Interview with Howard Sandler
Molly Dohrmann: This is Molly Dohrmann for the Peabody Oral History Project. Today is Monday, January 9, 2006, and the interview in the Peabody Library is with Howard Sandler, professor of psychology. To begin, please talk about your connection to Peabody and the capacity at which you served at the time of the merger with an overview of the Vanderbilt-Peabody situation at that time.
Howard Sandler: Well, I was an assistant professor of psychology back in those days, although I was pretty active in the department even then in terms of administrative things, all of those kinds of duties. And I was, as was most everybody in psychology, part of the Kennedy Center and had grants. I was paid almost entirely in grants, which was very common back in those days, and which is pretty relevant I think. An overview of the Vanderbilt-Peabody situation? The Vanderbilt-Peabody situation at the time of the merger was kind of complicated. There were lots of connections. You know, there was some kind of joint university consortium thing where people took classes back and forth. Vanderbilt students were living in some of the Peabody dorms because we had empty rooms and they had more students. They had worked out -- Vanderbilt had worked out a deal with the NCAA to have student athletes enroll through Peabody but play on Vanderbilt teams, and I think all of those things kind of reflected sort of an underlying financial problem at Peabody. I think if you look back -- at the time it seemed like normal, the stuff that I know, seemed like normal things -- but I think in retrospect, it showed that the financial issues at Peabody were kind of growing and that was kind of what was going on. So I think there was some tension, I think, but there was also a lot more cooperation I think as the separate institutes -- being part of the consortium. There was a lot of cooperation, especially through the Kennedy Center with the Med School, so most of my research at the time was through the Medical School at Vanderbilt, even though it was -- the grants were Peabody grants that I was the PI on, or an investigator on, something like that.
Dohrmann: Do you want to talk a little bit more about the Kennedy Center and its role in the merger?
Sandler: Yeah, I think that's really important. From my perspective, at least, it's important. At the time, and it's very different than it is today, but at the time, almost everyone in psychology and special education was part of the Kennedy Center and the Kennedy Center was made up entirely of people from psychology and special education. So, it was one big military-industrial complex, and in fact, even in terms of hiring -- at that time, psychology, and I don't think special ed either, had very little ability to hire new faculty. What would happen is that the Kennedy Center would say we need a new faculty member to work on this grant, would you go hire somebody. So there weren't even faculty lines outside of the Kennedy Center. The Kennedy Center was kind of the big dog in all of this. Psychology and special education were almost like components of the Kennedy Center. And the relevance of that is twofold. One, there were a lot of grants. A lot of grants. Most people salaries were paid 100 percent off of grants. There was a lot of grant money at that time. The two buildings, which are now called Hobbs and MRL, were pretty new. They were built in '68 or '69. They were pretty new, nice new buildings, very well equipped and my sense at the time was that Vanderbilt wanted the Kennedy Center, which meant that it wanted special ed and psychology. I don't think it wanted psychology particularly, because it had a psychology department, but psychology and the grant money was such a big part of the Kennedy Center that you couldn't untangle them. And so I think that put a little sort of bubble around the Kennedy Center of psychology and special ed that kind of protected that whole thing from some of the impacts of the merger. So that is kind of the financial, at one level, but I think it was also a prestige value. The Kennedy Center, at that time, was the only Kennedy Center in the country that wasn't at a medical school. The others were all at, you know, Hopkins, Wisconsin, UCLA -- places like that. So, there are only 10 Kennedy Centers, so it was a very prestigious thing, and to have, you know, to have a Kennedy Center at Vanderbilt was a big thing for them.
Sandler: I think anyway.
Dohrmann: Were there alternatives to merging with Vanderbilt?
Sandler: My answer is no. Well, sure, there are alternatives. There were these rumors, like we were going to move to Duke, which is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. It was like moving to the moon. It wasn't going to happen. What would that even mean? There were certainly rumors, I guess would be the right word, about merging with Tennessee State University. In fact, the one vivid memory I do have at the time was my wife's running up the stairs, it seemed like it was a Tuesday morning, with a copy of the Tennessean, with World War III headlines, you know, Peabody going to merge with TSU, and she said, do you know anything about this? And I said, no. I might have mentioned it. But by the end of that week, I think, that was gone. I really -- I've always believed that that was sort of a red herring that John Dunworth and the Peabody people were kind of using to get Vanderbilt off of the dime on this. I think the sort of threat to Vanderbilt, kind of a combined threat of losing this property forever, because if the state got it, that would be the end of it -- you know that plus -- and certainly in the '70s, the prospect of having a lot of black students running around across the street, dating Vanderbilt girls, was just probably too much for some members of the Vanderbilt board, I would think. So I think there was certainly a racial element to that. But I don't think that was ever real. In my opinion, it just wasn't real, and it certainly disappeared very quickly, so if it was real, it just went away, so that doesn't make any sense to me.
Dohrmann: Who do you remember as the key people in the merger?
Sandler: Well, obviously John Dunworth. You know, he kind of got vilified at the time, and this certainly contributed to that. And I think the Vanderbilt Board of Trust, I think, was a key element. I think in terms of negotiating the deal and trying to broker it, in retrospect, I think Dunworth was really trying to save Peabody College and in fact, if you look at what's happened, he did. And he died recently, I guess, but I've seen him a number of times over the years. He's been a big supporter of Peabody's and came to a round table. All sorts of things. And I've had good chats with him, long, long after the merger. So I think he was trying to do the right thing. I think people -- you skipped one of the questions -- what caused the financial situation --
Sandler: -- I think people underestimated what was going on in the '70s in colleges, especially small colleges like Peabody. You know, we were just caught in the middle. We just got caught in the squeeze. When I first got here, which was in 1970, summer school was bigger than the regular year, and it was a huge number of teachers, principals and other people, but teachers who would come back and do their continuing education courses at Peabody in the summer, and it cost a few dollars more than it would cost to go to a state institution to do it, but it didn't cost very much. You couldn't get a parking place. The place was packed with teachers. Gradually, as Peabody's tuition escalated and the cost escalated, the difference between Peabody's tuition and state tuition just kept increasing and increasing, and the number of teachers who could afford to come in the summer kept going down and down, and the idea that you would send your kid to Peabody to become a teacher was getting more and more expensive compared to state institutions. It was less and less attractive. At the same time, the sort of elite schools, the Vanderbilts, their tuition was going up as well, but you know, basically anyone who could afford Peabody's tuition could afford Vanderbilt's tuition, so the people with money ended up going to places like Vanderbilt, and the people without money ended up going to state schools, and the small colleges were really getting killed and a lot of small colleges went out of business in the '70s, like literally closed their doors and that was the end of that. They were never heard of again. So I think Peabody was really caught in that. And you could see it from its point of view -- I think the number of students, the number of freshman we had the first year of the merger, no, the total students was 326 or some such number, so, I mean, that's why we had empty dorms, that's why we were glad to have student athletes that Vanderbilt paid the tuition for -- there just were no students around who were willing to pay Peabody's tuition to become teachers. It just didn't make any sense. There just weren't enough of them.
Sandler: So I think that was the big thing there.
Dohrmann: Right. And that really answers the question of what were the central issues in the merger.
Sandler: Yeah. Money. Dorms. Property. And I listed race. I think there were racial overtones to the whole discussion, and certainly some bitter discussions, even in the psychology department, and I'm sure around the rest of the campus around, somehow the faculty thought they were in charge of this, which they weren't, and if we just voted who we wanted to merge with, that that would somehow determine it. It was like a bunch of little kids trying to decide something. So I can still remember -- we had a very kind of bitter discussion about whether we should merge with Vanderbilt or TSU, like it mattered what we thought, and there were a lot of people, myself included, who thought, well, Vanderbilt makes sense. It's a research-oriented university. I've got grants. I'm working at the Med school. I'm going to get to do my work. There you have it. There are a number of other people who thought, you know, education was kind of a public good, we should be going to a public sector, do more good -- certainly the '70s, the civil rights era, we should do our noblesse oblige and go help out TSU and make it into a real university because we could do that. So there were what I found were very patronizing conversations. Now, the people were well-meaning in terms of the -- those were very -- you can't really discuss those issues because one issue is we should go do this because it's good, another issue is we should go do this because it's sort of better for me kind of thing, or -- which way do you think is the better way for the institution, what's going to survive. It's hard to imagine that the Kennedy Center and the grants and everything else would have survived very long at Tennessee State because they didn't have the infrastructure to support that. And obviously Vanderbilt did. Anyway -- but I think those were the big issues. What was the reaction?
Dohrmann: Once the merger was announced.
Sandler: Well, I guess it was really different. I guess we felt like we were on probation, given the kind of terms of the merger, so I always felt like we were on probation. I certainly felt -- to me I felt like we had gotten a bad deal. I still think that. I think we got a very bad deal. To this day I would have taken the deal -- if somebody said, OK Howard, all you have to do is lend us $7.5 million dollars, which we have to pay you back, and in return you get the entire campus, a $13 million endowment, and the Village at Vanderbilt properties -- it's like, where do I sign up.
Sandler: So, we got a very bad deal, from my point of view, financially. So I think there is some anger and bitterness around those -- as some of those things came to be. Especially the Village at Vanderbilt. It took land that was obviously Peabody baseball fields and soccer fields and tennis courts and, you know, turned it into a commercial venture and Peabody never got a nickel out of it. In the meantime, there was this $750,000 a year subvention, that turned out not to be a subvention, that turned out to be a loan --
Sandler: -- and so it's like, wait a minute.
Dohrmann: Are you referring to bitterness in the past or is it something that's lingered?
Sandler: Oh, I think it's gone. Long gone. You know -- yeah. I think it's long gone. I think that's right. But you know, I think there was a sense that we were really on probation and there was no telling when the next wave of cuts or what might happen -- we clearly had 10 years, but there were still all of these rumors around, that Vanderbilt just wanted the property, which I'm sure was true. And you know, wanted to make Peabody into some kind of think tank, which I think was probably, I suspect that was probably true, that the idea of the Peabody would be some kind of a think tank with basically not very many students, and much small faculty surviving on grants -- something like BIPS in LA. That's my guess, so I think we really felt like we had a lot of work to do to make sure that Peabody kind of survived. So --
Dohrmann: Yeah. Negatives of the merger?
Sandler: That's a harder question for me to answer. Obviously, you know, a lot of people lost jobs. A lot of long-time people were very much hurt by the whole thing. I think -- so I think those were obviously the big negatives. I think on the positive side -- Peabody is obviously way better and stronger. As I said, being part of the psychology, special ed Kennedy Center and having grants, I think a lot of us were very insulated. I mean, I had a five-year grant that paid my whole salary. I was going to get paid. I wasn't going to lose my job. Even if they fired me as a faculty member, I was still going to have a job for the next five years. I was fine. And I don't mean to sound as cavalier as all that, I think -- and especially at that time, a lot of us were a lot younger than we are today. And you know, I would have been a lot, I guess, 30-something, early 30s, you know -- I didn't know about universities and things. It was just like, OK. This just happened, and I'm fine. I guess I'll just keep doing my work and that's the end of it. But I do think, because of a lot of work that people did after the merger, that Peabody really started thriving right from the beginning. There were some scary times in there, but things were clearly getting better in a hurry. So I think the positives -- it's hard to imagine Peabody would even exist had we not merged -- but it's certainly hard to imagine we have, whatever we have, 1,200 undergraduates and thousands of graduate students and faculty and $40 million dollars in grants and everything else that is going on around here. And at the same time, a positive thing to me is, the Peabody culture really survives the merger. Everybody's really worried that Peabody will become more like Vanderbilt, and I'm sure it has in some ways, but I think Vanderbilt has become more like Peabody in a lot of ways too. And I think that's partly because everybody -- it was a very, very good experience for Peabody under the circumstances, which is that everybody really had to pull together. I mean, we were really in this. It was not, you know, psychology or this or that -- it was like we were all in this together. And it was just that simple. And I think that really created, you know, something at the college that survived to this day. You can ask any freshman -- you walk across the street and I know I'm in a different place or the atmosphere is really different, the relationship with students is very different -- all sorts of things are very different -- so I think it's a very positive thing that the Peabody culture has survived as well as it has and has been as influential on Vanderbilt across the board, I think, as it has been. So -- that's what I think.
Dohrmann: Do you have other stories about Peabody and the merger?
Sandler: Not -- you know, not really. You'd think I would but again, I don't know, the stories really have to do with the sort of culture clash in a way -- Peabody, at the time, and today certainly, had a lot of senior tenured women on the faculty, which was not true at Vanderbilt. There were none. Zero. And I think that was an interesting kind of culture clash and led to some real changes at Vanderbilt. I think the fact that we were kind of kid-friendly over here, and still are, and I'm not just -- not from the point of view of research, you have the Susan Gray School, but there are people who bring their kids around, there are kids on campus, my daughter went to the University School. She kind of grew up on the campus. And this thing I remember -- I was representing Peabody at some big meeting. I don't know where, over at Kirkland Hall? And I still remember -- Emmett Fields was there, who was the president of Vanderbilt at that point, and other senior faculty and all of these guys and stuff, and I was on duty for after-school care for my daughter who was like seven or eight years old I guess -- that's about right, nine years old? -- so I took her with me, which is what I would have done at Peabody. I took her with me, brought her a book and said, here, sit under the table and don't make any noise, which she did. And the looks that I got when I walked into the room with a kid -- it was really a pretty astounding -- but it didn't bother me. So I kept doing it. So I think there was some real culture clashes but I think it changed Vanderbilt for the better. So, I don't know.
Dohrmann: Thank you very much.
Sandler: That's it?
Dohrmann: There was one other person that you wanted to mention?
Sandler: It was Glen Clanton, and Glen was sort of the money guy, the associate provost for money, or whatever his title was, at Vanderbilt at the time. And after the merger, he was the one who really -- he did a lot behind the scenes to really kind of make the merger work from the point of view of Peabody. I think a lot of people at Vanderbilt -- again, I say I think this was just a land-grab on their part -- and I don't think there was any interest at all in preserving anything at Peabody in terms of the people or the students or anything. I think they just wanted the land. And Glen somehow managed to, behind the scenes, kind of support a lot of the things that were going on at Peabody and I think was really a good advocate for us behind the scenes, and somebody I think worth talking to. He's retired, now, but I think he's still in town. I gave his name to Sharon.
Dohrmann: OK. Thank you very much.