While Purdue is celebrating its 150th year of “giant leaps,” The Exponent will be celebrating its 50th anniversary of independence from Purdue and 130th year of publication.
The paper is student-run and none of its full-time employees are hired by Purdue. It is entirely self-funded as has been the case since 1969. The Exponent moved from campus to 460 Northwestern Ave. in 1989 and remains in that off-campus location.
The history of the paper’s independence contains some contentious moments. After the paper published several columns and a poem criticizing former President Frederick Hovde, then-Editor-in-Chief William Smoot was called into a meeting with the dean of students.
“The administration was angry with The Exponent for a lot of things in the fall of 1968,” wrote Sharron and Kent Hannon, features editor and managing editor in 1969. “But the deeper issue was who should control The Exponent.”
Smoot was handed a notification that the president had removed him from office during that meeting, and the rest of the senior staff was told on that same Friday to continue without Smoot.
The senior staff refused, publishing an editorial with the headline “Smoot Will Continue: Staff” that Monday.
“After the memo was read to us that day we were left alone in a conference room with instructions to choose a new editor from amongst ourselves,” Sharron and Kent said. “We stared at each other, too stunned to know what to do or say. Then someone said, ‘They can’t do this.’ And that was all it took. We got up and walked out.”
The staff, realizing the administration may try to lock them out of the paper’s office, hurried back and vowed to keep someone in the office around the clock.
With the staff rejecting Smoot’s removal, “the administration now had either to send in the police to seize The Exponent office (pretty bad visuals there) or back down,” Smoot said in a guest column. “They chose the latter, and the result is now history.”
Eventually the University formed a committee to determine the oversight of the paper, deciding to allow Smoot to remain as editor-in-chief. The committee also recommended The Exponent become a not-for-profit corporation, which it did in 1969.
Smoot said the experience helped him realize the importance of standing up for something he believed in.
“It could have gone a very different way,” he said in a phone call. “All of us could have said, ‘Well, I guess that’s it.’”
The Exponent, which used to be housed rent-free in the Purdue Memorial Union, moved in May 1989 to its current address on Northwestern Avenue.
Many alumni expressed in letters written to The Exponent in 1989 — the year it transitioned to its current building — how much they cherish their time working for the paper.
“There is no doubt that my fondest memories at Purdue come from my association with the Purdue Exponent and the many friends I made while working there,” Michael Lee wrote in a letter to the newsroom.
Though The Exponent’s staff are students, many find working at the paper to be even more informative than their classes.
“From vilifying (former Indiana basketball coach) Bobby Knight to enduring press conferences with the cigar-eating (former Purdue football coach) Alex Agase, I still consider my time at the Exponent the single most important aspect of my education,” wrote former staff member Ted McDougal.
Several alumni wrote of long nights spent in the newsroom and the skills they learned at The Exponent, which was a daily paper until 2017.
Alumni have covered moments such as the Kennedy assassination, Neil Armstrong’s death and Vietnam War protests here at Purdue.
“Most of all, though, it was fun to work with so many great people with whom to share the excitement and perils of trying to get a quality paper out every day,” wrote Tom Rudin, the editor-in-chief in 1978. “Some days we felt damn good about what we had put together the night before, and other days we had to hang our heads a bit — but every day was rewarding.”
For Smoot, working at the paper meant he had the chance to make a difference.
“In life, we don’t make a huge difference in things,” he said, laughing, “but the paper really did, and so being a part of that was really special.”