Interviewing Dr. Jim Palmer about his career is delightfully frustrating. Ask about his successes and he’ll, instead, share a nuanced piece of higher education history.
Yet, each personal omission is an admission by the serial deflector. Colleagues and former students describe him as a selfless leader, voracious reader, and dependable worker.
“He knows so much; we don’t even know how much he knows,” said Dr. Phyllis McCluskey-Titus, who worked with Palmer for over two decades in the Department of Educational Administration and Foundations (EAF) at Illinois State.
“And he is quick to give recognition to other colleagues, and he rarely will take credit himself.”
Palmer’s legacy at Illinois State spans almost 30 years. He was hired to prepare future leaders of community colleges but grew his knowledge to serve every program in EAF. He ushered 50 doctoral alumni into the field as their dissertation chair, and he served on the committees of countless more. His scholarship includes dozens of pieces of research, and he was also the editor of Grapevine. The publication serves as a dipstick for tracking state funding in higher education across the nation, and it remains a crucial resource for colleges, universities, governments, and researchers.
Palmer has also received several university and national awards, including the department’s highest recognition, the EAF Fellows award.
“I don’t think he feels like he deserved that award, which is absolutely ridiculous,” McCluskey-Titus said. “He was the perfect person for it.”
Where it began
In 1991, EAF Professor Emeritus Dr. Ed Hines co-chaired the search that yielded Palmer. At the time, Palmer was George Mason University’s acting director at the Center for Community College Education in Fairfax, VA. But the two-time UCLA alum had his sights set on preparing future generations of community college leaders.
“It was really clear after about the first two sessions of the first day of interviews that we would want him here,” said Hines. “And it was clear by the end of the first day that he really liked what he saw here, too.”
Palmer’s expertise was a huge lift for the department’s higher education doctoral program, which was already producing dozens of top-level leaders for community colleges.
Hines and the other faculty member who taught that course work, Dr. John McCarthy, did not have strong roots in community college literature.
Palmer swiftly picked up the mantle. In fact, the now-retired educator’s eyes still glint at any question on the subject.
“Most Americans now take community colleges for granted, but it’s a great achievement. Very few countries have systems of open access to community colleges available to all. They ensure the door to higher education is never truly closed,” Palmer said.
“Like any institution, they have their challenges, but anyone can enroll in a program in which they can benefit, from the 40-year-old with a family, to a new high school graduate.”
The impetus behind Palmer’s passion for community colleges was the late Dr. Arthur Cohen. A professor at UCLA, he was among the first scholars to focus on community college research in the mid-sixties when the community college systems we are familiar with today were emerging. Cohen would write a seminal work on community colleges in 1982 titled The American Community College with Florence Brawer. The book is now in its sixth edition. and started New Directions for Community Colleges, a journal that is still a go-to resource on the topic. He also headed the ERIC clearinghouse for community colleges, which was housed at UCLA. Its purpose was to acquire and catalog journal articles and unpublished documents on community colleges.
Palmer worked 20-30 hours a week at the clearing house while completing his master’s in library science. Some graduate students might be turned off by the task of reading, summarizing, and indexing the literature in one particular field.
But Palmer doubled down. When he joined UCLA’s doctoral program, Cohen served as his dissertation chair.
“Art Cohen used to say, ‘Everyone lives in their own duck pond. And we have to get up and look around to see that there are other duck ponds around.’ And that’s what he did for me,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, Redbirds describe Palmer similarly.
“I loved my classes with Dr. Palmer because of how he challenged me to think differently about student affairs and the world,” said CSPA alum Violet Benn M.S. ’19.
Palmer also credits the American Association for Community Colleges (AACC) for his development. He worked on the Association’s staff for two years after completing his Ph.D. in 1987. He then worked for three years at George Mason University’s Center for Community College Education. All of these experiences helped chart his path to Normal.
“I met critical scholars of community colleges who were always looking to improve these systems, not simply promote them. And they were some of the most creative and thoughtful people I’ve known in the field. They really inspired me to get into the business of being a university professor focusing on community colleges.”
Whatever it takes
It wasn’t only about community colleges for Palmer.
“The longer he was with us, the more interested he was, the more involved he got in the department in all areas of the department, including pre-K-12 education,” Hines said.
Yet, when Palmer committed to teaching in a new area, he worked tirelessly to become an expert.
McCluskey-Titus experienced this work ethic first-hand. At one point, Palmer was asked to teach the history of student affairs course for the College Student Personnel Administration (CSPA) program.
As the program’s coordinator, she had been fully immersed in student affairs research for decades. Yet, by the time Palmer stood in front of CSPA students, McCluskey-Titus admits his knowledge on the topic matched hers.
“He took the time to research. That’s Jim. And he would always come and talk to me about different ways to engage student affairs master’s students, and we’d discuss how it was different than teaching doctoral students,” she said.
No matter how knowledgeable he was on a topic, Palmer approached his work with humility. When teaching a pre-K-12 course, his first words were always “I’ve never taught in these schools, but this is what I can offer.”
Palmer deeply respected the knowledge and experiences of his students. And it was one of the reasons his courses were so well received, no matter the program.
“Students loved him,” McCluskey-Titus said, “because he knows so much, he could just captivate them with what he knew.”
“And in terms of being a good colleague, he just goes above and beyond; he’s the epitome of dependability.”
She calls Palmer one of her most trusted colleagues, once leaning on him to administer CSPA’s master’s exams while on sabbatical. Not only did he agree to help, but he also ended up doing the job every year until his retirement.
“And when he took it over, he thought about ways to improve the exam. He considered what was important for adult learners to know and ended up redesigning the comprehensive exam. It’s a process we still use today because it was so carefully thought out,” she said.
“Students tell us that the exam was a great experience for them to go back and reflect on their life, on their work, and on their learning.”
Before the pandemic, Palmer never missed a CSPA hooding ceremony. His staple contribution to the event was sharing the history and meaning behind academic regalia, including caps and gowns. While students were stuck at home in 2020, he hopped on Zoom to give the presentation. In 2021, a year after his retirement, his infamous speech was again requested by the newest graduates, even though those students had not taken a class with him.
“And he also added in a personal message to the students about their persistence through the pandemic,” McCluskey-Titus said.
“That’s just the kind of person he is.”
After receiving tenure, Palmer was just getting started. His relentless dedication to providing value empowered him to adjust his teaching and research to match the needs of his students and the field.
“Jim never let his curriculum get stale. He updated his courses every semester with new readings and new ideas,” McCluskey-Titus said.
Sharing it through the Grapevine
When Hines retired in 2003, he needed to find the next editor of Grapevine.
Hines knew Palmer’s statistical acumen, higher education knowledge, and work ethic fit the bill but feared his colleague might find the work distracting from his research and service goals.
“When I presented the idea to him, Jim immediately smiled and said, ‘Oh, I’d love to do that.’ He then told me all about Grapevine. He told me about the value of Grapevine. It was so amazing to hear that because I had poured my heart into the work for over 15 years.”
Palmer would head the publication even longer than Hines. But for him, the most gratifying aspect of the work was interacting with new groups, such as state higher education executive officers, to learn about funding.
Conversely, he struggled with calls requesting for him to speculate on the importance of a 1 or 2% decline in funding by a state, be it Florida or Ohio.
“Higher education is one of many important budgetary priorities a state has, and if funding increases, it has to be taken from another area.”
He said it was refreshing to hear an unlikely take on state funding from Illinois State’s new president, Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy.
“She sent a message that thanked the state for $70 million in funding. When was the last time you heard a president thank the state for funding?” Palmer said.
“She also referenced the funds raised from private resources. In other words, she was saying ‘We have resources, good administration, and good faculty. We can work together in a very positive way.’ I was very impressed by that,” he said.
A librarian, a reader, and a historian
Palmer is described by his colleagues and students as a relentless learner. McCluskey-Titus and Dianne Renn, EAF’s associate chairperson, have both witnessed him checking out large volumes of literature seemingly unrelated to his teaching and research, from anthologies on ancient Greece to biographies of failed presidents.
“And when the pandemic began, he started reading all about medicine and the 1918 pandemic; he’s just interested in so many things,” McCluskey-Titus said.
The breadth of his knowledge allowed him to tie almost any topic faculty or students were discussing to another piece of history.
But Palmer’s goal was never digression, it was to provide historical perspective.
“Students need a historical perspective,” Palmer said. “Because if they’re starting their career, I want them to become conscious of how things are going to change, and how other people 40 years from now might look at us.”
It’s a message that sticks with his students years later.
“He taught me how important it is to understand the history that you are ‘dragging behind you’ when trying to move into the future,” said Renn.
Palmer’s voracious appetite for reading, combined with an outstanding sense of recall, allowed him to create some of the most creative syllabi on campus, especially when co-teaching courses with EAF faculty. He was a strong proponent of interdisciplinary teaching.
Renn observed that “He once told me that ‘I can take any of our doctoral courses and align them with coursework on the Old Testament.’ He could find ways to make anything hook up.” Starting in 2006, Palmer poured over the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois simply because he recognized that his education had skipped over the works of virtually all African American authors.
“It’s shameful how we teach American history sometimes,” Palmer said.
He quickly integrated the content into his courses, and students were incredibly responsive to Du Bois’ “new” ideas.
“I recall most students, Black or white, had not read Du Bois before, either. And so here’s an instance of teaching where you as the teacher have learned something, and you’re passing that on to students and learning with them.”
The mutually beneficial exchange was a common theme in Palmer’s courses.
Listening was one of Palmer’s strongest abilities, and his students informed much of his courses.
“It sounds like a cliché, but it really isn’t,” he said, “you always learn more from your students.”
“But I also think that students learn more from you during a mutual exchange of ideas. I didn’t quite appreciate that when I first came here, but I did over the years of teaching.”
Palmer is also grateful for two impactful experiences that reshaped his perspective of P-20 schools, especially community college. They happened early in his career at Illinois State but would inform every piece of the curriculum he developed.
First, he was hired as a consultant for the City Colleges of Chicago. Soon after, he completed a study focused on community college students who received public aid.
“This work reinforced something that I had known already, but I hadn’t quite understood. Each community college is influenced by the character of its own locality and community, a reality that isn’t always appreciated,” he said.
Palmer saw how detrimental a “one size fits all” approach was to the seven colleges in Chicago and across rural communities.
Palmer said the experience opened his eyes to the urban poverty and racial injustice that community colleges face.
“The highly segregated geography of Chicago, a product of redlining and other policy decisions was purposeful in many ways,” Palmer said.
“I was really made aware of those problems, but I was also very, very encouraged by the students that I met. They were grappling with all sorts of challenges that I never faced as a college student, and yet, they were just doing great things. Education is all about talent development, and we can’t waste any talent.”
While working on his doctorate in the 1980s, most scholarships were centered on the importance of creating systems of open access. During his career, scholars slowly began to turn a mirror on the practices that built those institutions and on the ways those practices, however well-intentioned, fostered inequality in educational opportunity and outcomes.
“Under critical theory, we’re are now asking how we can become conscious of how our systems of higher education are actually systems of oppression,” he said.
“This idea challenges one of the major tenants of education, which is that schools and colleges are systems for individuals, and those individuals ‘make of it what they will.’”
Palmer comments that critical theory helps scholars identify and value evidence of systematic racism in education. For example, there exist wide disparities in the retention and graduation rates between individuals of different races. In addition, underrepresented students are more likely to attend community colleges than selective institutions across the U.S.
“So the question becomes, ‘How can we become conscious of this and change the culture of institutions in ways that are going to combat structural discrimination?’ It is a huge change in educational scholarship,” he said.
Palmer does not talk about such topics passively. Though he no longer teaches for EAF, he is still a trusted sounding board for his colleagues and former students. His meaningful contributions wouldn’t be possible without his concern and desire to stay current on the state of P-20 education.
“He still listens to all of us and offers ideas and suggestions. I just talked to him about a piece of research I was thinking about,” McCluskey-Titus said.
Palmer himself is in the process of writing two research pieces. One of them is on O. Lillian Barton, who was the first dean of women at Illinois State, while the other is a history of M.M. Chambers, the founder of Grapevine.
For all students, Palmer’s door was always open, shares Shaozhe Zhang, Ph.D. ’19, an alum of EAF’s higher education doctoral program.
“I probably held the record of dropping into his office unannounced. I did that so many times I lost count of the number,” she said.
“Except for class, he was always there, reading, writing, and revising students’ papers. His relationship with DeGarmo has stood the test of time.”
Hines remarks that Palmer possessed the best of both worlds when it came to pushing students to develop meaningful research.
“He was demanding in his own quiet way,” he said.
“Jim had very high standards but very reasonable standards. And he read everything carefully. Students knew if they worked with Jim, it would be challenging, but they would be able to produce a really good piece of academic work. And that’s what most of them were interested in.”
Palmer’s positive relationships with advisees helped the department recruit more and more students from community colleges, like Dr. Gregory Robinson, Ph.D. ’19, who serves Elgin Community College as an associate vice president and the dean of students.
“When I think of Dr. Palmer, I think of a unique academic scholar, researcher, coach, mentor, and a man with an awesome memory,” he said.
“I really appreciated his consistent and timely feedback, which was always thorough, thought-provoking, and constructive.”
The sense of joy Palmer got from his work was tangible. And students had a chance to see it on display every time he entered the classroom.
“He was a great teacher because of his enthusiasm,” said Vincent Boyd, Ph.D. ’10, a higher education doctoral alum.
“I saw a man who loved teaching and sharing his knowledge with the class. I enjoyed each class I had with him.”
Palmer sometimes refers to himself jokingly as a “defrocked librarian.” And though he had not practiced library science since his time at UCLA, his colleagues and students call him one of the best resource librarians they’ve ever met.
“I tell students they need to find their own sources. But Jim will say, ‘It’s fine; it takes me five minutes,’ and he routinely handed every student in his class a bibliography of key sources for them to start their research. It’s amazing,” McCluskey-Titus said.
“Jim always made the time to do it.”
EAF faculty members can share endless stories and praise for their colleagues, but they are perhaps best summed up through a comment by Renn.
“Jim Palmer is the high watermark for ethics, for putting students first, and for valuing the legacy of the department. He is the standard, and he sets a very high bar. And he did it all with a smile on his face,” she said.
Though quiet and unassuming, Palmer was unquestionably a leader for EAF. Even retired members of the department like Dr. Ross Hodel, Dr. Wendy Troxel, and Dr. Lucille Eckrich credit his mentorship for their professional successes.
“Jim has, and in some ways still continues to be, a leader in this department,” McCluskey-Titus said.
“But he would never take on that title for himself. I don’t think he ever saw himself as a leader. But he is.”
With these words now in print, there’s no more denying it.