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 Department History 



History of Geography and Environmental Studies at SRU

by Tom Hannon, Jim Hathaway, and Jim Hughes,
December 2003

Revised by Jim Hathaway
April 2008


During the middle to late 1800’s Pennsylvania organized fourteen normal schools, with Slippery Rock’s dating from February 1, 1889.  Geography has been taught at Slippery Rock University since the school opened.  This report will review key developments in geography at SRU over the past century. 

Slippery Rock State Normal School and its sister institutions were designed exclusively for the training of teachers in either two- or four-year programs.  Given the poor quality of transportation at the time and the hilly terrain, students came from nearby communities and rural areas.  Slippery Rock’s first catalog was issued in the spring of 1889.  It lists six faculty members for the entire institution.  One of these, Maude Bingham, was assigned to teach geography, geometry, and drawing.  Three geography courses were offered at the institution: “Geography of the U.S. and Europe,”  “Political Geography,” and “Physical Geography.”  All students at the normal school had to take at least one of these courses, no matter which teacher preparation program they had chosen.  Harper’s Geography and Houston’s Physical Geography were listed as the required texts in the first catalog.

Maude Bingham’s credentials appear in the 1892-1893 catalog.  She held an M.E. degree, but the granting institution is not provided.  She was assigned to teach geography, history, and civil government.  Slippery Rock’s faculty had increased to thirteen.

The 1908-1909 catalog included Geography, but no faculty member was identified.  Geography was listed under “Historical Science,” which included the following courses: “U.S. History,” “Civil Government of the U.S. and Pennsylvania,” and “Political Geography.”   These were recommended as junior year courses for the B.Pd. (Bachelor of Pedagogics) Degree.  The 1908-1909 catalog offers a description of Political Geography as follows:

The subject of Political Geography is carefully taught as presented in modern textbooks with abundant help in the form of maps, globes and illustrations.  Facts and causal relationships discovered in the study of home surroundings prepare for the study of distant and unseen natural features, resources, industries, commerce, modes of communication and unfamiliar peoples.  Students who expect to enter the Junior class are urged to prepare themselves thoroughly upon this branch before entrance upon normal work.

The description of Physical Geography as presented in the same source follows:

A thorough course in Physical Geography is given.  Geological agencies now operative are first studied; the forces producing changes and the laws of their operation are considered; also the structure and development of the earth and its adaptation to the support of life are traced.  The development of the nation is considered with reference to its dependence upon climate and general geographic conditions.  Modeling in chalk, sand and paper pulp is taught.

The deterministic character of this description is in keeping with the environmental determinism then prevalent in the discipline.

The 1921 catalog listed Geography with the sciences .  One of the two geography faculty members was John F. Allison.  He held B.S. and A.M. degrees from unidentified institutions, and was responsible for teaching both geography and mathematics.  The other faculty member, Alma Rice, was shared between geography and pedagogics.  The catalog listed eleven courses which, given the staffing, were most likely not offered frequently.  “Principles of Geography,” “Economic Geography,” and “Teaching of Geography” were the main electives listed in the 1921 catalog.

On August 13, 1927, the name of the institution was changed to Slippery Rock State Teachers College, reflecting its focus on teacher preparation.

The Geography Department came into existence with the hiring of its first chairperson, Dr. Warren Thoburn Strain, for the 1936-1937 academic year.  Dr. Strain received his B.S. degree from Indiana State University [Indiana], and A.M. and Ph.D.  degrees from the University of Wisconsin.  While Gamma Theta Upsilon had been chartered in 1932, it came into its own under Dr. Strain.  Slippery Rock’s Zeta Chapter of the Gamma Theta Upsilon honorary is among the oldest in the country.  The 1936-1937 catalog listed twelve courses totaling 36 credit hours .  Faculty members at the time were responsible for 15 credit hours per semester.   However, Dr. Strain and Ms. Alma Rice were the only faculty members listed in the institution’s catalog until the following year, when Elizabeth Stadtalander was hired.  Geography course work consisted of eight regional and four systematic courses in 1936-1937.

By the 1941-1942 academic year, Herbert Rasche was hired as Assistant Dean of Men and a geography instructor.  He received both his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Wisconsin.  Sixteen courses for 39 credit hours were listed in the 1941-1942 catalog.  Alma Rice was no longer on the faculty, and Elizabeth Stadtlander had been assigned to Education and no longer taught Geography.  During the 1944-1945 academic year Dr. Strain was the entire department.  That may well have also been true during one or two additional years of World War Two.

Course offerings from the 1930’s into the 1960’s were balanced between regional and systematic courses.  Courses dealing with all major world regions are listed in catalogs, as well as systematic courses covering “Physical Geography,” “Economic Geography,” and “Cultural Geography.”  Dr. Strain, who had shaped the department, passed away in 1961 at the age of 59.   Roy T. Hickman, who held a B.S. and an M.A. from Ohio State, was hired in 1958.  He would ultimately serve as Chair during the period of Dr. Strain’s failing health. 

On June 8, 1960 the institution became Slippery Rock State College.  Then, by 1963, there were three faculty members including Dr. John Ball, acting chair; Roy T. Hickman, and George West.  The faculty increased to five by 1965, and to seven by 1970.

The early 1970s saw the arrival of an interdisciplinary environmental program with three tracks involving nine departments. The ecological planning and social and economic planning tracks develop into environmental studies, and the water and air pollution track develops into environmental science.

In the 1972-73 academic year there were nine geography faculty.  One of the recent hires was Paul Rizza, Ph.D. (University of Georgia), and he would chair the department for most of the next 25 years.  The major required 21 hours, selected from regional and systematic course offerings.  In addition, a course in elementary statistics was required.  “Environmental Problems” and “Conservation” were offered for the first time.

In the middle 1970s geography majors had a choice of three concentrations:  Rural and Urban Planning, Human Ecology, and Liberal Arts Geography.  In addition, a program for secondary education majors was available.  Nine regional courses and twenty topical and systematic courses were offered.  In 1977, the credit hours required for each concentration were: Liberal Arts Geography, 30 semester hours; Human Ecology, 39 semester hours, and Rural and Urban Planning, 30 semester hours.

In 1983, the fourteen-member State System of Higher Education was created.  As part of the SSHE system, Slippery Rock State College’s name changed to Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania.  

By 1993, SRU was offering a B.A. in Geography in two concentrations: Environmental Planning and Liberal Arts Geography.  It was also offering a B.S. in geography with the choice of two concentrations: Applied Geography and Environmental Planning. 

Paul Rizza retired in 1998.  Not long after his retirement his mother-in-law, Mrs. Ethel Carruth, donated 2.5 million dollars to SRU.  This money was used to renovate West Hall, which was built in 1900.  This beautifully restored building is now called Paul and Carolyn Carruth Rizza Hall.  It is the second building on campus to be named after a geographer.  Some years earlier, the Behavioral Science Building was named the Strain Behavioral Science Building in honor of Warren T. Strain, the geography department’s first chairperson.

The Geography Department merged with Geology in July, 2001, becoming the Department of Geography, Geology, and the Environment.  The combined department presently has six geographers, one geographer/geologist, four geologists, a soil chemist, and a meteorologist.  James Hathaway (Ph.D., University of Minnesota) chaired the department 1998-2007 and was followed  by Jack Livingston Ph.D. (University of Kansas).  A B.A. degree is available in the Liberal Arts/Geography requiring 37 semester hours, while a B.S. degree is available in Applied Geographic Technology that requires 55 semester hours.  The department's B.S. in Environmental Studies has a 55-semester hour requirement.  Twenty-one credit minors are available in both Geography and Geographic Information Technology.

The department has endeavored to advance the perspectives and insights of geography, and in more recent years, environmental studies, via high quality curricular programs for majors and high quality general education courses for non-majors.   At least eight SRU students have gone on to obtain doctorates in geography.  These include James McConnell at SUNY Buffalo, Susan Hardwick at the University of Oregon, Lizbeth Pyle at West Virginia University, and Carolyn Prorok, who is a member of the SRU department. 

Given SRU’s Normal school origins and the faculty’s four-course teaching load each semester; it is not surprising that the department’s mission focuses on teaching.  But faculty also try to extend knowledge in our discipline through research and to provide service to the university and our region.  Our departmental website shows some of the contributions we have made in these areas.

Geography has a long and productive tradition at SRU.  At present we face challenges common to most of higher education and to other geography programs, but we will do our best to build on what our forebears have provided for us.

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