When my grandfather used to plant fruit trees in his yard he was very intentional about how much water, and how frequently he watered them. His theory was if you water them too much you raise a ‘lazy tree’ that would develop a shallow root system because there was no need to grow deep roots in search of water. He asserted the problem with lazy trees was this; when high winds and storms blew through, they were more inclined to bend, break and collapse beneath the stress. A tree forced to grow strong, deep roots was able to endure the various trials nature tossed at it.
A well-publicized storm swept through Cowley College over the past year in the hiring and departure of our last college president. The aftermath of this storm has been like most, there are limbs to pick up and leaves scattered on the ground, but Cowley College remains – having withstood the tempest. This was not the first storm, and despite all best efforts, history proves it will not be our last. Today however, we stand because our roots run deep.
As if simply planting a community college in the city of Arkansas City in 1922 wasn’t a big enough job itself, less than a decade later the Great Depression came along and forced many into unemployment. Enrollment at the college increased 5 times over amidst the depression era, yet facilities could not keep up with the demand and additional faculty was not brought on to scale. This resulted in overcrowded classrooms (some as high as double their normal occupancy) and higher than acceptable student to faculty ratios. We endured.
I noticed a couple of years ago, during a project we were working on with the college library to digitize yearbooks, that there were several of the Tigerama yearbooks missing during the mid-1940’s. No one I had asked at the time knew why. A few months ago I had been having a conversation with an alumnus who had attended ACJC during those years and during that conversation I found out why. Throughout the course of U.S. involvement in World War II, decisions were made at the college and throughout the school district, to assist in the war effort by not only adhering to rationing guidelines, but also to make cuts deemed ‘in excess’ by school administrators. The Tigerama yearbook was just such a cut and although not significant in size, was reflective of the many sacrifices the college, and citizens across the country made during the war years. We endured.
During the academic year of 1967- 1968, two significant events occurred that rocked the college to the core. Just a few years earlier, in 1965, state legislative action started the ball rolling on a process that ultimately would lead to the college severing administrative and operational ties with the local school district, USD 470, which for the prior 45 years had run the college. In July of 1967, the college took the first step into autonomy with the election of the first board of trustees and the appointment of long-time district employee, Dr. Paul Johnson, as the college’s first president. Only 8 short months later, after battling a brief illness, Dr. Johnson passed away. We endured.
In 1995, seeing an opportunity to expand enrollment efforts into Sedgwick County, the college opened up the Southside Education Center in Wichita through a partnership with Wichita State University and Wichita Area Technical College. The center grew by leaps and bounds and by 2002 overall enrollment at the center had surpassed the Arkansas City campus. Growth ensued for another 6 years until Wichita State University, who had expanded course offerings into a nearby facility, no longer gave permission for Cowley to host classes in Sedgwick County. In one fell swoop, over a third of the enrollment evaporated. Employees pulled together to recapture the lost enrollment and removed the need to cut dozens of jobs throughout the college. We endured.
Today, while the search commences for a new president, the faculty and staff continue to do what we have always done in tough times; dig deep, keep the students first and push forward. We continue to be one of the most successful colleges in the nation in the number of students who graduate and transfer to the university level or head to the workforce. New initiatives are under way to raise the bar for degree attainment centered around the successful completion of math and English classes – historically the biggest academic roadblock in a student earning their degree. State reports verify on average our graduates do better academically at state universities than the native students who began there as freshmen. We are moving forward.
Retired NCAA coach and commentator Lou Hotlz once made the comment, “Show me someone who has done something worthwhile, and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.” We have seen adversity. We have overcome adversity. We will overcome adversity again. When the mighty winds blow and the storms attempt to bring us to the ground, we make the sacrifices, we pull together, and we hold steadfast until it passes.
Our roots run deep.
Ben Schears Class of 2001
Vice President of Institutional Advancement