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Interview with Frank Grisham

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Molly Dohrmann: This is Molly Dohrmann for the Peabody Oral History Project, concerning the merger with Vanderbilt in 1979. Today's date is Tuesday, November 8, 2005, and the interview today is with Frank Grisham, former Director of the Joint University Library. 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.

Frank Grisham: Thank you, Molly. I appreciate the opportunity to organize my thoughts and to look back on a very important part of my career. As you've indicated, at the time of the merger I was the director of the Joint University Library, better known as JUL in those days. JUL was established in 1936 as a joint effort of Vanderbilt and Peabody. Scarritt College was brought into the Consortium later, but (was?) an important element in that cooperation. And the justification for the original concept was, ironically, a factor in the merger that we're here to talk about, in 1979. And what I'm referring to there is the severe financial conditions that existed. Coming out of the Depression, both schools were on hard times, and when JUL was brought into being... And in the late 1970s, when this merger took place, Peabody was in financial difficulty, and to a certain extent Vanderbilt was facing financial problems. The JUL organizational structure is very interesting, and is something I want to refer to in this interview. That structure brought the three institutions together on a regular basis. JUL was governed by a Board of Trust made up of representatives from the Boards of each of the three institutions: five from Vanderbilt, three members of the Board of Trust from Peabody, and one from Scarritt. And they constituted the JUL Board of Trust. And there was a legal document that set all of this up and was the basis for our cooperation, and it was called the Trust Agreement. In addition, I reported directly to the Executive Committee of the Board of Trust of JUL, and it was made up of the chief executive officers of each of the three institutions. Vanderbilt's Chancellor and Peabody and Scarritt's presidents were my bosses. I also worked regularly with faculty advisory committees from each of the three institutions, and that gave me insight into their feelings at the time of the merger. Funding for JUL was from a complex formula that allocated basic costs in what was known as Formula One and additional costs, based on usage, that we referred to as Formula Two. I might interject here that the discussion of any dissolution of JUL, and subsequently the merger, brought about some heated discussions on who owned what, among the materials, the building, and the central building. I must also say at this point that the three institutions meeting regularly to administer JUL provided the most significant point of contact for the institutions. And so I saw the merger coming, and I saw the tension that existed at the time of the merger. Of course, there was the University Center program, but even it was secondary to the library cooperative that we refer to as JUL. The reason I mention this up front is that when the CEOs and boards met, there was a tendency to talk about everything except the library, and I had a difficult time keeping them on the subject, because they were very much interested in talking about cooperation among the institutions, and had a hard time getting around to the library agenda. And to avoid this, I often would develop specific agendas that would encourage the participants to stay focused on library matters. And that became a laughing matter after a while, but... My point here is that the JUL provided opportunity for a dialogue on all matters among the three institutions and particularly Peabody and Vanderbilt. I might also add here another comment or two on my connection with Peabody. I was a part of the cooperative effort that we know as JUL from 1952 through 1982, when I left Vanderbilt. And even before that, from 1949 to '52, I was a graduate student in the Divinity School, and saw the cooperative efforts from the perspective of a student. And from 1952 to 1965, I was director of the Divinity Library. From '65 to '67, I was assistant director of JUL under David Kaser. And then from '67 to 1982, I was director of JUL. And I say all of that to simply make the point that I am speaking from the perspective of one who was associated with Peabody and Vanderbilt for over 32 years. Now, I think equally important for this discussion is the fact that I have a graduate degree from each of the two institutions that merged. I received a Master's Degree in Library Science from Peabody in 1958. And perhaps I should also say that from 1967 to 1978, I was Vice Chairman of the Metropolitan National School Board. And that connection to public education brought numerous opportunities for me to relate to the faculty of Peabody, and to the curriculum, and to relate metropolitan public schools to Peabody, and it was an enlightening experience. The overview of the situation at the time of the merger -- let me speak briefly to that, and I've already alluded to some of the conditions that existed. And there was no doubt, at the time of the merger, that there was a financial crisis on the Peabody campus. And that's well-documented; you can read that in a number of sources. But as I tried to build a budget for JUL and allocate Peabody and Vanderbilt's portion, I could easily see and feel the crisis at budget-approval time. Vanderbilt became so frustrated with the drag that Peabody was having on its desire to enhance its library program that Chancellor Heard got the Board of trustees of JUL and his own board to approve a special category for direct support from Vanderbilt to the libraries, particularly to the libraries located on the Vanderbilt campus. That new level of support beyond the basic Formulas One and Two that I mentioned guaranteed that if ever the JUL were dissolved, those extra dollars of support from Vanderbilt would be recognized, and Vanderbilt would receive its fair share. And of course, at the time of the merger, when we were talking about merger with TSU, Vanderbilt was heavily involved in discussion as to what it actually owned among the collection and in the building and particularly recognizing the additional funds that Heard made available. This continuous struggle of who pays for what made it clear to me that the JUL would never be any stronger than the weakest of its supporters. I say that as backdrop to the merger; there are many, many positive things about JUL, and its concept was quite good for its time, but there were a few negative things about the concept. And that was one, that JUL could never become -- because of the formula of support, could never become any stronger than the weakest of its supporters. I think a more vivid example of he problem of the relationship with the two schools can be seen in this: a few years before the merger, my professional salary became a major issue, and I look back with amusement on it now. The President of Peabody at that time was Chair of the Executive Committee, and the Executive Committee rotated from year to year. The Executive Committee -- the three chief executive officers -- set my salary. Peabody was not giving raises across the Board that particular year, so I got none. When Chancellor Heard found out about it a few months later, he intervened with the president of Peabody to force a slight raise, and to this day I believe he funded an increase in my salary, despite Peabody, out of VU's budget. That's an example of the difficulties of cooperation that they faced prior to merger. But let me go on -- because of the acute financial situation in the late 70's, particularly Peabody, I saw the handwriting on the wall. It was clear that Peabody had to look externally for some sort of major relief. A lot of secret meetings took place, and faculty and trustees from Peabody knew little about it. And that was, as I'll point out probably a little later on in my remarks, that was unfortunate. Emmett Fields, who was at that time leading the discussions of a potential merger in the absence of Chancellor Heard, was pretty hard-nosed with the administration at Peabody. I speculate, for whatever it's worth -- and it is pure speculation -- that Vanderbilt must have thought that Peabody would go under and that they would be able to pick up the pieces rather easily by just waiting on the sideline. I like, when I think about all of this, to say that one could write an interesting novel about the events that led up to the merger. And I'll not go into them here, for they are clearly recorded in print in several places -- mainly in Professor Conkin's book on Peabody College, which I think is an outstanding piece of work. If you were to ask me, from my perspective, what might have caused the financial situation that resulted in the merger, that may be of some interest from my perspective. To me, it was due to the simple fact that Peabody could not compete with state schools with teacher-education programs. Its enrollment is dropping; it's struggling to raise funds; education in general during that period of the 70s was not -- it was going downhill, to put it mildly. Students at Peabody were unwilling to pay the high tuition required by Peabody, and highly-qualified faculty would not continue to teach for the non-competitive salaries that they made. And I was very close to a number of the faculty at Peabody, and I know first-hand their concern about all of this, and rightfully so. Another factor I must mention is the absence of proper leadership needed to get Peabody through these difficult times, for the late 70s were a struggle for even the best of institutions of higher education, as far as I am concerned. Peabody was not able to attract the kind of leadership it needed during this struggle, and that was true of a number of institutions. Who were the key people in this merger? I'm sure they've been noted in numerous places, but I cannot help but name a few with whom I had direct contact -- and spoke of the imminent merger with them personally, privately, and publicly. It was obvious to me that the respected Boards of Trust were the key players in this merger, although some of the Peabody Board of Trust members who lived out of town were in the dark about this. I remember talking to one particularly who claimed he did not know what was going on, and this was a problem for Peabody. There were a few members of the Peabody board that had personal and social relationships with their counterparts at VU, and that's an interesting phenomenon. They were socially relating to one another, and yet they ended up on opposite sides of the street in terms of discussion of the merger. And I recall vividly some of the conversations that went on among them, many of them my friends who've shared their feelings. I felt at times I was sort of in between a rock and a hard place, because some of the Vanderbilt board members would comment one way in private, and some of the Peabody board members would comment one way, and there I was in between. I really didn't realize, at the time, the seriousness of all of this. You look back on it -- as we tried to look at the merger -- that this was a significant period in the history of Peabody and Vanderbilt. But put it mildly, I could sense the tension when our JUL board would meet. These men, including the chief executive officers -- and (toward?) the merger, it was Dunworth and Heard in the main -- and then their representatives from their Boards of Trust -- I could sense the tension, and commented to my wife and my family about this when I would come home from a board meeting. I think Chancellor Heard was the dominant figure in it all, even though he was away from the campus for a while. Of importance, but necessarily secondary, were the roles played by other administrative staff, such as vice presidents and deans. From Peabody, Horace Hill was a key player in the discussions. Horace was chair of my board for a while, as well as chair of the Peabody board. I think Horace had serious questions -- in fact, I know he did -- about the relationship to Vanderbilt, and of course later on he resigned from the Board in protest of potential action. I remember fondly and with gratitude Jesse Wills, who was chair of my board for many years, but very influential on the Vanderbilt board, and his role in this discussion -- Sam Fleming, whom I knew well -- they were key players from Vanderbilt. It should be noted that two of these, Horace Hill and Jesse Wills, served as chairs of the JUL board, and they were in an awkward position many times as they tried to preside over this meeting, when the two institutions had (piqued?) -- or they were at odds with one another. One would also have to mention John Bransford and Maxie Jarman and Walter Stokes of Peabody, and Dan May and many others from Vanderbilt. Many of these had served terms on my JUL board, so I knew them and their positions pretty well. And in the wings were the senior administrators that I worked with on a daily basis, men like Bill Forrest and Ray Norris, Jim Whitlock, Tom Stowall -- good friends, very much involved in the discussion of the merger. And then there was John Windrow of Peabody, who -- I think, to his grave -- carried a real distaste for Vanderbilt that I never understood. The one man that deserves the most credit for reasoning and for reason and good will in this period of tension was a man by the name of Nicholas Hobbs. What a man, what a man of integrity, what a friend to all. Nicholas was just a gem, and he played an important role, that I don't think is recognized until this day, in the merger. He deserves much credit -- as much credit is anyone -- to bringing about reason and understanding in the discussion. But I think his joint role in the two institutions became a problem for some. Some of the issues, now, let me get at those. I know we need to at least talk about some of those. Is that all right? Through the years, there had been continuous effort to bring the two institutions into a more cooperative posture. I can name a half-dozen, at least, of significant efforts. So there was a history of cooperation, or efforts to try to cooperate. And you cannot overlook the significant accomplishments that came out of those discussions, but I don't think any were as momentous as the creation of JUL, the library. There was the University Center, which had an element of cooperation, with Fisk and Meharry, that was successful -- Vanderbilt and Peabody worked with that. There was open enrollment for specific courses; I remember well the fine arts, including music, where the students from Vanderbilt took the courses at Peabody. And then PE, of course, is well-known, the courses that Vanderbilt students took in PE. And there was a famous common calendar, which was a humorous event in history where the two schools had difficulty arriving at a common calendar. There was a faculty club, there was a marching band, there was intercollegiate sports. Football players, of course, enrolled at Peabody, and several more that I need not take time to mention, but they -- to me as a person involved -- were important -- yet baby steps toward what really took place when the merger came in later years. I'd like to interject at this point, to get my point home, on account of something that became symbolic of the tension between the two institutions. And that is this famous pedestrian bridge over 21st Avenue. That street might as well have been a river, or an interstate; not only was it dangerous to cross, but it was a welcome moat in the eyes of some who wanted to keep the two institutions separated. But it was a significant barrier to cooperation that had to be bridged in the eyes of others. And let me give you this specific example that I would like to refer to: in 1968 we added to the main library -- now known as the Jean and Alexander Heard Library -- the graduate wing, while I was there. And it provided an opportunity to bridge 21st Avenue from its deck. The main financial donor of that wing was H. Fort Flowers, an engineer himself, a man whom I know through Chancellor Heard. Fort Flowers personally drew up the plans for a bridge, and was willing to pay for it, to cross 21st -- to connect about where Wesley Hall stood -- connect the two campuses. However, this idea -- even though it would have been free for the asking, and been constructed as a part of the expansion of JUL there, of the central building -- it was totally rejected. And I personally witnessed the tension that existed in the discussions of that project. The time was just not right. But the construction of the current bridge that we enjoy coming across the street became a symbol of significant progress, and people to this day take pictures of it and talk about it symbolically. And I understand that a second bridge is in the planning, so... I look back on that effort some of us had to bridge 21st, and how it was talked down and rejected totally by both institutions. We're back to the issues, because I've digressed a little, but that's an example of what was going on. Peabody was frightened by the prospect of being swallowed up by Vanderbilt. No one could envision the current situation being possible -- that is, what we have today, as you and I sit here and talk. That was not seen as possible. For Peabody was determined not to lose its identity, and it could find no way in those days to really ensure that identity. There was a lot of pride at Peabody, and they're to be commended for that. I don't mean to say "they" should; we should be, because I'm a part of Peabody and will always be. And the thought of losing its identity was a driving force for Peabody. There were previous studies and efforts to address this factor, but they had failed -- and here I'm referring to that John Dale Russell study, and the Design for Future, which actually took place while I was here. I agree with many writers on the merger history that one of the main issues was the contrast of cultures of the two schools. I saw this. Vanderbilt is -- I think Conkin put it this way -- was the classical and traditional, and Peabody was the entrepreneurial and the service-oriented. Theoretical versus the applied is the way they looked at it in those days. And it was obvious to me that Vanderbilt often looked down on what was going on across the street, and I refer particularly to Vanderbilt's concern about the curriculum here at Peabody. Faculty feared the loss of their jobs, and I can understand that. I didn't know what would happen to me, personally, but I can understand their concern, particularly the tenured faculty. And the staff felt likewise, but they were not as well-organized in their opposition as the faculty. So I would say one of the issues was of course job security, and in those days no one can blame for your concern over losing your job. As I have earlier said, Peabody was in dire financial straits at the time of the merger. It had to do something; it could no longer balance its budget with the use of endowment funds. What it was doing was taking money out of its endowment for operational funds, and taking money that was to be used for this purpose and using it for another purpose. They were really moving the money around. I could tell that because I had to make a budget presentation to them each year and justify the budget. So Peabody (inaudible), though, began to look elsewhere. And I strongly suspect that Horace Hill finally concluded that he could no longer personally bail out Peabody, and he certainly did a lot of that. Horace Hill was a friend of Peabody -- gave lots of money -- some of which nobody knew about. He gave JUL money that people will never know about. Another issue that has not drawn much attention, if you look back on the history of cooperation among these two schools, is the fact that through the years there was a lot of secret negotiations going on. This alienated a lot of people, particularly the Peabody faculty and some of the Peabody Board of Trust -- particularly when word leaked out, and they read about it in the paper, and... There were all kinds of backlash from these secret negotiations that were going on. And there was a lot going on, because I saw some of it. I think that secrecy literally scuttled the 1978, early '79, plan to merge. Now, what happened -- and I'll quickly bring this to a close; I know I've talked too long -- what happened that brought on the merger? Pure and simple, in my mind -- and some are going to argue this point -- it was the threat of the merger with TSU, Tennessee State University. The Vanderbilt Board of Trust saw what was about to happen and pulled out all the stops to kill this effort. You can read about it in the newspaper; it's no secret. Of course, Vanderbilt wanted the land and the buildings for expansion, and rightfully so, but the thought of a traditionally black institution operating across the street was unthinkable to some members of the Vanderbilt board of trust. I strongly disagree with some who say that Vanderbilt's football future was at stake with the merger with TSU. I don't -- there's a lot of credit given to that as the motivation for the merger. I never saw that as a concern of the Board members that I knew. I don't think football in general, back in those days, carried a lot of weight with some of the Board members -- some of the more influential... And schools of education were losing ground in the late 1970s, and I've already alluded to that. It was quite a contrast to what we see today, as education has become a more central concern in society, and schools of education are becoming more and more important -- it seems to be cyclical. Now, what is the end result -- and I'll close with this, because I'm very proud of what happened, and I was glad to be a part of it. What has happened since the merger has shown me that it was a good move. It was a win-win situation for both institutions, although you couldn't prove it at the time of the merger. Peabody has its identity as one of the strongest of the professional schools of Vanderbilt, and Vanderbilt ought to be proud -- and I'm sure it is; it at least says so -- of Peabody and its role as one of the professional schools of the university. Vanderbilt has what it could use: an outstanding professional school of education. Each institution has enhanced the reputation and prestige of the other, and I look on the merger as a very, very positive thing. I do not think the merger with Tennessee State would have ever taken place. And the timing in which Vanderbilt entered the picture is interesting, because -- I was involved in local politics extensively on the Board of Education, and I do not believe that the state legislature would have approved the merger. I believe that it would have hit the fan, so to speak, and nothing would have happened with the TSU merger. But that is my opinion, for whatever it's worth. It was an interesting and a challenging part of my career. Interesting times, yes, indeed. But I have no regret at all for being a part of it. Thank you for this opportunity. Do you have any questions you want to put to me?

Dohrmann: Well, I was just going to say, now -- do you have other stories about Peabody and the merger? Anecdotes, or...

Grisham: Well, some of them are a bit too personal for me to include in this document. I have fond memories of my personal relationship with the people involved in the merger. And fortunately for me, I did not have to take a stand. I ended up -- and I can be faulted for this -- as being neutral on the subject, having many of my friends marching and carrying signs for and against. I was involved in the Vanderbilt faculty senate, attended all of those meetings; I heard those discussions. I had friends on both sides of the street. I did not come down hard one way or the other, which may have been a fault of mine, but I was able to serve, I think, a useful role in showing how Peabody and Vanderbilt could cooperate through its libraries -- that with the prospect of that cooperation being extended to other areas. Some of the personal events took place -- a lot of things happened during the Board meetings that I was yet at the time, being na´ve that I was, unsure of why they were happening. But now, I look back on it -- some of the conversations can be explained because of what was on the minds of these board members as they sat across the table from one another. I think one of the most interesting aspects of this whole thing was the -- something I alluded to -- and that is the personal relationship that some of the Vanderbilt key players had with the Peabody key players. They were friends on the weekends, and they went to social events and entertained one another, and yet they were at odds at times in their positions on this merger. I'd better be vague like that, rather than to get into specifics.

Dohrmann: Thank you very much.

 

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Last updated April 9, 2007 by Chris Benda.