Interview with Melanie Ford
Molly Dohrmann: This is Molly Dohrmann for the Peabody Oral History Project concerning the merger with Vanderbilt in 1979. Today's date is November 3, 2005, and today's interview in the Peabody Library is with Melanie Ford, Assistant Director of Information Management (in?) Development in Alumni Relations. To begin, please talk about your connection with Peabody and the capacity in which you served at the time of the merger, with an overview of the Vanderbilt/Peabody situation at that time.
Melanie Ford: I graduated from Peabody in 1977 with a Bachelor's Degree, and I started working in the Development in College Relations Office at Peabody two days after that. My first job there was as a receptionist, then I moved to a secretarial job, and then by the time of the merger I was in a development researcher job. I was very young at that time; I turned 23 the week of the merger. But I was there in the Development Office for a couple of years before the merger.
Dohrmann: What caused the financial situation that resulted in the merger?
Ford: Of course, I didn't really have first-hand knowledge at the time -- I was very young and had a lower-level position -- but what I understand now, from everything I've heard and what I've read... The college was on the verge of bankruptcy, and it was looking for any way that it could continue to serve its mission. A variety of options were looked at, but really it was desperation time. They had to move forward because of financial problems.
Dohrmann: Were there alternatives to merging with Vanderbilt?
Ford: What we first heard about, of course, on the news in February, was that there was a possibility that Tennessee State University and Peabody were going to merge. And we were completely blindsided by that. We had no idea that that was about to hit the newspaper. So certainly that was very much on our minds in the months before the merger, that there was a real possibility we were going to merge with TSU. Also, Dr.Dunworth and others said that there were possibilities that we might merge with other institutions, and I'd have to refresh my memory about which institutions they were, but I believe Duke and George Washington? And, of course, there was the possibility we might merge with Vanderbilt. And I think maybe there were other options talked about; maybe Peabody could be a research institute... But anyway, for staff members, we certainly thought the TSU thing was very serious, and then there was the possibility of Vanderbilt as well.
Dohrmann: Who were the key people in the merger, as you recall?
Ford: Well, certainly Dr. Dunworth, Tom Stovall, Jim Whitlock -- I had not known a lot about Jim Whitlock before that time, but certainly after it was determined that we were going to merge with Vanderbilt... He had a lot of meetings for all staff on campus, to explain to us what was going on and how it was going to impact us personally, what we needed to do if we wanted to continue employment at the University. And so I saw him a lot then and really came to admire him. I mean, he was -- you know, a good authority figure for us to see at that time. The person that we in the Development Office were most closely associated with was the Director of Development in College Relations, who was (inaudible). And the day that the "TSU, Peabody to join" news first came out in the newspaper, we came in the office and I remember saying, "This has to be a mistake! I don't know why the newspaper printed this -- there's no way..." And he called us all together in the conference room -- our whole staff, which was about 15 people -- and told us, you know, this was a real possibility, that the college had to do something, and this was the real thing, and that we would be kept informed as new developments came along. And he did do a good job of keeping us informed, and -- you know, as the months went by -- of trying to make sure that things went as smoothly for us as possible.
Dohrmann: What were the central issues for you in the merger?
Ford: Well, certainly the number one issue for me was: was I going to get to keep my job? Would it be that job, or would I move to some other job? One thing that I was very interested in, personally, was -- I really wanted to go back to school, and I wanted to get an M.L.S. degree. And, you know, at my age 22 at that time, I didn't feel like I was going to have the money anytime soon to do that at Peabody, so, you know, I thought, "Well, if there was a possibility of a merger with TSU, maybe that program would continue," and, you know, tuition would be lower. So I was kind of excited about that idea. I thought, "Hey, maybe in a year or so I'll be enrolled in TSU in an M.L.S. program." So when the day came that the merger was voted on and, you know, folks came back from the board meeting and said, well, "It's Vanderbilt," I was kind of disappointed. (laughter) Because I thought, "Well, there went my MLS degree." And by the way, I never went back to school, so... (laughter)
Dohrmann: What were different reactions once the merger was announced?
Ford: Well, I know within our own office we were all shocked when the news came back that it was Vanderbilt and that the TSU merger had never been voted on. Other than that -- like I said, we were an office of about 15 people, and I think everybody in the office felt differently. I mean, all in all, I've got to say that when the news hit about the TSU possibility back in February, everybody in the office was somewhat excited and having a good time. I don't know, that seems like a strange thing, but, you know, we were very interested in what was going on and what the possibilities were. Every day, we clipped out newspaper articles from both the Tennessean and the Banner; we had a bulletin board where we put those up. (laughter) I was personally doing that, and everybody in the office would come stand there (laughter) and read the newspaper articles. So we were following it with great interest, and, you know, it was an exciting time... Once it was determined that we were merging with Vanderbilt, like I said, everybody kind of had a different reaction. A lot of higher-level people in the department immediately decided that they needed to find a job elsewhere, because they did not feel that they could get a comparable position at Vanderbilt. You know, there was already somebody at Vanderbilt in a position comparable to theirs, so they weren't going to be able to move over at that level; they would have to move over at a lower level, if they were hired at all. And so a lot of people decided immediately that they needed to go. Other people, like me, thought, "Well, this is an opportunity. Maybe I can find something at Vanderbilt that I'm going to like even better than what I'm doing now. And so, you know, let's see what happens. The sky's the limit," you know. And a lot of people were so desperate to find something quickly that they went ahead and found a new position before the merger date even rolled around, so...
Dohrmann: What do you think are the negatives of the merger?
Ford: Well, I mean, the sadnesses to me were the faculty members that lost their positions -- certainly some of the staff members that lost their positions -- the programs that were phased out... I had actually started out as a music major, and my husband was a music major. I worked in the School of Music my entire time as a student. So that was very much my second home, and that was the biggest personal sadness for me, that that program was lost. But I know, also, there was a lot of sadness that the art department was lost. And, you know, certainly there were a lot of outstanding professors that were in areas duplicated by Vanderbilt, so they had to be let go. And, you know, that still makes me sad, when I think about some of them, because I think they would've been excellent Vanderbilt professors. But that wasn't the way it turned out. Another -- and I know -- I feel sorry -- I worked very closely with Peabody alumni after the merger, and I feel very sorry that so many of them did not understand the reasons for the merger. And to this day, I'm not sure some of them do. (laughter) So I regret that. And just on a personal note, another thing that made me sad at the time of the merger was -- I saw a lot of Peabody's history walk away, literally. People that were losing their positions would grab a piece of furniture and go out the door with it. (laughter) Or things that were in offices that were being phased out -- archival-type materials were thrown away. And I did wind up working, again, at Peabody shortly after the merger, and many times I thought, "I just wish I had those things I threw away, because I need them for my job." (laughter) So that really made me sad.
Dohrmann: What do you think have been the most positive outcomes of the merger?
Ford: Well, I've worked here at the University ever since the merger, and here it is, 25 years later, and I can't say how proud I am at how strong Peabody is. I mean, time after time, you see that Peabody is Vanderbilt's top-ranked school. And if somebody had told me that at the merger time, I wouldn't have thought it was possible. And I think Peabody is probably as strong, if not stronger, than it's ever been in its history. And, I mean, you know, what it's doing is absolutely central to its mission. And, you know, I had to get the Paul Conkin book (laughter) out about Peabody to kind of refresh my memory about some of the things that went on during the merger, but when you realize the situation Peabody was in at the time of the merger -- and we didn't understand that then, certainly -- but it's an absolute miracle. Peabody was about to fold; it was about to go out of business. But what's happened now is it's stronger than it ever was before, and I think it's an absolute miracle. And when you walk around on this campus -- it certainly didn't look like this when I was a student. It looks absolutely gorgeous. And, you know, when I was a student, it didn't look so great all the time. (laughter) So I'm very happy.
Dohrmann: Do you have other stories about Peabody and the merger?
Ford: I think I may have covered them a lot during the other questions. I will say, I think I was very lucky -- well, I guess I'll talk a little bit about how I got hired at Vanderbilt, and what the conditions were under which staff members could transfer to Vanderbilt. The deal that was worked out between Vanderbilt and Peabody was -- in the very final days before the merger, Vanderbilt's human resources office was supposed to attempt to hire Peabody employees. And it was sort of a tricky thing, and they didn't get started on it until two weeks before the merger, but if you were offered a position at Vanderbilt that was comparable to your own -- meaning, the same pay -- during that two week period -- you could either accept it or turn it down. But if you were offered that position, you could not get severance pay. And the severance pay package that was worked out for Peabody employees was pretty minimal. I remember thinking mine would have been a little over 700 dollars, (laughter) so that's not too much. I suspect it was 5% of your annual salary, times the number of years you've been there. That's about what it would have worked out for me. But anyway, I had assumed that during that two weeks I would magically get a job offer, and it certainly didn't happen. I didn't even get an interview -- no, I got one interview, but I didn't get a job offer during that time period. So I was very disappointed when the merger day came and I had to go home and didn't have a job. But I had just gotten married a couple of months before, so I was not in any terrible financial situation. But anyway, a few days after the merger, I got a call from somebody in the development office at Vanderbilt, and they wanted to interview me for a position. So I went in and I did get hired in that position. And it did not start for seven weeks, so I did sit at home for seven weeks with nothing to do but knew I had a job to go to at the latter part of August. And because I had accepted the first position that I was offered by Vanderbilt, and it was during that two-month window -- that was the rule; if you got a job offer within two months after the merger, and it was the first position you were offered, and you took it, you could transfer and keep your seniority. So -- at age 23 I thought that was a big deal (laughter) -- so I moved to my first position at Vanderbilt with two years' seniority and a handful of sick days and vacation days. But I did not get severance pay, because I got offered that position. There were, I think, a couple of other people in our department that moved to Vanderbilt in that same way. There were three people in our department that were retained at Peabody. And then the others, maybe 10 or so, either, you know, left of their own free will before the merger, or they just were not able to find a position and had to go elsewhere. But anyway, after three months in that position at Vanderbilt, interestingly enough, my old supervisor at Peabody called and said, "Well, my assistant is going on maternity leave, and she's not coming back, so do you want to come back to Peabody?" And I said, "Yes!" So I did, and I worked with her on the Peabody campus for the next three or four years. And that was a really nice time for me; I was working primarily on alumni annual giving, and we worked with a lot of volunteers who I would say were really part of "old Peabody." We worked with a lot of the professors who were newly retired and had gone to emeritus status. We worked with a lot of alumni volunteers who had worked very hard on the alumni campaign before the merger. The folks I got to know during that period, and worked with, were Susan Gray and Art Cook and Jack Allen... I became very close to a lot of alumni, including Will Dean and Ray Scott. And so that was a really good time for me, because I learned a lot about Peabody's history. It certainly gave me a sense of continuity, that things at Peabody weren't over. (laughter) They were still on-going, even though those people were retired. And that was really the message we tried to send to our alumni in our solicitation materials: that Peabody was still here, Peabody still needed you, and so many things about Peabody had not changed. I also grew very close to John Windrow during that time, and his secretary Evelyn Stevenson. They had the archives here at Peabody, and Dr. Windrow was our number-one volunteer for our Peabody Pioneers, alumni from fifty years and earlier. And I spent a lot of time with them, and felt very much like they were my grandparents, and learned so much about Peabody's history from them. And so I really feel a connection to Peabody's past. Dr. Windrow had graduated in the 20s, and when I see a picture of the campus in the 20s, I think, "I know about that; Dr. Windrow was here then!" (laughter) So that was a wonderful experience for me. One other little story I'll tell -- I always thought this was funny; other people may or may not. The very last day we worked before the merger -- as I recall, the merger date was on a Sunday -- so the very last day we worked was, of course, Friday. In our development office, where we had our staff of fifteen or so, we all brought a dish for lunch that day and had a little bit of a celebration party goodbye. And somebody brought in a couple of bottles of champagne. And I remember our director at that time was very concerned (laughter) that we would get in trouble, because we had alcohol on campus. (laughter) Because Peabody had very much been a dry campus, but -- and she was -- she had been hired to continue after the merger, but most of us were pretty amused; it was like, "Well, most of us have already lost our jobs." (laughter) So we weren't too concerned. And we suspected Vanderbilt wasn't quite so dry as Peabody had been, but... So, of course, nothing came of that, so (laughter) there was no problem.
Dohrmann: Well, thank you very much.