Back in 1968, the word “free” had a very special resonance. It had not only to do with idealistic ideas of freedom–from restrictive regulations and laws, from the constraints of middle-class taste and middle-class morality–but with ideas of opting out of the money economy altogether. The diggers in the Haight-Ashbury set up their famous free store where anyone could take the scrounged and donated goods on display without question, and could equally walk in and take over the management of the store. “Free” alternative institutions strove not only to be as open to ideas as possible, but to be as inexpensive as possible.
It was in this radical context that the first free universities were born. The model was the alternative college at San Francisco State, where courses were offered in a host of subjects not covered (or covered in a limited way) in the conventional curriculum. A group of WSU students from the local YMCA came back from a meeting in Portland on alternative education fired up to do something similar in Pullman. They knew of me as a young faculty activist, and asked me to join them in organizing this new enterprise. We met at Betty’s Tavern (now My Office) late in the fall of 1968, and quickly arrived at a vision CFU has essentially adhered to ever since. We would let anyone teach anything to anyone so long as the content wasn’t positively illegal. The fee for a course would be a minimal one dollar. No exams, no requirements, and–most significant of all–no pay for the teachers. This was to be a strictly volunteer effort.
Today most of the institutions which can trace their heritage back to the free university movement have evolved into private businesses, often run on a more or less cooperative basis, but definitely existing in part to make money for the instructors. CFU on the Palouse was never the target of a takeover attempt by any group or the subject of contentious power struggles because there was nothing to take over: it was decentralized, open to all, and virtually penniless. We were part of an ethos of volunteerism which persists in some quarters today.
There are no copies of the first Free U. catalog in my files, but I remember it vividly because we mimeographed it, assembled it by hand, and stapled it together in a long, hard session on the CUB 3rd floor. We put out press releases and stuck up posters. The time was right: before we were ready to begin registration that spring of 1969, there were over 500 people waiting in line, hoping to get into fewer than a dozen classes.
The Free U roared ahead during the late sixties and early seventies, at one point offering fifty courses in a single semester. It was normal to have four or five hundred students sign up for classes. After several years, we decided to offer a summer session as well (which is why the number of years we’ve been in existence doesn’t divide neatly into the number of semesters). One summer Mount St. Helens threatened to defeat us, but we came out with a small catalog anyway.
One of the things that made alternative publications and institutions possible was cheap web-press printing. We could print and distribute by hand thousands of flyers printed for us at local newspaper plants, all paid for out of the dollar each our students paid us. One of our biggest problems over the years has been the escalating cost of newsprint and printing. It was a severe blow when the Daily News decided not to do small print jobs any more and we had to turn to a much more expensive format (these flyers cost more than ten cents each) and print many fewer copies. I have to give them credit for unfailingly printing our press releases, however. Even when we couldn’t afford to buy ads, their pages were open to us, which is more than can be said of the Daily Evergreen, which steadfastly ignored the Free U. throughout almost all its existence, despite our many efforts to get coverage in its pages.
After the initial group of undergraduates who founded the Free U graduated, I was left by default the sole member of the coordinating board. For the next couple of decades, anyone who showed up for one of our meetings could vote on any matter affecting policy. We had very few votes, operating usually by loose consensus. In the mid-seventies, Mary Finney arrived in Pullman from Manhattan, Kansas, the home of the University for Man: the nerve center of the free university movement, with a host of ideas and seemingly inexhaustible energy. Eventually she became co-coordinator with me, and it was her idea to change the generic name “Free University” to “Community Free University” to emphasize that we were a community-based organization unconnected with WSU in any official way. After the Finneys moved away, I resumed the job of coordinator by myself, with the help of many wonderful volunteers, almost all of them teachers. Lewis Elwood of Albion has been with us longer than anyone and did a host of important chores for us. Mary Jane Engh later did wonderful work writing our publicity, even taking over for me entirely when I was traveling.
CFU has offered an extreme variety of courses: early examples were radical economics courses, horse-race handicapping, and witchcraft. We taught people how to tune up their VW engines and cook classic French cuisine. Our hallmark was openness to all comers: we several times listed courses taught by religious fundamentalists alongside courses by groups aimed at combating those very fundamentalists–and got the warm support of both (though I can’t say we generated many enrollments for either side).
Very few of our instructors were professional educators. They have been mostly people who had a skill or interest they wanted to share for the pure joy of it. Many of have been retired people–CFU has attracted teachers of all ages from the beginning. Some of them tried out their wings in our low-risk environment and went on to become paid teachers in other programs. Some businesses reached out to their customers through the Free U., notably Doug Eier’s bicycle shop, which taught many folks how to fix their own bikes. Doug also led many biking, rafting and skiing expeditions.
We are proud of the fact that many ongoing organizations and projects were incubated in the Free U. The first gay group at WSU, the first Marxism study group, the first Aikdo club, and many other organizations and groups debuted as CFU classes.
Over the years hundreds of wonderful people have taught classes, but there are some whose dedication and generosity deserves to be singled out.
Lewis Elwood taught classes on alternative energy sources and pedal-power boats for many years; and just this fall gave a wonderful tour of historic sites in the Palouse. Mary Jane Engh taught “Latin for Fun” (which one semester was our most popular class), nonsexist language, courses on Blacks and women in antiquity, and is offering in this farewell catalog a new course on women in early Christianity along with another long-time CFU participant, Kathryn Meyer. Wiley Hollingsworth has taught an amazing number of people to belly-dance in his mother’s living room, and in recent years has held extremely popular waltz, foxtrot, and swing dance classes as well. He has done more volunteer work than anyone to see that posters were put up and catalogues distributed, even when he wasn’t offering a course that particular semester.
Martha Duran has taught huge numbers of people to make paper and print it with beautiful marbled designs in CFU classes which she taught for free, though she was also in demand elsewhere by programs that paid her for similar lessons. The late Myra Smart showed people how to knit, how to find and use the wild plants of the Palouse and how to make bread and soap, and was a tireless advocate for CFU, much missed.
Larry Meinert generated enormous enthusiasm for his wine-tastings (and brought in a lot of needed fees in lean times for the Free U.).
These are the people who kept us alive all these years, and the community owes them a great debt.
We owe special thanks to Jim Nielsen, director of the WSU Common Ministry. Although CFU has jealously guarded its independence by never being formally sponsored by or affiliated with any other organization, we have long had a friendly informal working relationship with the Common Ministry. We publicized many of their classes, and in return, they offered classrooms for many of our courses over the years free of charge. CFU has never had a physical educational plant, offering classes mostly in church basements (until the churches began to charge for their use), the Cougar Depot, people’s living rooms, and other odd spots around town (we rarely held classes on the WSU campus, since we resisted the controls implied by official university recognition); but in so far as there has been a building identified with CFU, it has been the Common Ministry’s always-hospitable Koinonia House.
We also owe a debt to Neill Public Library in Pullman, where our brochures always landed first and were always available. They’ve been great supporters over the years.
We reached out to other areas in the Palouse, offering many in Moscow, others in Palouse, Colfax, Garfield and even Lewiston. For a brief period, the University of Idaho had its own Free U., founded with grant money. It flourished only while the money lasted, whereas CFU scraped along on its tiny fees, raised at first from one to three dollars, and then from three to five.
Well into the nineties we could count on generating anywhere from a dozen to two dozen courses per semester. It became harder and harder to reach the public, however, because of the increasing cost of printing our brochure and buying advertisements. Fewer and fewer people knew we existed or confused us with the city parks and recreation program. (I don’t know how many times I’ve been told “We got your brochure in the mail”; CFU has never distributed its publicity by mail.)
But the last half of the nineties has been hard. It has always been difficult to convince some people that a course taught by an unpaid instructor could be worth something, though the experience of thousands of happy students tells us otherwise; but the increasing emphasis on market forces in modern culture has made the bias against volunteer-based classes very hard to overcome. However, it’s been easier to get students than teachers in recent years. People seem to be busier than they used to be, and it has become tougher and tougher to attract instructors, despite our mailing list of more than fifty people who have offered to teach at one time or another. Last semester, the “faculty” was down to long-timer Lewis Elwood and myself. It seems the time has come to ring down the curtain on CFU. It’s had a great thirty-year run.
Looked at more positively, other institutions have gradually taken over many of the roles CFU used to play. The city parks and recreation programs in particular have offered many innovative and interesting courses which, though they cost more, also are held in better facilities than we could afford. The days when it was difficult to get dissenting or marginal points of view heard in university classrooms are long gone; topics which once found refuge only in the Free U. are now the subject of regular university classes and even whole programs of study. Particularly interesting are the University of Idaho’s Community Enrichment Program. The Common Ministry continues with its own programs, as do many other organizations in the community.
I’m grateful for the many fascinating and generous people I’ve met through the Free U., either as teachers or as students in my classes. I’ve particularly enjoyed the last few years teaching several retired folks how to use the Internet. I think CFU has brought together more different kinds of people–young and old, powerful and marginal, professional and amateur–than any other organization in the area. Thanks to you all.
Paul Brians, Coordinator