William G. Robbins is one of my favorite Corvallis people. I met him, electronically, when I first began reporting for the Gazette-Times in the summer of 2012 because I was interested in reading books about the timber industry in Oregon.
When I called the Oregon State University College of Forestry to ask for some advice they put me in touch with Robbins, a retired OSU history professor. And he was very helpful. We stayed in touch, and I also wrote about a Friends of the Library Random Review talk he gave on John Steinbeck and “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Then I started reading his books. I started with his incisive 2015 take on Monroe Sweetland, an extremely influential Oregon and national political figure I had never heard of. Then I moved on to his two books of state environmental history, “Landscapes of Promise” and “Landscapes of Conflict.” Really solid stuff, well-written, well-organized and well-thought-out. Robbins has a to-the-point direct writing style that serves his material well.
Most recently I snatched his book on the history of Oregon State in honor of its 150th year, “The People’s School,” as soon as the review copy arrived at the Gazette-Times office.
It matches its predecessors: solid no-nonsense history while doing battle with two pretty sizable potential bumps in the road: How do you get 150 years of a university’s history into one volume?; and how do you make it fair and balanced given that you now have 46 years of experience with the institution?
Robbins succeeds admirably on both counts, covering a dizzying array of topics: the early sectarian days of the college; the land grant system; the endless fights with that school down 99W over course offerings and degrees; battling with the state over budgets; handling the challenges of two world wars, a Cold War and the Vietnam War; all the way up to more modern issues such as Title IX, the cost of intercollegiate athletics, sexual assault and relations between the university and the city.
Along the way you meet an equally dizzying array of individuals, many of whose names adorn campus buildings: Kerr, Snell, Strand, Peavy, Gillifan and a host of others.
And every step of the way Robbins builds on how the university was organized structurally, and you really grow to appreciate what a complicated mechanism it has become in the 21st Century with 30,000 students, faculty and staff on campus each day. With thousands of others participating in Newport, Bend and online.
Robbins doesn’t pull any punches. He criticizes the university for its 1949 firing of faculty member Ralph Spitzer for his alleged Communist ties, how it handled the Fred Milton facial hair incident in 1969 and Brenda Tracy’s sexual assault allegations that stemmed from a 1998 incident..
President Ed Ray, meanwhile, complimented Robbins for his approach at an Oct. 24 public event at the Valley Library, noting that “this isn’t some ‘75 great years at General Motors’ ” sort of book.
It’s a great read. I do, however, have my own list of warts, a series of sloppy editing issues that I wish had been resolved before the book went to print. Robbins misspells the last names of pamphleteer Thomas Paine, software pioneer William Hewlett and sports columnist Dwight Jaynes. Also, his discussion of the Collaboration Corvallis project in which the city and OSU worked to solve “town and gown” challenges mixed up the committee structure and personnel who were involved.