Oral Histories

Dr. Leon Lederman and Dr. Stephanie Pace Marshall: Part 1

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Dr. Leon Lederman and Dr. Stephanie Pace Marshall: Part 1



Dr. Leon Lederman and Dr. Stephanie Pace Marshall discuss the idea for a science and math school, the founding of IMSA, and the early years. Dr. Lederman begins by talking about the Saturday Morning Physics education program for kids at Fermilab. He knew that there were specialized schools elsewhere, particularly in New York City, and that may have given him the idea that Illinois could have one. He gave a talk about the idea and it eventually led to a discussion with the governor. Dr. Pace Marshall heard about his idea and they began working together with support from the governor. They convened a board and, because of political circumstances, ended up with a timeline of about seven months between its first meeting (Oct. 1985) and when the school would open (Aug. 1986). The board members took on active roles to complete the work needed to open on time.

The historical context of the school's founding was also important: it was 1983 when Lederman approached the governor with the idea, during the Reagan administration and the Cold War. The original legislation to establish the school was defeated in 1983, but a second attempt tacked onto broader education legislation passed in 1985.

They discuss the challenges of starting out, and being warned of arguments against the school's existence, one of which was a charge of elitism. Dr. Pace Marshall's response was to argue that the institution aggregates talent in the same way that other fields do, not separating students by social class. In fact in many ways IMSA's academic and residential programs ameliorated other problems.

Returning to the opening of the school, at the time of the initial board meeting they lacked a building, textbooks, computers, or any other supplies they needed. They had to convince parents and students to trust them and the opportunity they would have. They went around the state talking to all kinds of people, selling an idea that did not yet exist. Some schools also didn't like the thought of giving up their best students. In the end between eight and nine hundred students applied to be in the charter class and 210 were accepted. Both the students and faculty took enormous risks in coming the first year, because they couldn't know for sure the school would continue to exist. On the positive side, they got to shape the institution and the curriculum.

IMSA opened on September 7, 1986 with 210 students. There were not yet any residence halls so the students lived in the main building. The promise from the state was that when another group of students were accepted the next year, the funding would double. They did not hold to that promise, and wanted the school to disinvite the second class. Instead, Dr. Pace Marshall recommended to the board that they stay open until the money ran out and then close if the state refused to give them the promised funding.

Duration: 27:40




Illinois state politics, funding, national politics, Cold War, curriculum


Oral History


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Copy permitted for study or investigation purposes, citing the source Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. Any other use requires permission. For more information please contact archives@imsa.edu.

Dr. Leon Lederman and Dr. Stephanie Pace Marshall: Part 1