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Interview with Kathleen Hoover-Dempsey


Molly Dohrmann: Today is August 10, 2005 and the interview today is with Professor Kathleen Hoover-Dempsey in the Wyatt Center on the Peabody campus. To begin, please talk about your connection with Peabody and the capacity in which you served at the time of the merger?

Kathleen Hoover-Dempsey: I was a faculty member and assistant professor at Peabody at the time of the merger and assistant professor at Peabody at the time of the merger in the 1978-1979. I had joined the Peabody faculty six years earlier as a faculty member in the Department of Education and within about two and a half years, I was asked to take a secondary appointment, which became a primary appointment actually, in the department of psychology at Peabody. So, I held a joint appointment in the two departments, worked in the undergraduate and graduate and graduate education programs, taught in the, at that point, primarily undergraduate program in psychology and I also served as a research associate at the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies in the Center for Child and Family Studies that Nick Hobbs had started at that center.

I had been here six years and found it an interesting and fascinating place. I loved teaching here and I really enjoyed the work we were doing at VIPPS. We were working on a project called Childcare and Parent education and later, after Nick's death, emerged as a book focused on childcare and parent education policy. I was kind of tapping into multiple aspects of the Peabody operation.

The year of the merger was also the year that I came up for tenure and so my tenure decision went through all Peabody's processes and one, small, and unusually unique piece of it was that my tenure decision was that the process was voided at the time of the merger and I was reviewed at Vanderbilt University which was starting to be very careful about the appointments that it was thinking about for Peabody faculty members after the merger. All went well and I wasn't particularly worried about it at the time. It was an interesting piece of feeling suspended in space for a bit longer than I had been.

Dohrmann: Were those tenure decisions -- did they affect other Peabody faculty members?

Hoover-Dempsey: I am not completely certain but there were several personnel decisions that were made that very soon, in the wake of the merger, that had very difficult repercussions for individuals.

I am not aware of any other faculty members being in the position of being reviewed for tenure at that point in time. It seems to me unlikely that there weren't at least one or two others, but there was no one else in my department and I wasn't made aware of anybody else.

There were faculty members whose departments were eliminated quickly as a function of the merger. Several of those individuals, some of whom had a great deal of seniority, were offered positions elsewhere in the university. Some chose to retire, (I believe. There were a few faculty members whose departments were not eliminated at Peabody but they were let go, in any event, and that created a degree of difficult feelings for individuals and some real discontent and concern on the part of faculty members who did feel, to some extent, insulated from at least the first big wave of personnel changes that the merger brought about.

We had, I think going into the merger, 14 departments. I mean, we were a freestanding college and had majors in the liberal arts and sciences as well as education and the humanities. Basically, the merger conditions required that any department at Peabody that was duplicated in a college of arts and sciences or elsewhere in the undergraduate programs at Vanderbilt would be eliminated, the single exception, of course, was Peabody's department of psychology. This probably has a bit of Peabody chauvinism in it, but the reason we weren't eliminated is that we were, I think, a little bigger, I believe we were stronger, I know we had more external research recognition and funding and programs going on than did the department of college of arts and sciences, so I think it was seen as fundamentally a sound financial and intellectual decision to let the two departments stay, although we were told that we had to eliminate our undergraduate major in psychology. We could not compete with the arts and science department of psychology at the undergraduate level, which put our department in an interesting position, certainly, because most of us had been involved in the undergraduate and graduate education and of course, there are very few institutions where departments make it solely on the basis of graduate education, if they are fundamentally in professional fields that don't require a graduate degree as a point of entry into the profession. So, it created some interesting times.

Dohrmann: Was the Kennedy Center a part of the psychology decision...

Hoover-Dempsey: The Kennedy Center was a college-wide institution -- there were only 12 Kennedy Centers in the United States, it was the only one that was grounded in a college of education rather than a medical setting, at least that's what I was told at the time.

The Kennedy Center had an interesting relationship to the department of psychology and the department of special education at Peabody. When I first came here, most faculty members in psychology and special education held Kennedy Center appointments and all of the building space in MRL, the mental retardation laboratory, and what was then HDL, the human developmental laboratory, which was subsequently named in honor of Nick Hobbs, all of the space in those buildings was controlled by the Kennedy Center so all faculty members in those two departments, their office space, their research space was controlled by the Kennedy Center. The departments had no authority and the college, basically, had no authority over the space that was used by those two departments. This had nothing to do with the merger. This created, as you can imagine, some fairly serious tension between each of the departments on the one hand, and the Kennedy Center, on the other. We were all, as faculty members, keenly aware that toward the end of any given academic year, we could receive a notice saying that our office was needed by somebody else whose research had a higher priority in the Kennedy Center's list of important issues and projects to be accomplished and we were just kind of accustomed to being told that we would need to move from the space that we had occupied for the previous nine months and it was given over to somebody else. It wasn't the best of situations and there were clearly people in both departments and in the dean's office who were working on modifying that situation at the time of the merger, but the Kennedy Center was a very strong entity here and it was very much Peabody-based and did not have what it has now, which is the grounding, also, in some departments, in the college of arts and science, and the medical school, as well.

The other entity at Peabody that was actually university-based was the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies, which had begun probably three years before the merger. I have honestly forgotten the date, but essentially, it was something that Nick Hobbs had negotiated and received approval and funding for on a ten-year trial basis, if you will. The first major center in VIPPS was the Center for the Study of Families and Children and several of us in the department of psychology and a few in the department of special education and other faculty members in departments in the College of Arts and Science, particularly in economics, at first, held research assistant appointments in VIPPS and some of us also held associate appointments at VIPPS, research associate appointments at the Kennedy Center, and our faculty positions based on departments.

Dohrmann: Talking about the merger again, how did Peabody get to the stage of having to do something as drastic as merging and can you talk a little bit about the financial situation as you saw it at the time?

Hoover-Dempsey: I think -- I was a very young faculty member at the time and didn't -- I always have had kind of an interest in the broader systems in which individual units are embedded, but clearly, did not have experience in education administration at that point in time, but even without that, had been aware, probably from the third year of my tenure here, that there were conversations and whisperings about the fact that financial times were getting difficult and my understanding of this, in most of the conversations, kind of centered around small private colleges and universities around the country were beginning to feel the squeeze, I mean, the fixed cost of running a college or university continues to go in terms of building maintenance and simple things like electricity, telephone, basic utility services and I think partly with the increasing sophistication of the potential student population, particularly the undergraduate student population where people began, I think in the 60s and 70s, seeing themselves as having a wider range of institutions to which they might apply than perhaps had been true of the 40s, 50, and 60s, certainly. I think students began to see themselves as having a broader set of options. I think many public institutions at that point expanded greatly in the 60s and 70s and I think it just flat out got harder for institutions like Peabody to compete, financially, partly because the fixed costs were going up and in many circumstances, people scrimped on that by not maintaining buildings and services quite as well as they might have in other times. Tuition continued to go up and comparing your tuition at Peabody with your tuition at Tennessee State or your tuition at UT, or any of the more local state institutions that also had programs in teacher education which was a major draw for Peabody, always, the competition was just stiffer and even though Peabody's tuition, relative to Vanderbilt's, was quite low, it was a big deal.

Most of our students at that point in time were from the southeast, if not Tennessee, I don't have data on that. If I had them at one point, I will remember, but I do know we were a regional institution, we drew regionally. There grew to be more attractive, and probably less expensive alternatives for people in the region. We drew many students whose financial circumstances, families were making big sacrifices to pay Peabody's tuition and students were holding jobs. Graduate programs during those years, you wouldn't recognize them if you walked in today. You would not imagine that we had large numbers of graduate students who paid their own tuition because today, pretty much, certainly in our department and certainly the department of special education, all of our graduates, we had relatively small numbers and they are all funded for five years of education.

One of the early years, at the point of merger, just before merger and right after, we admitted 30 Ph.D. students to the department in one year and probably four of those had financial assistance. The rest of them were figuring out how to pay their own way.

So, finances and ability to draw students was a huge issue. We always had a good ability to draw federal funding for research because we really were, a mecca for a lot of early intervention and special education and early childhood education, particularly so the research funding stayed fairly healthy, I think. Tuition had attracted students, it was difficult in keeping up with maintenance and utilities, I think, was difficult. There were certainly rumors circulating around that finances were beginning to become somewhat difficult.

It never reached the point, though, in my awareness that people were worried about keeping their jobs if they were faculty members, nor did it reach the point, I think, in the minds of most faculty members or at least, the very large cadre of young folk who were in our 20s and early 30s at that point that programs might have to be cut. It never did reach that point.

The other element that I was very aware, because I did work with Nick Hobbs, was that Nick had, for some period of time -- I mean, Nick was the director of the Kennedy Center, and he was also provost at Vanderbilt University, subsequently, he had a strong and deep interest in Peabody's history and abilities and he developed, I think, fairly early on, as director of the Kennedy Center and then as provost of Vanderbilt University, a vision that basically would have Peabody becoming part of Vanderbilt, in the conversations that he and I, and others, had about that. He was very clear that he thought Peabody needed and would benefit greatly from Vanderbilt's breadth of status and interests and he really thought that Vanderbilt, particularly the College of Arts and Sciences needed the infusion of applied interest and focus on doing research that would make a difference in social conditions for families and children that would infuse Vanderbilt as an institution with critically-needed new energy, enthusiasm, funding, and perspectives.

So, independent of anything financial, I think, there were some of us who were also aware that Nick, as one of the movers and shakers at Vanderbilt, and somebody who had clear Peabody connections as well, had a strong interest in doing what I think seemed to Nick to be just logical, which was to joint these two institutions that, for heaven's sake, sat across the street from each other and had relationships. Most of Vanderbilt's athletes, for example, were education majors and many were full-time students at Peabody and there was this exception, I guess, in the SEC that Vanderbilt could take in students from Peabody for athletic purposes.

There were other points of connection as well and I think it was (inaudible) to get the two connected. So, there was kind of an educational, academic, programmatic interest as well as serious financial needs, I think, that drove many people in both institutions into taking serously the proposition that there may be benefits for both in a merger.

Dohrmann: What happened with the other discussions that went with TSU...

Hoover-Dempsey: We heard about discussions going on with TSU. The other thing, and this is purely a faculty perspective, nobody in the administration talked to us about these things, ever. We literally, on the morning of the merger, as a faculty, woke up and saw the headlines in the Tennessean that we had merger. Merged and that these are the things that were going to happen.

Clearly, there were senior people in the administration, and they may well have been senior people in the faculty, who knew it but we were a pretty large cadre of relatively young faculty and we didn't have a clue.

The only reason I wasn't startled beyond belief bit is that conversations that I had been part of had been going on with Nick for a while and there was knowledge and rumors of potential points of connection with Tennessee State University, in particular, and I think there was some distant institution, I remember Oberlin's agreement with the Vanderbilt Divinity School decades earlier as being tossed out as a model for how Peabody might become the College of Education for some distant university and I think I, certainly, and others of us -- it didn't make much sense. You don't know how it's going to work and certainly, the Oberlin Divinity connection was such that I don't think anybody who had ever noticed that Oberlin is written on the walls over there somewhere or, as a historian, knew that at one point, there was that connection, so I think that was not viewed as a very viable alternative by many faculty members.

Some of us, I think, were very interested and intrigued with the notion of connecting with Tennessee State University, because many of the goals of the educational research and academic programs that were going on at Peabody really were deeply grounded in a similar educational, and if you will, political perspective that suggested that what one ought to be doing in education and related disciplines is discovering new information and creating interventions and testing interventions that would make the educational success a much more viable and vibrant reality for disadvantaged and underserved populations and of course, Tennessee State's history was very much that clearly, it served a wide variety of SES folks historically within Tennessee's African-American population but the general kind of initial focus on what we needed is a school for people who are not be well-served by the existing schools at the time. There were real strong points, I think, of idealogical and political connection with that.

I certainly, and many of us, I think at the time, were -- it's a little uncertain to think about merging with a public institution but most of us were products of public institutions in our Ph.D. programs. Many were not, but a great number were and I think we saw the benefits that wold come in terms of outcomes of such a merger, which is not to say that there was also a rumbling around the edges that people who had concerns about whether a private college could ever sit well within a public and historically non-diverse campus, although we were far more diverse than Vanderbilt was, but how Peabody, as an institution, didn't have -- it certainly had historic ties with low income populations but it certainly did not have the same ties with HBCU populations that Tennessee State had.

My recollection is that one week, that was way off the chart, it hadn't gone anywhere, it was no longer an issue and now, some conversations were going on with Vanderbilt and we really didn't hear much about it, certainly no details, and I am not sure -- I think my knowledge really did rest, in part, on the fact that we had this project going on that involved Nick Hobbs, Bob LeRoy, Paul (inaudible) and Ann Ruther(?) but wider group of folks, but Bob and Paul (inaudible) certainly were more senior than I and as was Nick, clearly. So, some of the things that were going on were not a surprise, I think, to those of us who worked together on the project, but as a general faculty, we were shocked.

Dohrmann: What were, at the time, and continue to be, the negatives of this merger?

Hoover-Dempsey: I think the biggest negative of the merger has been the difficulty of merging two very distinct cultures and there was clearly a history at Vanderbilt of discounting the value and the worthiness of some of what was going on at Peabody. It's a college for teachers, for heaven's sake, and what's an education major compared to the glory and beauty of the liberal arts and sciences. Some things that happened didn't help at all. For example, the elimination of a few faculty positions, the Vanderbilt graduate school's decision to review all Peabody faculty members who were retained for their fitness to become members of the graduate faculty, when membership on the graduate faculty for faculty members in arts and sciences was a given, much as it late became at Peabody. It was not enjoyable to think, on the part of faculty members, particularly more senior, that I, who had been here for some time and had well-established programs to be told and to know that membership in the graduate school was not automatic and we would be informed as to who had been admitted to graduate school status. It seemed to me, at the time, a load of silliness because we had Ph.D. programs. We were clearly going to continue the Ph.D. programs. The graduate school, I think, is a function of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Perspective mentality, a long-held set of beliefs, some of which were not terrifically flattering and positive -- we are going to be very careful in what we do with you all.

There were rumors flying about that what Vanderbilt intended to do with the entire college was to turn it into a 20-person policy institute for the study of educational policy and that personally, I didn't find challenging. I didn't like thinking of not being in an academic institution where I was also teaching and held an academic appointment. That was not, to me, as personally frightening as it was to most of the rest of the faculty, who had no connection with policy issues and didn't know what was going on at the policy institute. I think that was probably never a serious intention on anyone's part, but that rumor went around a lot for the first couple of years, just kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop. First, we got Peabody, we cut them down from 14 to four departments, and we have gotten rid of some faculty members, and now, we are going to do a wholesale washout on part of it and keep a few who can help us really develop the policy center. People did not react or respond well to that, but there wasn't much you could do about it.

One set of feelings, I think, was out there that was in retrospect, very transient, a lot of anger at the Peabody administration for not keeping the faculty and the graduate students informed about what was going on. There was some feeling that there had been a sell-out but you had to know that this was -- I was born and raised around Berkeley, California and my undergraduate degree was from Berkeley, I graduated form Berkeley in 1964, I watched the (inaudible) movement, I watched freedom rides get started at sign up tables at the gates to campus, and was stunned, coming into other parts of the United States in the next few years that the 60s hadn't arrived in many parts of the United States in terms of political consciousness, political awareness, and things like that, and students demonstrations and faculty demonstrations, in terms of protesting university policy, I mean, clearly, there were the Divinity School and the African-American demonstrations, but just demonstrations in terms of protesting administrator action or school directions, it was a newer phenomenon in the south, even in 1979, so it was kind of a -- our pictures are in the paper and here are students carrying signs in front of the Peabody administration building demanding conversations with John Dunworth and other things, but that didn't last for very long, in truth, and it was after the fact.

The bottom line was Peabody was a private institution; Vanderbilt was a private institution; the boards of the two institutions had worked out an agreement; they signed the agreement it was a done deal, period, the end.

I think some of subsequent conversations on the part of many people at Vanderbilt with many people at Peabody, administrative and faculty, shapes the actual course of what went on following the merger because basically, the agreements that the two boards had come to is a blueprint, an outline, a set of principles, but a lot had to be accomplished after that and I think many of us had roles, some very small, and some larger.

From a Peabody perspective, the difference in culture is still an issue. It's different. The students tell us all the time that it's different. Peabody's focus has always been on teacher/student relationships getting in there and doing really good research, getting to know your faculty, taking your information out and doing something in the big, wide world and arts and sciences, it's just a much bigger place. It's always been a much bigger place, more formal place, and still, to this point in time, Peabody undergrads tend to believe that they know their advisors and A&S undergrads, sometimes, complain that they can't ever find theirs, and there is certainly variability across individuals in a very large college in the extent to which that is true.

We are committed to smaller classes. We don't even have a lecture room on this campus that will hold more than 100 people very comfortably. When we have TA s, we tend to believe that TAs are in large courses so you get the ratio down to about 25 to one, and it's different.

Dohrmann: What are the happiest outcomes, of the merger?

Hoover-Dempsey: The happiest outcomes, I think, both institutions have benefited immensely. I think Nick Hobbs' vision for what might come about in fact was very accurate in many respects.

I think Vanderbilt has benefited immensely from the infusion of talent, energy, and an intrigue into new fields of inquiry that were nothing to do with Vanderbilt before the merger, particularly in human development and education.

I think that Vanderbilt, as a separate institution, has benefited a great deal from the programs, both graduate and undergraduate and from the increasing focus at Peabody on bringing in people who make contributions within the college but also across units at the university.

I think Peabody has benefited tremendously by its connection with a larger, more financially stable, and in truth, broader range of services and interests than Peabody ever had or could have had. It was developed as a teachers' college and it did that incredibly well for decades and decades, but our connections in a university where we've got the two psych departments with lots of interaction and collaboration, particularly in the area of cognitive science and clinical science, increasingly in the area of developmental science, where we've got people in psychology and in teaching and learning and in special education, whose research is being remarkably enriched and informed by connections with people in the medical school and the engineering school and in other departments in the College of Arts and Sciences. It's been positive. I think it's opened the vistas for what's possible in both of the previously-separate institutions and I think it's made for a very vigorous climate and clearly, given the way that things have gone in the last 20 years or so since the merger, in terms of just funding patterns for higher education, the fact that this is a well-funded and stable institution has made a huge difference for what Peabody has been able to do and accomplish.

I think today, we are bigger and more diverse and have way more depth of research and educational programs than would have been possible had we stayed somehow a separate institution and at this point, it's really impossible to believe that would have happened, in terms of financial liability.

One other really small thing that was a distress and a great disadvantage, I think, at the time of the merger, we lost a lot of students because tuition went up and our student body became much less diverse at that point in time and it took a while to begin to get back, I think, to even where we had been at the time of the merger, in terms of student body strength and diversity and we, obviously, still have good way to go in terms of genuine diversity, but it's a lot better than it was a couple of years after the merger. The financial shock, I think, to what had been our student pool was huge and clearly, Vanderbilt's biggest undergraduate major here is human development grew as a direct effort on the part of people at Peabody, many of them in the department of psych and human development but with a tremendous amount of leadership from Bill Hawley dean at the time, to figure out what in the world could we put together by way of some other undergraduate programs that would not duplicate any other programs offered by the College of Arts and Sciences and would attract students.

I am sure you have talked to Bob Innes and others but our vision for that program is that we might -- 25 students a year, and that would give us a nice little cadre of noneducation majors. We desperately needed to get some majors that weren't in education because the tuition just put such a cap on how many students, realistically, who wanted to go into education, which was obviously not a high-paying profession and a lot of families were not thrilled with their kids wanting to go into education for a long-term employment. We had such a financial cap placed on our ability to draw students who were interested in the education majors creating something new that wasn't duplicated in arts and sciences was an immense need and we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. Many are not education majors at this point in time.

Dohrmann: Do you have other memories about the merger that maybe may be unique to the faculty perspective?

Hoover-Dempsey: It was an interesting time. I think I was not unique, particularly -- Peabody had hired a huge number of faculty members, relatively young, newly-minted Ph.D. people, in the very late 60s and 70s and so there was a really large cohort of folks here who were of that age and generation and I think, part, because of some things unique to our generational cohorts, for the most part, I think most of us thought we'd always have interesting jobs and we'd always be able to do what we wanted to professionally, that we could do new, unique, interesting, and creative things, it was a function of the times, nobody had a hard time getting a job. Universities were hiring like crazy and looking hard for people, unlike the situation that has emerged subsequently.

I know, for myself, and I think this is very true of many of my kind of young, mid-level faculty compatriots, what was going on here was interesting and it probably was going to work out and be really OK, but if it wasn't, there are lots of other places you can kind of go look and partly because we were, in general, not a group of folk drawn from the local or even regional area, we all had homes and connections in the West Coast, Rocky Mountains, Northeast, and Texas or wherever, so it wasn't as if for many of us at that point in time, there were huge family ties to staying here and because the economy had generally been quite good and strong and the world was a favorable place for people walking out of universities with Ph.d.'s in those years, I think it wasn't as frightening as it might have been.

It was clearly frightening for people whose departments were eliminated. It was clearly frightening for a handful of folks who were let go, even though they weren't in the departments that were eliminated and I think there were some huge dysjunctives for folks whose lives were not benefited by the merger.

I think, for many of us who were younger and less settled, and who were having some success following the merger, you could see things beginning to emerge in a reasonably positive way. It was kind of interesting, as were many things in those years.

Dohrmann: Well, Professor Hoover-Dempsey, thank you very much.


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Last updated April 9, 2007 by Chris Benda.