Dr. Spivack Recounts 30+ years of History
By Dan Silvia
Dr. John Spivack has seen it all. Well, most of it anyway, when it comes to Bellevue University. Spivack is retiring following the spring term after almost 37 years at the University.
Spivack came to then-Bellevue College in August of 1979 with an East Coast pedigree and a Ph.D. from the University of Florida. So what brought him west?
“In 1979, I would guess 90 percent of the people who had gotten History Ph.D.s were driving cabs or selling insurance,” he said. “The prospects of a job brought me here.”
“I had this image of Omaha in my mind. I thought Omaha was going to be sort of this flat cow town. I was prepared for all sorts of ‘well, you’ll make do’ and so on and so forth,” he said. “The fact is it’s a lovely city. It was nothing like what I expected. There were features of Omaha that reminded me of New York. There’s an incredible ethnic diversity. It wasn’t at all what I expected of a Midwestern city. I was very favorably impressed.”
Bellevue College, in its awkward adolescence, was another story – at least aesthetically.
“When I came here Bellevue probably had the ugliest campus in America. We had a former car dealership as our main building,” Spivack said.
Two Quonset huts, lightweight prefabricated structures made of corrugated galvanized steel, served as campus buildings – one housing the student center and the other the geography and art departments. An open field where the Hitchcock Humanities Center now stands served as host for occasional softball games for students, faculty, and staff. Spivack shared a 12-foot by 12-foot office with three other professors.
While the accommodations left something to be desired, the enthusiasm of the students did not.
“Students then, for the most part, were really hungry for learning of all kinds,” Spivack said. “The numbers then were huge. I averaged 40 students a class. I had some courses with 50 students.”
Spivack said the faculty bonded during that time as they sought to enhance the academic reputation of the young school.
“We felt we were doing a pretty good job here. We developed a kind of pugnacious attitude toward people,” he said. “I think we are much more establishment than we were then, although we are still very innovative in a lot of ways. We’re more settled.”
Students were coming to the University for two reasons: one rather typical, the other a little less so.
“The No. 1 selling point then was parking. And the fact that it was inexpensive,” Spivack said. “The first year I was here the tuition was $28 dollars a credit. You did a lot of things. We had 33 full-time faculty and 28 other employees. It was exciting.”
Despite that enthusiasm, the University found itself in financial straits in the mid-80s and tough decisions needed to be made. Dr. John Muller, the new President brought in in 1985 to help right the ship, did his best to insulate the faculty from the financial issues.
“I don’t think any of us felt the kind of pressure one would expect,” Spivack said. “President Muller did a really good job of not sharing some of that difficulty with us. I think that would have been pretty terrifying.”
Spivack credited Muller with making some tough decisions and introducing some innovative ideas that helped move the University out of financial difficulties.
“Under Dr. Muller, I think we became much more business savvy, much more aware of the requirements of the marketplace. As a result, changes were made. The largest single one was when the College of Professional Studies was added. That became the largest source of new income that probably saved the institution,” he said. “People like me, who are sort of old fashioned and really conservative in terms of education, we raised the dickens. We came to see that this was necessary and started down a very different path. John Muller changed things here – significantly.”
Spivack lauds the University for its commitment to the student.
“The faculty at Bellevue and most of the staff are more invested in the students than at any other place I’ve been,” he said. “I can remember when I wanted to go talk to my advisor I would take a lunch and a book to read while I sat outside his office waiting because you got to see your advisor maybe twice a semester. At Bellevue, you put your home phone number on the course hand outs and you expect students to use it. I think it’s that sense that we really are here for you.”
Commitment to one another will also be what carries the University forward, he said.
“Be honest with one another,” he advised. “Be transparent. Be forgiving. I think one of the most useful things that people can do is admit their mistakes.
“I think one of the really nice things about Bellevue is, regardless of how large it gets in terms of the number of students we have online, it’s an atmosphere where you can really make a difference. I can think of several instances where I have been lucky enough to have made a difference in someone’s life. I don’t think there’s a greater reward than that.”
Spivack may still serve as an adjunct during retirement, but will relocate from Omaha to Des Moines, Iowa.
“That’s where our daughter and granddaughter live,” he said. “The older you get the more time you want to spend with those folks.”