sitemap JMC: A Ridiculously Brief History: Fred Little ('79)

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Group Memory


A Ridiculously Brief History

Fred Little, JMC '79


And lo, in the city of East Lansing, in the year  1965, at the institution known as Michigan State University, were brought forth three schools, independent and self-governing colleges of the larger University:  James Madison College, Justin Morrill College, and Lyman Briggs College, dedicated to political science, cross-cultural liberal arts education, and the sciences, respectively.  Sharing a commitment to small classes, encouragement of independent inquiry, and close relationships between faculty and students, all three were established as residential colleges, combining student housing, classrooms, and offices for college faculty and administrators.



From the beginning, the faculty and students of Justin Morrill embraced interdisciplinary study, experimental approaches to teaching and learning, and the development of new forms of mutual respect, community and connection.  This was most evident in the academic governance of JMC, in which students sat as fully empowered voting members on all of the College's committees, including those which approved changes in curriculum and personnel.  For many years, courses within the College -- which made up the bulk of each student's general education requirements -- were graded on a Pass-No Grade system coupled with extensive narrative evaluations of each student's work.  And the inclusion of mandatory,  intensive, small-group study of foreign languages added elements of rigor while building a foundation of relationships that served students well throughout their college careers.

Like the Peace Corps, NASA, the Green Berets, and the steady stream of government funding for the study of foreign languages and cultures that characterized this period in American history, the foundation of Justin Morrill can reasonably be regarded as one element of a larger response to the Cold War and concerns about communist inroads in the developing world.  And as did many major research universities, MSU had strong and long-standing institutional ties to the US war effort in Viet Nam, though research performed under the auspices of grants of Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of Agent Orange and napalm,  through work connected with Operation Phoenix performed under US governement grants by members of the geography department, and through the work of the late Professor Wesley Fishel, who was a key figure in the the rise and fall of President Ngo Dinh Diem. 

Given all of this, it is not surprising that many members of the Justin Morrill Community were politically and socially active, and became increasingly so as national concern over the undeclared war in Viet Nam mounted in the late Sixties. In the aftermath of the national anti-war student demonstrations of 1971, which shut down numerous campuses across the country,  the provost of Michigan State University was ordered by the Governor of Michigan to undertake a detailed examination of the causes of the student demonstrations which took place in East Lansing, as in most other college communities. The resulting report identified Justin Morrill College -- and the Snyder-Phillips dormitory and classroom complex in which it was housed -- as the epicenter of anti-war activity on the MSU campus. 

Coincidentally, in the following years, a series of administrative decisions resulted in a progressive dismantling of JMC, beginning with restrictions on student participation in academic governance, proceeding to the dismantling of the College's intensive language program and elimination of language study requirements, and at length, outright prohibition of meaningful student participation in the College's academic governance.  Concurrent with the apparently systematic removal of the features which made Justin Morrill a unique experiment in self-directed cross-cultural education, both the number and quality of applications to the College declined.  Faculty members who wished to insure their ability to continue their careers at MSU found it necessary to accept appointments in less vulnerable divisions of the University.  By 1979, Justin Morrill College no longer existed in any meaningful sense. 

At this writing, Lyman Briggs continues to exist as a School within the College of Natural Sciences and provides a home to one of JMC's best known programs:  the Clarion Writer's Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy.  It is somehow fitting that the only one of the three which continues to exist as a self-governing college is James Madison, dedicated to the Machieavellian realm of political sciences and the arts of public administration.

In the autumn of 1999, in an unprecendented gesture of largesse, the College of Arts & Letters sponsored the first reunion of JMC and Snyder-Phillips Alumni.  Those of us who gathered together in East Lansing on October 1-3, 1999 discovered, to our delight, the wide variety of ways in which we had continued to infuse our lives with  the values of tolerance, diversity, social justice, independent inquiry, cross-cultural sensitivity, interdisciplinary study, and straight-up rock and roll fun.

These pages mark the beginning of our effort to reclaim our history and re-establish the connections which bind us in the spirit of mutual support and assistance.  Nobody saw it all, and as the saying goes, if you remember it all, you weren't really there.  But it is time for us to insure that we're the ones telling our story. 

Fred Little
Palisades NY
October 1999