Delyte Morris Era: SIU’s Thriving History
April 21, 2021
The 1950s and 1960s were a thriving era for SIU. Under the direction of Delyte Morris, one of the most productive presidents in SIU’s history, the school’s enrollment skyrocketed, new additions were rapidly constructed and equality was heavily advocated.
For many, the mid-twentieth century is a nostalgic time. Patricia McGill, an alumnus who graduated from SIU with an English degree in 1967, said she has plenty of happy and wholesome memories, from a grilled cheese stand that sold sandwiches for 28 cents to dressing up on Sunday nights to eat at Lentz Hall.
Like many other students in Illinois, McGill came from a lower middle-class family and struggled to find a school she could afford. She said SIU gave her an opportunity to get a great education without having to worry about the cost. She paid off her tuition with scholarships during a time when the full cost of room and board was $333 per quarter.
“We were looking at private schools, and I really couldn’t afford it,” McGill said. “My family was very working-class, and it was up to me to figure out how to pay for my college. My counselor thought that SIU would be a good fit for me, and she was right. It was really the best time of my life.”
Closing the financial gap in education was one of Delyte Morris’ most important initial goals. His wife, Dorothy Morris, spoke in an interview in 1981 about his decision to come to Southern Illinois.
“He must have quickly realized that Southern was the only institution of higher learning in the area and realized the different phases of education that were lacking here, and what a missed opportunity many children had in not being able to afford to go north for school. He had insight into the geography of the area and the number of people here and how few people went on to college,” Dorothy Morris said.
In addition to the financial gap, Morris was breaking down barriers in race and gender. SIU was an integrated school long before Brown v. Board of Education, beginning in 1869 when its first two black students graduated. Norma Ewing, a black woman who attended SIU in the 1950s, referred to Morris in a 2018 interview with The Southern as a “wonderful man” and said he created a welcoming environment.
“Many of the African Americans that attended the university during his presidency time have gone on to be outstanding individuals in many different ways,” Ewing said. “It had to do with the nurturing environment that permeated the entire campus.”
Morris also paved the way for students with disabilities, opening Camp Little Giant, the first university-affiliated camping program for people with disabilities in the US, at Touch of Nature in 1951. In 1968, SIU alumnus William Freeberg helped organize the first Special Olympics in Chicago.
“We had a lot of handicapped students too at the time I was there. We had a lot of people that had cerebral palsy and stuff that were in wheelchairs, and we had a couple that lived on the first floor that had attendants that would help them and stuff too,” McGill said. “SIU was kind of known for that. Anybody could go there and get a good education.”
Largely because of this welcoming atmosphere Morris created and because of new recruitment efforts he put into place, enrollment at SIU rose rapidly. A Daily Egyptian article from 1949 was entitled “Southern Has Less Than Half Space Per Student Needed.” This increase can also be partially attributed to a rush of veterans who had just returned from WWII to attend college.
“The plain truth is that Southern’s student body is continuing its regular rate of growth, but we have not had buildings constructed to keep up with the rate of growth,” said Orville Alexander, who was then chairman of the legislative committee, in the 1949 article. “We must have not one or two buildings, but a major building program to catch up with the student body we now have.”
Delyte Morris heard this request loud and clear, and a series of construction projects began soon after. When Morris arrived, SIU had only one residence hall—Anthony Hall—and about 3,000 students. In 1962, Thompson Point was constructed, and by 1968 all three of the East campus towers were complete.
In addition to living space, the increasing student population required more learning and studying space. Morris Library was built in 1956, and the first iteration of the student center opened in 1961. The university’s power plant, the Physical Plant, was also built during this time to provide electricity to all the new buildings.
With all the added space, SIU’s enrollment continued to rise, and new educational programs became necessary to allow the school to keep growing. In 1951, the Vocational Technical Institute, which later became the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, was founded.
The university also opened its doors to postsecondary education, establishing the graduate school and the first doctoral programs in political science, education and psychology.
McGill said she got a fantastic education due to the way SIU set up its school year as well as the “life-changing” professors she learned from.
“We were on the quarter system at the time. We had a fall, winter and spring quarter, and we covered as much material in each of those quarters as people do in semesters now. It was like we got an extra year of college. I learned so much. They had a core curriculum, and I got 30 hours of science classes that I took because they wanted everyone to be well-educated,” McGill said.
Morris also oversaw the addition of the SIU campus in Edwardsville, where he traveled every other weekend to make sure he was present regularly on both campuses. During the majority of the year, he lived on the Carbondale campus on Thompson Street with his wife and two sons. Dorothy Morris said her husband wanted their home to be open to everyone.
“Delyte was never one to say, ‘I’m having a meeting with somebody and I may bring them to lunch.’ He’d just bring them over. And whatever we had, we shared,” Dorothy Morris said. “Delyte used to like to see everything that was going on. When they were digging a hole through the library, he was over there practically all the time seeing what was going on.”
Morris’ positive attitude and open-door policy created a pleasant student life experience. Though SIU has always been well known for being a “party school,” none of the riots or violence that would later put a damper on the festivities were present.
“They had parties out there, but we just remember having a good time,” McGill said. “We just had fun. There was nothing violent, it was just crazy things that happened that we still laugh about today.”
On any given weekend, students could be found attending any one of the sporting events to support the successful teams. The Daily Egyptian from 1949 is littered with headlines like “Maroons Triumph Over Cape in 25-13 Thriller.” SIU’s gymnastics team also won four NCAA championships, and the 1967 Saluki basketball team won the NIT championship in New York.
Just like today, Morris’ SIU was receiving significantly less funding than universities in northern and central Illinois, and Morris fought the Budgetary Commission not just for Southern, but for all Illinois state schools to receive more. In 1949, he and the presidents from four other Illinois universities challenged the governor’s allotted budget, successfully earning a 100% boost in funding for SIU.
According to the Daily Egyptian article “Southern Has Less Than Half Space Per Student Needed,” the school had just over 3,000 students when Delyte Morris came in 1948. When he retired in 1970, enrollment was nearly 20,000.
Morris’ SIU was not without its challenges, just as SIU today has plenty of work to do. With enrollment taking a hit the past year due to COVID-19 and scarce funding, there is plenty of room for upward mobility.
However, SIU remains enriched by all the programs he put in place, and his desire to offer a quality, inclusive education to all students remains part of the university’s mission statement today.
“The most notable aspects of the university are its superior teaching staff and its large student body,” Morris said in his first speech. “We have here the core of a great university: a strong, vigorous section of Illinois. Southern, I feel, has one of the most challenging opportunities afforded by any higher educational institution in the country, and I assure the people of Illinois that I shall do everything in my power to help the school realize its fullest potentialities.”
This article is part of a larger series examining SIU’s past, present and future. To read more content from the series, visit the “Special Projects” tab on the homepage or click here.
Staff reporter Elena Schauwecker can be reached at [email protected].