Decades ago, the Ferdinand Society was an elite faculty association at Portland State.
Described by some of its oldest members as a club for “good old boys,” young male professors would gather to drink whiskey, organize wild parties and invite local but influential political figures to speak at the Ferdinand Society’s members-only meetings.
The university president would often participate in the group’s events, and when membership opened up to all tenured faculty, including women, 125?”150 members regularly attended the society’s meetings.
Throughout its many transformations, the main goal of the society was to foster a PSU faculty community. But over 50 years after the Ferdinand Society’s inception, its remaining members- 22 faculty and 11 retired faculty- celebrated a bittersweet final meeting Monday in the Vanport Room of Smith Center.
Over a turkey dinner and several bottles of wine, the members shared memories and discussed ways to preserve the society’s records and physical artifacts.
The last meeting was not only the death of the club, according to the society president and geology professor Scott Burns, but an event that epitomized a changing university climate – a climate where educating students is no longer enough.
”It’s a death to community building among the faculty. We just don’t have time for each other anymore,” he said.
The society will end this year due to dwindling membership and failure to attract new members. The main reason for the disinterest, Burns said, is that in their busy careers, meeting and spending time with other faculty members has become a low priority.
Faculty are not only expected to teach more students, Burns said, but also to teach them with fewer resources, while committing to many more hours of research to obtain grants.
”You have to be a researcher who brings in funding and publishes,” he said, adding that while research is important, it leaves time for little else when combined with growing class sizes.
”There’s a state of mind out there that emphasizes productivity,” said John Cooper, a retired English professor. That the group should die after 50 years, leaving professors with few opportunities to meet faculty members outside their departments, “seems to be undermining what a university is.”
Portland State’s enrollment has grown to an estimated 26,000 students. Between 1975 and 2006, total enrollment in the Oregon University System’s seven universities rose by 20,000 students.
The percentage of funds for higher education from the state budget has fallen as enrollment climbed. In the mid-1970s, around 20 percent of the state’s general fund was allocated for higher education, while higher education represents 6 percent of the budget for the 2005-07 biennium.
Today, Burns teaches a graduate-level class of 40 students without a teacher’s assistant, and said it is not uncommon for him to receive 100 e-mails per day.
”We’re talking about one dinner a month,” Burns said of the society, “but there’s just no time.”
”It is a shame that there isn’t a way to make time,” said Wayne Wakeland, who had recently joined the society.
In an effort to entice professors to join, members sent out 950 hand-addressed notes inviting professors to a free dinner to learn more about the society. Of those invitations, six people came to the dinner and just three became members.
The Ferdinand Society began in the mid-1950s with a group of male professors who met Friday afternoons to socialize and drink Four Roses bourbon. They named their club after Ferdinand the Bull, a children’s story and Disney cartoon short about a docile animal who liked to smell roses, but was forced into a bullfight after getting stung by a bee.
The group held nine meetings per year, plus a social event in December and June – usually a potluck and a ride on the paddle-wheeler the Portland Rose. Meetings would include a luncheon and speakers, ranging from other PSU faculty to a state senator. In recent years, the turnout was so low they were reluctant to invite speakers to come.
”It’s embarrassing to invite somebody to talk and there’s 15 people there,” Burns said.
At Monday’s luncheon, the members painted the society’s past as a series of often-wild parties and social gatherings.
”We were extremely obnoxious and rude in meetings,” said Ansel Johnson of the geology department. “We’d scream and yell back and forth. That was an important part of the meetings.”
Another member shared the story of how she met her husband at one of the meetings. After he asked to be seated next to single women, she seated him next to herself.
The group did not have any female members until the early 1960s, when then-president (called the Matador) Ulrich Hardt nominated Maxine Thomas from the graduate school of education.
”I remember saying, ‘when are you going to take me to this sexist group?'” Thomas said.
Thomas was nominated for membership as “Max,” leading some members to believe she was a man. She was accepted immediately after she was voted in, but one other professor was furious, accusing Hardt of deceiving the rest of the group. He wrote Hardt an angry letter, but later apologized.
Many of the older faculty discussed joining the retired professors’ association, and a few younger faculty members talked of forming a committee to brainstorm ways to keep the group alive, but none were willing to volunteer to take Burns’ place as president.
Burns stressed to the members that there is still a need for a faculty association at Portland State.
”[The university] is over 50 city blocks now. The need for this is phenomenal.”