The Free University

By Brian Brennan

In 1971, an unusual experiment took place at Youngstown State University. It was called the Free University. Noncredit courses would be offered to YSU students and area residents without cost in order to generate open discussion on various subjects.

While noble, it was a short-lived undertaking and never drew large numbers of participants.

The turbulence of the 1960s extended into the early years of the 1970s. The war in Vietnam continued to grind on. The resulting antiwar movement led to a dramatic reassessment of society by American youth.

Perceiving a “generation gap” between their elders and themselves, young people became increasingly mistrustful of convention — everything was questioned.

This was the period of Women’s Liberation, Black Power, the Sexual Revolution, the Age of Aquarius and the Kent State shootings. To some at YSU, open inquiry was the key to understanding society as it evolved. It was for this reason that the Free University was established.

Agreeing to contribute their knowledge and talents to the enterprise, participating faculty received no extra pay for the instruction provided. YSU students and members of the general public were invited to take part in Free University courses, at no cost.

Meanwhile, student coordinator Joe Magielski did his utmost to promote the endeavor, chiefly through The Jambar.

Since the Free University was outside the mainstream, courses were similarly unconventional. The first was entitled “The New Sociology” by YSU assistant professor Bhagwati P.K. Poddar, a controversial figure later dismissed from the university (but that is a story for another time).

The bill of intellectual fare also included “Cybernetics and the New Society,” “Theory of Social Conflict,” “Collective Bargaining,” “Human Sexology” and “Agitational Speaking,” just to name a few.

As the Free University struggled to be relevant, others on campus viewed it with skepticism.

Former YSU President Albert Pugsley never understood it and declared early on that the Free University’s offerings were not officially sanctioned. Opinions on the Board of Trustees were mixed; some supported it, while others ranged from apathy to utter perplexity.

One trustee thought the Free University could be used as a glorified vocational school, teaching carpentry, house painting, income tax preparation and home economics for boys.

In the end, the Free University failed due to a lack of interest. Few students signed up; even fewer local residents registered.

Eventually, faculty participation declined, with classes being increasingly taught by graduate students. In one instance, the lecturer in a course entitled “Third World Revolution and Guerilla Warfare” was only a junior.

Joe Magielski did everything he could to keep the Free University afloat, but to no avail; he gave up and turned to politicking for a course on the history and culture of Poland, Ohio.

To make matters worse, other organizations began offering their own “courses,” including the newly-established Cooperative Campus Ministry.

Yet, the final nail in the coffin was the YSU faculty’s decision to unionize. With faculty rights now protected under a collectively bargained agreement, there would be little room for instruction offered gratis.

By 1973, the experiment had ended.