A Revised History of the Experimental College - 1960’s to present

Live history from April 4, 2023 event:

“Cynthia Carlson (soon Nixon), Donna Michaelson, and Sharon Gold approached Jim Nixon in summer of 1965 about doing something different.” -Dr. James Garrett, “A Look Back at Experimental College at SF State” event, April 4, 2023.

In front of a captive, full house of over 50 people and more on Zoom in the background, Dr. Garrett continued, “Cynthia Carlson was a tsunami. She came into San Francisco State and her basic thing was you got 97% male teachers; 97% of them are white. There aren’t any women teachers. So I wanna teach myself. So she set up her own class [on “Education and Personal Values”]. Sharon Gold taught a class in that fall 1965 on anti-racism. Donna Michaelson was …one of those people in the anti-war movement, and she taught a class. … They had 3 classes, and they had 170 enrollees into the class…” (Dr. Garrett)

James “Jimmy” Garrett came from an organizing tradition with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) with the mission to use the resources of the university to promote an alternative educational model based on “protracted struggle” to bring young black people into the college, train and prepare them for long term struggle, and send them back out into the community.

Spring of 1966, they wanted to double the number of classes to 6 (which ended up being 8), and, [Dr. James “Jimmy” Garrett] “taught two classes… There  was a class taught called black nationalism, …and a guy by the  name of Tom Ramsey taught a class on Community Organizing… he was a follower of …Saul Alinsky.”

“Here’s the development. You have this growth, this tremendous interest by students in teaching other students, on the assumption that no student, just like no faculty, was the bank of knowledge.”

“The other thing was the search for some order, some culture, other than the one that was laid out.”

Eventually there was a split in the EC’s goals between the White leadership and the BSU leadership. Both factions of the EC saw themselves as taking the university’s resources for their own gains: Whites saw themselves as seizing the resources to do a lot of interpersonal searching, and shifts in the culture, to a place where it was more humane;
The BSU and Black students saw themselves as seizing those same resources to develop movements and struggles within the black community so we could ameliorate our own situation. This eventually would be the “loggerheads,” that caused the BSU to split from the E.C., “but initially we worked very closely together” (Garrett).

Spring of 1967, BSU had evolved to create their own Educational Program, at which time and into the Fall of 1967, the EC moved towards counterculture and “the psychedelic side of the counterculture,” which the BSU supported, while at the same time creating their own Black Studies Program.

“The Experimental College had created its own contradictions” by moving its center to the Haight  Ashbury; the Black Student Union and Black studies spread its model to other universities all over the country and created new spaces within the university through the spread of Black Studies curricula, “all of them wanted to use that model of training and preparation  for long term struggle” (Garrett).

“The center of our work was wherever Black people were, or wherever Chicanos were, or wherever people from various Asian communities were, and that was the unity, what was what built or created the circumstances where  there could be a third world liberation front unity in  support of the Black Student Union” (Dr. Garrett, 4/4/23 event), creating the conditions possible for the Black Student Union led-Strike of ‘68-69.

Dr. Garrett’s oral history adds important details, and corrections, to the early influences of the E.C. at San Francisco State.  According to Eli Meyerhoff’s documentary research in “This Quiet Revolution” (2019), the Experimental College was born in Fall 1965 with 3 student-led courses, citing Cynthia Carlson, but not Donna Michaelson and Sharon Gold, as Garrett corrected above. Next semester, however, Meyerhoff claims that Carlson “inspired the students to organize twenty-three courses …under the banner ‘the Special Section,’ soon renamed ‘Experimental College (EC)’” (320), whereas Dr. Garrett’s oral history suggests that eight courses were taught in Spring 1966.  Both claim that over 300 students enrolled.


Revised timeline:

  • Fall 1965: Cynthia Carlson, Donna Michaelson and Sharon Gold taught the first 3 EC classes with 170 students enrolled.
  • Spring 1966: the number of courses taught in the E.C. more than doubled to 8, according to Garrett, with a proportional doubling of students enrolled.
  • Fall 1966: Experimental College (EC) secured $24,000 in funding from Associated Students through major involvement in student government (Jim Nixon was co-founder of EC and President of AS).
  • EC decentralized their leadership and split into seven curricular areas with an “area coordinator” for each area
  • Fall 1966: 70 courses with 1200 students enrolled
  • Spring 1967: the “Black Arts and Culture Area” split off EC after conflicts over philosophy and resource distribution from mostly white male leadership of EC.
  • EC recentralized, focused on psychedelic counterculture and framed as an “adventure in interiority” by 1967-69 E.C. organizer Jim Willems (4/4/23 event),  and enrollment dropped to 650 students.
  • Fall 1967: a Black Studies Curriculum was enacted independently of EC, through BSU, with 11 classes, increasing to 17 classes the following semester, Spring 1968.
  • Then came the SFSU Strike, in Fall 68-Spring 69. BSU and TWLF lead students, faculty, and community in 5-month shut down of campus.
  • Fall 1969, Strike Demands settled, including the Department of Black Studies created within the School of Ethnic Studies.
  • EC no longer operates after 1969.
  • Attempts were made by Faculty in Spring 1974 to revive a version of the Experimental College under the name “New School” (personal correspondence from Norm Stahl, May 5, 2021). According to Stahl, “at the same time, Associated Students were also trying to rebirth the Experimental College as the communiversity - with mixed results.”
  • The Experimental College, or EXCO, is  revived by Kathy Emery in a Fall 2017 Pilot Program.

The Experimental College Pilot Program of Fall 2017

Since 2012, SF State students have been interested in reviving the ‘65-69 SF State Experimental College. In 2015, Kathy Emery started teaching a political science course partly based upon the Experimental College archives in our library (PLSI 395). The students in the Spring 2017 semester of PLSI 395 opened up student class presentations to the public and an SF State professor, Chris Bettinger, attended some of the presentations. Chris was inspired to convene four faculty – Kathy Emery, Trevor Getz, Chris Bettinger and Phil Klasky – for the purposes of discussing the possibility of reviving SF State’s Experimental College. These four faculty worked on a proposal for a pilot program for the Fall 2017 semester that was approved by the Division of Undergraduate Education and Academic Planning.

Four SF State students taught  courses in the Fall of 2017 for one unit each under the Political Science 699-designation. These courses met once a week for two hours.

  • PLSI 699.15 – Limiting Democracy, a study of Noam Chomsky
  • PLSI 699.17 – Syrian Refugees – Analysis of Global Issues
  • PLSI 699.18 – Community Organizing in the Digital Era
  • PLSI 699.19 – Cybersecurity, World Affairs & Social Implications in the Digital World

The purpose of the Pilot Program

The purpose of the Pilot Program was to evaluate each of these four courses at the end of the semester by the Division of Undergraduate Education and Academic Planning with the intention of developing a structure to support the expansion of such courses.

What was the 2017 mission of Exco?

SF State Experimental College fosters self-empowerment by promoting student-run, co-learning environments driven by critical, non-authoritarian, intersectional pedagogy; resistance to white supremacy; and, caring for the community.

Since 2020…

The SFSU EXCO Program survived the pandemic under the leadership of Faculty Director Dan Curtis-Cummins (Fall 2020-present). Undergraduate student teachers thrived in virtual teaching environments by embracing EXCO’s tradition of Critical Active Pedagogy (CAP):  trying different active learning methods and working through challenges with their students in supportive learning communities. EXCO continues to foster this spirit in all new teacher training workshops and resources, and welcomes students from all corners of campus to teach a course!!

A message about Experimental College in 1965 that rings true today: “The shift in the EC, in the Experimental College, was a shift from attending sessions where one person has all the knowledge, and the others sit and try to absorb that, versus everyone has the capacity to share the knowledge they have, and if they don’t have it they can go find it and bring it back to the group.” -Dr. James Garrett, April 4 event, “A Look Back at Experimental College at SF State

The Experimental College owes a debt of gratitude for all contributors cited herein, but especially to Dr. Grace Yoo, Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies for connecting us with Dr. James Garrett and his researcher Paul Lee, both of whom spent hours preparing, correcting, and helping document the living history contributed here by Dr. Garrett.

How can I access the archives of the original Exco?

The archives are open on the 4th floor of the SF State Library from 1-5 pm. If you want to look for more pictures (you can take them of the original documents with your phone) email SFSU Archivist Meredith Eliassen at eliassen@sfsu.edu (link sends e-mail) to make an appointment. Emailing ahead helps ensure that she can pull the archives out for you ahead of time.
The Digital Archives are available starting here: https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/strike/bundles/187916


“Compiled Voices: April 4 Event.” YouTube, uploaded by Experimental College, 17 April 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MN2GdqN2y0c&t=826s.

Garces, Audrey. “Pilot Program Revives 1960’s Experimental College at SF State.” KQED News Fix. https://www.kqed.org/news/11635657/pilot-program-revives-1960s- experimental-college-at-s-f-state. Web.

Meyerhoff, Eli. “‘This Quiet Revolution.’” Cultural Politics 15.3 (2019): 315–330. Web.
SFSU Library Archives, Accessed 4/20/22. http://digital-collections.library.sfsu.edu/digital/collection.

Stahl, Norm. Personal correspondence with Dan Curtis-Cummins, 5/5/2021.