From the Margins to the Center

Oregon State University is celebrating 150 years of achievement as the state’s land grant university. Enjoy the journey with Terra as we recognize examples of OSU’s legacy and ongoing impact in Oregon and the world.

By Nick Houtman

At the beginning of World War II, as German tanks were rumbling into Czechoslovakia, an artist living in New York sent a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt. If the U.S. “got involved in the war in Europe,” he wrote, “there should be knowledgeable people along with the troops to tell them what not to blow up.” Roosevelt agreed, and the idea led eventually to creation of the Monuments Men, a corps dedicated to rescuing art stolen by the Nazis.

Gordon Gilkey, printmaker and first dean of the OSU College of Liberal Arts

The artist was Gordon Gilkey. Born on a ranch near Scio, Gilkey was not part of the famous group but became the sole member of the Propaganda Confiscation Unit and recovered more than 8,000 pieces of art after the war.

In 1947, he headed back west to lead the art department at Oregon State College. At that time, liberal arts classes were limited, and no degrees were offered. The arts and humanities were seen as service units to science and engineering. But by the time Gilkey retired 30 years later, the College of Liberal Arts comprised 15 degree-granting departments, ranging from art and English to speech communication and psychology. Gilkey was its first dean.

In 2016, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden posthumously presented the Congressional Gold Medal to OSU President Ed Ray and Larry Rodgers, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, to honor Gilkey and Mark Sponenburgh, for their heroic actions during and after the war. A member of the Monuments Men, Sponenburgh taught art history at OSU from 1961 to 1983.

Gilkey’s story illustrates OSU’s liberal arts legacy: its global connections, relevance, rapid growth and future promise. The arts and humanities focus on people, creativity and their relationship to technology and decision-making. Artists, scholars, philosophers and social scientists at Oregon State bring the human element into the Earth sciences, engineering and biomedical fields. As faculty members and students, they explore ideas, express the meaning and beauty of the human experience and make lasting contributions to communities. Here are a few of their milestones.

The heart of storytelling

Elocution and Rhetoric

The liberal arts were key to an education in the early years at Corvallis College. In 1866, all first-year students took elocution (the art of speech), leading to what would become one of the first departments of speech communication on the West Coast. The debate team is OSU’s oldest student club. In 1872, faculty members offered classes in moral philosophy and physics, languages and mathematics. Juniors were required to take rhetoric and logic.

OSU’s Bard in the Quad performances included Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Elizabeth Barnes, theater program director, right, and others applies makeup to actors prior to a performance in 1925.

On Stage

Theater at Oregon Agricultural College dates back to the 1870s. The student drama society (the university’s second oldest club) and members of the senior class took their productions out to logging camps. In the 1920s and 1930s, Elizabeth Barnes, one of the first female directors in a field dominated by men, produced Shakespeare plays outdoors, foreshadowing today’s Bard in the Quad productions. For nearly 40 years, the Mitchell Playhouse (now the Gladys Valley Gymnastics Center) was home to productions on campus before the theater moved to its current home in Withycombe Hall. All OSU students can participate
in theater.

Bernard Malamud

Literary Roots

A New Life (1961) tells the story of a young professor from the East who arrives at a rural western college to begin his teaching career. Bernard Malamud’s third novel was written while the author was a faculty member in the English department at Oregon State College. Thought to be autobiographical, the book raised eyebrows with details about romantic affairs and academic tensions. Malamud also wrote The Natural at OSU and in 1967, after leaving Oregon for a position at Bennington College, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Fixer.


Elena Passarello
American poet Rita Dove received the Stone Award at OSU in 2016.

Nurturing Creative Writers

The Masters of Fine Arts degree program in creative writing has become one of the nation’s most competitive. This year, 428 students applied for 14 available spots. In addition to full tuition support, the program links aspiring writers to exceptional faculty, such as Elena Passarello, essayist and winner of the Whiting Award for Nonfiction; Marjorie Sandor, winner of the Oregon Book Award and author of four books; and poet and essayist Karen Holmberg, whose work has been featured in magazines such as The Paris Review, Slate and The Nation. The Stone Award, given biannually to an acclaimed American writer, provides one of the most substantial awards for lifetime literary achievement of any university in the country. Recipients have included Joyce Carol Oates, Tobias Wolff and Rita Dove.

Digital Humanities

A 19th-century explorer’s field notes emerge from decayed, nearly unreadable records. The Great Exhibition of 1851 at London’s Crystal Palace opens to anyone with a cell phone or desktop computer. Data about the culture of laboring-class poets — their writings, occupations and locations — illuminate the lives of writers throughout the British Isles. An analysis of questions posted to the popular internet site Reddit reveals how people respond to social media. These are among the results of an ongoing collaboration between humanities and computer science researchers at Oregon State. Digital humanities provide a powerful window on art and literature.

Concepts and choices

Habits of Mind
Oregon Agricultural College offered its first psychology course in 1872, taught in the School of Moral Science. The field was in its infancy in the latter 19th century, but psychology was required of seniors from 1889 to 1906. In recent years, undergraduates have been key to studies on topics such as how first impressions are formed when people meet, how people experience differences in ability and appearance and how adolescents face risks associated with depression, sex and other stresses. A new Ph.D. program offers students opportunities to pursue projects in human-machine systems (such as multitasking on mobile devices and driving), applied cognition (human-robot interactions, the effects of trauma on attention) and health (disability, substance abuse and gender).

Ideas of God

“How people think about God matters,” Marcus Borg told a reporter in 1998. “Some concepts of God make God incredible and result in atheism. Other concepts make God seem remote and irrelevant. And still other concepts of God, grounded in experience, make God the central reality in human life.” As a professor in the Department of Philosophy, Borg became one of the nation’s foremost Biblical and historical Jesus scholars. He published 21 books and organized conferences — Jesus at 2000 and God at 2000 — that captured international attention. Borg, who died in 2015 was named the first Hundere Chair of Religion and Culture at OSU and was the first College of Liberal Arts faculty member to be designated an OSU Distinguished Professor.

Decisions for the Common Good

Collaboration over natural resources has come to be known as The Oregon Way. In every corner of the state, people from different walks of life meet to hash out issues over water, wolves, rangeland, forests and fish. With the only master’s in rural policy program in the nation, OSU attracts students from around the United States and the world to learn how to replicate the state’s signature approach to environmental management. Alumni of the School of Public Policy work in Washington D.C. and in governments and communities around the world. A partnership between the school and nuclear engineering brings disarmament negotiator and U.S. Ambassador Thomas Graham to OSU to teach a class from his frontline perspective on nuclear weapons. Through the Marine Studies Initiative, researchers will expand their collaboration with coastal communities.

Think Tank for the Humanities

Christopher McKnight Nichols, right, director of the OSU Center for the Humanities, talks with Andrew Su, an undergraduate in the School of History, Philosophy and Religion.

For more than 30 years, brisk conversations on art, history, poetry, philosophy and other human-centered disciplines have flowed through a Tudor-style house just east of the Corvallis campus. Established in 1984, the OSU Center for theHumanities has been a gathering place and supportive community for scholars to explore the meaning and expression of the human experience. “We need the humanities to understand how we arrived at this moment, to sort fact from fiction, to find shared values, and to ask and address profound questions about society, nature, justice, religion, art, community and so much more,” says Andrew Carnegie Fellow Christopher McKnight Nichols, center director, historian, member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Medical Dilemmas

When should doctors intervene? And when should they let nature take its course? Who gets access to expensive medical treatments? Who decides? These are some of the issues confronted by biomedical ethicist Courtney Campbell, who has worked with Good Samaritan Hospital, Benton Hospice and other organizations. The Hundere Professor in Religion and Culture has addressed Oregon’s Death with Dignity law, the Oregon Health Plan and other policies that have life-and-death implications for all.

For the ear and the eye

Musical Beginnings

The OSU Marching Band and the Corvallis-OSU Orchestra were among the first such musical groups in the West. Founded in 1891, the marching band is the oldest in the Pac-12. Oregon’s longest continually operating orchestra started as a collegiate group in 1906 with nine male members. Today, under the direction of Marlan Carlson, its 110 musicians perform five concerts each season.

The Right Note

Ron Jeffers

In 1890, every student at Oregon Agricultural College was required to participate in choral singing. Daily practice was obligatory, and choir classes met three times a week in the chapel. As OAC grew, student choral groups — the Men’s Glee Club and Women’s Madrigal Group — gave concerts and combined to perform operas on campus and throughout the state. Robert Walls transformed the music program into an academic department. Student choirs first traveled abroad during his tenure. Under Ron Jeffers, Walls’ successor, the OSU Chamber Singers participated in the prestigious St. Moritz International Choir Festival in Switzerland. Music director Kathryn Olson arranged for the choir to travel to China where it performed in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities. The music education program has a nearly 100 percent placement rate for graduates who teach music and choral singing at high schools throughout the country.

Art for the World

Harrison Branch
OSU art professor Shelley Jordon works with encaustic, which combines pigments and wax.

The visual arts grew slowly in the early years. Not until 1889 was drawing (freehand, mechanical and perspective) offered to students. But through the art department (created in 1901), OSU faculty provided students with a transformative look into a worldwide art culture. Educated in Paris, John Leo Fairbanks became chair in 1923. The namesake of OSU’s Fairbanks Hall grew up in Utah and had already established a reputation as a landscape painter and a sculptor. In addition to teaching, he continued a productive artistic career. In his footsteps, OSU faculty members continued to inspire students. They included photographer Harrison Branch, whose iconic large-format images have been exhibited in North America and Europe, and art historian Henry Sayre, author of A World of Art and a PBS television series of the same name. Today, the Fairbanks Art Gallery hosts shows by national artists as well as OSU faculty and students.

Envelope Please

In 1988, animator and production designer Harley Jessup, a 1976 OSU art graduate, won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects honoring his work as art director of Innerspace. Jessup also won an Emmy and an Ani (for animation). His credits include Monsters, Inc.; Ratatouille; Cars2; Up; Toy Story 2; and The Hunt for Red October.

Performing Arts Center

Spurred by a $25 million gift from an anonymous donor, Oregon State will expand the LaSells Stewart Center on campus to create a state-of-the-art space for education, performance and technology in the performing arts. With additional private and public support, the $60 million project fulfills a vision expressed by Gordon Gilkey, first dean of the College of Liberal Arts, to establish a “great hall” on the OSU campus. The new center will serve all OSU students, regardless of their field of study, who participate in band, symphony and choral groups and other endeavors.

Shaping the human experience

Spring Creek flows into the Marys River in the Oregon Coast Range.

Sustainability Studies

It takes the insights of the sciences and the creative wisdom of the arts to address thorny environmental issues. Two initiatives — The Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature and the Written Word; and the Environmental Arts and Humanities graduate program — gather writers, poets, artists, scientists and citizens to grapple with the human footprint in a changing world. In places across the Northwest — the slopes of Mount St. Helens, a cabin in the Oregon Coast Range, the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Cascades, the Oregon State campus — Spring Creek fosters conversation and reflection, sometimes deep into the night. Students in the new master’s program in Environmental Arts and Humanities combine the rigors of science with the creative insight of the humanities. In a time of extinction and global change, they ask, how shall we live?

History of Film

Jon Lewis
Mila Zuo

“There’s something communal about going to the movies,” says Jon Lewis, distinguished professor of film studies. “It’s like church.” Lewis is one of America’s foremost authorities on censorship, film history and Hollywood institutions. His work (more than a dozen books on the film industry, including a best-selling film anthology) has formed the basis for OSU’s growing film program. Assistant professor Mila Zuo addresses gender, culture and sexuality stereotypes in her work. This year, film studies provide a platform to explore the decade of the 1960s through a course taught by Lewis and Robert Santelli, director of popular music and performing arts.

OSU researchers recovered this spear point at Cooper’s Ferry along the lower Salmon River.

Human Origins in North America

The first peoples of North America may have traveled from Asia overland or along an icy ocean shore. Evidence of their presence has been found by OSU anthropologists and colleagues at places like Fort Rock and Paisley Caves south of Bend and at Cooper’s Ferry along the lower Salmon River in Idaho. The search continues offshore where people could have settled at a time when the oceans were 300 to 400 feet lower than they are today. As noted by the discovery of mammoth bones at OSU in 2016, humans shared the land with ice-age animals. Over thousands of years, their descendants developed diverse cultures and languages. Encounters with Europeans brought disease and conflict and led to the modern system of Indian reservations. Researchers, including OSU students, have documented Civil War-era artifacts at the sites of Fort Hoskins and Fort Yamhill in the Oregon Coast Range.

Julie Green’s project, The Last Supper, has been shown in galleries around the country.

The Last Supper

The plates are simple, white porcelain painted with deep blue images of food. Oregon State artist Julie Green has made more than 500, each honoring the memory of a prisoner executed on death row in the United States. Featured in national media and displayed at galleries arounds the country, Green’s work recognizes the humanity of people often portrayed as monstrous and unworthy.

Cultural Competency

Traders and migrants have crossed cultural boundaries for centuries, but world events are bringing people closer together than ever before. In the 1990s, Oregon State took steps to foster understanding and collaboration through creation of an Ethnic Studies department. In the face of institutional budget cuts, the university expanded its commitment to exploring the dynamics of race, gender, sexuality and social justice. In addition to preparing students to participate in an ethnically diverse society, Ethnic Studies connects minority communities to OSU for academic and other programs often affiliated with OSU’s seven cultural resource centers.

Susan Shaw is a professor in  Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at OSU. She is co-editor with Janet Lee of a new academic journal for the ADVANCE program of the National Science Foundation.

At the Intersections

In 1972, a sex discrimination lawsuit over a hiring decision at OSU led to the creation of a Women Studies program and the Women’s Center. One of the first academic programs of its type in the country and staffed by a single tenure-track position through the 1990s, the program has expanded. Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies is one of 19 programs in the nation that grants a Ph.D. in this field. Its 14 core faculty take an inclusive approach to studies of race, class and sexual identity as well as gender. The program has editorial responsibility for Feminist Formations, a leading national journal, and helps to facilitate the OSU ADVANCE project, funded by the National Science Foundation to expand female participation in STEM fields (science, technology,
engineering and mathematics).

Serious about Discrimination

In 1990, a series of racially motivated incidents led Oregon State to create what has become a national model for education about social systems of discrimination. Known as Difference, Power and Discrimination, or DPD, the program offers courses required of all OSU students. It certifies additional courses across the curriculum to guide faculty and students in a deep dive into the inherent biases and beliefs that affect relationships among people of dominant and marginalized cultures. DPD leaders are regularly asked to advise colleges and universities in developing their own approaches to this topic.

Practicing Mindfulness

In fields from biology and geoscience to psychology and philosophy, students and faculty are using meditation and other “contemplative practices” to inspire their thinking and creativity. Researchers are investigating the effectiveness of meditation techniques and the relationship between Buddhism and science, among other topics. The Contemplative Studies Initiative is supported by a fund established to honor James Blumenthal, a Buddhist scholar and professor in the School of History, Philosophy and Religion, who died in 2014.

Dick Fosbury set a world record in the high jump and earned a Gold Medal in the 1968 Olympics.

Experience the Sights and Sounds of OSU at the Oregon Historical Society

Listen to the music and voices from the past. Spin the wheel to explore historical events such as the Walk Out by the Black Student Union in 1968. Measure yourself against the high-jump bar crossed against all expectations by Olympic gold medalist Dick Fosbury. The OSU150 exhibit runs from February 9 to September 9 at the Oregon Historical Society, 1200 SW Park Avenue in Portland.

Editor’s note: Joseph Donovan and Rebecca Olson contributed to the story about Gordon Gilkey. Thanks to Celene Carillo, communications director in the College of Liberal Arts, for her guidance.