Gauen: Slow change of fortunes erases SIUE’s inferiority complex

I was a student journalist when Delyte W. Morris, the visionary who built Southern Illinois University into a major institution, strode across a meeting room to introduce himself and hand me a cup of coffee.

Only much later did I acquire the wisdom to recognize the real significance of that gesture at my first visit to a board of trustees meeting. “Wow!” I thought. “That’s how he did it! That’s how he got what he needed from the politicians.”

Charm was only one of the implements in the university president’s toolbox, but a powerful one.

Having steered the Carbondale school from a teachers college into a well-funded university of broad instruction, Morris was looking north by the 1950s, to Metro East. The second largest population center in Illinois had no four-year public higher education institution.

Thus began modest outreach classes in Alton and East St. Louis. The acquisition of 2,660 acres of mostly farmland outside Edwardsville spoke to plans for something much grander.

SIUE classes opened in 1965. I arrived as a freshman three years later in the midst of a tumultuous time. Disgust with the Vietnam War, racial discrimination and pollution boiled over simultaneously, on campus and beyond.

There soon would be some internal disgust brewing at SIU, too, that would expedite the end of the Morris era. In 1969, we learned the school had spent $1 million in discretionary funds (about $6.6 million in today’s money) to build a presidential residence in Carbondale.

Outraged legislators held hearings. Wary trustees soon stripped Morris of much of his power. And all this unfolded against a backdrop of internal jealousies.

There were more than a few people in Carbondale who saw theirs as the “real” university. It had lots more programs and lots more students — thousands of them living on campus. I’ll hold short of broadly applying the word “arrogant,” but at least a few were.

Up on the northern end, many of us at Edwardsville had a little inferiority complex. Ours was a commuter school, with limited offerings and huge parking lots in places where a big college might have towering dorms. Lots of our students lived with their parents and drove to classes in a fashion not so different from their high school years.

We understood that our branch was purpose-built to bring higher education to people who were unable or unwilling to go away to school. Plenty of our graduates gratefully saw it that way and could not have cared less about campus rivalries.

But in some circles, the chafing was painful. And it flared over the Morris house scandal.

At the time, SIUE did have one big advantage: John S. Rendleman.

Charismatic beyond description, the Morris protege was the perfect choice for chancellor of the fledgling campus. I was proud to know the brilliant and elegant man, whose confidence was contagious. Nobody felt second class under his first-class leadership.

The rub was that in a previous role as a university lawyer, Rendleman had blessed the legality of spending money on the house without approval up the state line. Although the trustees had signed off too, Rendleman ended up sitting on the same hot griddle as Morris.

The Carbondale-Edwardsville divide might never have been wider than then. Some called for a full separation of the schools, which were pretty autonomous anyway. (That idea would come back periodically through the years, without action.)

Perhaps the ultimate slap was when the SIUC Student Senate called for resignation of SIUE’s beloved Rendleman.

The estimable journalist Timothy Middleton, then editor of SIUE’s student newspaper, the Alestle, reacted with an editorial under the deliciously blunt headline “Carbondale can roast in Hell, doo da, doo da.” It mocked “the audacity to suggest that hemorrhoids in Carbondale could be cured by an operation in Edwardsville.”

In the end, Rendleman weathered the storm but his mentor did not. After 22 years of empire building, Morris retired the next year. Rendleman soldiered on at SIUE until dying, at just 48, of lung cancer in 1976.

Over the decades, SIUE built programs and residence halls, closing the dignity gap, while Carbondale struggled with flagging enrollment.

Last fall, SIUC registered 15,987 students, the fewest since 1964. At the same time, SIUE had 14,142, just 123 below its record high set the year before.

While both suffer from the state’s perpetual budget emergency, SIUC is almost literally out of spendable cash. Officials are working on a deal — controversial among some constituents on the Edwardsville end — to lend perhaps half of SIUE’s $70 million in unrestricted reserves to its sister.

I presume it will happen. I think John Rendleman would want it. And in his classy way he would flash a knowing smile without ever mentioning a word about the irony.

Gauen: Slow change of fortunes erases SIUE’s inferiority complex

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