Interview with Paul Conkin

Molly Dohrmann: This is Molly Dohrmann for the Peabody Oral History project concerning the merger with Vanderbilt in 1979. Today is Friday, September 9th, 2005, and the interview is with Paul Conkin, Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of the history of Vanderbilt University, Gone with the Ivy, and the Peabody College History which was published in 2002. Professor Conkin, please begin by giving us an overview of the Peabody/Vanderbilt situation at the time of the merger.

Paul Conkin: All types of cooperation between the two institutions. A past history of merger attempts had always failed. Some resentment at Peabody of Vanderbilt and its strength; at Vanderbilt, a widespread contempt among faculty about any college of education -- in other words, they looked down their noses at times at Peabody. Thus the cooperation institutionally had always been marred by elements of tension and conflict.

Dohrmann: What caused the financial situation that resulted in the merger?

Conkin: A lot of things. I think poor management of the endowment at Peabody, poor leadership on campus, the inherent problems facing colleges of education generally, particularly in the 1970s with the dearth of jobs for education majors and teaching, a general hostility toward colleges of education or contempt for then in the larger university environment, all of these came together, but also it was something unique about Peabody. It alone of major colleges of education had the support of professors at several arts and science fields as a backup for its teacher training. All the other major colleges of education were part, an integral part, of larger universities with colleges of arts and science. Peabody was trying to go it all alone, and I think no institution of that type could have survived in the 1970s and afterwards. In fact, it's rather surprising Peabody survived as long as it did.

Dohrmann: OK. Were there alternatives to merging with Vanderbilt?

Conkin: I don't think very good alternatives, and of course, at Peabody they considered the option of ending it as a college of education and becoming a research institute in the field of education. That would have continued the Peabody name and some of its endowment, but I don't think that many people connected with Peabody, and most particularly, its alumni, would have felt that that was a good option because they wanted to keep it as a college of education. They considered merger with distant universities, particularly George Washington and Duke. That would've involved all types of complications, probably the move of Peabody out of Nashville, the sale of its campus in a very bad time for marketing that type of real estate, and I'm not sure anything but a shadow of Peabody could have survived the distant merger. The one live option extensively pursued, of course, was a merger with Tennessee State University, and that merger proposition was continuing at the time Peabody was willing to accept an offer from Vanderbilt. And in fact, the prospect of a merger with TSU undoubtedly had a great deal to do with Vanderbilt making as good an offer as it did to Peabody. So the TSU merger proposal is very important. Would that have come to consummation? One can't be sure. I personally believe on the basis of my research and what was going on that the merger proposal with TSU would have failed to get state assembly approval, had to be approved only by the State Assembly of Tennessee, and I don't think the Peabody Board would have approved it either because there was a lot of opposition to it on the part of the Board. But it never came to a vote in either place, and one can't be sure how that would've ended. It is conceivable that -- I think it wouldn't have been that year but probably the next year -- it's conceivable that by 1980 Peabody would have become a part of Tennessee State University, so there were other possibilities.

Dohrmann: OK. Who were the key people in the merger, and how were they remembered?

Conkin: It's odd that you asked me that today because one of my close friends is Emmett Fields, who was the President of Vanderbilt, and he's dying of pancreatic cancer at this moment. Maybe in the next few weeks he will die. Too bad that you can't interview him. His memory was good a month ago, but not now. He was the key person in the early negotiations for Vanderbilt. Chancellor Heard was away most of the fall of '79 -- of '78, rather, and did not take an active role at first. So it was really John Dunworth at the Peabody, the President of Peabody, and Emmett Fields who carried out the original negotiations. They were backed up by just a few people, and the negotiations in the fall of '78 were largely unknown, either at Vanderbilt and Peabody faculty did not know about it. If newspapers had been looking carefully they could have found out about it, but none of them did. So these were limited to two Deans at Peabody, and Dunworth, Emmett Fields largely speaking for Vanderbilt with very little other people even knowing about it at the Vanderbilt side. Secret. But these two people were all important in the fall of '78. In the spring of '79, Chancellor Heard becomes an equally key person representing Vanderbilt. But in the case of Peabody, it remained Dunworth and two Deans, Stovall and Whitlock.

Dohrmann: Right.

Conkin: I didn't get their full name, but you can fill those in.

Dohrmann: Yeah. What was the reaction once the merger was announced?

Conkin: Well -- the Vanderbilt, not the TSU.

Dohrmann: Yes, Vanderbilt, right, the --

Conkin: The real controversy began in February with the news about the possible merger with TSU, and it's one story from then on, at least on the campus, because apprehension on the part of students and faculty followed from the TSU proposal when they knew about it. What was the reaction when the Vanderbilt merger was announced? Well, there's two steps. One was the announcement that Peabody had -- the Board had accepted the Vanderbilt offer, the terms subject to a merger document that met its approval. There was two votes, one to accept that merger in principle and set up the mechanism for developing the actual legal merger document, and from the standpoint of the Peabody faculty, the first announcement offered what they thought were good possibilities, but they wanted to ensure the survival of most tenured faculty at Peabody. When the merger document [then?] was perfected, even before it was voted on by the two boards, the faculty knew that they were not going to get what they wanted. Thus the fear and anger and tension and anxiety at Vanderbilt builds -- I mean at Peabody -- builds continually from the early TSU announcement through the merger announcement through the merger document with nothing or very little going the way the Peabody faculty wanted. Student anxiety, of course, was there all along. Could they complete their degree? Would they have to pay more tuition if Vanderbilt took over? What about abolished programs? Particularly the music program at Peabody, what were those students to do? On and on the anxieties multiplied for students.

Dohrmann: OK. What were the central issues in the merger?

Conkin: I don't think there was a central issue. I think the issue on the Vanderbilt part, would it be able to absorb Peabody without tremendous cost in a period of austerity even at Vanderbilt and the inflation driven late '70s? It was a risk from Vanderbilt's perspective and everybody knew it, so that was from their standpoint, could they make it work and would it be fiscally possible to absorb Peabody without huge costs? From Peabody, the central concern of Dunworth from the beginning, and I suppose of all Peabody people, would the Vanderbilt merger assure the continuation and ultimately perhaps, the prosperity, of a major college of education? And one thing that Dunworth insisted from the beginning, and it was therefore a condition of merger, that Vanderbilt would continue it as a college of education. That was a minimal -- well, I could say that was the minimal acceptable to Peabody. If Vanderbilt would not assure the continuation of the college of education, no merger. So the central issue was a continuation on the best possible terms for Peabody, but it was pretty clear from the beginning that only the educational aspects would continue.

Dohrmann: What have been the negative outcomes of the merger? Or what were the negative outcomes at the time?

Conkin: I don't think there were hardly any the way it turned out. It turned out better than anyone expected on either side. The negative aspects were felt by dismissed faculty members; except for 39, 40, 41 faculty members at Peabody who lost their jobs in a tough job market, I don't think there were many negatives. Graduate students had to adjust, and the students in the music program really suffered the most at Peabody. Actually, I think I'm being biased here, but I think the undergraduates at Peabody that now had to take their arts and science courses at Vanderbilt were better off.

Dohrmann: OK.

Conkin: Better teaching, higher standards.

Dohrmann: OK. What have been the most positive outcomes of the merger?

Conkin: The tremendous success of Peabody in the field of higher education. It's the highest ranked college by far at Vanderbilt. It has the only department at Vanderbilt that's year after year ranked first and second in the nation, special education. It is an adornment for Vanderbilt, and the strength -- institutional strength of Vanderbilt has assured it the ability to achieve that recognition. So in that sense I think it's been a success story.

Dohrmann: OK. In your research for the Peabody history, were there things that were unexpected and/or surprising that you discovered relating to the merger?

Conkin: Well, I found all types of surprising things about the early history of Peabody that surprised everybody that read the book. The background, way back. But for the merger, not for me because I had completed a book on Vanderbilt and had a long section on the merger written from the Vanderbilt perspective, so it was almost impossible for any major surprises. Tom Stovall told me one thing I did not know when I wrote the Vanderbilt history, in that the first contact about merger came in a discussion he had with Nicks, who was Chairman of the Board of Regents of that university system, that it came out of some discussions they had about cooperation. I did not know that. But other than details of that sort, the overall story I knew already.

Dohrmann: OK.

Conkin: What I did not know in its intimate detail were the reactions of students and faculty at Peabody. Because I did get into all the records of the faculty groups who fought the merger, and read them, and I could understand their anxiety and fear. If I'd been there, I'd probably be out demonstrating against it with them.

Dohrmann: OK. Do you have other stories about Peabody and Vanderbilt and the merger?

Conkin: I don't know what other stories could be. I have one I told in the book. I don't think of any stories that I didn't put in the book, I tried to be as comp-- that's the one chapter in the book that I felt had to be as comprehensive as possible and as accurate as possible, so I spent an enormous amount of time researching the chapter on the merger. But I can't think of -- if I knew other details, it's probably in the book, but I can't think of any of what happened during that tense period of five or six months. I can't think of anything I've discovered since then that I did not include in the book.

Dohrmann: OK. Professor Conkin, thank you very much.

Conkin: Short and sweet!