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When a popular governor killed Albion's teachers college

There are seismic changes brewing at Idaho's colleges and universities, with state funding falling, tuition and student fees rising, and everyone - from the Legislature to the State Board of Education to students and the institutions themselves - realizing that the way Idaho conducts higher education is likely to be transformed in the years ahead.

Its like hasn't been seen since 1951, when a freshman Republican governor took the extraordinary step of closing two or the state's four degree-granting institutions - including the SouthernIdaho College of Education in Albion.

That sort of thing doesn't happen often. Since the Great Depression, there have been only a handful of public colleges shuttered nationwide.

And unlike the current shakeout on Idaho college campuses, it didn't happen during a period of economic crisis. The state was relatively prosperous when Len B. Jordan of Grangeville, a former legislator and one-time sheep rancher, became Idaho's 23rd governor.

"The 1950 election was very attitudinal, a bit like 1994," said Randy Stapilus, an Oregon-based journalist and historian who has written extensively about Idaho. "There was a built-in desire to make a big change. In Idaho, this was the election when (conservative Republican) Herman Welker replaced (liberal Democrat) Glen Taylor. And (C.A.) Robins (Jordan's GOP predecessor) was considered kind of a Republicrat - overall, Democrats liked him about as well as Republicans did. Jordan won the nomination with the conservative base, and at that time his background was as a one-term state representative from remote Hells Canyon country, out to make big changes."

The budget hawk

Jordan's watchword was "retrenchment," and he meant business. In his first State of the State address, the governor proposed cutting spending by one-fourth. Then, as now, that meant education would take a big hit.

"Always uneasy about the the state of Idaho going into the banking and annuity insurance business, Jordan not only urged a full reconsideration of the teachers retirement fund adopted in 1945, but he also sought to slash over $3 million from the state's contribution to the retirement fund," wrote Howard Berger, College of Idaho history professor, in a profile of Jordan in "Idaho Governors," a 1992 collection of essays.

The governor sought to cut a similar amount from the school equalization fund, and wanted school districts to pick the cost of transporting students.

Then he suggested closing Albion and the North Idaho College of Education in Lewiston.

"Many, many Idahoans - in and out of government - were very surprised when he made the decision to close the schools," Berger said in an interview last week. "Jordan never mentioned it in his campaigns at all so his rationale, at the time as well as now, is not all that clear. Cost-cutting? Perhaps, but they were so small. Gov. (Robert) Smiley (the attorney general at the time and Jordan's successor as governor) told me that he believed - but was never sure - that Jordan had 'in his head' some larger reform of higher education in Idaho that never materialized. Perhaps. Smiley also believed that the closures may have been a result of competition with other schools which had greater clout."

To be sure, Albion was already living on borrowed time. In 1946, the state commissioned the George Peabody College for Teachers of Nashville, Tenn., to survey the condition of the education system in Idaho and to make recommendations for improvements. The Peabody report recommended that Albion be closed, unless the school could greatly increase its enrollment within five years.

It didn't - at least not enough to save the college.

"There was significant opposition to the closures, but Jordan had the clout behind closed doors," Berger said. " He was a very popular governor and the respect and charisma that he had meant a great deal during his time in office."

"When I talked years ago with Bob Smylie about some of this, he said most of the state officials - the more experienced types, himself included - felt that economic and revenue conditions were not such that major shutdowns had to be made, that they were unnecessary, but that Jordan was determined," Stapilus said. "Again, I think the political atmosphere after the 1950 election was what allowed for the shutdown, and in most times - but with comparable economic conditions - it wouldn't have happened."

A compliant Legislature

Within the Magic Valley, there was widespread resignation about the fate of Albion; in fact, the Times-News endorsed the closure. The one south-central Idaho legislator who may have been in a position to block Jordan's action - Speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives John Hohnhorst, a Jerome County farmer - had retired after the 1949 session.

Not that Hohnhorst might have tried. The Republican-controlled Legislature was considerably more deferential 60 years ago as far as GOP governors were concerned.

Outside Cassia and Nez Perce counties, the bulk of the opposition to the Albion and Lewiston closures came from the State Board of Education.

"The revolt by educators and their political allies in the Legislature temporarily prompted some bipartisan criticism to what was perceived as Gov. Jordan's policy of retrenchment at the expense of public education," Berger said. "Jordan, who during the Great Depression had seen his own children educated at home by his wife, ... saw the issue as one of economic waste."

Nonetheless, Jordan was sufficiently unnerved that he called a special session of the Legislature in February 1951 and asked lawmakers to appropriate $1 million more for teacher salaries.

And other than the Albion and Lewiston closures, the governor didn't get his way on education. The Legislature refused to drastically reduce the state's contribution to the teachers retirement fund and, over Jordan's objection, continued funneling money to school districts to pay for transportation.

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In 1953, Jordan suggested that the Legislature consider opening some junior colleges (lawmakers met only ever two years back then.)

"That did not mean he wished to reopen debate on those still-open wounds, NICE and SICE," Berger said. "On that matter the governor flatly stated, 'Two years ago I told the members of the 31st legislative session the state of Idaho was neither populous enough nor wealthy enough to support four degree-granting institutions of higher education. I still believe that position is sound.'"

A delayed revolt

The state ed board and University of Idaho President Jess Buchanan launched a full-scale campaign later that year to reopen Albion and Lewiston, and the Senate decided to investigate the decision to close the campuses. Senate State Affairs Committee Democrats, in a minority report, said the closures were "a blemish upon Idaho's political history" based almost entirely on an "error in estimated revenue." Nonetheless, on Feb. 20, a bill to reactivate NICE and SICE was defeated in the GOP-controlled House.

A week earlier, the Senate had rejected a constitutional amendment to permit governors to succeed themselves. Len Jordan was effectively a lame duck.

After Smylie - skeptical of Jordan's decision to close the teachers colleges - became governor in 1955, he wasted little time cutting a deal with north Idaho Democrats to reopen the Lewiston campus as Lewis-Clark State College in exchange for their support in allowing governors to succeed themselves. Idaho voters approved the change in 1956.

But reopening Albion was never a serious part of the discussion in 1955.

"I've heard various stories about the big deal, which also was said to have involved development of the port of Lewiston," Stapilus said. "But the stories do differ, defending on who's doing the telling."

It's unlikely that the College of SouthernIdaho would have materialized in 1965 had Albion still been in business as a state school (Magic Valley Christian College operated on the Albion campus from 1957 to 1969). But lots of folks, including the 6,000 teachers Albion trained, thought - and many still believe today - that there was still some life left in the SouthernIdaho College of Education in 1951.

Steve Crump is the Times-News Opinion editor.

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