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Walden Magazine // Jul 01, 2010

Seeds of Social Change

Forty years ago, our founders planted a seed from which a new model for higher education emerged.

She was a peace activist. He was an economist. But the social change work of New York state teachers Bernie and Rita Turner reached a new level after frustrations with a lack of higher education opportunities available to older students and those who had spent time in the workforce inspired them to send out 2,000 letters describing their vision for a new type of university.

One of the letters’ recipients, Dr. Harold “Bud” Hodgkinson, was a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley. The journal Soundings had recently published Hodgkinson’s “Walden U.: A Working Paper,” an attempt to develop a university rooted in freethinking and social change. Hodgkinson contacted the Turners and, in 1970, Walden University was born.

Named after Henry David Thoreau's Walden —in which the author described his search for independence, intellect, and societal values—the university would offer students of all ages the opportunity to pursue individualized higher education programs that would build upon the knowledge they had gained in the workforce and during previous schooling. Today, the Turners discuss the seeds of social change they planted 40 years ago, and reflect on the university’s growth and maturation.

Bernie and Rita Turner“We achieved a doctorate that was completely different than what existed elsewhere. It was the first of its kind that enabled people to develop their own personal doctoral program related to their own belief system and their own personal goals. It offered ways for them to grow and stretch and learn, rather than being fixed into a program designed by someone else.” —Rita

“When we view Walden 40 years later, we’re virtually staggered by what we see. The level of sophistication the institution has achieved is beyond anything we could have possibly imagined. Even though administration has changed over four decades and ownership has changed over four decades, the significant mission that Walden has is still in place.” —Bernie

“It is absolutely incredible. They have a feeling that the institution is a mission in and of itself. Those who are in the programs, those who mentor them, and the staff together feel that this coordinated effort is going to involve meaningful accomplishments as time goes on. You sense the bubbling of excitement that exists. This is an institution that will support you, will energize you, and will enable you to achieve the highest.” —Bernie