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Exhibit Looks at Influence of Student Activists on University

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October 10, 2006 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A new exhibit now on view at Northwestern University Library demonstrates that long before the 1960s, activist students were critiquing, and ultimately reshaping, the university. The admission-free exhibit on the main floor of the library at 1970 Campus Drive, Evanston, is open to the public during regular library hours (8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays; 8:30 a.m. to noon Saturdays). It will run through Dec. 7.

Curator Kevin Leonard has used photographs, flyers, scrapbooks, badges, letters, clothing and other artifacts in the “Student Life and Culture: Authority, Opposition and the Creation of New Traditions” exhibit to highlight a strange irony about the evolution of American universities. He says that many attributes of college culture that today are deeply institutionalized and sometimes even the public face of a university “in fact were developed without faculty and administration approval and, often, in opposition to their authority.”

Athletics, for example, were brought to Northwestern by a group of students who were sometimes “thumbing their noses at the men who were supposed to be educating them,” Leonard says. An 1875 student newspaper article in the exhibit states that “All our professors…appear constantly to be physically indisposed,” noting their “long, leathery faces, sunken, sallow cheeks, loose, flabby muscle…Such men need a gymnasium.”

When University Trustees declined to provide a gym, the students formed their own gymnasium commission, sold shares for $10 each, and built a gym themselves. So, too, football, baseball and other competitive sports developed outside the purview of faculty and administration. “At universities everywhere it was only because of the time and expense involved, questions of fairness that arose, and the number of injuries athletes sustained that the administration became involved and eventually took control of athletic programs,” he says.

Now world-renowned for its classes in acting, dance and other performing arts, Northwestern in its early days did not include these activities in its curriculum. Drama and dance were only formally institutionalized as subjects worthy of study after students for decades staged their own extracurricular productions. Some of the artifacts in the exhibit document that Northwestern's earliest dramatic tradition evolved from a student ritual called “Trig,” that dates back to at least 1877.

In that ritual, students expressed their disdain for higher mathematics by ceremonially “cremating” (burning) their trigonometry textbooks at the conclusion of courses.  As the tradition became entrenched, the annual “mock funeral” ceremonies became more elaborate and theatrical. Early forerunners of Northwestern's Waa-Mu show, which eventually garnered a reputation as “the greatest college show in America,” dramatics and music replaced the burning of trigonometry books.

A flyer dating back to 1902 pictures a jaunty-looking Northwestern student in a turtleneck letter sweater, smoking a pipe.  The caption reads: “Here we have the young College Man/Who's been to Trig since it began/His head's in a whirl/For he'll have his best girl/You had better come too, if you can.”  

This and other exhibit artifacts were culled from University Archives, which houses records, publications, photographs, and other materials that pertain to just about every aspect of Northwestern's history. Included in the collection are the papers of faculty, biographic information on Northwestern alumni, student newspapers, a complete set of catalogs and bulletins from each of Northwestern's schools, and thousands of photographs. A staff of knowledgeable archivists is available to help with Northwestern-related questions or research needs.

For exhibit information, contact Patti at (847) 467-5918 or e-mail p-strait@northwestern.edu.