SDSU MONTH: Professor remembers six decades at SDSU

by Diana Crofts-Pelayo

Courtesy of Diana Crofts Pelayo
Courtesy of Diana Crofts Pelayo

Dr. Henry L. Janssen comes to work at campus nearly every day, hikes in the Sierra Nevadas and has sampled more than 100 types of scotch. He is also 89 years old.

He is a professor emeritus of political science, founder of the Honors Council and has worked at San Diego State for 58 years.

In nearly six decades, Janssen has witnessed many stark changes on campus.

“There were a total of about 4,000 students and tuition was only $25 a semester,” Janssen said. “There was hardly an excuse for not going to college.”

He recalled that when he started at SDSU in 1953, women wore dresses to class, men wore suit coats and for the most part, students were white middle class. By the mid 1950s, buildings around campus were being constructed. Many were returning from the Korean War and there was a boom in population and students.

“There was a greater sense of community with faculty and among students,” Janssen said. “I was able to say ‘hello’ to every other student when I would walk around campus.”

He also said that he was a catalyst for bringing former president John F. Kennedy to campus. Janssen had heard Kennedy was coming to San Diego and within two hours, Kennedy was a confirmed speaker for the commencement speech.

Born in Lyons, Kansas, Janssen grew up on a farm and went to a one-room school. By age 5, he was a compulsive reader.

He began his career as a well-liked professor and earned his reputation with a political science course called “Public Opinion and Propaganda.”

“I knew I was doing something right because my class was difficult, but I taught in the largest room on campus with waiting lines to get in,” Janssen said. “There were more than 250 students in my class and I would memorize every student’s name and pass back exams without a problem.”

Although he cannot explain how it happened, he began to have a unique relationship with his students, to the extent that many still keep in touch with him today.

“If you can give last year’s lecture again, you weaken the justification for giving it,” Janssen said. “One never knows enough and never knows the perfect way to express that a life-long commitment to learning is a necessary qualification for being a teacher.”

As a college student, he was faced with many choices regarding his career path. He changed his major twice before finally deciding to focus on political science.

He never imagined he would become a key figure at SDSU, but he considers himself a life long learner.

According to Janssen, he realized a person should do more with life than make money. He became an advocate of SDSU, its programs and people. He believes teaching was his calling and wanted to distinguish educating from indoctrinating.

“I did not encourage (my students) to call me ‘Doctor,’ ‘Professor’ or ‘Mister,’ or any other title that implied the existence of authority or superior wisdom,” Janssen said. “I wanted their belief in me to rest on experience and not symbols.”

In 1991, Janssen co-founded the Honors Council. His purpose, he said, was to bring together the five interdisciplinary honors societies: Phi Eta Sigma, Golden Key, Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi and Mortar Board. He envisioned these societies working together to ensure a sense of community. Janssen is also an honorary member of all five and the creator and benefactor of two scholarships. The Henry L. Janssen Honors Council Award is given to students who are in all five interdisciplinary honors societies at SDSU. The second scholarship is given to students who are in Mortar Board, Phi Beta Kappa, have a 3.65 GPA and have a letter of acceptance to a graduate school.

The fifth annual Dr. Henry L. Janssen Last Lecture Series is an event that gives SDSU faculty members the opportunity to give his or her last lecture before retiring. Janssen was the first honoree and this year, President Stephen L. Weber will be honored.

“My examined life has been worth living – so far,” Janssen said. “SDSU is my community.”

Janssen will turn 90 years old on June 3.