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Central Connections Magazine

People Who Made a Difference over CWU’s First 125 years: Robert E. McConnell

Robert E. McConnell saw plenty of changes during his 28 years serving as the fifth president of CWU. Appointed in 1931, McConnell guided the school through the Great Depression as well as enormous growth following World War II.

Born on December 19, 1896, McConnell earned a degree in animal husbandry from Montana State College, a master’s degree in education from the University of Wisconsin, and a doctorate in education from the State University of Iowa. After teaching at Marshall College in West Virginia—where he met and married his wife, Alma—he was hired to head the department of education and psychology at Cheney Normal School (now Eastern Washington University).

In June 1931, a friend encouraged McConnell, who was only 34 years old, to apply for the vacant presidency of the Washington State Normal School in Ellensburg. McConnell later recalled that his friend arranged for him to meet with two members of the Board of Trustees who were impressed enough with him that he was offered the position.

“When Mr. G.P. Short, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, called me by telephone in August to offer me the presidency, I had thought the matter through and was ready to answer the call in the affirmative,” McConnell said. “It appeared to me that one could make a substantial showing in a short time and that there was a pioneering job to be done.”

McConnell immediately went to work transforming the normal school into a four-year college. He began hiring more instructors with doctorates or master’s degrees, added more teachers in science and social science, and strengthened the curriculum, including lengthening the time required to earn a degree to four years.

In his book, “The First Seventy-Five Years,” historian Samuel R. Mohler noted that McConnell’s first challenge was overcoming the state’s economic downturn during the Great Depression. McConnell successfully overcame an effort by some state legislators to close the school, which was the smallest of the state’s three normal schools, as well as severe cuts in state funding that forced him to reduce salaries by 21 percent.

However, by the mid-1930s, state funding began to slowly increase and conditions improved. By 1937, he was able to get the state legislature to change the name of the school to Central Washington State College of Education to reflect the fact it was now conferring college degrees.

The low point of McConnell’s lengthy tenure occurred in 1939, when he terminated Professor Joe Trainor for skipping commencement ceremonies. According to Mohler, Trainor believed he had been granted a leave of absence to study in Mexico and had departed a few days prior to commencement. McConnell, who required all instructors to attend commencement, claimed the professor did not have permission to miss the ceremony and dismissed him from the university.

In the end, a national American Association of University Professors (AAUP) investigation concluded that the dispute was the result of “a genuine misunderstanding” but censured the school because it believed McConnell had overstepped his authority in firing the professor. In response faculty members founded a campus chapter of the AAUP and established the Faculty Forum, a precursor to the Faculty Senate, to present matters of concern.

McConnell weathered the controversy and continued advocating for the college to expand its curriculum to encompass graduate programs and liberal arts degrees, which resulted, in 1961, with another name change to Washington State College (the school became Central Washington University in 1977).

McConnell’s greatest achievement might have been shepherding the college through the post-World War II era, when veterans flocked to the campus under the G.I. Bill, which provided them with generous educational benefits. The influx of students presented a serious challenge for the college, which saw the number of veterans jump from 13 in the fall of 1945 to 119 at the start of winter quarter.

Many of these new students were married and had children, which put housing pressures on the school and the surrounding community. McConnell’s solution was to acquire surplus army barracks from Fort Lewis and haul them to Ellensburg, where they formed the basis for a complex that became known as “Vetville.”

It was the only thing we could do for the money, we had to have them quickly,” recalled Alma McConnell in a 1991 interview. “They could accommodate the students. They weren’t fancy, but they had a good time.”

In 1951, the Ellensburg Daily Record noted that since McConnell had become president Central Washington College had added 21 buildings ranging from the Science Building (now Lind Hall), which opened in 1947, to the Heating Plant (Old Heat), which was completed the same year.

In 1959, McConnell resigned from Central to accept a position as regional representative of the U.S. Office of Education in California. After a long and distinguished career as an educator, he died in 1971.

“His ambition to make it a fully serviceable college for students of Central Washington, I think that was his greatest [achievement],” Alma McConnell said. “I think the fact that it’s been possible to build on that foundation was his greatest contribution.”

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