Moving Toward Greater Autonomy : Baylor’s Students’ Self-Government Movement

By Joshua B. McPhatter

Today Baylor University has a total enrollment of over fifteen thousand students and a vibrant campus life. The Baylor Student Government Association is charged with representing this vastly diverse body. The organization works to create a dialogue and implement ideas between the Students and the Administration. Recently, this vocal group of student leaders was able to secure a student position on the influential Board of Regents (The Lariat, 2012, August 28, p. 1) Student Governance is flourishing, however, the movement took patience and determination. The early twentieth century would mark the beginning of Baylor’s Students’ Self-Government Movement. This paper will explore the timeline, purpose, and significance of the early years of Student Governance.

Like many early student activities and organizations, the Students’ Self-Government Association was the result of student activism. Before the formation of the association, student governance was comprised of individual class officers and student organization leaders. There was no official united voice for the entire student body.  In the early 1900s the concept of student self-government was becoming more widespread (The Lariat, 1914, April 8, pg. 2).  According to Baylor’s student newspaper, the Lariat, nearly every prominent institution of higher learning had embraced some form of student governance (The Lariat, 1914, April 8). Baylor University, however, could not be counted among them and the adoption process was gradual.

Baylor was behind the curve mostly because of the level of indifference among students (The Lariat, 1914, April 8). There had been those who expressed interest and maybe took a step, but then simply sat idle.  Even, the faculty seemed willing to approve the idea of student self-government. As the Lariat stated, there was “nothing in the way except the urge to do it” (The Lariat, 1914, April 8). The Baylor Students’ Self-Government Movement would not begin to take significant shape until mid- April of 1914. After hearing and hesitating about student self-government a number of years, students began to understand that having a voice in the institution was in their own interest (The Lariat, 1914, April 15, p. 2).The desire for student self-government was beginning to really take effect. The questions that lingered were what would student governance look like and how to implement it.

There was debate from the beginning on the pace of student self-government. Some argued that they should adopt a “mild form,” while others contended that a new student government organization should spurt out in “full bloom” (The Lariat, 1914, April 15). A committee, selected by the individual classes, met to weigh the options and build agreement. A majority saw slow growth as the optimal choice.  The committee and students also believed that self-government should include some oversight of athletics, oratorical contests, and other student-centered affairs (The Lariat, 1914, April 15). An honor system and student discipline was also on the meeting agenda, however, it was decided that these issues should come later.  The chair of the committee then nominated a sub-panel to form a constitution rough draft to report back to the full body (The Lariat, 1914, April 15). The first solid steps toward real student governance were officially on paper.

Student activists had hoped that the tentative constitution would be ready to present to the full student body by the closing of the semester, however, this plan was deferred (The Lariat, 1914, June 10, p. 1).  Students thought they should postpone the roll-out until the faculty had given their stamp of approval, which was improbable until when they had time to properly consider the matter.  The faculty eventually signaled their provisional approval of the plan. Believing it might modify in the coming months, they encouraged student advocates to continue the process (The Lariat, 1914, June 10). The Baylor Students’ Self-Government Movement was pushed into the Fall Quarter of 1914.

A Hurricane For Self-Government

Around the same time, Texas Christian University (T.C.U.) was taking similar steps toward greater autonomy.  T.C.U. students requested their faculty consider a plan for student self-government. The T.C.U plan, however, concentrated more on “moral offenses” rather than student control of institution issues (The Lariat, 1914, September 26, p.3).  At Baylor, the new quarter brought renewed commitment to the Students’ Self-Government Movement.  The Lariat stated that student governance was becoming more real and decided to conduct a straw poll to drum up support. The poll would be conducted at two campus locations by official student poll workers (The Lariat, 1914, October 1, p.1). The results would be informative.

In early October of 1914 the Lariat straw poll result was decisively in. Of the Baylor students that cast their ballots, the concept of student self-government won about ninety percent (The Lariat, 1914, October 8, p. 1).  The upperclassmen vote was especially strong and the student newspaper called the action a “hurricane for self-government” (The Lariat, 1914, October 8, p.2). Students took the overwhelming vote to heart and the call for action intensified. Soon after the straw poll was conducted, all four class presidents issued a call for a mass student meeting in Carroll Chapel (now Carroll Library and home of the Texas Collection) to discuss how to deal with the issue of student governance. Some still cautioned that self-government would mean more weigh for students to pull (The Lariat, 1914, October 15, pg. 1-2).

The mass meeting was seen by many as another moment where student governance hung in the balance. On the day of the assembly, the Lariat issued an impassioned call for students to participate and firm defense of student governance.

But as we see it, self government is the inevitable trend of the progressive student life; it is a proven success beyond question in the largest and smallest schools of the country; it is not a moment fad, but a fundamental and logical principle of the American universities and American life. (The Lariat, 1914, October 22, p.2)

The language was lofty, but the urge equally apparent. Baylor President Samuel Palmer Brooks and the faculty had given the tentative nod to student governance, but the ball was now in the student body’s court. Students believed that autonomy was their best bet and Baylor University had the opportunity to raise its profile (The Lariat, 1914, October 22).

The mass meeting would lead to another student assembly, where over two hundred students unanimously approved a new constitution with minor changes from the previous one (The Lariat, 1914, November 5, p.1). All that seemed left to do was approval from the faculty and a student election to determine the association’s torchbearers. Going into December of 1914, President Brooks’ absence (for unclear reasons) caused institutional approval to be delay for a few more days (The Lariat, 1914, December 3, p. 2). In the December Seventeenth issue of The Lariat, the headline read “Student Self-Government is Now a Fact After Three Years Attempt” (The Lariat, 1914, p.1). The constitution was operational and members were elected, including the first president B.V. Ellzey (The Lariat, 1914, December 17).

Student Self-Government’s Reach

 With the New Year the Student’s Self-Government Association was finally established, but there were still people wondering how it would turn out. The Lariat was told that one professor commented “Yes, I was glad to see student government go into effect, but I haven’t any confidence in the results”(The Lariat, 1915, January 7, p.2). Figuring out positions and overall organization was a concern for the newly elected student government leaders (The Lariat, 1915, January 7).  Eventually, the organization seemed to move. The Organized Activity Committee set the date for the Fresh-Soph Debate and discussed the University Calendar (The Lariat, 1915, January 28, p.1). Rules for student publications and additions to the constitution were also considered (The Lariat, 1915, February 4, p.1).

Later the Student Self- Government Association would expand its influence to student discipline. The Judicial Council of the organization issues sanctions for several offenses. Mr. John Hatter, for example, was caught throwing eggs on the night of the Freshman Reception (Brooks, 1919.).  His behavior was deemed unfitting and he received twenty-five marks (Brooks, n.d.).  Another student, Elain Berkeley, attempted to use her textbook on her Spanish final and the council recommended that she receive no course credit (Brooks, 1919.).  Mr. O.G. Hale decided to raise a “Fish 22” flag on the University flag pole and was suspended for the rest of the term (Brooks, n.d.). If Hale wished to return he was required to submit an application to the faculty and be on six months of probation (Brooks, 1919.).

 

KIC Document

Overall, the association was able to achieve more than supporters first envisioned. This included acquiring better athletic equipment. Arguably the most valuable result was the level of satisfaction from the Student Body. This mood came from the fact that students could now control their own affairs. They also developed responsibility, individuality, and leadership (The Round Up, 1915).

Significance

            The Baylor Students’ Self Government Movement was considered a notable moment in institutional history. The newly formed association gave students an organized voice and vehicle to impact university policies. It also helped to coordinate efforts made by student organizations and leaders. The final version of the self-government constitution gave leaders some central oversight over student publications, athletics, literary societies, and social schedules (The Round Up, 1915). The path, as highlighted, was at times hazy and certainly tedious for some.

The self-government movement was not isolated to just Baylor University. Many colleges and universities, as mentioned earlier, were contemplating about the concept of student self-governance. In a larger context, Baylor students move toward greater autonomy is in line with the trend of early higher education. In the beginning, college students had little control over their own affairs. They complained about curriculum and education not connecting (Hofstadter & Smith, 1961) However, they would eventually take initiative and focus on out-side classroom activities.

The Baylor Students’ Self-Government Association, now known just as the Student Government Association, would undergo more changes in its over ninety year history. More policies would come, different student leaders, and unique moments. Today, the organization stands and is accepted as an important part of college governance. The concept, that some might take for granted in modern times, was birthed in the early 1900s. In the coming years, I’m confident we will see further growth and dimensions.

References

Baylor University (1914, April 8). [No title.] The Lariat, p.2.

Baylor University (1914, April 15). [No title.] The Lariat, p.2.

Baylor University (1914, June 10). Constitution for Student Self Government Association. The Lariat, p.1.

Baylor University (1914, September 26). T. C. U. asks for Self-Government. The Lariat, p.3.

Baylor University (1914, October1). Time to Launch Self Government is now at hand. The Lariat, p. 1-3.

Baylor University (1914, October 8). Self-Government won Easily in Straw Poll. The Lariat, p.1-2.

Baylor University (1914, October 15). Mass Meeting to Face the Issue. The Lariat, p.1-2.

Baylor University (1914, October 22). In the Balance. The Lariat, p.1-2.

Baylor University (1914, November 5). Self-Government in Final Stages Before Operation. The Lariat, p.1.

Baylor University (1914, December 3). Formal Ratification of Self-Government is Expected Monday. The Lariat, p.2.

Baylor University (1914, December 17). Student Self-Government is Now a Fact After Three Years Attempt. The Lariat, p. 1-2.

Baylor University (1915, January 7). First Executive Meeting Concerned with Matters of Organization Largely. The Lariat, p.1-2.

Baylor University (1915, January 28). Official Calendar is Started by the Association Comm. The Lariat, p. 1,3.

Baylor University( 1915, February 4).  First Additions to Constitution of Assn. Offered. The Lariat. p.1.

Brooks, S.P. (1919, March 29). [Letter]. The Texas Collection at the Carroll Library (Samuel Palmer Brooks Vertical File Folder, 4C215), Waco, TX.

Brooks, S.P. (1919, April 9). [Letter]. The Texas Collection at the Carroll Library (Samuel Palmer Brooks Vertical File Folder, 4C215), Waco, TX.

Brooks, S.P. (1919, May 9 ). [Letter]. The Texas Collection at the Carroll Library (Samuel Palmer Brooks Vertical File Folder, 4C215), Waco, TX.

Hofstadter, R., &Smith W. (1961). American Higher Education: A Documentary History (Vol One). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

 

 

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