The table, which was in the faculty club in the Student Union, allowed faculty members opportunities to get to know colleagues in different disciplines.
Before there was Reddit, before there was Tinder, before there was LinkedIn, there was the singles table at the faculty club.
The faculty club at Texas Tech University, which was in the room now known as the Red Raider Lounge in the Student Union Building, was a faculty-only cafeteria with stylized stained-glass windows on the doors. In that room was an oval table. It wasn't large; it would comfortably seat about eight people. It wasn't flashy, just plain oak with no special insignia.
But it may as well have had a neon sign over it flashing “singles table.”
“Everyone walking into the room knew where it was and what it was,” said Jim Brink, a longtime Honors College professor who was the “baby” at the table in the 1970s. “Everyone who sat there would know that everyone who sat there was by themselves. That's why it was always called the singles table.”
Donald Haragan, a longtime geosciences and Honors College professor and 12th president of the university, said the “table gatherings” began in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Faculty members trickled into the club for coffee before they went to class, with professors naturally breaking into several small groups to chat. Over time several of the regulars made these mornings breaks their official unofficial start to the day, with conversation that he called lively, friendly and not always for the thin-skinned.
“The topic of conversation varied from university happenings (academic and athletic), faculty issues and local politics to what was probably the favorite topic of conversation – the university administration and recent actions taken there,” Haragan said. “The table is where Bill (Killer) Cain made his famous statement regarding the administration at the time. Bill advised us to be ‘glad we didn't get all of the administration we paid for.'”
That comment was especially enlightening for Haragan, who started his time at the singles table as a young professor before becoming provost and eventually the president.
Those regulars ran the disciplinary gamut from business, physics, history and philosophy to engineering, psychology, home economics and math. A few drop-ins joined the group as well. The diversity allowed for professors to connect with their peers, get them talking about their work and discovering opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration.
“When I found myself by myself, rather than having made prior arrangements to go eat, I would sit there,” Brink said. “I got to know people that I would not have known otherwise and actually became friends with a lot of people across campus that I wouldn't have known otherwise but for that venue.
“It was a kind of serendipity that ended up being productive.”
In the mid-1990s the faculty club shifted focus and then shut down. More and more professors got coffee on their way to work and ate lunch in their offices or out with colleagues in their department instead of meeting on campus. The university president had to close the club; it simply wasn't making enough money to be sustainable.
“In the ‘70s Texas Tech was truly a community of scholars, and faculty would indeed discuss their work with other faculty in entirely different fields of endeavor,” Haragan said. “This in my mind is truly what education is all about. Today faculty are so entrenched in their own specialties that their closest colleagues, rather than those on their own campus, are faculty on other campuses whose specialty in research is in precisely the same area as theirs.”
The club became a meeting room, one of the stained-glass windows was destroyed (Brink rescued the other one just in time, and it remains a part of the Student Union), and the singles table went into storage, where its story could have ended. Haragan, however, learned it was in storage, decided it was an important piece of Texas Tech's history and had it retrieved and restored. When he retired from the presidency and became an Honors College professor, the table moved into his office, first in Holden Hall and then McClellan.
It's moved only once since then, across the hallway from Haragan's old office, now a spacious, intellectual-looking conference room, into Dean Michael San Francisco's office. Before he got the table, Brink and Haragan made sure he understood the history that came with the table.
“It is safe to say it played an important role in my learning process as a young faculty member,” Haragan said. “It is too bad that today experiences are not shared in the same way. I will never forget the friendships that were made and the experiences and opinions shared among colleagues at the singles table.”