party (BPP) members were killed in Chicago by law enforcement officers. BSA members lowered the U.S. flag to half-mast to honor the slain BPP leaders, but subsequently it was raised. BSA also made several demands of the University, including naming a major building for a black leader.
On February 24, 1970, Braden said he would submit to the Board of Regents the recommendation to rename the Union for the late Malcolm X—but with his disapproval, believing the Black Muslim leader’s message was divisive. The board agreed and voted unanimously against the idea in March.
Several months later in May of 1970 there were other tussles over lowering the flag following the deaths of four students at Kent State University, who were shot by Ohio National Guard troops during an anti-war protest.
During the first flagpole incident, Pruitt explained, the University was told by the Illinois governor’s office that only the governor or president could order the U.S. flag lowered. Now in the aftermath of Kent State, the University was told by the governor’s office that it was a local option.
Pruitt discussed with Braden the inherent unfairness of this double standard when it came to lowering the flag for the slain BPP leaders and the protesters at Kent State. After negotiations Braden agreed that all university flags should fly at half-mast for six consecutive days—one day for each student killed at Kent State and two days for the BPP leaders. The flag also would be flown at half-staff on May 19, the date civil-rights leader Malcolm X was born.
Hardhats from various construction sites converged on the University on May 19, shoving aside campus police, to raise the flag. When Braden ordered the flag lowered, a hardhat group again raised the flag, prompting the arrest of the group’s leader.
“When I was coming from my house to my office in the Student Union,” Pruitt recalled, “I saw a group of whites—hardhats—beating a security guard and raising the flag.”
This incident prompted Braden to call the state police. The flag was lowered to half-mast and the flagpole was cordoned off, making it a restricted area subject to trespassing laws to thwart any effort by the hardhats to raise the flag.
Pruitt had done news media interviews about the flagpole confrontation. “At nine o’clock one night there was a knock at my door,” he remembered. “It was the police notifying me that a threat had been made against me. They took me to the police station for protection.”
Those days prepared Pruitt for his future as much as any classroom curriculum. He went on to earn a doctorate in educational administration from Union Institute, but has never been forgotten on the Illinois State campus. He received an honorary doctorate from the University in 1994. Pruitt is an inductee in the College of Education and the College of Arts and Sciences hall of fame as well. He has also received a Distinguished Alumni Award and an Alumni Achievement Award from Illinois State.
Pruitt left Illinois State to become dean of students at Maryland’s Towson State University, where former Illinois State administrator James L. Fisher ’56, M.S. ’57, was president. Two years later Pruitt became vice president for student affairs at Baltimore’s Morgan State University. He also held executive posts at Tennessee State University and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL).
Since 1982 Pruitt has been president of Thomas Edison State College (TESC), a unique institution located in Trenton, New Jersey, that focuses on adult students. The institution serves 13,000 students. TESC’s students come from all 50 states and 84 nations. Students aren’t admitted unless they are age 21 or older. TESC has graduated 30,000 students since it was founded in 1972.
Students can pursue their degrees in several ways: guided courses delivered via videotape, audiotape, and texts; e-PackR courses which are structured to allow students to work at their own pace; and online courses. Students also can take tests to demonstrate prior college-level knowledge or earn credits for college-level learning attained through work, the military, or other experiences. TESC also accepts transfer credits from other accredited campuses.
Pruitt has many observations about the contemporary college presidency after leading a college for a quarter-century.
“Serving as a college president is a challenging position,” he said. “Responsibility and accountability have never been balanced with the authority of the office. College presidents have management responsibilities akin to corporate chief executive officers. But presidents have the added challenge of persuading government to craft the resources campuses need to make their vision reality.
“The environment surrounding the college presidency is becoming more complex. It’s becoming more partisan and more adversarial,” he said. Complicating these trends are fiscal hurdles, as the cost of higher education continues to escalate.
Despite these growing challenges, Pruitt sees much excitement on the higher education scene. “Colleges and universities have a more diverse client base than 30 years ago,” he said. “There’s room for all of us. And institutions have an attitude that emphasizes quality and intellectual integrity.”