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Memories of SSU

John Palmer

Dean of Students and Professor of Psychology, 1967-1972
Professor of Counseling, 1972-1988
Department Chair, 1972-1981

My Journey from Graduate School to Sonoma State as Dean of Students

            I first heard of the Santa Rosa Center when visiting a friend in San Francisco. He had also invited Red and Rachel Thomas, who had spoken of the new Santa Rosa Center and beauty of the redwood and wine country. Shortly thereafter I joined the faculty at San Francisco State and we continued to hear that the Center might eventually become a California State University.

            One Sunday afternoon in 1958, Ann and I decided to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and explore the Pacific seaside. We loved the beauty of the coast and drove through Petaluma and ended up at the Flamingo Hotel. We both were very impressed with the area. I recall that we both commented that we loved the area. Little did we know then that I would join the faculty and administration of Sonoma State and move to Santa Rosa in 1967. 

            In August of 1964, I was invited to the temporary campus for an interview in one of the buildings in Rohnert Park. Cheryl Peterson, Bill Young. Barbara Biebush, and Ken Stocking interviewed me for the position of Dean of Students. Within a few days, I had a call from President Nichols offering me a job if I could be on board in September. I had to decline the offer since I had several projects at Northridge that were incomplete. When the next position opened, President Nichols called me again and asked if I could join his administration by January 1967. Finally getting to Sonoma was still exciting. I felt I had completed my responsibilities at Northridge.

            I saw the new campus for the first time when I reported for duty early in January of 1967. Only Stevenson, Darwin, and the gymnasium had been completed. It had been raining and President Nichols, Dean Buford and Dick Childs met me as I drove up in an open, muddy area between Stevenson and Darwin. The stark grey buildings were dark. After greeting the committee, my comment was, “The buildings are interesting. What color do you plan to paint them?” President Nichols responded that they didn’t plan to paint them. I could tell that I had asked the wrong question.

            My personal style as Dean of Students quickly fit in with the administrative style and mode of President Nichols, a style of leadership based on consultation with faculty, students and a discussion of all alternatives. He took the same stance with Associated Students, who for the most part, were older and more mature than those at Northridge. Both faculty and students here were generally pleased with his style of leadership, and it endeared him to both faculty and students.

            When I arrived on campus, there were no established grievance procedures for students. At that time, I was serving as secretary to the Student Affairs Council, and Phil Temko was the faculty chair. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) had developed a proposed plan for handling student grievances. Several students had seen me to complain about a given grade, and, I could only refer the student to the appropriate department head. The Student Affairs Advisory Council discussed the proposed policy—altered it in some ways for our campus—approved it, and referred it to the general faculty for action. I recall vividly that Phil Temko spoke to the need for such a policy at Sonoma and I spoke of the AAUP’s recommendations. It was briefly discussed and received unanimous approval of the faculty. Later I learned from my fellow Deans that a significant number of college faculties at other state colleges refused to approve a comparable policy. I knew that the faculty at SSU were genuinely student-oriented and supportive of students, their rights, and responsibilities.

            I recall that our campus was near a campus-wide strike when President Nichols and I confiscated an issue of the Associated Student newspaper, as it was delivered to the campus at the back of Stevenson Hall. I had been alerted that this issue included a completely nude picture of most of the newspaper staff. Both President Nichols and I felt that this issue could not be distributed. Many in the greater community already felt SSU was infested with “hippie students” and “radical professors” and there were no restraints by administration. Unfortunately a few copies of the issue were somehow distributed and one reached a member of the Board of Trustees. In my judgment, it was this particular issue that prompted the resignation of President Nichols. Many members of the community and some members of the Board of Trustees strongly differed with the leadership of the administration, expecting the President to “control” the behavior of some students who wore no shoes and little clothing. They failed to understand his leadership had prevented many political problems found on rioting and burning campuses of other colleges.

            I fondly recall being asked to chair the committee to develop a graduate program in counseling during my last two years in the Dean’s chair, and later VP Enochs offered me the task of becoming the founding department chair for the graduate counseling program. I had been in administration at that time for 15 years; it was a great joy to return to teaching. 

History of the Counseling Department

            The graduate counseling program emanated from the Pupil Personnel Services (PPS) Credential inherited from San Francisco State University. When the Santa Rosa Center and the forerunner of Sonoma State University was established, a few courses required for the PPS credential were occasionally offered. By the time the Center became SSU, the PPS credential had been neglected or forgotten. It became obvious that to serve the education community, the PPS and more graduate courses in counseling should be offered. Students had to travel to San Francisco State or Berkeley to register for courses in this area. 

            The program was initiated in the Fall Semester of 1972-1973 as a 30-unit M.A program in Counseling and supplements by 23 additional units required for the Pupil Personnel Credential. We were housed in a temporary building (trailer), south of Darwin Hall, where we remained for two years before moving into a permanent quarters on the second floor of Nichols Hall, adjacent to the Nursing Department. Morale was high among both the students and the faculty, and we all knew each other, for the most part, by first names. That was different for me, as I had come from more formal programs and colleges where I had never been addressed as “John.” I grew to like and enjoy this custom, as it seemed to give me closer relationships with students.

            The program differed from the traditional graduate counseling program in that students were trained as counselors under the eye of the cameras in laboratories developed for the Nursing Department. They were able to observe themselves in an actual counseling session where they were working with other fellow counseling students who served as clients. They were easily critiqued by the instructor and their fellow students, and learned quickly from their errors and their successful counseling strategies, Each student was expected to develop his/her own counseling styles, and the faculty carefully avoided attempting to enforce any of the traditional counseling models upon the students. We insisted that the students become familiar with the major models, but then develop their own style of working with clients.

            In the fall semester 1973, Dr. Ben Karr, a strong academician with an excellent background in counseling theories, joined the faculty from the graduate counseling department of Los Angles State College. Ben added much to the reputation of the new department. Within the next five years, I recall that we added four more, excellent young faculty: Dr. Carolyn Saarni, Dr. Mark Dolittle, Dr. Fred Moore and Dr. Sara Sharatt, all of whom brought special talent and teaching skills to the department and the education and development of our students. I still recall the excitement of weekly staff meetings as we planned new courses and an expansion of the curricula to include marriage and family counseling that would meet the state requirements for the Marriage, Family, and Child Counseling (MFCC) license.

            It soon became obvious that students needed more than one year of clinical training to work with dysfunctional clients. At the same time the American Personnel & Guidance Association (now the American Counseling Association) began approving graduate programs in Counseling with a minimum of two years clinical training. With the support of the academic dean and the college president, we soon gained approval at the Chancellor’s office to offer a two-year, 60 unit Master’s degree in counseling with 14 additional units required for the public school counseling credential. Students could choose the requirements for the state MFCC license and the Community College Counseling Credential. At the time, the university granted departmental status to the program, housed with the Education Division.

            With the addition of the second year of training and with the newly acquired accreditation by the APGA, the National Association and Counselors, we began to have applicants from throughout the West, and some from the Ivy League, northeast colleges and universities. These students added both challenge and excitement to our program and to the higher standards of the department. We always had many more applicants than we could admit, giving us the opportunity to select highly qualified students with a strong behavioral science background.

I will always be thankful and appreciative for the great opportunity of working at Sonoma State University and to President Nichols and Dean Enochs for giving me the opportunity and freedom to be a part of a unique graduate program.