Elida Yakeley, higher education pioneer

My day job is Director of Admissions for a community college in Michigan. In that role, I’ve been a member of the Michigan Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (MACRAO) for several years, and am serving as the group’s president for 2021, our 100th anniversary year. Last week, I wrote the following item for our website, celebrating the career of the association’s first president. Because she was such a pioneer for women in higher education, I thought I’d share it here as well.

Elida Yakeley

MACRAO was born in 1921 on the campus of the Michigan State Normal College in Ypsilanti. America’s colleges and universities were experiencing rapid change, and the college registrars were responding by expanding and modernizing their work. These challenges motivated registrars from of four of the state’s colleges to meet in person to share ideas and work on standardizing processes between institutions. Besides the hosts from Michigan State Normal (later to become Eastern Michigan University), registrars from Michigan Agricultural College (later Michigan State University), the Detroit Teachers College (which later merged with other Detroit colleges to create Wayne University, then later Wayne State University), and Kalamazoo College attended.

After discussing their shared interests, the group decided to create a formal organization. About a decade earlier, Michigan had also been the first meeting place of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars (AACR), and since that group had grown to national prominence, it seemed like a good idea to have a similar group that would deal with the specific issues of colleges in Michigan. So the Michigan Association of Collegiate Registrars (MACR) was born.

Of course, every good organization needs leadership, and the newly minted MACR membership turned to one of the state’s pioneers in the profession: Elida Yakeley from M.A.C.

Elida Yakeley was born on April 4, 1876, in Trenton, Michigan, but grew up in Montana. After graduating from high school in Big Sky Country, she returned to her home state to attend college at Ferris Institute in Big Rapids, where she studied business. After graduation she worked in a series of short-term positions until she was hired in 1903 as the secretary to Jonathan L. Snyder, the president of what was then known as the State Agricultural College in East Lansing.

The 1923 MACR meeting was held in East Lansing

Yakeley was a diminutive woman, so sitting behind the huge desk in the anteroom of Snyder’s office meant she had to stand to greet everyone who came in. This made her the face of the college, which in those days had only about 500 students, and she quickly came to know each of them personally and was a great resource for them. As she pointed out later in life, registering students wasn’t terribly difficult in those days, since there were so few students and only three choices for programs to follow: agriculture, engineering, and the “women’s course.”

Over the next several years, however, the school added new programs and its enrollment started to grow significantly. Soon the registration process was becoming more difficult, and Yakeley took it upon herself to come up with a way to automate the system – at least as much as it could be in an age well before computers. Recognizing her genius in setting up one of the first modern registration systems of its kind in the country, Snyder appointed her the first registrar in the college’s history in 1908, just before the institution became Michigan Agricultural College the following year. This not only made her one of the first female college administrators in Michigan, but also in the United States.

In charge of all student records, she continued to make it a point to talk to nearly every student at the school throughout her 30 years at M.A.C. She also kept in touch with alumni, taking an interest in their success after they’d left East Lansing. Students were very fond of her and thought of her as a “thoroughly just, broad-hearted friend.”

She took a 27,000-mile journey around the world in the fall of 1923 with M.A.C. history and political science professor E.H. Ryder, his wife, and home economics associate professor Anna Bayha. During the trip, they were feared to have been lost during the Great Kantō Earthquake but had left Japan just five days before the disaster. They toured Japan, Korea, the Philippines, India, Egypt, Palestine, France, Italy, Switerland, and England. The travelers returned safely to East Lansing in January 1924.

Yakeley was elected Vice President of AACR at their annual meeting in Seattle in April 1929. Later that year in November, she was seriously injured while attending the AACR meeting in Buffalo. According to newspaper accounts of the time, she was struck by a car and thrown into the path of another vehicle and suffered head and chest injuries. Clemens P. Steimle, another early president of MACR, reported that she was barely conscious and was unable to speak. She did recover, though, and returned to her work at the newly renamed Michigan State College of Agriculture and Science (M.S.C.).

As registrar at M.A.C./M.S.C. she was also instrumental in maintaining the early history of the college. After turning over the registrar’s duties in 1939, she continued as a historical research associate at the college until she retired in 1941 due to ill health and moved to southern California.

Elida Yakeley in 1951

In 1949, M.S.C. named a new women’s dormitory after its first registrar. Yakeley Hall is in the North Neighborhood, which at the time was all housing for female students; Yakeley is today the only remaining all-female residence hall on the MSU campus. Although the college named the building after her, they neglected to let her know about the honor! She found out during a visit to Lansing shortly after the building opened to students, reading about it in the State Journal while staying with friends.

Elida Yakeley died on April 18, 1970, in Chula Vista, California. She was 94 years old.

Education is more than just completing something

I’m taking a course in organizational behavior this semester, and today’s assignment was to take a position on the question of whether or not leadership training is a waste of money. Most of my classmates have taken the counterpoint position so far; only one person had agreed with the premise by the time I posted my response, which I include here:

In the interest of not having Michael hold up the entire support for the Yes/Point position, and the fact that I’m in a feisty mood today, I’ll agree with the premise that leadership training is a waste of money. I will clarify, though, and this will seem like a hedge (only because it is): actually, I believe leadership training can be a waste of money. It isn’t that people can’t be trained to be better at something; if that was true, education in general, and higher education in particular, would be pointless.

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In the pandemic, disruption may be our silver lining

The pandemic has brought plenty of changes to our everyday routines. The same is true in higher education. Beginning as soon as we closed our campus buildings in March, we had to figure out how we could continue to provide instruction and support services to students – and we had a week to figure it out. Classes moved online and to “alternative delivery methods.” Advising moved to working with students by phone and in virtual meetings. Our remaining holdout paper forms were transformed into web forms overnight.

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The unfortunate commodification of higher education

The return on investment of higher education is under increased scrutiny today. This has led to a narrowed emphasis by colleges and universities on providing marketable skills that lead directly to jobs. Andrew Delbanco, in his 2012 book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, suggests a broader set of qualities for colleges, however, beyond technical and vocational competencies. At the same time, we’ve experienced increasing economic inequality and a coarsening of our political discourse in the United States, so the diminishment of a “college” education as Delbanco describes it has profound implications for democracy.

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How did I get here?

This is part two of a series on higher education. Read the first post here.

I believe in education.

Just wanted to get that out of the way first. Because some of the thoughts that I have about education after high school may seem like I’m opposed to it. That’s not true. But I do think that our current expectations, and often our methods, have some problems that need to be addressed, and the turmoil of 2020 gives us an opportunity to do exactly that.

So who am I to make suggestions about higher education? Let me give you a quick summary of my experience in higher ed so you can decide if I’m someone worth giving some of your attention.

I’ve worked in higher ed for 21 years. I spent a brief year as an adjunct instructor at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan, in the early 1990s, teaching a graphic design course about “desktop publishing.” (If that term’s unfamiliar, it’s what we called software like Aldus PageMaker and Quark XPress that were key in moving print layout from manual work to digital.)

In 1997 I started teaching as a contract instructor for St. Clair County Community College (SC4) in Port Huron, Michigan. I taught day-long seminars that covered introductory and intermediate level use of Microsoft Office programs, including Word, Outlook, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint. It was part-time work, but in the late 1990s there was a lot of federal and state money available for companies to train their workers in these skills, so I kept pretty busy, teaching three or four days per week. That funding dried up around 2002 and I went back to my freelance work as a writer, designer, and marketing consultant.

In late 2008, I got a call from a community theater friend, Roger Hansel, who was the technical director at SC4. They needed a director for their Christmas play on short notice. I’d done about twenty plays as an actor and director for local theater groups and Roger knew I was self-employed and might be available. I took the gig and with a small group of talented young performers, we put the show together in about four weeks. I thought it went well, but didn’t expect it to be anything more than a one-off opportunity. The chair of the visual and performing arts department, David Korff, had other plans. My predecessor wasn’t coming back, so would I be interested in directing the next show? Um, sure. At the end of the semester, he asked me what plays we were doing next year. I wondered why he was asking me, so he told me that it was my job to pick them since I’d be directing them. And I’d also be teaching acting and improvisation. Oh. Okay.

I did that for eight years, and they were the best “work” years of my life. I loved teaching theater, directing shows, working with such enthusiastic young performers. For some of them, theater was their refuge from their less-than-ideal real lives. Through our program, they made friends, learned to resolve differences, and in a few cases, just survived. It was fun, but it was also important work.

(I’ll always be thankful to Roger and David. I know I solved a short-term problem for them, but I’m pretty sure I got a lot more out of the transaction than they did.)

But then that ended. After building a program, directing almost 30 shows, teaching hundreds of college students, and revising and relaunching an oral interpretation of literature course, I was told I was no longer qualified to do any of that. I have no master’s degree, not just in theater but in anything (I’ll have one – finally – in 2022, but it won’t be in theater). I have a bachelor’s degree in geography and earth science. I never claimed otherwise, and no one suggested that I had. What I did have was years of experience actually acting and directing, which continued to grow over my eight years as the artistic director of The SC4 Players. Unfortunately, that was no longer enough.

I understood intellectually why I couldn’t teach theater anymore. Updated Higher Learning Commission standards meant that instructors needed to have at least a master’s degree in the field they teach (or any master’s degree and at least 18 additional hours in that field). In order to get a MFA in theater, I’d need to do remedial work to get a BFA first, then get accepted into an MFA program, then complete the program. I’m sure I’d have learned a lot of new things, but the fact was I already was doing the work an MFA should have qualified me for, and according to my colleagues’ evaluations of my work, I was doing it well. So it made no sense for me to spend that amount of time and money to get degrees in the hope of maybe being able to reapply for my old job.

I won’t detail what happened over the next two years, but in the end, my college doesn’t produce any plays (even before COVID) and there are fewer theater arts classes offered. Again, intellectually I understood the need for “standards,” but I don’t think those standards ended up serving our students very well.

I was fortunate that I’d also been working as an academic advisor at the college, so I was able to continue doing that, which provided a connection to students. I have a sticker in my office from NACADA, the Global Community for Academic Advising, that says “Advising is Teaching,” and that’s true. In 2016, I was given an opportunity to rebuild our recruitment and admissions team, which I accepted. I’ve loved these challenges and I think we’ve done pretty well. I still miss teaching theater – I’ll probably never completely let that frustration go – but I’m proud of my current team. We still make differences in people’s lives and that makes it worthwhile.

So I believe in education. But my experience working in higher ed has led me to question some of the things we do. Especially the things that we do out of habit, because we just haven’t taken the time to ask whether it still makes sense to do it that way.

As I lay out some of my questions and perhaps even a few ideas to answer them, I hope that if you agree you’ll let me know. Even more importantly, if you disagree I hope you’ll also let me know and will engage with me in a constructive manner. That, in the end, is the point of education.