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2004-07-07 Interview with James Collier, July 7, 2004 2004OH102 KH 687 0:29:44 CC001 Community Colleges of Kentucky Oral History Project Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries University of Kentucky. Community College System James Collier; interviewee Adina O'Hara; interviewer 2004OH102_KH687_Collier 1:|10(3)|21(4)|33(9)|44(8)|55(10)|67(12)|79(7)|92(5)|103(6)|116(2)|128(15)|140(11)|161(9)|174(13)|187(2)|203(3)|217(3)|237(5)|253(5)|265(3)|277(2)|295(3)|307(8)|319(3)|331(9)|344(5)|363(3)|382(11)|407(7) audiotrans Legit interview O'HARA: This is an unrehearsed interview with James Collier at his office in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, conducted by Adina O'Hara on July 7, 2004. Mr. Collier, in the 1962 legislative session, a community college bill was passed authorizing the University of Kentucky to govern a, a new public community college system in Kentucky. What was your role in the creation of public two-year colleges in Kentucky? COLLIER: It would be hard to say what my role was; although, beginning in 1955 I conceived of the concept of a college in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. What I had in mind was a four-year, liberal arts, public institution. We had no such in Kentucky at that time. We had the various schools with the various different colleges. But not one that was dedicated exclusively to a liberal arts education. In my opinion, that is the true education. Most of the other things are technical schools where you're taught a trade. And I conceived of this as being a place where better students throughout the state would come. I had a vision of, say, four thousand students; take in a thousand each year. This was the original concept. Where to place the, such a college was another consideration. And in looking around, I discovered that at time Elizabethtown was the, one of the furthest places in the state from a state institution. At that time, the University of Louisville was a municipal college; it was not a state college. So, in using a map of Kentucky and drawing lines and so forth, I figured it out that we were one of the farthest of any place in the state from any institution. So, geographically, there was a reason why Elizabethtown would be a good place for a state college. Also, Elizabethtown is somewhat closer to the center of the State than about any place in Kentucky. I think in Marion County somewhere is the absolute geographic center, and we're not too far from that. But I think the thing that made it, uh, more of, evident than anything, was the population within this pie-shape affair that would have, uh, centered with Elizabethtown as the college was almost a third of the population in the state. Of course, that included Jefferson County. Again, U of L was not a state institution at that time. So we had geography on our side, and we had population on our side. And I felt there was a great need for a liberal arts college in Kentucky, one exclusively given over to that. So, I went to the Chamber of Commerce in Elizabethtown and proposed that we might try to get the legislature to create a four-year college in Elizabethtown. And I want to emphasize, that's what we started out to get, was a four-year college. And, of course, you have skeptics, and people who said, "you'll never do it, or it won't come about; you're just wasting your time." But, uh, I was finally able to convince the Chamber to sponsor the drive to see if we could get it. And, we then started the process, I, I think I made a hundred and four, um, speeches around trying to talk at various communities and various organizations. We went into surrounding counties to see if we could build some political support for it. Because, as we all know, politics plays a part in anything that's public, and we realized that that would be one of the considerations that we'd have to face. So we had some luck in some of the other counties getting at least mild support for this project. Well, at that time, um, Happy Chandler was governor of the state, and this county had always been a very strong Happy Chandler, uh, stronghold. He had carried the county by tremendous majorities every time he ran for about anything. So we assembled a group, particularly those who had supported Mr. Chandler and were in his camp, went up to talk with him about getting a, a bill through the legislature creating a four-year college in Elizabethtown. We spent about thirty minutes in the Governor's Office, and twenty- eight per-, minutes of that time he talked about his agenda and not ours. I was rather discouraged when I came out, in spite of the fact that his supporters here said, "Oh, Happy will do what he can." I've never felt like Mr. Chandler did anything to help us get anything going. But anyway, um, the next election that came up, Bert Combs was running. And, uh, although I had been a pro-Chandler person in my youth, I had become disillusioned with Chandler over the years, particularly, when he made such a big play to be president and kind of ignored this, the needs of Kentucky. So, I decided I would support Bert Combs for governor. Now, he didn't have much support in this county. So I guess I wound up being what you might call his campaign chairman, in, in, uh, Hardin County. And, uh, Mr. Robert Martin, I think he was superintendent of public construction at that time, and he was also Bert Combs' campaign manager, came down to talk with me. And he asked me what we would like to have in Hardin County. And I told him we would like to have a college. He made no promise, no commitment. He said I'll go back and talk with the, Mr. Combs about it and let you know. Well it was three or four weeks before I heard from him. So I had the feeling that there was considerable amount of discussion went on between Mr. Martin and, and Mr. Combs as to what they would do about this situation. He called me back and said, "Jim, we'll go along with you." Now, that was really all he said. He didn't say four-year, two-year, anything. He just said, "We'll go along with you." And my surmise is that they figured out this would be a popular issue in Kentucky. And I feel like they went to other communities and discussed this situation with them; because when we got the community college system, we had several on the board, rather than just the one in Elizabethtown; although, we did get the first one here in Elizabethtown when we started the program. Well, we were e-, elated over the fact that we had got this commitment. In spite of the commitment, Mr. Chandler, uh, his candidate -----------(??) he was supporting, did carry the county again but by much less majority than they had usually done it. So it was obvious this was a popular issue, even in, um, a Happy Chandler county like Hardin. And, uh, uh, when the legislature met, that was the first time we realized what we--(laughs)--were going to be in for was a community college system rather than a four-year college. So, they introduced these bills to start the, the community college system. And, uh, in the community college system, um, we were supposed to be associated in with UK. My understanding was UK was extremely unhappy to get us. They didn't really want us. And, I guess you'd say we were forced on, w-, we came in as sort of an illegitimate child in the household, you might say. And, and, we were, we were, we were pretty unpopular up in Lexington. And, um--(clears throat)--Bert Combs got the bill through the legislature authorizing the community college system but no community colleges. Ned Breathitt had ran after Combs as his crown prince. This time we carried Hardin County and Ned Breathitt came through with the money to start the community college system. They built us one plastic building out on the campus that we, uh, have at the present time. And, uh, I'm sure it was a very cheap building. It cost the least of (??), you know, but I think that was the real first building ever put up for a community college anywhere in Kentucky. And, since then, of course, it has grown and grown. I think it had three-hundred-and-some-odd students the first year. And I understand now it's over four thousand students at our community college. The whole community college system is just astronomical in number of people that are there. O'HARA: Excellent. Um, now, when the community college act was initially passed, creating a system, there was no money attached to that, correct? COLLIER: My understanding was there was not because if we had to wait until Ned Breathitt became governor before anything was done in the way of financing. And, uh, um, I went up to the legislature and took my maps, I had these maps they were about four feet by three feet in size, and, um, uh, showed them the maps and tried to convince the legislature of the feasibility of putting up a college, uh, here. And I, and I think, economically, it was, it was a good idea, too, because a-, about that time, one of the colleges bought a lot, just a city lot, by the college, in one of these towns, and they paid more for--(laughs)--it than we thought would, would buy a whole campus in a, in a new location. Because every one of the towns had grown out and pretty much surrounded the colleges. So, everybody had expensive land. And, and, and student population was booming at that time. They, we were still having the bill, the GI Bill of Rights and that type of thing and we were in tremendous growth in all the colleges. And seemed to us it would be more economic to start a new college than to add to the existing colleges. And, unfortunately, I'm a person who believes in small institutions rather than large institutions, and I felt like the students would get better accommodations and, and, and education facilities at the smaller institution, too. So with all of this combined, it seemed that Elizabethtown was a logic place to have some sort of institution of higher education. And I think that feeling was correct because this one has grown and grown and grown. And, uh, we still have approximately four thousand people out there, which incidentally is larger, larger than the university was before World War II. So, it's, uh, it has proved to be quite a popular type of education. O'HARA: It was very needed at the time. COLLIER: I thought it was, and it turned out that it was, and, and I'm, I'm, don't get me wrong, I'm not bad-mouthing the community college system. I think it's been great for the state. It's just not what we tried to get. O'HARA: Um-hm. COLLIER: But, uh, what is it? Half a loaf is better than none? So we got two-years instead of four-years. O'HARA: Tell me about, um, you mentioned earlier how Frank Peterson, um, came and met with you after the community college act was put through, and, uh-- COLLIER: Well, since we were the first college, um, Frank Peterson was in charge of finances at UK, and, uh, Mr. Peterson had come there just before I got out of college to go in World War II. And I was familiar with his so-called type policy programs. And I was not really surprised when he came down, and says, "Now you-all are going to have to provide the land for us. We'll, we'll put up the building but you're going to have to provide the land." And I think that sort of started the policy. I think in other places he made the same proposition to, of course we were so fearful that something would happen that we immediately raised money in the community, and went out and bought a beautiful farm that is the current heart of campus. As a matter of fact, the organization that we formed to buy this, which we call the North Central Kentucky Education Foundation, raised the money, bought the land. We have given, I think around sixty acres to UK, and I don't know what they've done with it now. They've probably transferred it to the new group. And then we gave twenty acres for the technical school, and we have given land for a library. And we've still got a considerable amount of land left over there. In fact, they put a bypass around Elizabethtown; went right through our campus and separated part of it off. That we sold because it could never be used with a limited access road between the two campuses. But, uh, this organization still owns land out there, which we are holding in reserve if the college grows. And it is growing, not only in, in population, but also in the number of courses they're giving. My understanding now is, it's associated more with Western than it is with UK. And Western is offering, um, four-year degrees out there, I understand. I don't know exactly what areas it is, but, uh, but, uh, it is now pretty close to a four-year college. So I guess you say we came in the backdoor and got what we wanted. O'HARA: Fascinating story, very interesting. Thank you so much for sharing-- COLLIER: Um-hm. O'HARA: --that with me. Um, I have some more general questions, and you can let me know if, if, um, you know, if you have anything to add to any of these. Um, knowing as we do what happened and how it happened, we need to consider why it happened. Would you rec-, recount the reasons why the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees was chosen as the governing authority over the community colleges and what other alternatives there were. COLLIER: Well, of course, my concept was an independent board out here for a four-year college just like they would have at UK, Western, Morehead, and the other, and the other schools. Um, we, of course, did not become an independent entity; therefore, there was no need for a board. Now we did have what was called an advisory board. And these people were appointed by the Governor. Incidentally, I don't know whether you're aware of it or not, but these, um, trusteeships are political plums that are handed out for political purposes, and people fight to get on those things. As a matter of fact, one governor told me one time, when I was (??), we asked that we have a member on the board from the Elizabethtown area, or UK board, because we felt like we were treated like an illegitimate child so much by UK that we need somebody up there--(laughs)--to sort of protect us. And we would, of course, protect the whole community college system 'cause we were all in one, in one lump, so to speak. Um, we're talking about the sixties now. And he said, "Oh, I can get a twenty-five thousand dollar contribution, uh, for appointing the trustee." O'HARA: Wow. COLLIER: So, they were, they were, um, in demand. We never did get instated anybody from here on the board. They, apparently it was working for ----------(??) the political campaigns, and more in the political campaign (??). O'HARA: But that's the way the high education sector worked politically? COLLIER: Yeah, unfortunately, it is. Now they, and they have some good people on there. I'm not saying they don't have some good people. I always thought Ned Breathitt was an, was an excellent member of the board of trustees. And I'm sure he was on for political purposes because he has always been a powerful factor in th-, in this state. Um, you get some good trustees. Uh, when we had our advisory board out here, we had a few good trustees. We had some flunk (??) ones. Um, and they were all political employees (??). So, you get good and bad no matter what you do, I guess. O'HARA: Documentation leading up to this decision to create a community college system has been very informative. And an historian can reconstruct how the issue was emerging at the time. But the records are blank when it comes to explaining how the issue was resolved with the regional colleges. At that time, teachers' colleges that became state colleges. Since you were there, what is your knowledge on how the issue was resolved with, with the regionals? COLLIER: Well, I, I must say, I've always been an outsider. So I'm not on the inside; I don't know the workings of peoples' minds; I don't know why they did this or why--it's all surmise. But I do know that the four regional colleges fought having these community colleges. I think they did it for, um, I guess you'd say, competitive reasons. They recognized there would be competition with them because most students from this county went to Western. And when the c-, when the community college was created here, most of the students who were going to college went to the community college. So, I'm sure we took away some of their students. And my experience has been that, that most college presidents are empire builders. They want to build their empires up. And, um, my understanding was they were all against the community college system, did everything they could to fight it. Um, at one time, I was in a meeting with the president of one of the four colleges, and he was blistering the community college system. I think the fact that UK got them also disturbed them. I don't know whether they realized the political potential of these community colleges. Uh, well, UK didn't. For a period of time, UK was extremely hostile to the whole community college system. But then they began to realize, that, hey we've got some political clout here. Because all of them, not only the county in which they're located, but a ring of counties around them, has an interest in those colleges. And I, I would guess that probably a third of the legislators would be within this sphere of interest of the whole community colleges. So that gives you some pretty good political clout. And I think UK used us to get money from the legislature, which they kept in Lexington. But at least before we were taken from them, uh, I think they began to realize that they really had a little political jewel in these, in these community colleges. O'HARA: Critics have attacked the UK Community College System since its conception. What were the benefits and drawbacks to having one governing structure, the UK Board of Trustees, that governed both the research university, the State's research university, and the community college system? COLLIER: That's sort of an unusual, uh, combination, if you want to call it a research institution. Uh, I have never warmed to the concept of being the best state university in the nation. I don't think that ----------(??) got the finances to do that. I've always thought, let's educate our children and get them prepared to face life. O'HARA: Um-hm. COLLIER: Now, if they want to do rare, rare, research, let them do it at Harvard or Stanford or some of those places. So, I, I think that, that, uh, the community colleges are more dedicated to proposition, we're going to take this average student and try to better his life. I, I feel like education does two things. It not only prepares you to make a living, but I think it prepares you to live. And if we can get these, uh, young people in this category, I think we've done them a great favor, a great service. And, uh, that's the reason I like to have college available for any student who wants to try to go; in fact, I'm a strong believer in scholarships and things of that nature to help, uh, people who cannot go to school. I remember, i-, in our, we have an, an organization here called the North Central Education Foundation; that's what it used to be called. I think they've changed the name now. But, I made several drives to get scholarships for it. And one of the biggest moral crises I've had in that thing, there was a certain student who applied for a scholarship. I knew his father could afford to send him to college if he quit drinking six packs of beer at night and wasted his money and that type of thing. And I, I, this bothered me. I thought, this man can quit all this foolishness and put his child through college. But he wasn't going to. So what are we going to do? Are we going to ignore this kid? Leave him out because of his sins of the forefathers, so to speak? We finally fell on the side of being in favor of giving him a scholarship. So I, I, I thought, why should we hold him back because of his parents? So, I feel like that, that our drive to create scholarships and give them to deserving students, I don't mean deserving financially, but deserving mentally, um, would be, is an acceptable thing to do. So I, I like, I like for any young person who wants to, and is capable of doing it, to be able to go to college. Well, I think community colleges have done far more to offer that type of service than all of the other universities put together. Um, a student can live at home. Commute. Saves a lot of money. We've got, I guess we've got the cheapest tuition, I'm not sure anymore, but at one time we did. I think we had pretty cheap tuition. So, people could afford to go. And then we made these drives to get scholarships. I guess I've, I've headed three or four drives trying to get money for, for scholarships on the thing. And we have several which are available. But, uh, I must agree with, with Patton when he took us away from UK, that that was a strange relationship with this so-called, we're going to be the best in the nation research and then it's okay, come average fellow, we'll, we'll give you an education. Um, it was, it was an unusual marriage. O'HARA: Are there any questions I have not asked that you wish I had? (Collier laughs) That's my last question. COLLIER: (laughs) You've done a good job. Uh, well, it, it's, uh, I think the community colleges have done a great service for Kentucky. I don't know that they have produced any Noble Prize winners, but, uh, I think they have upped the intellectual level of, of, uh, the community and the state. Unfortunately, a lot of our people leave the state, as you know, and go other places, and take all this good knowledge they've got with them. But, somewhere along the line, we had to keep some of them here, and I think we do. So, I think we, I think we have upped the, uh, intellectual level in Kentucky. And, don't get me wrong, in spite of the fact I wanted a four-year liberal arts college here, I'm grateful that we have had the junior college system. And, um, I think that, uh, I think that it has done a great service for the state of Kentucky at a very reasonable price. O'HARA: It still remains, too, it's still the lowest-- COLLIER: Um-hm. O'HARA: --the lowest cost in the state? COLLIER: Yes. I believe it probably would be. And then, plus, they can live at home and commute. O'HARA: And, uh, one point that I, I think, um, the community colleges allow non-traditional students, veterans who had returned who had families, or older, and, uh, not the average eighteen-age, to go to school at night in some cases, um, or go part-time. So they could hold fulltime jobs, and they wouldn't have to leave their job-- COLLIER: Um-hm. Um-hm. O'HARA: --and go to, to other cities. COLLIER: Yeah, um, I, I'm not real familiar with, uh, what goes on out at Elizabethtown Community College as, as much as I was back in the, my younger days. And, um, at one time, I believe, we had more part-time students than fulltime students. As would be people like you're talking about who worked and would maybe take only one course a semester. But, they're building up three hours at a time, and after ten years--(laughs)--they've got a college education. O'HARA: It is. It works for all different, all ----------(??)-- COLLIER: Yes it does. Um-hm. And I think that's great. I'm, I'm in favor of, of being educated all your life. I think it's great that, uh, that people thirty-five, forty, even fifty, sixty--they started a thing at UK one time that I thought was pretty nice called, I think called Donavan's Scholarships where the old folks could--(laughs)--go to school for free or some such. I thought that was a great, uh, great thing. O'HARA: I do, too. I actually had a Donavan Scholar in one of my classes, and what he had to offer the class was just phenomenal experience-- COLLIER: Um-hm. O'HARA: --and a wealth of information. COLLIER: Well, there's one thing you can say about us old folks. We may have a lot of faults, a lot of weaknesses, but one thing we do have is experience. O'HARA: That's true. That's why I'm talking--(Collier laughs)--to you- all, to, to help me out with, uh, with my research. I could not do it without people like yourself. COLLIER: Well, I feel like Elizabethtown is really the reason why we have a community college system. I think we sparked the thing. I think to satisfy us politically we were offered it, and I think that it became such a nice political talking point that other communities were offered them, too, and now they have them. And I think that's great. So, I guess if you're talking about Elizabethtown, we're probably the grandfather--(laughs)--of the whole system. We didn't intend to be, but we are. O'HARA: Fascinating story. Thank you so much for sharing this with me today, and I appreciate all your help. COLLIER: All right, glad to help you. [End of interview.] In this interview, James Collier, an advocate for a four-year liberal arts college in Elizabethtown, Kentucky in 1955, relates how the town became part of the new statewide community college system instead. Collier discusses the political and economic factors which led to the growth of the community college system in the early 1960s; his views on how that system was administered by the University of Kentucky; and reflects on the general state of education in the state. insert here