Three people lighting cake with text "Happy Birthday Oakland University"

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icon of a pencilBy Michael Downes

A Look Back

OU’s 25th Anniversary: the struggles and triumphs of the early ’80s

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Courtesy Archives and Special Collections, University Libraries, Oakland University

Oakland University started off as Michigan State University-Oakland, opening its doors in the fall of 1959. South Foundation Hall held classes taught for 570 students with a $255 per year tuition. Business, education and engineering were “concentrations” within a common liberal arts curriculum, taught by a total of 24 faculty members. It was a humble beginning.

Throughout the ’60s, OU would see an architectural boom, breaking ground on 16 buildings. In 1963, the university’s name was changed to Oakland University so it could appear on the very first diplomas delivered to students graduating in April. By 1969, OU had over 5,000 students enrolled, five major schools, a graduate program and summer options. The university also started competing in intercollegiate sports.

In 1970, OU officially became an independent university. The college’s first chancellor, Woody Varner, was replaced by Donald O’Dowd, who became the first university president and would hold the spot until 1979. Twenty years after their first semester, OU was up to more than 11,000 students.

The 1980s

Going into the ’80s, the search for a new president was atop the priority list. George Matthews was the appointed interim president, until naming Joseph Champagne the new president in 1981. President Champagne faced quite an uphill battle, though. At the time of his inauguration, the United States was dealing with a recession. Economics Associate Professor Ronald Tracy arrived on campus in 1982 and says it was an unusually difficult era. “It was the worst recession we’ve had post-WWII. We had the highest unemployment rate since the 1940s,” he says.

When O’Dowd stepped down in 1979, unemployment in America was just under 6% and by 1982 it shot up to nearly 10%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Despite the outside pressures, the university, its faculty and the students persevered.

“When you were on campus, it was almost like its own world,” says Geri Graham, SBA ’86, project director for Oakland University’s Project Upward Bound, who was a marketing student in the early ’80s. “We were all in the same boat. The focus was getting funding for college and deciding how to best use our financial aid refunds.”

On campus, many students were not balancing work and education, they were full-time students. Isolated from the issues outside of OU, they worked closely with each other and faculty to get the most out of their classes and had fun doing it.

“Morale was really high on campus,” Tracy recalls, “for both faculty and students.” There was a great relationship between students and faculty. This was before email, so if students had questions, they’d go to their professor’s office and have a face-to-face meeting, helping to create lasting, impactful bonds.

Time to celebrate

By 1984, Oakland University had come out on the other side of the recession stronger than ever, exceeding 12,000 students for the first time in history, and was ready to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

Over the course of a week in mid-September, Oakland University held events to honor the growth and prosperity of the college. A two-day Trivial Pursuit tournament was held on campus, old Tiger Stadium hosted OU Day and Meadow Brook Hall was booked with tours and had an art collection on display. All of the academic buildings and residence halls hosted open houses with pancake breakfasts. They also hosted the Fun Run to go along with the Lepley Sports Center.

During that weekend, the residence halls put on an afterschool party for the students. They had a hot air balloon festival on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and tailgate for the OU versus Michigan Wolverines soccer game that featured an ox roast and array of games.

Over 10,000 people came together to celebrate and honor the university for the strides it made for itself and the hard work from the faculty, staff and students over the first quarter century.

Memory lane

Royal Oak native John Cowan, CAS ’82, first arrived at OU as a fourth grader, as he won a young writer’s contest and was awarded a day workshopping on campus. That day had a lasting impact on him, and from then on Cowan never imagined attending any other university. In 1978, Cowan arrived on campus as a full-time student pursuing his bachelor’s in English, with a minor in philosophy. Despite living a stone’s throw away, he yearned to live on campus.

“I had a great home life, but I wanted to get away,” says Cowan. “It seemed like that was what college was, that’s what you did.”

Cowan lived in Pryale House for his tenure at Oakland. In his off-time, he’d watch General Hospital in the Oakland Center, walk around Beer (Bear) Lake and hangout in the field that later became O’Dowd Hall. While looking for creative outlets for himself, Cowan landed a position writing a satirical column for the The Oakland Sail, OU’s studentrun newspaper, satirizing life on campus. He also spent time at the Barn Theater before it burned down in 1987, having roles in “Dracula,” “Happy Birthday Wanda June” and “Bloody Bess.”

“For Dracula, I would get killed off stage, but then as part of the play they’d drag my body back onto the stage and my head would dangle off the edge, looking into the crowd,” recalls Cowan. “I will never forget, one time they did it, a woman in the front row leaned over to her boyfriend and and said, ‘I told you we should have sat further back.’”

Graham’s favorite memories surround her contributions to student life and her school achievements. She served on OU’s first African American Awareness Month Executive Board and was a role model of success for peers by excelling in a challenging degree program. As one of only a few African American students in the School of Business Administration during that time, Graham reflects on the pride she felt succeeding as a non-traditional student and being named a Chrysler Merit Scholar.

“I felt very guilty about missing time with my family, especially because my father was in poor health,” Graham says. “So it was gratifying that my dad got a chance to see me graduate at Meadow Brook Music Festival with departmental honors and receive the Human Relations Award. He was also able to attend the Seventh Biennial Black Graduates and Alumni Awards, where I received the Flame Award and the Isaac Jones Achievement Award, the Academic Excellence Award and the Student Leadership Award.”

The Logo

In 1963, OU had its first official seal, created by John Galloway, former head of the art department. The logo had a sail taught from the wind, representing the pursuit of knowledge. Below the sail was “seguir virtute e canoscenza” in all caps, or “follow courage and knowledge.” The words came from the college’s first motto:

Considerate la vostra semenza
Fatti non foste a viver come bruti
Ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.

Consider your birth
You were not made to live like brutes
But to follow courage and knowledge.

— A snippet from Canto XXVI, 1. 120 of “Dante’s Inferno”

For the 25th Anniversary of Oakland University, a special logo was released, altering the sail from the official seal. This sail was inspired by the Greek sail of Ulysses, focusing on the same themes of pursuing knowledge while also touching on what the university has accomplished and what it aspires to be. This version of the sail has since stuck with the university.

Learn more about the history of Oakland University at the OU Libraries.

Students trying to climb up grease pole with mime looking on

Grease pole competition with mime at the Open House, fall 1984. In Fall 1984, OU celebrated its 25th anniversary. The university had come a long way since 1959, with nearly 12,000 students enrolled. The birthday cake reception on September 18 was followed by an open house with over 100 activities including mimes, musicians and clowns strolling the grounds, a grease pole competition and a hot air balloon festival.

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