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Luvern L. Cunningham: Dean, master of conflict resolution

Janet Kiplinger Ciccone
January 15, 2020

In 1969, Vietnam War protests roiled the country and civil rights advocates demanded change, especially at colleges and universities.

Ohio State students descended on the university president’s office, shouting demands, and the mood turned ugly. Riots broke out and didn’t let up.

Ohio State sesquicentennial logo

The National Guard moved in with rifles and tear gas to insist on dispersal. The president shut down the university.

Luvern L. Cunningham, dean of the College of Education, was in the thick of addressing student demands. Despite being on leave for a yearlong, prestigious academic appointment in California, he flew home every Thursday night on the red-eye.

His purpose: to apply his masterful ability to bring people together to resolve issues.

“I presided from the front of St. Stephen’s Church across from Ramseyer Hall,” Cunningham recalled in a 2001 oral history, “and for each of those meetings, Bob Johnson, who ran one of our programs, and Woody Hayes, were on either side….”

“You could hear a pin drop, because they (students) were addressing one another with clarity and conviction that none of the rest of us (faculty, university officials) could produce.”

Their topics centered on increasing enrollment of African American students, the need to hire more diverse faculty and getting federal grants to support these goals. The conversations were electric. And Cunningham was radical in his willingness to engage.

“I was never in a confrontation with another administrative official or faculty member … over my views on these things,” he said. Instead, people told him, “You’re on the right track.”

It wasn’t the first time Cunningham helped people resolve conflicting views, and it wasn’t his last.

“He knew how to calm the waters, wherever they were,” said Bill Wayson, faculty emeritus of educational administration. “I never knew anyone more committed to getting people to work together without killing one another or calling names.”

Because Cunningham fought in World War II while still in his teens, some of his colleagues, Wayson among them, think he made resolving conflict a career focus. Cunningham served in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater, fought hand to hand in the invasion of Okinawa and was one of only 27 survivors out of his unit of 200. He received two purple hearts and became a master sergeant by age 19.

Having seen the devastation caused by human conflict, Cunningham made it his purpose to change lives through problem-solving and resolution.

Taking the heat, effecting change

portrait of Luverne L. Cunningham
Cunningham was the sixth dean of the College of Education, serving the position from 1967-1974.

Two years later, in May 1971, Cunningham arrived at his office early to be confronted by a large number of African American students with one or two whites.

“They cornered Vern,” said Rosie Doughty, a three-time college alumna. “My husband (James Jefferson Doughty, 71 MA, ‘73 PhD) was six foot three, and when he spoke, he spoke loudly, and he got into Vern’s face. He told him what the university was not doing for black students.”

Cunningham didn’t flinch. In his no-nonsense manner, he led the way to a conference room and began a dialogue with the students. They changed to a larger venue – Raney Commons – after the number of students grew to about 100. They talked until late afternoon.

“They were loud and vituperative occasionally but (showed) no physical sense of aggressiveness,” Cunningham said in his oral history. By late afternoon, they agreed to continue discussion the next day at 7 a.m., and Cunningham weathered it alone.

The meetings ended with an agreement, approved a week later by the College of Education’s faculty senate, to establish a black education center with an operating budget.

Some people would have wanted revenge for being so confronted, but Cunningham remained calm. “Vern never refused to give Jim a recommendation for years after,” Rosie Doughty said.

“Your reputation grew greatly as a result of these experiences,” said Robert Butche, Cunningham’s oral history interviewer, “as someone who was willing to take the heat, bridge the gap, mediate the dispute and try to get change effectuated on both sides.”

After that incident, it was no coincidence that the college’s national ranking shot up, landing it as the top land-grant college of education in the country.

From dissatisfaction to peaceful reorganization

Cunningham is known for his role in desegregating Columbus Public Schools, but he built his reputation navigating conflict.

After he was named dean of the College of Education in 1967, the faculty were dissatisfied with the organizational structure. So he convened a meeting at Lake Hope State Park in Vinton County. All came, even the disgruntled.

Virgil Blanke, professor emeritus of educational administration who worked under Cunningham, described Cunningham’s signature approach. “Even when he was chairing a group, he would keep quiet and listen. If he had an agenda, he didn’t advance it. Instead, he would record in writing what the group said and analyze it, looking for agreement.”

Then he would share those ideas back with the group. “This is the direction I think we’re going,” Cunningham would say.

At Lake Hope, the strategy allowed the faculty to feel heard. They reached agreement on a new college structure that lasted throughout Cunningham’s deanship.

Ever modest, Cunningham attributes the reorganization success to fellow faculty. In his oral history, he named faculty John Ramseyer, Roy Larmee, Walter Hack, Arliss Roaden, Elsie Alberty, Harold Alberty, and others; he called them “soothing voices” creating spaces where decisions could be made.

Some faculty decided to depart, yet the college maintained its quality reputation under Cunningham.

“He was a magnificent facilitator,” Blanke said. “He valued people’s ideas, and they knew it. He recognized their strengths. That’s why they loved him so much.”

Early experience builds character

During his youth, Cunningham embraced life on a farm in rural Nebraska, enjoying its bounty despite its hardships. But when he returned from the war, the chance to earn a college degree under the GI Bill seemed too good to pass up, so he earned a teaching degree.

A military friend, now the superintendent of Shelby Public Schools in Nebraska, asked him to join them. Cunningham began his education career as a principal, also teaching four classes, coaching the school play and more. Then, at only 23, he became superintendent of the Snyder (Nebraska) Public Schools.

Two degrees later, he joined the University of Chicago as faculty. Later, Ohio State recruited him as dean. He left the deanship, but not his professorship, to answer the irresistible call to help integrate urban schools by fostering communications and developing improved administrative governance.

“He became adept at bringing together business and educational leaders to advance communities,” said Lila Carol Cunningham, his wife. “Over time, the great cities of our nation — Detroit, San Francisco, Columbus, St. Louis and more — called on him to help unravel the educational challenges of our times.”

Cunningham, center, met with educators from India in 1968.

Nurturing colleagues, promoting equity

Cunningham clustered his life's work around issues of equity. His deep and abiding belief in it powered his efforts to provide basic opportunities for well-being through education to all citizens.

Karen Stansberry Beard, a three-time alumna of the college and assistant professor of educational administration, knew of him when she was a master’s student. But she really came to know his work when she worked on a community and school relations study focused on policy implementation and the Penick vs. Columbus Public Schools desegregation case.

“It was Shirley Duncan (wife of Robert Duncan, federal judge on the Penick case) who sent me to see Vern. He graciously opened his home and his mind to me as I learned about his role in the desegregation case,” said Beard, a new Miami University assistant professor at the time. “He gave unwavering support of my work as an administrator and academic. What he taught me during our time together, I treasure. His support has been an invaluable blessing.”

Doughty, ‘74 PhD, who was a superintendent at East Cleveland Schools and University City Public Schools in Missouri, said Cunningham met with her every week for an hour while she was writing her dissertation. “He wasn’t on my committee,” she said, “but he did that for me. He told me, ‘Rosie, you want your dissertation to be a work that stands the test of time.’”

They made sure she collected the best data possible, and her dissertation remains a quality work that broke new ground.

Cunningham also encouraged minorities in all education roles. “He was a gift to women in leadership,” Doughty said. “He was not afraid of strong women or of strong men.… He broke down some of the barriers of the old boys’ club for women…. When I asked, he came to my school district to offer advice. He gave himself to us without expecting payback. But he did expect me to perform.”

Cunningham spent 30 years as a research professor and university administrator, and he didn't stop serving the field after his retirement in 1989. His total contributing years were almost 70. 

“Loved every minute of my educational career,” Cunningham wrote on the biographical information form for the Ohio Pioneer in Education Award that he received from the Ohio Department of Education in 1999. “Find it impossible to retire from it.”  

Cunningham died on Friday, December 6 at home, surrounded by his family. He was 94.


Part 2: Cunningham's role in Columbus Schools' desegregation

To support Cunningham's legacy in the college and suport students studying educational administration, donate to the Luvern L. and Lila Carol Cunningham Governance of Educational Studies Fund.


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