University celebrates 20 years as WOU

Malissa Larson ’97 shows her WOU degreeMalissa Larson ’97 shows her WOU degree housed in a WOSC cover, along with her WOSC mug.

On April 1, 1997, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber signed HB 2634, which instantaneously turned Western Oregon State College into Western Oregon University.

The school had been WOSC for 16 years, but with the stroke of a pen, it transformed—as did Eastern Oregon State College and Southern Oregon State College—into an institute showcasing its “university” status. The bill was sponsored by then-Rep. Lane Shetterly at the suggestion of WOSC President Betty Youngblood.

“The university designation accurately recognizes Western as the kind of institution we are today,” said Youngblood on the day of the signing 20 years ago. “National classifications, standards and criteria clearly define Western as a ‘comprehensive university.’ Western’s size, academic programs and mission, as well as the quality of our faculty, staff and students, justify this designation.”

Although some might have expected the school to wait until fall term to make the official switch, university officials made a quick transition, right at the beginning of spring term.

Current Director of Disability Services Malissa Larson graduated in June 1997, having entered the academic year as a student at Western Oregon State College and ending it with a degree from Western Oregon University. She remembers the name change happening in a blur.

“One minute you had all kinds of things that said WOSC, and it seemed like the next minute, it was completely wiped out,” she recalled. “You couldn’t find anything that wasn’t WOU.”

There was one object, however, that didn’t seem to get the memo. It still makes Larson laugh.

“The piece of paper I got after we graduated had ‘Western Oregon University’ at the top,” she said. “But the diploma covers they handed out at Commencement still said Western Oregon State College on the front. They didn’t really explain why. We just figured they were too … frugal … to get new ones.”

A “West Words” newsletter article that ran April 2, 1997, explained the conundrum thusly: “Those students who will graduate in upcoming commencement ceremonies at McArthur Field on June 14 will receive diplomas that read ‘Western Oregon University.’ But, in order to use existing supplies, the jackets that contain the diplomas will still read ‘Western Oregon State College.’ ”

Shetterly ’77 is now on the Board of Trustees at Western Oregon University. He’s no stranger to name changes at the university. When he graduated, the school was Oregon College of Education. “I was proud to be able to sponsor the bill that made Western a university,” Shetterly said. “And now, with the state universities having gained their new status as independent universities, it’s a great pleasure to be able to serve on the board. I got a lot from my time at OCE, and I’m happy to be able to give back to Western.”

Did you graduate in the spring of 1997? We’d like to hear your memories! Contact us at wou.edu/alumni and while you’re there, fill out our new alumni story form.