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Memories of SSU

Ambrose Nichols

President, 1961-1970
Department of Chemistry, 1970-1976

Presidents Ambrose Nichols, Marjorie Downing Wagner and Thomas McGrath

Presidents Ambrose Nichols, Marjorie Downing Wagner and Thomas McGrath

(Excerpted from an interview with Daniel Markwyn, December 1, 1988)

                  I was at San Diego State on the chemistry faculty from 1939-61 and during the year 1959-60 we established a Senate, which I’ve been told was the first faculty Senate in the system. I was elected president or chairman and served starting the year 60-61. I was very happy as a professor and enjoyed my life at San Diego State.

                  One Friday afternoon when I normally would have been playing golf with three of my colleagues, my office phone rang. It was Roy Simpson, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, which meant that he was the Chief Executive Officer of the state colleges. He said that my name had been put forward as a possible candidate for the presidency of Sonoma State College and would I be interested?  I said, “Well, that’s very exciting. I know nothing about the institution.” His response: “Well, it’s not in existence yet – it’s about to begin and your name has been proposed.” Barbara and I talked it over and said yes.  I put a vita together for an interview the next Tuesday.

                  My interview in the Department of Education covered a lot of ground and included an appointment with Joe Rattigan, the senator from Sonoma County who had carried the bill that established Sonoma State College.  Next I was asked to attend a breakfast meeting with the selection committee of the Board of Education the following Saturday.  At that time the trustees existed but the authority for the operation of the state colleges was still in the hands of the State Board of Education. I was asked to return at 1 o’clock and learned that the committee were recommending that I be appointed president of Sonoma State College.

                  The following day I resigned my position at San Diego State. About Wednesday of the following week I went to Sacramento and established an office at the State Department of Education Building and was given a file of applications for jobs at Sonoma State College, and that’s how I got to be President.

                  One of the first telegrams of congratulations I received was from George McCabe, Director of the Santa Rosa Center of San Francisco State In Sacramento.  I met Wes Burford, then on the staff of the Department of Education Division of State Colleges and Teacher Education, responsible for site selection, architecture and design, and programs for buildings and the general facilities development. He and I drove over to Santa Rosa and dropped in on the Center. The first person I met was Darlene Azevedo, who subsequently became my secretary.  She brought George McCabe out of a faculty meeting; he took me down and introduced me to Center faculty.

                  During the two months that I stayed in Sacramento more faculty applications came in, many of them from state college employees from other campuses. I was also put in touch with Hector Lee. We hit it off well when we met, and I heard a lot of good things about him. Over the next few months, both in Sacramento and when I later moved to an apartment in Santa Rosa in April, I talked with the entire faculty at the Center and a number of others.  The majority of the faculty at the Center was interested in coming to Sonoma State, and I was interested in them.  With the exception of one who wished to return to San Francisco State, they all came. Also there was John Pfau, this history man from Chico, and Hector Lee, also from Chico; Jack Arnold from Stockton, and two very eminent faulty members at San Diego State, Dick Madden and Thor Carlson, both in Education. The decision had already been made that we would offer junior and senior level work only – more or less continuing what the Santa Rosa Center had done. We would prepare to admit freshmen in ’62, but no sophomores.

                  Our situation was unusual in that the site had been selected before anything else was done; it was required and expected that we operate before the campus was completed. In subsequent campuses, San Bernardino, Dominquez Hills, and Bakersfield, the campus was purchased after the president and some staff had been appointed so they had input into the selection of the site, although they weren’t the decision-makers. They also operated as a planning staff for two or three or four years and didn’t begin an instruction program until they moved into their permanent campus and they opened as full-fledged, four-year institutions.

                  We considered various buildings for a temporary campus, including an abandoned shoe factory. But Paul Golis and Maurice Fredericks, the developers of the Rohnert Park, proposed to build space for a temporary campus at the corner of Bridget and College View Drive in back of the shopping center. The contract wasn’t signed, I think, until May 29, and we moved in after the 4th of July, so they had just a little over four weeks to build the buildings.  They were still hammering and sawing when we moved in.

                  It worked out very well. We were adequately housed, the rental was very moderate – I think we paid 10 cents a square foot per month – and the important thing was that they were able to keep pace with our growth by making additional buildings available, as we needed them at a comparable rate. We were able to grow to 700 or 800 before we had our own campus to move into. The groundbreaking was in the spring of ’63 and we were able to get planting started and some of those things. But, of course, prior to that we had to get a master plan architect and a master plan landscape architect and get the program approved and then we had to get a project architect and a contractor for the Fieldhouse itself. We had a physical education program, and that’s one thing we didn’t have facilities for on the temporary campus.

                  It is interesting that here we are in the Redwood Empire, and our buildings are stark concrete instead of being wood or redwood or something symbolic of our location. It’s still a good question, why we couldn’t have had smaller buildings and buildings of a less massive, less fortified look in their architecture. And the view, I think, relates to our numerical projections.  We really took seriously the idea that by 1980 we’d have 12,000 FTE, which means 16,000 or 18,000 students, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have a lot of small buildings. Well, we were wrong. Those numbers were not borne out for all sorts of reasons.

                  There had been a clear implication in several of my interviews that the state colleges were considered to have become too diverse and too occupational, too applied, and that they needed more focus on the liberal arts and sciences. My own view is that we have lots of different services to perform.  I have a great regard and confidence in the liberal arts and sciences, but I don’t believe that was all that was needed to do. But the message came through loud and clear that there was an interest in re-focusing on the liberal arts and sciences.

                   Much has been discussed about the late 60s -- the environmental issues, drug – pot – issues, civil rights issues, and the war in Vietnam above all.  There was a strain on the relationship between the students, faculty, administration, the Board of Trustees, and of course, the community at large. And we were hearing about things that were happening at Berkeley, Yale, Stanford, Santa Barbara and San Francisco State, and this we reflected here. One of the things that impacted, at least to some degree, was the fact that, in those times, Sonoma State, as a semi-rural campus in a somewhat isolated situation, became very attractive to people from larger, more congested areas, and this was something new in the community. In any case, we felt that we were doing a reasonably good job of keeping things operating under some difficulties, and we were fortunate in that we weren’t confronted with any desperate circumstances. We had no violence in the sense of damage or injury to individuals, we had no sit-ins and we had no disruption on the scale that was going on at many places. We did have a few events that were regrettable particularly, as I recall, at the time of the Cambodian business. But through that period, the Vietnam War became more and more a focus of concern, and it was a hard time in the whole country as well as on the campus.

                  I was never abused verbally or otherwise in my visits to groups, even when I was challenged to some degree to take more aggressive action against the disruptive students. It was as though I was okay but everybody else was bad and I ought to do something about it. That’s overstated, of course, but the other aspect of the situation is that I was never confronted on the campus with hostility or aggressive behavior. This was a time when some college presidents had bodyguards because they felt that they needed them.  That never occurred to us here on this campus.  I do remember being invited to discuss the situation with some people from the Chamber of Commerce and the service clubs, and some very good questions were asked.  I did the best I could to answer them.  And to some degree I succeeded and to some degree I didn’t. So there were certainly divided opinions and divided perceptions about the campus.

                  As the fall of 1969 got underway, I was subject to more and more criticism, not only by the public in Sonoma County, but also by the Trustees. The character of the Trustees and, if you will, the ideological slant of the Trustees was evolving over those years, and they were confronted with problems not only at Sonoma State, but at San Francisco State and some of the other campuses, as well as the things they heard about the campuses that they weren’t responsible for. So the climate as far as the Trustees and the Presidents were concerned was deteriorating, I think, with some notable exceptions. It became increasingly clear that I was not performing to the satisfaction of the people to whom my performance mattered most, at least in terms of responsibility and authority, and it was obvious that the situation was not going to get any better. This wasn’t a factor in my decision to resign, but it became evident not only to me but to members of the faculty and administration that I had a problem. Bob Holmes, Chairman of the Chemistry Department, came into my office one morning and with some embarrassment said, “I don’t want to say anything out of line, I don’t know what you’re planning to do, but if you should decide to give up the presidency, we’d be glad to have you in the Chemistry Department.”

                  I had taught one course at a time several semesters over a number of years, so I was not unacquainted with the Chemistry Department, but I was touched at that very gracious invitation. Getting back to the sequence of events, I determined in late December or early January of ’69-’70 that I would resign and that I would remain at Sonoma State on the faculty in Chemistry. I sent my resignation to the Chairman of the Board and the Chancellor, with the request that I be allowed to tell the faculty first.  It was approximately as big a sensation as my initial appointment, and there were various comments, of course, in the press, and so on. But I felt that it was the appropriate thing to do. If you do not have the confidence of your Board of Trustees you have no business being President. So in a sense it was a resignation but in another sense it was not a matter of choice when you come right down to it. So the remainder of that semester I began to consider what I should do in order to prepare myself for full-time teaching.

                  I was fortunate in that the Trustees had enacted a program of research leaves as additional augmentation to the sabbatical program, and I was able to get an appointment as a research collaborator at the Brookhaven Laboratory on Long Island.  In September Barbara, our younger daughter and I went to Long Island and stayed there through January, returning in time for the spring semester. There’s more to the story, in that the faculty and staff had a big “do” in my honor and presented me with a check which was sufficient to buy Barbara and myself a round trip ticket to London so we made that the occasion of our first trip to Europe in the summer of 1970.  I was also invited to give the commencement address.  One of my favorite books is Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy. I pretended to be looking backward at 1970 from the perspective of some future date at what was needed from Sonoma State in the future. I was pleased to have that opportunity.

                  So that’s the transition. I feel, and felt at the time, that I had had a wonderful opportunity, a wonderful experience, and I didn’t view it as a disaster in any sense. I was through with a certain phase of my career and entering another phase, so it—the university—has been very good to me.