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Memories of SSU

Dennis E. Harris

Professor of History, 1965-1995
Senior Analyst for Administration & Finance, 1995-2001

Professor Dennis Harris (left) and Librarian Tim Huston

Professor Dennis Harris (left) and Librarian Tim Huston

Culture Shock – 1964 through 1970

            In April of 1964, I was driving south on 101, having just completed an interview with the head of the Social Science Department at Santa Rosa Junior College. I passed my PhD qualifying exam in January and left UC Santa Barbara in June. I was able to arrange several interviews at several Junior Colleges during spring break. The interview at SRJC was the last of a long series.

            Just before reaching Rohnert Park, I noticed a small wooden sign for “Sonoma State College.” I’d never heard of the school, but thought I might as well check it out before continuing south. I pulled into the parking lot of what seemed to be an apartment complex, found the office of the chairman of the School of Social Sciences, and was introduced to Dr. J. Cudd Brown. He was SSU’s 2nd Social Science school chairman. I explained my background and fields of “expertise” to Cudd. He called Dr. Theodore Grivas, chair of the History Department, who was at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. Ted agreed to meet with me at the Bancroft, and I was interviewed for a position advertised for the 1964-1965 academic year. Although the interview went quite well, the position was finally offered to Dr. Al Riggs, and I accepted a position at Ventura Community College.

            I told my wife virtually nothing about of Santa Rosa or the collection of apartments and commercial buildings that served as SSU’s campus from 1961 until 1966. To my amazement, I received a call from Ted the following spring offering me a position at Sonoma State. Also, he offered to guarantee me a full schedule for the 1965 summer session.

            My family and I arrived a week before summer session. It was only then that we discovered just how “quaint” the SSC campus was. I moved into my new office on the 2nd floor of an apartment that overlooked the “quad.” The oval roof of the buildings were obviously designed to be a grocery store which acted as the college library. Several single-story buildings housed more of the classrooms. With the move north of the Golden Gate, I immediately began a series of “culture shocks,” first being the vehemently asserted cultural superiority of San Franciscans in particular, but one shared by most Northern Californians, over “LA”.

            Another culture shock came on Monday, when I went to the administration office to complete a variety of paper work. I was a youthful-looking 26 year old. The staff assumed I was a student, and gave me one set of forms. When I explained that I was a new employee, I was given a different set, one that obviously was not designed for new academic hires. Only after a call to Social Sciences was I given the forms I needed to begin my career at Sonoma State. When I met my first class, I began to understand the source of the confusion; compared to the three classes I taught that summer not a single student was younger than I was. Many were secondary social science teachers from the local school districts, and the rest were upper-division students. Since there was no student housing, all of the students were commuters. They were highly motivated and it seemed that they were quite demanding in their expectations.

            Ted Grivas was conducting an NDEA Summer Institute for Teachers, and I was able to make time to participate in many of its sessions. It was there that I met two visiting professors, Dr. Glenn Price and Dr. Donald Johnson. Both would later join the History Department at Sonoma State. I was also invited to attend the college’s annual faculty and staff picnic at Morton’s Hot Springs, where I was able to meet several more faculty and staff before the fall 1965 semester began. The picnic was another shock; nowhere else had I witnessed such close relationships among the administrators, faculty, and staff and, most importantly, their common commitment to instruction – to the education of an overwhelmingly undergraduate student body.

            The next shock came the opening day of classes for the fall semester. Not only were more than half of the students older than I was but almost without exception they had spent their entire lives in the North Bay. My first class that fall was the U.S. History survey. It was a one-semester course covering everything from the explorers and early colonists to the Great Depressions and the New Deal.

            The History Department was so small that their meetings could be held in Ted Grivas’ office. The Social Science division met in one of the 2nd floor classrooms, one that looked out on “Lake Golis,” as Rohnert Park’s nearby sewage pond had been nicknamed. Obviously, getting to know my Social Science colleagues was quite easy as was pursuit of cross- or inter-disciplinary courses and programs. Again, this was not something I had experienced before and found part of the enlightenment that was SSU.

            Faculty, staff, students, and administrators all ate in the lunchroom (at least those not working and eating in their office). This strengthened our common bonds. Later on, Bill Young, Don Johnson, Ken Marcus and I would meet every other Friday at Willie Bird’s on Santa Rosa Avenue to share a pitcher of beer, enjoy the free food, and solve the world’s problems. These informal gatherings also made SSC different and further strengthened my ties to the school.

            Another reason I had come to SSC was that, unlike the UC system and most other CSU campuses, the training of teachers was a shared responsibility at SSC. For students in the secondary credential program they had an academic advisor and an advisor from the Education Department. I don’t know how much of the credit for this goes to George McCabe, who was chair of the education and psychology division when I arrived. However, the role that I, Carolyn Zainer (for English) and the other academics played in teacher education made acceptance of my dual teaching assignment – half history and half education something unique in higher education and broadened my knowledge of fellow faculty and their responsibilities.

            The summer of 1966 was focused on moving to the permanent campus. At the time it was a huge piece of land that had formerly been Benson’s seed farm. Only the “San Quentin” architecture (as our students referred to it) of the two, three-story concrete academic buildings, the Field House, and the Boiler Plant marred the bucolic views of Sonoma Mountain to the east and Mt. Taylor to the north.

            During the fall of 1967 semester my classes were going well and I’d begun what would almost become a career as a faculty advocate, having been elected a Social Science representative to the Academic Senate.

            In June 1969, I was awarded my PhD and won the bet Ted Grivas and I had when the department recommended that I be promoted to associate professor and granted tenure, as long as I completed the degree. I also had my first “sabbatical” a special program that gave promising young faculty a semester off. Bonnie, my wife, and I arrived in Washington D.C. the day before Christmas. In May (just before the Kent State shootings and SSC’s first student demonstration), I was interviewing for a position at the University of Virginia, whose History Department was one of the nation’s most prestigious and whose faculty were incredibly prolific with their research and publications. It was there I realized I belonged to Sonoma State, a decision I never regretted and one that gave me an incredible teaching career from 1965 until I left the academic side in 1995 and accepted the invitation of Vice President Larry Schlereth to join Administration and Finance Division as Senior Analyst.

            As Bob Karlsrud noted at my retirement, I had redefined my role at SSU about every five years. But the tensions between administration and faculty, which began with President Diamanopoulos, the change to a younger student body, more interested in grades and jobs than learning and not nearly as well-prepared as their predecessors had been, along with the opportunity to formally bridge the divide between segments of the campus was too great an opportunity to resist. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity President Ruben Armiñana and Vice President Larry Schlereth provided for me to accomplish so much in those last six years at SSU.

            Lots has changed since 1964. However, the fundamental commitment to liberal arts, undergraduate education, and the belief of faculty, staff, and administrators that students come first remains, along with the SSU motto (Lux Mentus, Lux Orbis) and the SSU hymn written by Chuck Rhinehart and Red Thomas for the first commencement in 1962. The SSU hymn is now played daily at noon on the carillon that my wife Bonnie and I were able to donate to the campus as a symbol of our appreciation and admiration for this university.


Dennis died in 2009. In July 2009, the full California Assembly wrote and read to the Assembly a memorial resolution in honor of Dennis and his contributions to California history. After they read the resolution, they adjourned a half-day early in his honor.