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College of General Studies Turns 60

Was originally founded for returning World War II, Korean War vets

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Welcome to 1952 and Boston University’s new school, Junior College.

Before you settle in to the fabulous ’50s and life at the forerunner of the College of General Studies, you can dispense with the following unnecessary items: your laptop (the college has a typing pool), your jeans (the BU dress code suggests slacks, shirt, and tie for gentlemen and blouses and saddle shoes for ladies), and your latte and donut (eating, like smoking, is confined to the cafeteria). In the year of Ike versus Adlai, singer Kay Starr’s chart-topping “Wheel of Fortune,” and the world’s first diet soft drink, you’re promised “a new kind of college—a new concept in higher education.”

But despite your starched shirt or puffy-sleeved blouse, what happens in the classroom might not seem so alien. As Judson R. Butler, founding dean, writes in the 1956–1957 Student Handbook, at Junior College, a student’s “best friends are the teachers who comprise his ‘team,’” and “you’ll discover a general education program…which captures the imagination and which is a challenge to all-out effort, no matter how gifted you may be.”

Sound familiar? In the College of General Studies’ 60th anniversary year, those principles—team-teaching structure, small classes, and a tougher-than-many-give-it-credit-for interdisciplinary liberal arts education—remain.

CGS’s current dean, Linda Wells, who recently announced plans to step down at the end of the spring semester, says that while the “essence” might be the same, that first college, founded for World War II and Korean War veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill’s free tuition, “closed a long time ago.” In reality, it did. The original Junior College building at 688 Boylston St., with its gleaming marble reception area, is gone—demolished for an expansion of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. The name, too, is different: in 1960, Junior College became the College of Basic Studies, and in 1992, the College of General Studies. The dress code, typing pool, and smoking-permitted signs are preserved in memory only.

And the faculty has been transformed, too. The staff listed in that ’56–’57 handbook—complete with home addresses and marital status—were often instructors, some with just a single degree; today’s faculty all hold PhDs and teach every class (no instructors or graduate students here). Wells remembers some “crazy people on the faculty” (she does not name names) when she joined in 1980: “They were quirky and eccentric, but I thought, no, these are not going to be people for the long haul that students are going to remember for anything other than their craziness. The faculty we have in place right now are just top-notch.”

From GIs to GPAs

Boston University BU College of General Studies CGS, Natural Science 202, Professor Sally Sommers-Smith

Student athletes D.J. Irving (CGS'12) (from left), Matthew Piotrowski (CGS'12), Anya Battaglino (CGS'12), and Louise Warren (CGS'12) in their Natural Science class. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The students now sitting on the other side of the room are—on paper—also a world apart. This fall’s entering CGS class has an average high school GPA of 3.4. No longer the seen-the-world vets of the ’50s or the high school underachievers with potential who sometimes made their way to BU via CGS in the following decades, the current undergraduate is already “an achiever,” Wells says—adding that’s been the way for many years.

But, grade point averages aside, in her 30 plus years at BU, Wells has recognized a CGS type: “I think students who come to this college still tend to be kind of mavericks. They like being unique, and they like meeting other kids who are. They’re definitely drawn, always have been, to the international and cosmopolitan flavor of BU—that means they’re adventuresome.”

If you talk to alums from any era, including those who weren’t thrilled with being diverted from, say, the College of Arts & Sciences (that’s now an anachronism: high school seniors have to check CGS when they apply for admission to BU), those similarities are reflected in their memories.

“I think they will say they made their best friends here—even way back when,” says Wells. “The team structure gives them a sense of belonging. Most alums remember CGS in a way that they don’t necessarily remember their junior and senior years.”

Wells thinks current and future students will add an extra dimension to that narrative: “They’ll talk about the opportunities they had: ‘I got to study abroad,’ ‘I got to do undergraduate research.’”

In an effort to gain more national visibility, CGS opened the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning last year. Wells likens it to a research center at a hospital—a place to study and promote improved approaches to its primary mission. “The center allows us to do a better job of teaching first- and second-year students,” she says, “and a better job of communicating nationally and internationally the value of a liberal arts general education.”

Did you attend CGS? Share your memories in our comments section below.

Andrew Thurston can be reached at thurston@bu.edu.

A version of this article appeared in the summer 2012 edition of Collegian.

5 Comments

5 Comments on College of General Studies Turns 60

  • Diane Wall on 11.12.2012 at 8:02 am

    I did not attend CGS but worked at the University for 35 years. In my opinion, any article on CGS, especially one celebrating this milestone, that does not even mention Brendan Gilbane, is remiss beyond words. The special man at the helm for so many years defined the school. His very heart and soul were one with this unique school and its’ programs, and most certainly with the students for whom he did so much and cared so deeply.

    • Orly? on 11.13.2012 at 10:47 am

      Watch the video.

  • NC on 11.12.2012 at 2:09 pm

    I graduated from CGS and am more proud that I am a part of this college than part of CAS. I still remain close with faculty members and thoroughly enjoyed beers with professors! It’s true, my best friends from college were met at CGS.

  • EF on 11.13.2012 at 6:52 pm

    I went to CGS and sadly do not share the same warm feelings towards the college. I did not find it challenging whatsoever. The simple fact that it has to be compared to CAS shows a level of inferiority. I do wish the sterotypes weren’t true. The 2 yrs after CGS are what defined the student.

  • Lee Wolfson on 08.03.2013 at 6:49 pm

    I attended CGS from fall 69 to spring 71. It was a very positive experience for me. Many of the students I attended CGS with were unfocused, but used it, as I did, to get prepared for intensive college work. I spent the next 5 years at Pratt Institute earning a degree in Architecture and have now retired after 35 years practicing Architecture and Industrial design.

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