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Feb. 23, 2015

Regennia Williams talks CSU 50th anniversary book and celebration

Professor shares her experience writing "50 years"

By Abbey White

This school year marks the 50th anniversary of Cleveland State University’s founding, and, from block parties to presidential forums, the university is honoring its roots, traditions and evolution in big ways.

One of those ways is with "Cleveland State University: 50 Years," a commemorative book that captures the people and events of the university’s last five decades.

The Cleveland Stater sat down with "50 Years" author Dr. Regennia Williams, Cleveland State alumna and associate professor of history, to discuss her role in creating the anniversary book, as well as its significance during this year of celebration and beyond.

Q: When and how did the idea for a 50th anniversary book come about?

A: Dr. Julian Earle, who is one of the executives in residence in the College of Business, is someone who was also working with the 50th Anniversary Committee. He thought it would be a good idea to have a book project. Initially, we talked about two different projects that focused on the first 50 years of the university’s history.

The one was to be a coffee table book and illustrated history of the university, and the other one was to be a scholarly, peer review monograph that would probably take a couple of years to produce. The book that we ended up with is an illustrated history – just one volume – of the university. It’s a scholarly coffee table book.

Q: That is an interesting way of putting it.

A: That’s how we’ve been describing it because there was a level of peer review and certainly editorial review involved with publishing it. From the leadership team a consensus emerged that this was the kind of book that will work in this season of the anniversary. Not two to three years after the anniversary. For something that we could be proud of as a community, something that would be accurate, something that could be balanced and fair, that’s what we ended up with. I think it’s a beautiful book.

Q: So how were you involved with putting the book together?

A: I presented a book proposal in the fall of 2013 to the anniversary committee, and they’d been at it for a while – at least a year, in preparation for the big kick-off in September 2014. I presented a proposal and a budget to them in the late fall, and they thought it was a good idea. I then talked with the director of a certain academic press in Ohio who thought it was a wonderful idea. We talked and decided to go with the peer reviewed scholarly monograph. These things we were discussed in the spring of 2014.

But for a scholarly book with an academic press, it’s two to three years to turn something like that around. The students who were supposed to be a part of the 50th anniversary class by that time would be gone. They’ve moved away or started families or have gone to graduate school somewhere else. How do you generate interest and excitement in something that’s happened so long ago? That wasn’t ultimately what the committee wanted, so they went with the idea that we have now. It then became my job in the fall of 2014 to make sure the book was completed.

Q: It seems like quite an undertaking. Was it something you had to tackle alone or did you have help?

A: That acknowledgement page, with those 50 names on it, that’s not an exaggeration. All of those people who are named there, every single one, contributed to the book. That’s the only way it could happen quickly.

One of the reasons I think [the book] is wonderful is working with that team. I taught in the summer and I worked on other projects. I had the course release time for the fall, so that was the only way we could produce a book in the fall and have it available by the holidays. That and the team working with me was the only way we could turn it around and really have it be something that people would want on their coffee table.

Q: There’s the rich written history of 50 Years, but the book is also full of beautiful color photos. What was the process for those being included?

A: This particular project started with Bill Becker’s selection of photographs. There were maybe 200 photographs initially that he gleaned from the collection in university archives. He put short captions on each of those so we could just start to plow through the material – all of the catalogues, all of the student newspapers, and all of the faculty publications from 50 years, some of which were from Fenn College before we had a state university here in Cleveland. Those photographs guided the project in a major way. In order for [the book] to be balanced, it couldn’t just be the historian’s words. We needed those archival photos.

Q: There’s so much about the university and its history out there. How is the anniversary book different from material already published about Cleveland State?

A: When you are putting a book out there you want to make it worth someone’s while to pick it up. I needed to do something that was new, that was worth the price of the book. I wanted to know that I was contributing something new to the body of knowledge about the university – that it wasn’t just a picture book.

Bill’s pictures are amazing, but most of them had already been published online as a timeline long before the book came out. There was another timeline that people could access through the university’s homepage that focused on research and scholarship. I think we did it this way because now we have a volume that complements what’s already available for free online by going beyond what we could have published in the virtual university environment.

Q: What do you want people to take away from this book?

A: You know how when you’re in the eye of a storm, you don’t realize how many things are going on around you? I think we needed to celebrate all these expansions and all these improvements on Euclid Avenue. It’s not just about buildings. There are a lot of [university] presidents quoted in the book, but President [Michael] Schwartz is the one who said we’re not just building buildings, but changing lives. We are creating an environment in downtown Cleveland where people want to be – where students want to learn – and that’s a lot of what this book is about to me.