The Free University

No organization embodies UNL students’ push for expanded learning better than the Free University. Founded in 1966, the Free University was a counterinstitution that dedicated itself to student-oriented learning—something students felt the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was lacking at the time. At the Free University, students decided what kinds of courses should be offered each semester. There were no grades, no exams, and no one received course credits for their work. Instead, the Free University harnessed students’ passion for learning by focusing on issues that were important to them.

“Some students didn’t feel their classwork was really relevant to their lives,” Jim Humlicke, chairman of the Nebraska Free University Coordinating Committee, explained to the Daily Nebraskan in 1968. “[The students] hoped to create an educational experience outside the regular curriculum’”.

The Free University was also crucial to in the creation of UNL’s Women’s Studies program. UNL’s first Women’s Studies course—Women in Contemporary Society—was taught at the Free University for a year before UNL adopted it in 1971. Six years later (in 1976), UNL’s Women’s Studies program was officially approved by UNL.

One of the most unique aspects of the Free University was its structure. Many hallmarks of traditional education—grades, attendance records, standardized curriculum, credit hours and teacher salaries—didn’t exist at the Free University. The courses offered at the Free University, for example, were completely generated by students. Before each new semester, the Free University posted a bulletin board inside the Nebraska Union. There, students wrote suggestions for the next semester’s courses and unpaid ‘course leaders’ (teachers) volunteered to teach them. Groups of interested students organized together to form classes. In 1968, for example, the Free University offered a course on black magic, and another on “the image of womanhood and married life after the honeymoon phase”. While classes were open to the larger Lincoln community, the majority of the Free University’s students also attended UNL.

A satirical cartoon about the Free University in UNL's 1972 yearbook.

A satirical cartoon about the Free University in UNL’s 1972 yearbook, the Cornhusker.

Ron Warnet, a chemistry graduate student at UNL, criticized the university’s attitude towards teaching in an interview with the Daily Nebraskan in 1968. “I see the University turning out products. It’s just a vocational school”. Warnet was very involved in the Free University—he was a ‘course leader’, but also had his reservations about it. He felt that the Free University did not diverge from UNL’s approach strongly enough. “Certain courses this year [1968] are challenging the university’s teaching methods,” he said, “but in many instances it is just a personification of the rest of the university”.

While the Free University certainly disapproved of many elements of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, it was actually funded by UNL. The Association of Students of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (ASUN) controlled the Free University’s budget—which was roughly five hundred dollars a semester. Participants in the Free University did not like the arrangement, but knew it was necessary to keep the organization running. “Ideally, the NFU [Nebraska Free University] should not depend on any university aid,” Humlicek commented to the Daily Nebraskan. “It should not depend on student government finding a few jocks to run it”.