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Interview with Joseph Cunningham


Molly Dohrmann: This is Molly Dohrmann with the Peabody Oral History project concerning the merger with Vanderbilt in 1979. Today's date is Tuesday, May 16, 2006, and the interview today in the Peabody Library is with Professor Joseph Cunningham, Associate Professor of Special Education and Chair of Human Organizational Development. To begin, please talk about your connection with Peabody at the time of the merger and with an overview of the Peabody Vanderbilt situation.

Joseph Cunningham: At the time of the merger, I was initially tied to one of the programs that had elementary education and special education with it and had been doing that for about three or four years. It was mainly the undergraduate teacher training programs in special ed and regular education, but still held my appointment in special education. In the mid 70s, the College had been rearranged in such a way that there were a set of program areas, and faculty from various departments were integrated into the program areas. So, that was the particular thing that I was doing at the time. Peabody.

Dohrmann: Can you talk a little bit about the history of the relationship between Peabody and Vanderbilt prior to 1979?

Cunningham: the only thing I really know bout it is what I have read, in terms of the operation. Apparently, during the early 1900s, there had been a kind of constant looking-at of the two organizations back and forth, a possibility of some sort of connection. I guess it was back in the 30s when the joint university libraries were set up as one initial sort of thing, but that I guess it always seemed to me as kind of an uneasy relationship between the two organizations. Shortly after I came -- I came as a faculty member right out of graduate school in 1969 -- in 1970 or 1971, Nick Hobbs had left Peabody to become Provost at Vanderbilt. There was a considerable amount of interest amongst the people associated with the Kennedy Center and special ed and psychology, particularly, to look rather explicitly at a merger of the two institutions. It didn't happen and virtually all the people that had been major actors in that attempt left within a year or two, the chair of special ed, the chair of psychology, the director of the Kennedy Center and several other people along with it.

Dohrmann: What caused the financial situation that resulted in the merger?

Cunningham: I can guess. In the mid 70s, when John Dunworth became president of Peabody, he suggested, an, I guess, got the board to buy into the notion of making Peabody a professional school of education, right at the time when education was becoming a more devaluated sort of a profession for many people.

The problem with that was that up until that point, it appeared that Peabody had always had a relatively-large number of undergraduates who didn't come to Peabody to be teachers. By the time they had finished, many of them did become teachers, but they came for a liberal arts education, essentially. When it was made explicit that you had to go into an education degree to come into here, there were a large number of students who just didn't come to Peabody any longer. So, what happened over a period of four or five years is that the total undergraduate population dropped off and dropped off so that at about the time of the merger, there were about 500 undergraduates and there were probably 1,200 or 1,300 graduate students. It was like the absolute reverse of what you would want to have for economic stability in any program. There was never enough external money coming in and that sort of thing to make up for that difference. So, I think the precipitous cause was that. It just changed the whole nature of the organization.

I think the only place that has successfully done that is Bank Street School, the school of education, and they have the advantage of sitting in New York City with eight million people right around them. It's a very different situation than being in Nashville.

At that time, and then over the last couple of years before the merger, -- again, apparently, I had no direct knowledge of it -- they were, in effect, spending down in funds so the kind of revenue that would come in from endowments was again dropping off year by year.

Dohrmann: What were some of the alternatives to merging with Vanderbilt?

Cunningham: Well, once it became available, I guess, right off hand, they looked at Duke, they looked at Georgetown, looked at TSU as other possibilities and I think each of those had real difficulties with them one way or another, with Georgetown and Duke, as they were obviously not here, but a long way away. With TSU, it needed state approval of the legislature and the state had done something similar in Chattanooga ten years earlier and they didn't see essentially buying another campus as something they needed to do, particularly when we had TSU here already and MTSU in Murfreesboro and Austin Peay in Clarksville. So, you didn't have that same kind of thing of having no state university down in the southeast corner in Chattanooga, (inaudible) University.

Dohrmann: What were the central issues in the merger?

Cunningham: it really depended on who it was. I think there were a large number of people at Peabody who were against merging with Vanderbilt mainly because they had come here to not be a researching person. For many of them, it was like a clear choice of not wanting to be at that kind of an institution and that's why they had come to Peabody to begin with. So, I think that was one group.

I don't think anybody seriously thought that Georgetown or the Duke thing was going to happen. That was kind of floating out there.

There were a relatively-large number who saw TSU as a viable alternative, I think, for two or three reasons. One is that it probably wouldn't cost any jobs had it actually happened. A second, I think, had to do with a relatively-large number of liberal faculty who saw the values as more closely-aligned for Peabody rather than the values of Vanderbilt, snobbish, kind of elitist, and that sort of thing, as opposed to the way Vanderbilt.

People in psychology and special ed and (inaudible) Kennedy Center actually I think, from very early on, saw the Vanderbilt as a really relatively-good connection for a variety of reasons. Many of us already had connections with various units at the university and because both those departments were relatively research-active, they saw being part of an aspiring research university, not a research university, but an aspiring one in 1980 as more likely to move them forward and the reality was, very soon after just the initial talk around merger, even before there was some agreement, it was pretty obvious that those departments had nothing to worry about in terms of the merger because that's part of what the university wanted and part of what they wanted to not have. There was no duplication to speak of. There was enough difference with the Peabody Psychology department from the A&S Psychology department. You could make fairly-explicit distinctions.

Dohrmann: Do you remember what some of the reactions were once the merger was announced?

Cunningham: Oh yeah. There were all kinds of real dismay, I guess is probably the biggest thing. I think, for the most part, very few faculty had any real sense of how bad the financial situation was. It was a very closed shop in that sense. Anyone who would have any ties to businesses and stuff would have seen some patterns, like raises every other year for a decade. There is obviously not very much money. Our tuition was artificially low; it was about half of even less than that of Vanderbilt's at the time. For many of us who had grown up in the north or the northeast, we'd come down here and virtually, there were no public universities in the northeast, so for the most part, you went to private universities and you would see how really ridiculously-low the tuition was at Peabody. So, that was one sort of thing. I think people were just shocked by it and it was done in a typical way. We'd go out on a Saturday morning to Board of Trust meetings and you pick up the newspaper in your driveway and you read what had happened to you that day. That was typically the way it was.

There were some real strong anti-administration, almost like demonstrations, pretty civil and part of it was that people really had really never had, I thought, the information so again, it was a shock.

A group of faculty got together and hired a lawyer to see about whether there was a way to protect jobs, mainly, and I think, with two exceptions that I can remember, virtually everyone who had been seen as a duplicate of a faculty that at the rest of the university on arts and sciences was let go, with a couple of appeals to that, at the time. I think the issue there was that as soon as they would start saying yes to this person with this set of characteristics fits and this person doesn't, they opened a huge can of worms in terms of being censured by AAUP or something like that. So, it was a really much cleaner really much cleaner to say, all the history people are gone. All (inaudible) people are gone.

I think the other part of the context, which it wasn't until things began to move, I think most of us at Peabody were aware of, was that Vanderbilt had just gone through a reassessment so they were in the midst of trying to say how can we pare things down to save money, so you have people in the university who didn't want this to happen anyway and were sort of trying to get it to happen. You would have these kind of very strict rules, it seemed to me, and they'd move them along.

That went on, pretty much, all spring. There were classes that essentially just stopped meeting for some bizarre situation.

I think a lot of concern about people, much more so than particulars, a lot of people who really wanted and thought we could keep this a separate institution, without knowing anything about the economics -- for quite a while, the college had been renting dorm space to Vanderbilt -- I mean, there had been a whole series of these things and people, I guess, kind of knew about, but never really figured out, gee, that may have something to do very explicitly with whether you are going to keep the place opened or not.

Dohrmann: You talked already a little about negatives of the merger, are there any other negatives?

Cunningham: I think in some ways, it changed, though there are still parts of it 25 years later, Peabody has always had kind of an egalitarian service- orientation to both its scholarship for the (inaudible) and in a way very different from arts and sciences or most arts and science departments, and that there's always this kind of connection between theory and application, of between research and application. In a sense, if you didn't do research to find something out, you did research to find something out that was useful to help other people, whether that was in special ed or in education, or in other areas of psychology or any area, sociology or whatever. Arts and science, I think, still is often much more enamored with just the finding out and if it happens to be useful, that's OK, but that's not the concern of the faculty member doing the research or giving a scholarship.

I think that was always there. You always had some connection with what was -- mean, notion of 21st avenue being very wide, it really was and still is in some respects.

Many of us, our connections with the university tended to be either in the medical school or the nursing school or other professional schools, very seldom with A&S faculty. I think it had to do around those sorts of notions about how you could wed service and research, how you wed scholarship and what you do with that scholarship.

That's made it a difficult combination, and still does, often. You'd get in the middle of something and some of these feelings behind those would often get in the way.

Dohrmann: What do you think have been the most positive outcomes of the merger?

Cunningham: Stability. I was in the one of the associate deans from right after the merger until the late 90s and was acting dean at one portion for a two-and-a-half-year period in the middle, and what happened through the 80s was -- at one level, we had -- as you know, $750,000 a year from the university and it was kind of notion of a planned deficit -- there were years that we had a deficit three times that, a couple of million dollars, on a budget of very relatively-small amounts, at times.

I guess, in 1972, we had dropped down as low as 350 undergraduates and many of those students would come through Peabody's back door into A&S because they couldn't get into A&S initially but once here, as long as their grades were up, you could freely move across schools so there was a constant movement of students through Peabody to A&S. What's nice now is they come through A&S to come to Peabody at the tune of about 100 a year.

In those early years, what it really allowed was -- and good chancellor and good provost, I think that was the other thing. Heard really believed that Peabody could be an important part of the university and the university really ought to have something to do with education. So, he was willing to provide the support mainly in the terms of a dean, who was allowed to run this fairly large deficit, who was allowed to -- and probably encouraged to hire really first-rate senior faculty at a time when no one else was doing that.

In those early years in the 80s, schools of education were really tight all the way across the country and we were one of the few places who were just hiring. We would hire senior people, which was really nice, and that was the attempt, to change the culture of Peabody very quickly, but it was expensive and we still had relatively few students and at that time relatively high-priced faculty to come in and begin to move the place.

I think both the chancellors and the provosts, (inaudible) at first, and Kiesler later on, really provided support to try to things. It was pretty obvious, if we hadn't turned around at the end of by the end of the 80s, there would probably have been some significant cuts and there had been -- I guess around '87 or '88, we had started to do some pruning down where the library science program went and the doctoral program on counseling went. Those were, again, fairly-strategic decisions. Given what effect you could have, would this be the place where you could really invest and make a difference and it was like probably not. You could have a good program but nothing that would be outstanding so it became kind of the background.

By about 1990, we had started to have a surplus, a very small one, but it was a surplus. We didn't have a negative surplus that year, which I thought was always an interesting concept. Mainly, it was the result of (inaudible). The idea in the beginning, back in the early 80s, was we had a group of very good psychology faculty but we couldn't have an undergraduate psychology program that could only happen through A&S and it wasn't until some time in the late 90s that we actually were able to get the child studies program and the cognitive studies and that sort of thing gotten on the ground level.

Our thought was that we would have died and gone to heaven if we had gotten 25 students a year in that program and I think the first year, there were almost 20 students, with no advertising, no nothing. It just kind of constantly grew. It's only been -- well, actually increasing slightly now, but we are running in the 700 to 750 range, total majors but that's happening by not admitting more than 100 a year as freshman and we get another 100 across the freshman into the sophomore year, so that you end up with a total of around 700.

What that does is it puts the economics of the total operation very different, where you have this v very large undergraduate population that's very stable, many of whom paid the tuition, actually, it has been until the late 90s we were probably only providing financial aid to about 15 or 20% of our undergraduates. So, it was just full. That's changed, now, we are up in the 40s and 50s, not much different than the rest of the university.

The other side of what happened there was the investment in faculty was explicitly to find people who, (1) had the capabilities and (2) a track record to bring in external funding. That again, paid off well over the years. In many years, maybe most years in the last ten or 15 years, Peabody generates as much or more in direct costs than all of A&S or all of engineering, or in some years, more than the two of them together. You get this very large base, then, of money, revenue streams coming in.

The other part of it is, I think in both cases, those were things that couldn't have happened in most universities because they wouldn't have had the kind of central support. Again, the other thing that happened in the mid 80s, when Heard retired and Joe Wyatt came in, Wyatt had a real interest in education and the importance of it, so he was very influential in allowing us to move interactions and encouraging in those directions.

Kiesler, as a provost, he was a provost before and during the time I was acting dean, and a couple of years after, and I liked him mainly because if you had a good idea and you could convince him that it had a reasonable chance of success, he would let you do it. He would let you get into all sorts of trouble. You had to be willing to live with it if it didn't work out. If we had a very cautious or conservative provost at that time, it would have been very difficult to keep things moving because a lot of it was trying many different things to come up with a combination of things that would be successful with the mix of people that you had. He was very good about that. He wouldn't let you get into trouble, but occasionally, he did.

Dohrmann: You talked about the evolution of the HOD program. Talk a little bit about special education and its rise to the top and also the Kennedy Center.

Cunningham: Special ed was, again, back in the early 80s when Bill Hawley was the dean, he clearly saw special ed as one of the spots where we could distinguish ourselves from other places. It's a relatively small field, particularly a relatively small field in terms of really good programs, so you could invest in a relatively small number of people and begin to move that forward.

Initially, what we did is we tried to target, in that area, young faculty, mainly late assistant professors who had been very successful in institutions that weren't as good as Peabody and Vanderbilt on the premise that they could do with the resources that we had available it here.

Special ed, with its connection with the Kennedy Center, provided, in those early years, an added draw for good faculty because there was this retardation research center. That was true in psychology as well. Those two departments had really helped in the ability to recruit people. So, there was kind of an infrastructure for research support and that sort of thing that many other schools of education just didn't have and he didn't have to build it up.

At that time, the major grants in the Kennedy Center were sufficiently large so that really was a support. It didn't take a lot of college dollars to keep it going and (inaudible) pretty well covered it.

That just kind of kept building up itself. We paid a lot of attention to trying to find people who were successful where they had been in places that generally weren't as good as here, so that when they came here, would support and we would really move and to try to then leverage against other things.

John Bransford came over and began working on technology. We hired several people in special ed that did technology related to special ed. There was this kind of synergy there and it was an area where there was a fair amount of demonstration dollars trying to figure out how you could use technology to enhance the learning of children. So, it was a spot that worked real well for us and has just continued.

Over the last few years, it really has, I think, become, like so many things, as they become successful, people want to come so it's almost a matter of if you can figure out ways to integrate them in, you can just kind of expand your influence there and that's helped.

Over time, even before the merger, because it was one of the few parts of Peabody that had these explicit connections with the university, mainly again, with the medical center, with some of the psychology, but where the center and the research projects became a nexus around which faculty from the university had been connected, as I said, mainly in medicine and in -- a couple of people out of psychology, part of that was that space, we had more space than we actually needed and it was kind of specialized space, so there are ways in which you would trade them off to people who had almost no space. At the time of the merger, I don't think the new hospital had been built by that point. The hospital was what is Medical north. The psychology department was in the old Wesley building where the parking garage is now. Their space was atrocious. So, these were relatively new buildings, built in the mid 60s and they provided a reasonable tradeoff.

Through the '80s, really the late '80s, and early '90s, relatively actually the National Institute of Mental Health began to focus more and more on biological sciences and neurosciences. That was a point at which -- and through the hiring of a couple of directors, began to focus more and more on the research in the Kennedy Center in biological basics, more and more bringing people from the medical center, he would bring in people from the medical center, from A&S psychology,. They were doing very good work but it was animal research as opposed research as opposed to people research and there was a major distinction between the two.

The Kennedy Center, up until that point, was the only one with of the MR research centers that was a behavioral research rather than medical research. Every other one was and still are, until just recently, in medical centers. None of them were in schools of education and none of them were in just universities, either. They were affiliated with medical centers.

I think it's been a difficult reorientation, both for Peabody faculty trying to figure out to what extent the Kennedy Center even made sense to be part of Peabody, and remain part of Peabody, and there is still a bit of that, now, because they physically sit in the buildings that are on the Peabody campus. If you talk to some people, I am sure you will hear about the very bad things that happen in the tombs. They have this wonderful space and we don't.

The other sort of thing is that there has always been kind of an approach and avoidance to the Kennedy Center because prior to the merger, they clearly had, and for us who were associated with it, we clearly had resources that no one else at the college had. We had kind of unlimited travel funds. We had these nice, big offices. We had this really nice space. There was a whole set of things. The Kennedy Center directors tended to be very protective of what they saw as their prerogatives, mainly space, and were able to use the (inaudible) around the initial building to keep the rest of the college out of their space, even if it was empty. Actually, that continued through many of the early years after the merger. There was kind of this love-hate relationship back and forth between the dean's office and the Kennedy Center director or officers, always this tension. I think it's not a tension that's very different form a lot of places which are research institutes because by their nature, they have little or nothing to do with the instructional mission of the institution. They are there to do research and so you have this kind of, again, a constant tension built up between the two organizations.

I think the thing that made it work here well, and actually, it's made part of the post-merger, the success of the college work well, was the budget (inaudible) of the university where a school of education was able to keep all the resources it generated and allocate them the way they saw best, rather than all the revenue going to the central university and then some small fraction of it coming back to operate the school of education, which is much more typical for most places. There is a handful of institutions in the country that are decentralized as these so that it's a very strong dean system so that if a dean had a set of goals and could convince central administration that these were reasonable ones and generated enough revenue to carry them out, you can actually do it, whereas most universities, you don't get to do that; you get to ask for incremental sorts of things. So, as we are making investments on this side and getting more and more revenue, then we have more and more revenue to kick back into moving things forward.

With the Kennedy Center, what made that kind of nice was that because the Kennedy Center was part of Peabody, as a dean, you could make decisions about how did this integrate with your instructional mission? How much support and hard knowledge would you provide to the research center because it made sense in terms of your academic mission, as opposed to as a place like VIPPS, which uses faculty from other parts of the university so they have no instructional mission, they don't have to be concerned about whether people teach or don't teach or teach well or don't teach well or anything else. All they have to do is worry about keeping their organization going. It makes it less a part of the university in that sense, part of the instructional mission of the university because the people who are making decisions don't have to worry about it. So, they would like to have all these wonderful faculty, but in every instance, they don't hire faculty. The faculty are hired by colleges, and so they have got to convince people in other departments to be part of that, but they don't give anything back to the departments. So, it's a very different arrangement and one where the research organization is part of an individual, in this case, college.

So, as things have moved, I think it would be interesting to see what happens with the Kennedy Center over time because it is now an organization that sits between a whole lot of places, but it isn't owned by any of them. So, it's going to be a different relationship and I would guess that over time, they will become more and more research-oriented and less connected to the program, to the instructional program of the university, whether it be at Peabody or in the medical center, or A&S or in nursing, just by the organizational nature of it.

Dohrmann: To end, do you have any other stories or anecdotes to share about Peabody?

Cunningham: Not really. This was fun.

Dohrmann: Thank you very much.


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Last updated April 9, 2007 by Chris Benda.