Interview with Jim Simmons, 05/03/2016

UW Oshkosh Campus Stories
Taylor Kasprowicz, Interviewer | uwocs_Jim_Simmons_05032016
Campus Stories Oral History Project (UWO Audio Series 51) |

0:00

TK: Alright, it is May 3rd 10 a.m. We are in Sage Hall. My name is Taylor Kasprowicz and I am interviewing Jim Simmons and can you start off by telling me where you grew up?

JS: Oh, Fort Wayne, Indiana. I'm a Hoosier.

TK: (Laughs) And what was your neighborhood like?

JS: Oh! Uh...you know when I...I...it started out as a working class neighborhood and when my father was promoted we moved to a suburban...house.

TK: Okay. Were they like small towns or more bigger cities?

JS: Well Fort Wayne is 300,000.

TK: Oh okay, wow!

JS: It was about 250,000 back when I was.

TK: Oh okay, and who lived with you growing up?

JS: Oh uh, you know. I had a very traditional kind of family. Both my parents 1:00and two brothers.

TK: What were your parents like?

JS: Um...1950's, my mother was a stay at home mom. My father was a workaholic, you know? He started in a factory sweeping the floors and ended up being vice president so.

TK: And did your parents go to college?

JS: My parents didn't even finish high school. I mean my father did go to college but he had a two year high school certificate that he took some college courses because he became an accountant and he needed to get his CPA so he had to have college credits for that but no I was first generation college. I mean, 2:00being catholic extended family and I was the first one to actually.

TK: And did any of your siblings go to college?

JS: Oh yeah! Both of my brothers. My brother is an executive for Boeing. He has a master's degree in business and an engineering degree from Purdue and my brother Tom is an education professor at University of Louisville.

TK: Okay, and how important was school in your family? Did your parents like ever pressure you to go to college?

JS: Yup! (Laughs) Yeah, they wanted me to uh, you know. I mean back then college was extremely important because nobody on either side of the family had anything beyond high school and mostly not even that. So they thought it was important to 3:00push me to go to school. Fortunately, a two year college opened up in my home town of Fort Wayne so it was right nearby and I could go to college and I moved down to the main campus after.

TK: And did you put the same emphasis on your son's education as your parents did to you?

JS: Oh more.

TK: More?

JS: Yeah! He had preschool, Montessori school, all kinds of extracurricular activities after school. Back then, there was a university school that is where they had created you know, so when you went all grade school, middle school, and high school was at the university school so it was a university faculty and students who were teaching experimental and then he finished and went to the 4:00University of Chicago, finished his PhD in Madison, and now he's vice president of George Mason University.

TK: Wow! And um besides Indiana University, was there any other colleges you considered going to?

JS: Yeah! Uh, I considered a lot of them but when I finished my undergraduate degree and I was drafted in the army and so I applied to a number of schools but Indiana was the first one to offer me free tuition and teaching assistantship so, I grabbed it.

TK: How old were you when you started college?

JS: Well, like you probably. I started college at 18.

TK: Same age about? Alright. And was there a certain reason why you chose Indiana University?

JS: It was convenient! In state, tuition, I got to hang out with my high school 5:00friends staying in town.

TK: Did they go to college too?

JS: Most of my friends dropped out. After...you know, cause back then it was easy to get good jobs in the factories and mills and those jobs don't exist now in your generation, but back then you know if you wanted to make money, buy a car, get married. You know?

TK: What was Indiana University like at the time?

JS: Well, when I was going through college it was the 1960's. So it was in the mist of the antiwar protest, it was hotbed for political activity, there were occupying buildings. The anterior campus wasn't anything like that but the main 6:00campus in Bloomington was really a center of political agitation.

TK: Did you take part in like any political protests or anything?

JS: Yes I did.

TK: Yes? Were your parents big into politics too?

JS: Not at all.

TK: No?

JS: No, they were just middle class parents. They were just kind of shocked.

TK: Right. Was going to Indiana University a big change from your hometown?

JS: If you went to Madison, would that be a change from your hometown?

TK: Yes. (Laughs)

JS: So it's an easy answer, of course it was.

TK: Same thing?

JS: Yeah, you go, I mean the two year college I started at was even smaller than my high school. I mean, I went to Fort Wayne Central Catholic, which was a catholic and there were probably...my high school had maybe 2500 students. One 7:00of the smaller high schools in Fort Wayne. So, you go down and I went to the two year campus and there probably less than 1,000 students but when I went down to the main campus you got 40,000 students. You know, big lecture halls, a lot of social life.

TK: And what did you intend to study going into college?

JS: Oh I planned to major in political science and I was gonna go to law school and then I was gonna run for congress. That's what my goal was.

TK: Why did you choose political science?

JS: Because it seemed like a natural if you were gonna choose a political career.

TK: Just something you were always interested in?

JS: Always.

TK: And what type of student were you in college?

8:00

JS: Not a very good student really, I particularly when I got to the main campus I was so engaged in politics I frequently missed class and I was vice president on the main campus so I was always involved in a lot of different things and class work out of 10 came in 10th. But, I did well enough that my grades were just good enough to get into graduate school.

TK: After getting your master's in 1973, what was the job market like?

JS: Terrible.

TK: Was it hard finding a job?

JS: Very hard. President Nixon began making cut backs and federal aids 9:00education, including universities. Plus, there was a decline in enrollments in the 1970's and the economy was not good in the 1970's. Inflation, stagnation, and so very difficult to find a job and I bounced around at a lot of, I taught at seven universities, so I was bouncing around as a visiting professor, as an academic staff, as an associate faculty. There was even a couple semesters I taught at three universities at the same time.

TK: Oh wow that's a lot! Was there a certain college you wanted to teach at?

JS: Well if I've had my choice, I would have stayed at IUPUI, Indiana University 10:00of Purdue University of Indianapolis, which was big research. Very much like Milwaukee is to Madison, so IUPUI is like 30,000 students, in the state capital, in the center of all the politics in the state, state legislator and all that. So I would have liked to have down that but um...

TK: Didn't work out that way?

JS: Well I could have stayed there permanently, like how some of our instructional staff do, but never in a tender position. So I wanted the job security so I didn't stay.

TK: And after teaching at a few different colleges, why did you end up coming you UW-Oshkosh?

JS: Well, I took a visiting position at Iowa State University, which I hoped 11:00would turn into a regular position, and when it didn't, I went out on the market and that year I was offered the job here. I was offered a job at Xavier University and Cincinnati and I was offered a job at Indiana State, so actually I had four job offers. Well, I came to Oshkosh since I loved the city and I liked the campus and plus at the time, they offered to give my wife a position too on campus.

TK: What did she do?

JS: Well, she was a professor of education and she was a chairman of the department in reading in [CMOHS?]. She died a year ago but you know...

12:00

TK: What did you know about Oshkosh before you came?

JS: Nothing.

TK: Nothing?

JS: I didn't even think, I thought it was a made up name.

TK: (Laughs)

JS: (Laughs) Places that just don't exist Oshkosh, Wisconsin I mean is just...the only reason I believed it existed is because one time I remember when I was a kid, Fort Wayne had an NBA team and we played the Oshkosh Americans or something like that, so I knew there must be a place like that.

TK: What were your first impressions of UWO?

JS: Well, I was impressed with the city, but back then the buildings in the campus were the ugliest campus I've seen.

TK: Really?

JS: Really! No, I mean our former chancellor Wells has just done amazing things 13:00to make the campus look like a campus ought to. New buildings, the grounds, the signage, everything about this campus is so different than when I came. The campus looked like Poland during the soviet period. I mean, just an ugly box! (Laughs)

TK: (Laughs) What was the campus community like when you first came?

JS: Not much different from today. They're most students now. Back then 10-11,000 students, now we're around 13,000 or so. So, there are more students. Different generation of students, but you know, not a whole lot different.

14:00

TK: Did you become friends with any professors or faculty when you came?

JS: When I came, there haven't really been any new faculty who had been hired for a long time. There was a period on this campus, like in the 1970's where there were like layoffs, and so on so. Most of the faculty when I was hired had been hired in the 1960's, 1970's and there wasn't really anyone hired in the 1980's. So, all the faculty were older. In fact, the youngest member of the department when I joined it was like 56. They were all near retirement age.

TK: What were the students like at this time?

JS: Not all that different from students now. Yeah not all that different. I 15:00would say that if there was any difference that students were a little more conservative. The generation X than your generation.

TK: Yeah, and did students have a social life with their professors?

JS: You know, I've been told that back in the 1970's that there was extensive interaction between students and faculty. That even in the Union there was something called, "Mingle and Tingle" where all the faculty and students got together and they served beer in the Union.

TK: Oh really?

JS: Yeah, and all these get-togethers. There was a lot of interaction, but by the time I came to campus, all that was gone. One of the advantages of going to this campus is that you can interact with the faculty. I mean, we're always 16:00there. Our office hours and the students don't take advantage of it. I mean, I've tried to interact with students with internships and getting assistance with my research and doing things like that. So, I think my department more than a lot of departments has a lot of interactions with our students, but as a campus it could happen. I just don't see it.

TK: Are there memories that stand out to you of former students or co-workers?

JS: Oh sure! In fact, I still keep in contact with many of my former students on Facebook. Truthfully, it's surprising how successful some of our former students become. For example, Jim VandeHei who was the creator of political blog. 17:00Students who became, Jessica Kane was elected to the state senate here. She was one of my former students. Brown County executive, one of my former students. One of our professors Chad Cotti was one of my former students.

TK: Wow!

JS: Yeah! I could go down a list of them and just thinking of how you think you go to a small regional campus and you can't achieve great things, but looking at our graduates.

TK: How was UWO when you first came in 89'?

JS: Not much different than it is now. Classes were, back then we taught more classes than we do now and the classes were smaller. Now, we teach fewer classes 18:00and the classes are a lot larger. So when I first began teaching, my entry level class would be 40 students and my upper division classes would be 20 or 25 students. Now, my introductory classes are 60 and my upper division classes are 35 so that the change.

TK: Did you like it more or less than previous colleges you worked at?

JS: Well the other campuses were very different from this one. I taught at small liberal arts colleges where your classes are maybe 12 or 13 students or even smaller so it's a lot more intimate and at a small liberal arts college there's a lot of interaction because they're always campus events that everyone goes to, faculty and students. That's not true on our campus.

19:00

TK: Would you say that teaching changed over time at UWO, besides the sizes of the classes?

JS: Well, it has to change because if you're teaching let's say you're teaching a class of 240 students, how much interaction can you have? I mean you spend the semester, even if you do a seating chart, you're trying to remember names. Figure whose, you know I'm terrible at that but if I were good at it, it wouldn't be possible.

TK: How has the political department changed over time?

JS: Well, I went from being the youngest member of the department to the old guy. (Laughs) There was a lot of turnover. We've had people who had been here for...you know... I mean the retirements, we had one faculty member who retired 20:00at 81, had been here for 37 years. Then we had another member of the department who retired a few years ago who had been here 48 years, but then when they began to retire, we hired a lot of younger faculty and many of them left. So, we've had a lot of turnover. Part of it is that our salaries, our compensations a lot well below the national average. We're not exactly very competitive when it comes to recruiting.

TK: Has it grew overtime? Has the department gotten bigger overtime?

JS: Smaller. When I came it was nine or nine and a half. We had some judges 21:00teaching our law classes and we had nine faculty and we're down to eight. Given the budget cuts, we could decline.

TK: Was there any major campus issues during your time here?

JS: Oh yeah! If you know anything about the history of the university, drinking has been a complication and that's one of the things. My first five years here there were student riots every year. Sometimes several times. Just Google "Oshkosh riot"

TK: What do you remember from the riots?

JS: The thing I remember most clearly was it was my first year here, think it 22:00was spring of 1990 and I was teaching an evening class and so I decided to drive downtown and all of a sudden there were thousands of students coming up High St. tearing down telephone poles.

TK: Was it because of the drinking age changed?

JS: Yes.

TK: That why?

JS: Well the drinking age has changed but the fact is that there were things that would set students off. For example, the riot of 1995 were the students went and tore up the downtown. There was a lot of underage drinking at the fraternity houses, various apartments that students have near campus and so they would have these underage drinking where they would have several kegs of beer 23:00and underage kids go in with plastic cups and the police would bust the parties and then other students in support of the ones being busted would join in. In fact, I remember one of these demonstration protests went on for several weeks. So you'd walk into class and you'd see on the bulletin board, "Meet up at six" and the last riot they brought in police from all over the state, state police.

TK: Oh really? When was that? Do you remember?

JS: 95'. Just click Oshkosh riot 1995.

TK: Was there any cultural or educational issues on campus that you remember?

JS: The same issues that there is now. Remember that the Clintons (laughs). Not 24:00Hillary but Bill and Hillary was putting the other healthcare proposal but failed with the Clinton administration so yeah, politically and you had because Wisconsin is a swing state. You had the candidates coming to Wisconsin, coming to Oshkosh.

TK: Alright, and you were part of the faculty senate. Can you tell me what were some of your rolls being on that?

JS: I was president of the faculty senate four times. I was on the executive committee for most of the time I severed on the senate. Until recently when they 25:00changed the law, the faculty senate was a fairly important body in the shared governance system.

TK: What do you do as the president on faculty senate?

JS: Well, a good part of it is I chair the meetings, the executive committee. As president I put together an agenda for the meetings and made decisions about what items, what resolutions, all the things that the senate will take up and that's approved by the executive committee and then goes to the full senate for action. I'm responsible for all university committees, the faculty senate committees are approved by instruction and the president gives work to those committees. They eventually end up as policies that the senate approves. You 26:00meet with the provost, you meet with the chancellor.

TK: Okay, and what were some concerns or issues during your time on faculty senate?

JS: Oh the same issues as now really, because when I was first hired, we had a republican governor, Tommy Thompson. There were a number of recessions when I first came. One of the issues was eliminating tenure. First issue I came up with when I entered here, first time I get a chance I get to get a ten year tract position and they're talking about eliminating. So that happened in 1990. There's always been issues with faculty compensation. There have been issues 27:00with changes in the curriculum, changes in general education. There's always issues about recruiting, retaining, graduating students. There's perennial issues that are always coming back because we need to maintain our enrollments. There's always been a concern with student performance that is, so many students drop out after their first year, students don't graduate in four years, we only graduate half of our students in six years. So we're constantly trying to find ways to improve those.

TK: What about the whole Scott Walker plan? Was that something that concerned the faculty senate or can you tell me about that?

28:00

JS: Well sure, well essentially Scott Walker was going to make the universities essentially public utilities rather than state agencies. That would have meant a lot of things. For one thing, it would have meant that the building would no longer be the university's buildings so often we would be leasing them. (Laughs). They reduced ten year protections. Shared governance is mostly just a show than...I mean the students still retain some governance because you still control your segregated fees but the faculty doesn't.

TK: And you're also chairman, can you tell me what that is or what you do as 29:00being the Chair?

JS: Oh I'm no longer the Chair, Dru Scribner is. I was the Chair for 12 years, four terms.

TK: Okay, and what did you do?

JS: You do the class scheduling, you make the decisions about merit, you do all the personnel actions, purchasing for the department, scheduling...generally middle management kind of work.

TK: What do you think you accomplished being that?

JS: My greatest accomplishment was being involved in the recruitment of some really great faculty. I think that the department, the people we have now, comparison to when I was hired, of course they were all in retirement mode at the time when I joined, but the quality of the teaching has improved. I think the quality of the scholarship of the people we have in the department were very 30:00collegial, were friendly. When I joined the department, there were arguments and disputes at almost every department meeting so I even hated to attend the meetings. Now, it's night and day.

TK: Settled down a lot since then?

JS: Well we just seemed to get along and liked each other.

TK: That's good! What are some of your favorite memories or accomplishments at your time during UWO?

JS: Favorite accomplishments...um well I helped create the environmental studies program. We didn't have an environmental studies program. The faculty senate, we supported the earth charter and we supported the idea of sustainability, which has become a signature question on campus. Your generation is much more concerned about the environment. The students that I was teaching when I first 31:00came here and the campus has that whole goal of sustainability of environmental concern, of civic engagement, of concern with diverse cultures. The mission and the focus has shifted and I had some part in it, so I feel good about that.

TK: What did you learn being at UWO?

JS: What did I learn? Well, at least then I learned that if you become engaged in campus politics, you do more than simply teach a class is that you can make a difference. That you can have an impact on the direction of the institution. I'm 32:00not sure that with the changes that have happened recently that that's going to continue to be true, but I'm pretty happy with a lot of the things that I was able to accomplish.

TK: Have your impressions of UWO changed over time?

JS: Well until recently my impression...I mean was very positive, I was very optimistic about the institution and its future. It seemed to me that everything that I wanted the institution to become and everything that I had been striving for well we hadn't achieved them all but we were making progress.

TK: Until what happened?

JS: Well...we elected Scott Walker. Not sure if I want that on the record but that's...

TK: (Laughs). Yeah, any advice you would give current students?

JS: I think many of our students just don't understand...they're not ambitious 33:00enough. Somehow they go to the campus and their career goals seemed to be limited, like they don't want to leave the Fox Valley or they don't want to aspire to the kinds of jobs they can get. They don't do internships and they don't become as involved with campus life as they could be. So we you go out, you don't have all those things on your resume. You just have a degree and you're willing to settle. Many students settle for the same kinds of jobs they did part-time when they finish. With the record of our graduates, you can do a lot more. You just have to be optimistic and go out there and be aggressive about it.

TK: Right. Alright, thank you!

JS: You're welcome!

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