Kent State University at Stark's 70th Anniversary: A Hometown Celebration
In the 70 years since Kent State University at Stark was founded, much has changed – the school’s location, program offerings, faculty and administration, just to name a few. The driving force behind all of these changes, however, is the same today as it was in the beginning: a desire to meet the needs of the students it serves.
Since 1946, when Kent State University Canton (KSUC) first opened its doors to the community, its hallmark has been equipping regional students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed – close to home and at an affordable price. Every investment the university has made, from hiring distinguished, knowledgeable faculty and administrators, to expanding the physical campus, has been undertaken for the betterment of students.
William G. Bittle, Ph.D., the campus’s longest serving dean, led the faculty and staff under the united vision that “students are not an interruption of our work, but the reason for our work.”
Building on inaugural Dean Jack Morehart’s vision, Bittle made it his mission to create a small, liberal arts college experience that was open to everyone; a private school education at public school prices, within the embrace of a major university.
And it’s taken a village. Bittle strongly believes that the success of the campus is a direct result of the support and tenacity shown by the faculty and staff. “Everything we accomplished, we did as a team.”
“While we have evolved from a one classroom institution in a high school to a beautiful 200-acre campus that serves more than 7,000 students year round, our core values have remained the same,” said Denise A. Seachrist, Ph.D., dean at Kent State University at Stark. “We take our role as the public university in this community very seriously. It is our responsibility to not only educate the students who walk through our corridors, but to be actively involved in our community’s success.”
A History of Investment
The Early Years
In 1946, KSUC opens to accommodate the huge influx of students exiting the military and using the GI Bill. For five years, KSUC provided both day and evening classes that satisfied the requirements for the first two years of many Kent baccalaureate degrees, giving veterans and civilian students alike a way to earn a high-quality college education close to home. Despite its small size, KSUC provided students with an impressive array of extracurricular activities, including foreign language clubs, fraternities, theatre productions, intramural sports teams and much more.
Following the closure of KSUC in 1950, as a result of state funding cuts, Kent State still recognized a need in the Canton community for its services and continued to provide students in the region with self-sustaining, evening extension courses at McKinley High School through 1953.
Kent State University’s Stark County program received a huge boost in 1953, following the creation of the state’s Emergency Cadet Teacher Program. In response to a rapidly growing need for more teachers, the program allowed for the issuance of “cadet” teaching certificates to students who completed an intensive two-year curriculum. Kent State saw an opportunity to provide interested students in Stark County with the coursework necessary to achieve the certificate, launching a popular three-year version of Kent’s Cadet Program via the Canton Teacher Education Program throughout the mid– to late–1950s.
Propelled by support from the community, freshman-level university courses were added to those required for the Teacher Education Program. The resulting surge in enrollment necessitated a more permanent learning institution and the Canton Center was born. Soon, the center had a full-time director, staff and regular faculty, and the program outgrew its McKinley High School home. In 1959, the Canton Center moved to Timken Vocational High School to better serve the nearly 400 students enrolled in classes.
The Canton Center’s director, Jack Morehart, knew that Timken would only be a short-term solution. At the end of the 1960-61 winter quarter, Morehart moved the center to nearby Lehman High School, allowing evening classes to continue for the now 500-strong student population – by 1964, the number grew to 1,000.
The House that Jack Built
By 1966, the Canton Center had once again outgrown its physical facility, necessitating yet another move, this time to American Legion Post #44. While this move allowed the school to offer regular daytime classes during a non-summer quarter for the first time, it was merely a temporary solution for the rapidly expanding institution.
In 1966, the Ohio state legislature authorized an official Stark County branch of Kent State University and appropriated funds to construct a permanent home for the school. A citizen’s committee of community leaders raised funds to cover the county’s financial responsibility, while a search committee scoured the area to find the best location to build. Twenty possible sites for the school were considered in both Canton and Massillon before the current Frank Road location was selected. Construction on Main Hall began on January 7, 1966, and the facility opened in the fall of 1967 – Kent State Stark students finally had a permanent place to call their own.
Morehart hired “the best and the brightest” faculty to give students the finest education possible. Many of the student activities that had begun at Lehman continued to grow in the new location, including a student newspaper, sports teams, cheerleaders and a variety of student organizations.
The positive response to the school’s new location was evident in its enrollment numbers – by the second year of operation at the new campus, the student body totaled more than 2,100 students. It was once again time to expand. However, funding was limited and according to the state, no money was available for the Stark Campus.
In a show of determination, students formed a protest movement, demanding that the state find funds to help the campus expand. Their actions, in combination with pressure from community leaders, local legislators and Kent State University officials, resulted in a $3 million appropriation from the Ohio Board of Regents. These funds allowed for the construction of two new campus buildings, beginning in 1971 – the Health and Physical Education Building (now the Conference Center) and the Fine and Professional Arts Building. In 1976, the Learning Resource Center was added. These new structures provided dedicated space for services and activities that were previously housed off-campus, further unifying the Kent State Stark experience for students.
A Shift in Focus
After 20 years with Kent State Stark, Morehart turned the campus over to Bittle’s leadership in 1981. Following the substantial expansion of the physical campus in the 1970s, Bittle shifted the school’s focus to academic expansion in the decades that followed.
Before it was a university standard, Bittle consolidated the student services departments and staff into a single location, eliminating the shuffle of stopping in multiple places on campus to meet with advisors, pay fees, discuss financial aid issues and register for classes. This provided students with an added level of convenience, proving yet again that students always come first at Kent State Stark.
For the first time in the campus’s history, the 1990s brought a chance for students to earn full baccalaureate degrees rather than simply completing the first two years of a degree program and finishing at the Kent Campus. Program offerings became available in business management, English, history, general studies, middle childhood education, industrial studies, industrial technology and justice studies.
During this time, Bittle launched the Featured Speakers Series, further elevating Kent State Stark as a center of education and culture within the community. The series, which marked its 25-year anniversary in the 2015-16 season, provides a truly unique experience for students and community members. Speakers have included civic leaders, such as Rev. Jesse Jackson and Robert Kennedy Jr., media icons, like Al Roker and George Stephanopoulos, members of the arts and entertainment world, including John Updike and Kurt Vonnegut, and beacons of progress, such as Benazir Bhutto and Shirley Chisolm to Canton, Ohio. Prior to each lecture, faculty members nominate students to enjoy dinner with the speakers.
In 1999, the campus grew again with the addition of the East Wing on Main Hall, followed almost immediately by the new Recreation and Wellness Center in 2000. The former Health and Physical Education Building, after extensive renovation, became the Conference Center. This impressive facility supports professional development and contract training programs provided by The Corporate University, the Small Business Development Center and the Canton chapter of SCORE.
In June 2004, the Campus Center opened its doors, providing students and faculty with a bookstore and a dining facility, as well as space for tutoring, testing and staff offices. This construction bookended Bittle’s impressive career. He retired a month later, after 23 years of service to Kent State University.
The latest addition came in the fall of 2015, when Kent State Stark opened the Science and Nursing Building – bringing the major facility count to seven.
Looking to the Future
In the last decade, Kent State Stark’s program offerings have continued to grow by leaps and bounds, facilitated most recently by the appointment of the current dean, Denise A. Seachrist, Ph.D. Beginning as interim dean in 2014, Seachrist officially accepted her permanent appointment as dean and chief administrative officer on February 1, 2016. Serving more than 7,000 students annually, Kent State Stark now offers the core courses for Kent State’s more than 282 bachelor’s degrees, and offers all courses required for 19 complete baccalaureate degree programs, the part-time master of business administration (MBA), the M.A. or M.Ed. in curriculum and instruction and the master of arts in mathematics for secondary teachers.
As the university celebrates and reflects on its first 70 years serving the Stark County community, “Students remain at the core of our focus. We’ve expanded the opportunities available to them locally and globally. Not only have we enabled them to go out and travel the world, but we continue to bring the rest of the world to them,” Seachrist says.
Read more about Kent State Stark's 70th year celebration in the Fall 2016 edition of Encompass magazine.