TMZ University or: How I Learned to Love the Past Pettiness in Higher Education

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By Ian Post

As a university archivist, I find great satisfaction in collecting, preserving, and sharing the histories of institutions of higher education. Among the archival collections, I find not only curiosity in and revere for the faculty, staff, and students whose stories I steward, but also a guilty pleasure: cheap academic drama.

While some archives have sensational collections containing letters of infidelity, risqué photos, or records of criminal activity, many records in university archives tend to be more milquetoast. By no means are the archives insignificant or uninteresting, but, rather, they don’t boast quite the same sexiness as other archives. However, what university archives do have an abundance of—and what I’ve happily consumed throughout my work—is historic academic drama of every variety.

Sometimes petty actions taken during faculty in-fights, departmental dysfunction, and flippant frustrations in academia unknowingly become part of the historical record. In the moment, excoriating letters are written, grandiose memos are distributed, and issues are ferociously brought forward in agendas and minutes (following Robert’s Rules of Order, of course). For the participants, these battles in higher education seem monumental; indeed, sometimes the clashes are significant or revealing of deeper trends. Once they enter the historical record, though, they become fabulously entertaining pieces of history akin to reality television or tabloid journalism.

Take, for example, Salisbury State College’s (now Salisbury University) library staff from 1979 to 1981, whose meeting minutes in the Records of the Library tell of excruciating meetings held to improve “interpersonal communications.” After a workshop with a guest faculty member from social work, the Acting Associate Dean paid a visit in 1981 to make the following comments: “Just because you are professionals does not mean that your ideas must be followed,” “[I] would like to hear that you have been shouting at each other and working the problems out,” and “Petty things seem to be getting in the way.”[1] Did his advice help resolve the tensions over librarian communication? Doubtful.

Academic drama has arisen throughout Salisbury University’s history for a number of reasons, both mundane and serious. Documents show that spats have started over little things like telephone usage, room temperatures, leaving doors unlocked, excessive noises, indoor and on-campus smoking regulations, and space utilization. Incidents have also resulted from more consequential academic debates such as promotion procedures, grading systems, committee and subcommittee charges, and, a current favorite, general education reform. Former faculty and staff members leave a trail when embarking on their crusades and now, decades later, I find it amusing to follow those stories.

Evidence of past pettiness oftentimes hides among routine records in university archives, which makes it all the more satisfying to discover. It’s easy enough to find sources about campus scandals like a president’s forced resignation or controversial social media activities, so that doesn’t quite pack the same punch. There’s something intriguing about the minor quakes opposed to the drama that shakes a campus to its core. Perhaps that’s because petty drama is something that is part of the core of academic life.

University archivists like myself find joy in learning and sharing the histories of people, places, and groups within higher education. There are so many stories that weave through the past that are significant for any number of reasons. On the one hand, there are sustentative parts of an institution’s history that mark the high and low points shaping its identity. On the other hand, there is my metaphorical candy—cheap academic drama.

No institution of higher education is immune to the drama inherent in academic life because ideologues will continue to fill the ranks. When these personalities duke out their ideas, they’ll exchange furious memos and bring forth their manifestos. And, inevitably, these documents will enter the historical record for archivists like me to find—and revel in—years later.

[1] Professional/Reference Staff Meeting Minutes, 1979-1988, Records of the Library, [Box 1, Folder 3], Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture, Salisbury University, Salisbury, Maryland.


Ian Post is the University Archivist and Special Collections Librarian at the Nabb Research Center at Salisbury University. Originally from Michigan, he earned his MSLIS from the Pratt Institute School of Information. He has worked in several archives in West Michigan, New York City, and Maryland.

I Spy: A glimpse into the Stasi Museum and Stasi Records Agency in Berlin, Germany

By India Spartz

In June 2017, I joined faculty from Union College on a study tour of Berlin, Germany. We attended lectures about global issues, sustainability and human rights. This included visiting numerous sites in East Berlin, including the Stasi Museum and the Stasi Records Agency.

Stasi background
The Stasi, or the East German Ministry for State Security or Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (MfS), operated from 1950-1989 and served as the official state security service of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), also known as the DDR. This secret police organization included professional officers and a network of citizen informants (Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter or IMs) who actively surveilled and documented the lives of East German people. Many IMs were former resistance fighters who were blackmailed by the Stasi to spy on their own family and friends.

 

STasi Entrance
The Stasi Museum entrance in Berlin, Germany. Image courtesy the author.

The Stasi Museum
We started our tour at the Stasi Museum, which is situated inside the former Stasi headquarters building and compound. The museum retains much of the original 1960’s décor and once inside, visitors get a sense of what it might have felt like to visit Stasi headquarters in the Cold War era. The focus of the Stasi Museum is to address the question of ‘how the Socialist Unity Party (SED) managed to keep millions of people in East Germany under control for forty years.’ Educational exhibits and guided tours reveal methods of Stasi atrocities around espionage and surveillance through special cameras, bugs, burglar’s tools, and devices that secretly opened letters.

The Stasi Museum foyer allows groups to gather and learn about the Stasi surveillance apparatus, designed to control the people of East Germany.

 

The Stasi Records Agency
When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, the East German regime went with it. Although the Stasi dissolved in January 1990, it was between these two events that Stasi authorities ordered the destruction of thousands of personal files that had been gathered by surveillance and informants. The Stasi packed bundles of files into large paper sacks and shipped them to nearby incinerators and shredding plants.

Protest
East German citizens protesting the removal of Stasi archival records, January 1990. Courtesy of Bundesarchiv Bild, 183-1990-0116-01

Concerned East German citizens witnessed these activities and began protesting the removal or destruction of the files. This act of defiance was an important step for many East German residents to collectively resist the authoritarian DDR dictatorship that had controlled them for more than four decades. This resistance led to the passage of the Stasi Records Act of December 1991, which created the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records or the Stasi Records Agency (BStU) to safeguard and preserve the files for the public. By 1992, East Germans could apply to view their own files for the first time ever. Although the files are restricted, researchers may apply to the BStU for access. In addition, scholars and journalists may use them to study the history of the DDR.

 

The Stasi Records Agency archive facility

ludke
Susan Ludke, Chief Information Officer at the BStU at the Stasi Archives. Image courtesy the author.

The Stasi Records Agency archive is also located inside the former Stasi compound. We entered the facility through an innocuous basement door located next to a parking lot. Guided by two BStU employees, including Susan Ludke, Chief Information Officer, we were escorted through a narrow hallway onto a secure elevator that took us to an archives research room containing thousands of typed 5×7 index cards.

The index cards show categories such as name, date of birth, education, occupation, surveillance officer along with notes reporting illicit activities. A file number is stamped at the top and a handwritten archive number is listed separately. Because the Stasi files contain personal information, researchers are required to apply to the BStU beforehand to access the files.

 

 

index
The index cards show categories such as name, date of birth, education, occupation, surveillance officer along with notes reporting elicit activities. A file number is stamped at the top and a handwritten archive number is listed separately. Because the Stasi files contain personal information, researchers are required to apply to the BStU beforehand to access the files. Image courtesy the author.

Preservation and storage

files
The Stasi files are kept in original folders (non-archival) and organized by file number. Image courtesy the author.

After we saw the research room, the group was taken via an elevator to a large, secured climate-controlled room filled with files sitting on rows of compact shelving.

An exhibit in the stacks described efforts of citizen activists to rescue many documents shredded by the Stasi. Bags of shredded documents have been preserved with hopes of restoring these documents in the future.

 

shredded
An exhibit in the stacks described efforts of citizen activists to rescue many documents shredded by the Stasi. Bags of shredded documents have been preserved with hopes of restoring these documents in the future. Image courtesy the author.

After the tour I wondered why I found the Stasi Museum and Stasi Records Agency so fascinating and significant in the unification of Germany. Yes, it demonstrates the madness of massive spy operations and espionage in authoritarian regimes. But I was also struck by the power of citizen activists to save the archive from destruction. These efforts prompted a unified German government to pass legislation that ensured the Stasi files would be preserved for future generations. As an archivist, I’m moved by the power of the people to transform and save such an archive. They took an archive born of a dictatorship and transformed it into a valued public resource that is helping Germany heal its painful past.

For information about the Stasi Museums see: www.stasimuseum.de

For information about the Federal Commission for Stasi Records see: http://www.bstu.bund.de/EN/Home/home_node.html.


India is the Head of Special Collections and Archives at Union College in Schenectady, NY. She holds an B.A. from the University of Alaska (her home state), MLIS from UC Berkeley, and M.A. in Museum Studies from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. She’s a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists and serves on SAA’s College & University Archives Steering Committee.