History of the OU College of Liberal Studies

History of the OU College of Liberal Studies

The United States during the mid-20th century was fraught with change. After the unsettling World War II years, the country was begging for a new start and a newfound sense of hope. Nevertheless, international events with unavoidable ripple effects – the Cold War, the Korean conflict – along with growing cultural and technological developments, caused Americans to re-evaluate the status quo.

The atmosphere was ripe for innovation, and out of these budding world views, the dreams for the Oklahoma Center for Continuing Education were born.

Prelude to hope

While the University of Oklahoma provided off-campus services for adults with its opening in 1892, the University Extension Division was not formed until 1913. Over the next 40 years, the Extension Division gradually expanded its programs. By the early 1950s, its programs reached more than 18,000 people. While this represented progress, the total needs for adult education in Oklahoma were not being fulfilled.

One reason was that the majority of extension work in the state was going to the rural population, an idea that made sense when most Oklahomans lived on farms. By 1950, however, farmers represented only 25 percent of the population. Still, the state appropriations for extension activities by Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College were approximately 10 times that of OU’s Extension Division.

Taking on a challenge

Thurman J. White planning the College of Liberal StudiesRecognizing this disproportion, OU Extension Division Dean Thurman J. White wrote in a July 1953 report to OU President George L. Cross that OU felt a “special responsibility to the state’s non-rural population … the time seems right for a bold move by the university on the extension front.”

White’s ideas were countered with widespread criticism. Many academic factions were skeptical of, and sometimes hostile to, extension programs. Some felt that extension courses failed to provide quality academic work and that they downgraded the university.

Perhaps an even greater barrier White faced was the lack of facilities for an expanded program. White made it his mission to secure a new home for his vision. After several years of back-and-forth negotiations and various architectural designs, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation approved a $1.845 million grant, the Oklahoma Legislature appropriated $650,000 for the center, and the Board of Regents approved the issuance of $1.4 million in self-liquidating dormitory bonds.

Bricks and mortar

Breaking ground for the College of Liberal StudiesFinally, White’s dream was becoming a reality. A formal groundbreaking ceremony was held Sept. 18, 1959.

Construction advanced rapidly. By the end of 1960, the Oklahoma Center for Continuing Education complex of buildings was nearly finished. By July 1961, the entire complex, except for the Administration Building, was about 95 percent completed.

On Feb. 9 and 10, 1962, open houses were held for university faculty members and the general public. Visitors had the chance to see the various housing units, the kitchen and dining hall, and the Forum Building – the hub of the OCCE complex.

Developing a curriculum

Professor John Lancaster at the College of Liberal StudiesWhile the construction of the OCCE complex was a tremendous accomplishment, it was only the means to the objective of establishing improved and expanded adult education programs in and around Oklahoma. Dean White still had to overcome the negative perception associated with extension programs. In fact, when White once requested a budget increase for Extension from the Faculty Budget Council, one professor, in his motion to disallow the request, declared, “I think Thurman is building an attractive nuisance and it will take professors away from the work they should be doing.”

Selling the concept of educating working adults was undoubtedly an uphill battle, but support around campus gradually began to materialize.

During the 1957-1958 academic year, several studies were done to address the needs in adult education. In 1957, OU received a grant from the Center for the Study of Liberal Education for Adults to sponsor a faculty seminar. Vice President Pete Kyle McCarter explained the purpose of the seminar was “to discuss and develop a suitable university program of liberal education for adults, including the possibility of some kind of a degree program.”

About 30 faculty members were invited to a weekend at Roman Nose State Park from Nov. 1-3, 1957, and another at Lake Texoma from April 18-20, 1958. These weekends included intense sessions where faculty members exchanged ideas with visiting resource persons in the field of adult education. These meetings had two purposes – first, to pick faculty brains for ideas; and second, to get faculty members to consider the principle of an adult degree in liberal studies. One of the recommendations that came out of the seminars was a formal proposal for an experimental degree program for adults. Soon thereafter, things moved rapidly toward achieving this goal.

Bachelor of Liberal Studies

In 1959-1960, a special degree committee of OU faculty, headed by J. Clayton Feaver, professor of philosophy, studied the development of an adult degree program. After nearly a year of work, the committee prepared a curriculum for, and recommended establishment of, a new degree – the Bachelor of Liberal Studies. The recommendation was approved by President Cross, and in February 1961, the Board of Regents created the College of Continuing Education as the academic unit to administer the BLS degree, and Dean White was chosen to administer this new college.

The new degree was designed to provide an interdisciplinary education to working adults. Independent study was required in four fields: the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and inter-area studies. In addition to studying these areas, students also participated in residential seminars covering each field and extending over a period of 13 weeks. Faculty members were drawn from other colleges on campus.

In January 1961, the Carnegie Corp. awarded OU a grant of $61,000 to jumpstart the initial financing of the adult degree program. Most of this money was allocated to scholarships for a pilot group of 75 carefully selected students. On July 7, 1961, the Fund for Adult Education granted $300,000 to OU to develop comprehensive programs in the field of liberal adult education. To administer these programs, a Department of Liberal Studies was established in the College of Continuing Education.

The first BLS degrees were granted to a graduating class of six in June 1963. Although the program was still in its infancy, enrollment blossomed, and by August 1963, 217 students were pursuing their Bachelor of Liberal Studies. Three years later, 19 graduated and nearly 800 students were enrolled. From that point on, the program became essentially self-sustaining.

In April 1970, the Board of Regents renamed the College of Continuing Education to the College of Liberal Studies. That same year, the College of Liberal Studies became an academic unit of OU and was given its own dean and degree-granting status.

Master of Liberal Studies

Picture of the first MLS graduating class at the College of Liberal StudiesIn 1967, the Master of Liberal Studies degree plan was approved and offered through the college. The first MLS introductory seminar was held in January 1968, and on Aug. 2, 1970, the first Master of Liberal Studies degrees were conferred with 13 students receiving the degree.

Feaver-MacMinn Seminar

J. Clayton Feaver and Paul MacMinn at the College of LIberal StudiesOU alumnus Bradley McDonald, who graduated in 1956, was profoundly impacted by two professors – J. Clayton Feaver and Paul MacMinn. Feaver, a philosophy professor, saturated his classes with his unexpected and playful approach to discussions. Ideas unfolded naturally as students gained in comprehension. As Dean of Students, MacMinn was a compassionate and steadfast champion of students. He integrated university housing for African-American students and did so without major incidents on campus – a testament to his understanding and sensitivity.

McDonald furthered his education, earning a J.D. from Georgetown University and later building a successful law practice in Washington, D.C. Aware of the College of Liberal Studies as a provider of nontraditional interdisciplinary education, in 1984, McDonald began to endow an annual seminar at the college honoring these two extraordinary teachers – the Feaver-MacMinn Seminar.

To this day, the program provides interdisciplinary perspectives on human values in disciplines such as humanistic psychology, philosophy and ethics.

During the Feaver-MacMinn Seminar, students, the visiting scholar and host professor explore a topic in an intensive, five-day format. The host professor and students meet on two Saturday mornings for discussion before the seminar begins. In a post-seminar assignment, students write on the seminar topic, often in relation to their academic major. There is also a public lecture on a related topic open to the campus and community.

New delivery methods

With the dawn of the personal computer in the mid-1980s and the Internet age soon following, technology and the exchange of information grew at an unprecedented pace.

Offering convenience to working adult students remained a priority for the college. In 1998, the college began offering the first online courses, with the first of these students graduating in 2003. That same year, the BLS/Internet-guided interdisciplinary studies and the MLS/administrative leadership programs were offered 100 percent online – making the College of Liberal Studies the first college at OU to offer a degree 100 percent online.

In another step toward a more efficient means of delivery, hybrid courses were introduced in 2008, employing a combination of on-site learning and online delivery.

Burgeoning degree options

College of Liberal Studies full-time facultyAs CLS rises to meet the needs of its students, new degree programs have emerged over the years. One of the first specialized programs was the launch of the MLS with museum emphasis in 1981. This degree explores the issues and concerns pertinent to museum professionals. In 1996, the BLS/administrative leadership concentration, a two-year weekend bachelor’s degree program, was created to serve students who could benefit from career-related courses and the broad perspectives of liberal education.

The following year, three career track options in the MLS program were added: administrative leadership, interdisciplinary education, and health and human services.

In 2002, the Master of Liberal Studies 50/50 administrative leadership program was developed, incorporating on-campus seminars with online coursework. Also that year, the Bachelor of Liberal Studies degree was changed to a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies.

Another milestone occurred in 2007 with the hiring of the first CLS full-time faculty members: Amelia Adams and John Duncan. Today, the college employs five full-time faculty members: Adams, Duncan, Paul Ketchum, Nina Livesey and Julie Raadschelders.

In recent years, the Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice, the Bachelor of Arts in Administrative Leadership and Master of Prevention Science have been created. Because students have the option of completing many of these degrees completely online, the College of Liberal Studies reaches students – and faculty – all over the world.

A look ahead

The spirit of innovation that was so prevalent in the College of Liberal Studies’ early days has remained at the forefront ever since its inception. The college’s historic early successes and advancements served as a model for other institutions worldwide.

Interdisciplinary education for working adults has endured as the college’s raison d’être. With an adaptable and entrepreneurial resolve, coupled with the tenacity and tradition of the University of Oklahoma, the future of the College of Liberal Studies will continue to honor the innovative fire of its founders into the next 50 years and beyond.


Fite, Gilbert. History of the Oklahoma Center for Continuing Education. The University of Oklahoma, 1966.

White, Thurman J. My Journey on the Learning Frontier: The Evolution of a Continuing Educator. Norman, OK: The University of Oklahoma Outreach, 2005.

Update: The College of Liberal Studies was renamed the College of Professional and Continuing Studies in 2017. 

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The College of Professional and Continuing Studies is a fully accredited academic unit of the University of Oklahoma, offering 100% online, hybrid and onsite degrees for working adults and non-traditional students.