Archive for the ‘Research’ category

A lode of manure… sheds

17 November 2008
Categories: Research

Years ago—in 2003 to be exact—while I was first placing online my Brief History of East Lansing, I included among its pages a footnote I privately (and facetiously) refer to as “The Historian’s Lament”:

The difficulty in charting the lives of buildings such as barns and greenhouses lies in their purely utilitarian nature. A spiffy new structure, even a minor one, will often get a bit of fanfare from an historian, especially if it incorporated some important new technology (e.g., the school’s first underground grain silo, as mundane as that may seem today). However, these same historians are much less likely to mention the demise of these. The buildings become run down from heavy use; they are referred to by different names as their purposes change; they make way for much more spectacular edifices. (Or, as in the case of the greenhouses behind Old Horticulture in 1998, they are ignominiously removed to expand a parking lot.) In any case, it becomes a matter of connecting the dots: e.g., botany greenhouses were built in 1867, 1874, and 1892; but which of these, if any, was the greenhouse demolished in 1955 for the Main Library? In the absence of solid facts, one can only strive to avoid spurious assumptions.

Yes, it’s true that the mainline historians will fail to mention the demise of utilitarian buildings. Kuhn hardly mentioned barns at all. Lautner went for the larger scope of campus land use (as well as some interesting political machinations) and glossed over the less permanent buildings. And Beal—heck, Professor Beal seems not to have been able to admit to himself, let alone put into print, that his own Botany Lab had burned to the ground. When it came to the farm, he deferred to others for most of what he included in his book.

However, I have come to discover that I have been looking in completely the wrong place. Of course these historians are going to give the big picture overview. Yet just because they find a building too mundane or utilitarian to mention its demise, that’s no reason to assume that no one found it interesting, or described its fate in excruciating detail.

While attempting to determine the date of a photo of the second boiler house that I received via e-mail from a fellow alumnus (thank you Tom!), I got to wondering about the barn in the background—and took that as an excuse to attempt, once again, a catalogue of all campus buildings, including the barns and greenhouses. As I tabulated the maps I had on hand, I noticed in the 1899 map a notation for B. O. Longyear’s house on College Delta, which intrigued me.

Why it intrigued me is a tale for another time. It was in a Google search for biographical data on Longyear that I stumbled across an online treasure trove—the Annual Reports of the Secretary of the State Board of Agriculture of the State of Michigan. Between Google Books and Internet Archive, nearly a complete set of the reports from 1862 through 1920 are available in several formats. (Unfortunately, the first report, from 1861, still eludes me.) Since the Board of Agriculture’s principal bailiwick was the Michigan Agricultural College, these reports tell of the school’s inner workings, often in painstaking detail—all the way down to minutiae like the cost of chalk and erasers for the classrooms.

I had been trying to figure out what all the barns had been in the original compound (around where Ag Hall is now, and east and south of there). I wanted to know when the newer compound (around where Hannah Administration and the Computer Center are now) was created, and which barns in it were new and which were moves and/or reconstructions. I knew I was getting close when I found the following comment in the Forty-Seventh Annual Report (1908) by Dean of Agriculture (and future President) Robert S. Shaw:

The farm building equipment work is now practically complete and a full description of the regrouping, remodeling, and refitting of the various buildings has been given in Station Bulletin № 250, with the exception of a manure shed erected since this report was issued.

…a Bulletin that is included, in its entirety, on page 211 of the same Annual Report.

Jackpot! If I wanted to reconstruct the farm compound exactly as it appeared in 1908, accurate down to the last timber, cupola, fence post, and horse stall, I need look no further than Experiment Station Bulletin № 250. Its level of detail is mind-boggling—in part because the College’s intent with its bulletins was to help the state’s farmers learn from the mistakes that the College farm had made. A map of the old compound as it appeared in 1902 is included, and descriptions and diagrams of each barn’s modifications as it was moved or repurposed to the new compound carry on for some seventy pages in all.

Now, to write the article for my site…

Tough love for Moo U

2 April 2008
Categories: Research

Over the past couple of years, ever since I first heard about it in Walter Adams’ excellent memoir The Test, I have been fascinated with the Michigan State University Group, a technical assistance project that MSU provided to South Vietnam from 1955 to 1962. Part of the reason it intrigued me was the fact that up until two years ago, I had never heard of the project—and I’d even worked for one of the participating MSU departments for seven years (albeit thirty years after the project ended). I know I’m not alone in this; MSU seems perfectly happy to forget it ever happened.

The thing is, all I could find online on the subject was a reprint of the Ramparts article (“The University on the Make”) that had generated such controversy and campus uproar. In reading John Ernst’s even-handed 1998 history Forging a Fateful Alliance, and more recently Scigliano and Fox’s “official” 1965 overview Technical Assistance in Vietnam, I could see how one-sided the Ramparts article was. Yes, it raised some valid questions about the project, its motivations, and its CIA connection. But it did so by deliberately ignoring any positive benefit that MSUG might have had for the people of Vietnam.

This hardly seemed fair to me. After all, the people who had initiated and participated in MSUG had done so with (mostly) good intentions. That the results were less than stellar was pretty much par for the course in that era of overseas technical projects run by American universities, as Adams and Garraty so deftly illustrated in their book Is the World Our Campus? (1960).

Most people are unlikely to do as I did and take out interlibrary loans of dusty, seldom-used, sun-faded volumes from such far-flung locales as Southern Illinois University and the former Northeastern Illinois State College (as one book’s stamp reads). For them, the sum total of MSUG history on the Internet was a possibly spurious, certainly unsubstantiated tale of cloak-and-dagger nefariousness. History is written by the victors, and in this case the victors were the conspiracy theorists.

I’m not trying to defend the project. Diem was a complete bastard, the U.S. was wrong for backing him at all (much less as long as we did), and MSU managed to piss away a lot of its intellectual capital and new-found respectability by playing along. But the University’s motives were not 100% craven, and MSUG was not merely a CIA front.

So, to provide a more even rendition of the history to a wider audience, I wrote an article for Wikipedia. (My other, more personal, motivation was that it allowed me to finally get the story out of my head, where it had been bouncing around without a proper audience for months.) Before posting it, I ran it past my wife, who called it “tough love” for my alma mater; and one of my closest friends, who suggested I run it past my dad, who remains active in the University community.

Dad was very supportive: not only did he purchase and send me another book on the subject, but he also contacted a fellow retired professor who had run the MSU international programs office for many years. (This professor begged off the question by reminding Dad that he had started in that role several years after the end of MSUG, belying the fact that he had of course worked closely with nearly everyone involved. This may be seen as an indication of how the subject remains a sore spot with the MSU administration.) The professor read the article and offered only minor copy edits and a few vague suggestions, and said he thought I should submit the article to a magazine or scholarly journal for publication. That was a pretty clear sign that I had nailed it.