by NATALIE WRIGHT
Every day, thousands of students pass through the shadow of the “Gateless Gateway” statue, most oblivious to it’s meaning.
The statue represents Washtenaw Community College’s open-door policy, which was central to the college’s original mission of serving the populations that were falling through the cracks in the education system.
This open door policy, a “fierce commitment” from the college’s founders, and the formative environment of the 1960s and ‘70s shaped WCC into the institution it is today.
A unique mission
As the baby boomers came of age in the 1960s, they shattered the traditions of their parents and grandparents. No social norm was safe. Civil rights, women’s liberation and the antiwar movement were all in full swing. Drug culture and the sexual revolution were spreading.
“These were exciting times, depressing times, a time for great creativity and a time of great anxiety,” former WCC President Larry Whitworth wrote in “A Fierce Commitment” (“AFC”), which chronicles the first 10 years of the college.
“It is during this time that the community college and the community college movement were born,” Whitworth wrote.
As citizens of Washtenaw County considered the possibility of a community college, critics argued that Michigan, which already had 10 four-year colleges and universities, and Washtenaw County, which had three, did not need any more higher education institutions.
“We had to carve our own niche. That was a tall order,” WCC’s first president, David Ponitz said in “AFC.”
But Washtenaw was not alone. Across the country, community colleges were springing up, and many shared the same mission – to offer what four-year colleges could not. They found their identities by filling in the educational gaps in their communities, serving populations that may not have the opportunity to attend four-year colleges.
High school graduates who did not have the grades or finances to attend four-year colleges, adults, already in careers, who needed to sharpen their skill sets and those who needed second chances could all find a place at a community college. The new, two-year institutions focused on occupational and vocational programs, preparing students to transfer to four-year colleges, developmental and remedial courses, non-credit and continuing adult education courses and community service.
“It’s a remarkable place to have wedged between these two monsteruniversities, where you can fail a little bit … You can fail; you can explore; you can find, and maybe even get a job,” said Ruth Hatcher, a WCC trustee who began teaching English at the college in 1979.
Central to WCC’s mission of serving underserved populations in it’s community, was the college’s policy to accept any student with a desire to learn, regardless of past education, age, gender or race. This open door policy brought an incredibly diverse set of students to campus.
The college enrolled dropouts from universities across the state, Vietnam veterans, single mothers, high school dropouts looking for a second chance, factory workers hoping to learn new skills and students from the federal correctional institution in Milan and the women’s prison in Ypsilanti.
“I remember when I had students in my class who didn’t know how to read,” Hatcher said. “It was an opportunity for me to help them go in the right direction.
“After they started having more rules and regulations, my classes were more like honors classes, and we could go better and further, but I miss those folks that couldn’t read and were motivated to learn. Now they’re put in a reading class, and OK, maybe that’s better, but I’m from that old school, where this was a magical place,” she said. “It was magical for ESL students. After Vietnam, it was magical for soldiers.”
WCC’s open doors were flooded with students, eager to further their educations. When registration opened in September 1966, enrollment was more than double what administrators had predicted. More than 1,200 students took classes the first fall semester, and by winter more than 1,500 had enrolled. Next fall enrollment nearly doubled to 2,394.
Faculty and administrators had to search for extra space to hold classes.Eventually the Ann Arbor Public Library, the YMCA and several churches in the community all hosted WCC students.
“Many of WCC’s new students were the first in their families to go college,” former speech instructor Char Hanson said in “AFC.” “They probably wouldn’t have ventured to Eastern, almost certainly wouldn’t have enrolled in Michigan, but when the school came to them, they knocked on its doors, and WCC changed the course of many lives.”
‘A fierce commitment’
As President Ponitz and the college’s first administrators searched for teachers for the new college, many assumed they would be seeking candidates holding doctorate degrees, because WCC was located among so many educational institutions, but WCC’s founders had something else in mind.
“Our priority was to find people who could really connect with our students,” Ponitz said in “AFC.” “We developed a hiring profile for our faculty members – which is where the phrase ‘A fierce commitment’ came into play. There was a shortage of teachers in those days, but we still focused on finding the best people, people with real world experience as well as good teaching skills, people who cared about students and shared our vision.”
Dennis Bila, a WCC math instructor, who started at the college in 1969, said that the college’s success is due in large part to great leadership in those early years.
“They hired great staff at all levels,” Bila said. “Now that doesn’t just happen. People have to have that as part of their mission, and that starts from the top.”
The philosophy applied to positions in all areas of the college, he said.
“If you look at the grounds, for example, you’ll notice they’re as well kept as any institution around,” Bila said.
Because the concept of community colleges was so new, the employees who first came to work for WCC took a big risk.
“These people left solid jobs … when no one knew if it was going to work or not,” Hatcher said. “It was a true act of faith in what education is about.
The “pioneers,” she said, were amazing people who sacrificed a lot for the vision of what WCC could be.
“I know it’s hard to keep a pioneer spirit going,” she added. “I have some of that fairy dust on me from them.”
When the first employees were hired, they had to put that “fierce commitment” mentality to the test.
In the spring of 1966, the new administration and trustees had a decision to make: They could open the following fall, or wait another year, which voters had given them funds to do.
Ignoring the fact that most community colleges were taking two to four years to establish, the founders pushed forward, opening that fall – in only 100 days.
There was a sense of urgency, Pontiz said, because there was so much need in the community.
To make this possible, the administration developed “the undulating cone.”
“It was a pyramid-style form of management, with the board and president at the apex. It was undulating because decisions traveled up and down and across. It wasn’t a rigid system,” Andy Ford, who was the director of the Technical & Industrial division at the time, said in “AFC.” “We were intellectually and pragmatically movers and doers. We had to be if we were going to get the college up and running in such a short span of time.”
“One of the things that strikes me about the beginning of the school was that it never occurred to us that we couldn’t make it work, even though none of us had ever done this before,” former English instructor Edith Croake said in “AFC.”
With passionate teachers who were led by the “fierce commitment” mentality crowded in the close quarters of the college’s temporary Willow Run campus, this communication system functioned well.
“It was kind of fun,” Bila said. “We were all crowded together so we got to know each other very well.”
And the rest was history
As WCC continued to grow, so did the obstacles that faced it. The ‘60s and ‘70s were a turbulent time, and as students erupted in protest on a regular basis, and rioters burned down Detroit, those who cared about the college felt a strong responsibility to protect it.
“We suffered from our share of traumas,” Ponitz said in “AFC.”
“Several times during the days of the riots, when Detroit was burning, Dave Pollock and I linked arms with folks from the Willow Run area – black and white – and we stood arm-in-arm all night, afraid that the campus would be torched.”
Ponitz described driving home from a meeting one night and seeing smoke in the distance. He thought the college was burning, but it turned out that the Ypsilanti dump was just burning dried Christmas trees.
“It was a symptom of the times that my first thought was that the campus had been torched,” Ponitz said.
Several times, bombs were lobbed into WCC offices, luckily never going off, and countless times, the college received bomb threats. Angry black students, associated with Panther groups in Detroit, would bring shotguns and Molotov cocktails in their cars.
But sometimes, the employees were the ones on the picket lines. In 1979, there was a faculty strike that Hatcher described as “nasty.”
“It was a serious strike – people barricading so that supplies couldn’t get it, so that part timers couldn’t get it. The place was shut down,” Hatcher said. “There were car nudgings … people got hurt.”
“We had people go to jail,” said Bila, who was the faculty union president at the time. “There was some violence on the line.”
The faculty and the administration couldn’t agree on much of anything, Bila said.
“Community colleges were still relatively new, so it was a high school model. The faculties in the college weren’t given much in the way of determination of the curriculum or whatnot,” Bila said. “There was a lot of distrust on both sides.
But the faculty and administration eventually reached a consensus and the
faculty got back to work.
As with every challenge that faced WCC in its formative years, the employees’ “fierce commitment” to the mission of the college and the students and community that it served, carried WCC forward.
Today, the college has grown ten-fold, serving more than 12,000 students every semester. While few of the founders are still around, their legacy lasts in the mission of the college and those who still have the “fairy dust” on them.
A sincere thank you goes out to Bob Phillips and Diana Pacella for their help sorting through the WCC archives, and to those dedicated WCC employees who put together “A Fierce Commitment: The First 10 Years of Washtenaw.” The greatest ties to Washtenaw’s past, the archives and the book tell an amazing history that otherwise would be lost with the people who created it.
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