Matters of Conscience
Sterling M. McMurrin and L. Jackson Newell
[p. 215] Sterling, you assumed the deanship of University College at the University of Utah in the summer of 1954. What do you remember about your appointment? Did you apply for the position?
No, I didn’t seek the job. When the academic vice-president, G. Homer Durham, approached me about it, I said, “Hell, Homer, I don’t have any desire to do this kind of thing. I want to do research and write.” Homer’s reply was, “You take this job for a few years, and you’ll write a better book.” Well, I think he was right. It shows you a little more what the world is like than sitting in a library. You have to dirty your hands with the actual processes of institutional life. Not as dirty as being a department head. I was never a department head—thank the Lord for that—but being a dean, that wasn’t so bad.
Deans are to be regarded with suspicion, you know.
Oh, absolutely. Did I ever tell you the story that George Beadle, president of the University of Chicago and a Nobel Prize winner in biology, told me about deans? A senior faculty member came to the president and said, “You know, I’m getting a little bored with teaching. I’d like a position in the administration.” And the president said, “Well, there’s certainly no question about your talents and your service to the university, but we don’t have any administrative positions open.” The faculty member said, “You don’t? …. No, I can’t think of a thing.” “You mean in an institution of this size, with our high rate of turnover among administrators, that not one post is available? …. No, I can’t think of one.” And the professor said, “Well, I’ll be a son of a bitch.” And President Beadle said, “Oh, why didn’t you say so, we do have a deanship open!”
Well, we’ve both earned the right to laugh at that one, Sterling. What sort of a college did you inherit?
Well, my deanship covered about half the university when I took over. It was called University College then because of Meredith Wilson’s fondness for the British term. But I found that as a name it was widely [p. 216] misunderstood. Institutions all over the country were using it as the name for their downtown campuses and evening schools. I got a lot of mail that should have gone to the extension division. So in 1957 I proposed and the regents agreed to change the name to the College of Letters and Science.
What did it include?
Under both names it had all of the departments that we now find in the colleges of humanities, science, social and behavioral science, and the ROTC units. It also included theater and ballet, now in the College of Fine Arts. So we had about half the students, half the faculty, and half the work of the university. The general education program was also under Letters and Science.
If you were picking some landmarks in the university’s history from that era…
I’m afraid some of them were peripheral to my work in the college; like the creation of KUED, the university television station. I had no official connection with it, but President Olpin was involved personally and used to consult with me about it. That was an important development for the university and for this whole region. Another thing was the creation of the Middle East Center, which was first under President Olpin’s direct jurisdiction and then shifted to Letters and Science. The General Education Program, later called Liberal Education under you, Jack, was my responsibility, but Sydney Angleman directed it competently as my associate dean. I just tried to keep out of his way.
Perhaps the biggest factor influencing higher education in that era was the enormous expansion of the student population due to the passage in 1946 of the GI Bill of Rights, which provided significant educational benefits for World War II veterans. What was it like on this campus in the 1950s?
You’ve described the situation properly. The University of Utah grew rapidly from a small institution to a rather large one. I think we had grown to about 13,000 students by the middle of the 1950s. Money was scarce for most things, but the development of research in the university was spectacular. The arts also flourished—especially ballet and music. Space and buildings were scarce, but the federal government gave the university a large tract of land from Fort Douglas, everything east of the bookstore and a great many frame buildings on it, which we used to good advantage.
And still do. They’ve been “temporary buildings” for over a half-century now.
Our challenge, of course, was not simply to accommodate the [p. 217] students but also to build a strong faculty. During the nationwide expansion, acquiring people of real stature and quality as scholars, research scientists, and teachers was difficult. The demand for mathematicians was growing rapidly during that era of expanding technology, and mathematicians were as scarce as hens’ teeth. It’s a great compliment to our mathematics faculty that they were able to attract as many good mathematicians as we added to the department at that time. The same can be said of chemistry and physics and many other departments. Much of my effort was going toward building a strong faculty during those years.
The year the college was renamed, 1957, was also the year the Soviet Union shocked the world by launching their Sputnik satellite into orbit. Did that event shift the university’s balance between the arts and the sciences during the succeeding decade?
It generated a great deal of new federal money for engineering and the basic sciences; but we didn’t see much in the humanities. More and more competent young scholars were going into the sciences, which created a problem for maintaining the strength and balance of the liberal arts and sciences as a whole.
You also got very involved in relations with high schools, did you not?
I worked on early admissions for honors-level students and arranging advanced placement so that seniors who were doing advanced work could get college credit. I was influenced by a good publication from the American Philosophical Association describing experiments across the nation with introductory philosophy courses being taught in high schools. Waldemer Read, the head of the philosophy department, and I proposed to the Salt Lake City School District that they offer an experimental course in philosophy that would be on the level of a freshman university course. He and I both offered to go free to any high school to teach such a class. All they had to do was furnish the students and the classroom.
You found some of your best philosophy students through the School of Education, didn’t you?
That’s right. Prior to World War II, under Dean Milton Bennion, all education majors were required to take a course in ethics. His grandson, John Bennion, until recently superintendent of schools in Salt Lake City, was a philosophy major here as an undergraduate.
It’s rare to find a serious interest in philosophy among educational administrators today. We need it. John’s leadership has a rare resonance and perspective, as evidenced by his recently taking leave for a term from [p. 218] the superintendency to teach philosophy to high school seniors in his district. I’m delighted that he is now teaching full time in our school of education and directing a new project on inner-city school problems. He is driven by his ideal of social justice.
That’s why this whole topic is so relevant right now.
What became of the proposal that you and Waldemer made?
Well, Lynn Bennion, John’s father, who was then superintendent of schools in Salt Lake, invited me to come over to East High to meet and discuss the idea with some of his principals. There was a good-sized group there, and I made my pitch about upgrading education. I said a lot of introductory college courses should be taught in the high schools and some high school courses should be taught in junior high. Then I made our offer to teach a philosophy course whenever they wanted—a full professor of philosophy at no cost to them.
Did they take you up on this bargain or feel insulted?
Hell, I had no takers at all. Most of them just sat there and frowned. One fellow, Lynn’s assistant superintendent, got boiling mad. He said, “Look, if you want to come here”—well, I’d been invited, so I thought that was a little rude of him—”and tell us we should be doing a better job, all right; but don’t come here and tell us we should be teaching what you’re teaching.” When I later explained the national advanced placement program to all of the superintendents in Utah, I got one taker for that project; and that was the Granite School District. Other districts joined the program later.
Homer Durham was vice-president of the university during some of the years Olpin was president. What were his contributions?
Durham came to the University of Utah just before I did—about 1946—as professor of political science and head of the political science department. We didn’t have vice-presidents at that time. As a matter of fact, when Olpin was describing the ambitious plans he had for the University of Utah to me early in 1948, I mentioned that it looked to me as if he would eventually need a business vice-president and an academic vice-president. That kind of arrangement was fairly innovative in American universities at that time; they had established it at the University of Southern California and a few other places. He said, “Oh no, I don’t want any vice-presidents around.” Olpin liked to keep his own hands on new things. He didn’t want somebody between him and their actual operation. After he got something going, however, he would turn it over to someone else to run.
[ p. 219] How did Olpin end up with the vice-presidential structure then?
The regents insisted on a thorough examination of the university structure by a competent management firm. In 1951-52 Booz, Allen, and Hamilton conducted an extensive study and made recommendations for an academic vice-president and business vice-president. While I was in New York during my leave of absence in 1952-53, I learned that Homer Durham had been made academic vice-president and Elmo Morgan, then research coordinator, business vice-president. Meredith Wilson, until the fall of 1952 dean of University College, had functioned very much like an academic vice-president, so to some extent the reform simply offered a new name for a job he had previously defined.
What were Homer’s vice-presidential duties and what kind of working relationship did he enjoy with President Olpin?
They were highly compatible. The college deans, the library and museum directors, and others reported to the academic vice-president. Olpin recognized Durham’s talent for organization, and he used him as a kind of consultant to the administration even before he assumed the duties of the vice-presidency.
As acting chair of the Faculty Council and as vice-president, Homer took the lead in developing the faculty code and the regents’ code—both of them great contributions to the university. He had fine capabilities for delegating responsibility, although he was inclined to be quite impersonal, almost mechanical. On the whole, he was a first-rate administrator and highly respected. When he left the headship of political science to become vice-president, that department lapsed into confusion. He got me involved as dean very early in his administration—dumping his old department in my lap.
I can see that he had a talent for delegation, all right. I understand that during this period, the deans met with the administration every Thursday afternoon. What happened at those meetings?
All of the deans met with the president and the two vice-presidents to discuss university goals and programs. At times all of us felt that Olpin was keeping too short a rein on Homer about academic policy.
As academic vice-president, was Homer Durham a powerful defender of academic freedom? Nothing is more central to the emergence of a great university.
Oh yes. There was no better defender of academic freedom than Homer Durham or A. Ray Olpin.
Years later Homer became a member of the First Council of the Seventy in the LDS church and spearheaded the dismantling in 1977 of Leonard [p. 220] Arrington’s bright young group of professional scholars in the Church History Division. He also closed many important archival collections of the church. This seems like a strange and ironic twist in Homer’s values.
Well, he was almost certainly acting on orders, but I think that was a different Homer Durham. That’s about all I can say. As you know, he left here in the summer of 1960 to be president of Arizona State University when it was expanding very rapidly. His problems down there were mainly with extreme right-wingers; and he staunchly protected his faculty from their attacks. I think he was a real defender of academic freedom then—at least, that’s the opinion of people in Arizona who reported to me on it, and I think the same can be said of him when he returned to Utah as Commissioner of Higher Education in 1969.
As far as I know that’s true, but it makes his change all the more mystifying.
Well, as you know, when a man takes one of those high-level positions in the Mormon church—and they are all men—it can change him. I don’t like to say this of Homer, but I would be willing to say it of some: When they take one of those jobs, they simply sell their souls to the church and become instruments of sometimes ultraconservative and even repressive policies. After he became a general authority, we exchanged cordial greetings on formal occasions, but we never had a real conversation.
You had served on more than one national committee with Homer in earlier years.
Yes, I remember working with him on a committee on the future of higher education for the American Council on Education. He was a leader, there’s no question about it. It seems to me that he had much to contribute toward the end of his life that the LDS church did not want from him. I guess for some reason he decided to give them what they wanted.
Throughout your professional career, Sterling, including this era, you’ve maintained a steady scholarly output. How did you blend research and writing with your teaching and administrative duties?
Well, in the first place, I disciplined myself more deliberately when I became dean. I wasted far less time as dean, so I managed to do about as much scholarly work as I had been doing earlier. I also gained a very definite advantage—a full-time secretary. When I was a professor, it was hard to get anything typed. As a result, I usually spoke extemporaneously. Knowing I could quickly have a beautifully typed text, however, tempted me to write up what I said—sometimes before I said it, sometimes afterwards.
[p. 221]What’s your work style, Sterling? When do you write best?
Definitely after dark. It has to be dark when I write. Nor do I do much reading in the daytime. While I was dean, of course, I was doing administrative work all day. Now I spend hours a day in correspondence responding to questions relating to philosophy and religion, the Mormon church, the university, the federal government, or the United Nations. I’ve always tried to answer unless I think they’re crackpots. When I came back from Washington, though, I had to share the departmental secretary, and there were dozens and dozens of letters that I simply couldn’t answer. I felt bad about that, but there was nothing I could do about it.
Writing at night is a preference rather than a necessity?
I’d say so. I don’t go to bed early, anyway; and if I’m writing, I might stay up till two or three o’clock. Writing is not easy for me, but the first paragraph is usually the most difficult.
It always is.
Yes, I guess that’s right. I devote a lot of time to thinking, partly in my sleep and partly when I’m awake, of what I’m going to say, so that once I get started, the stuff comes a little easier and very often when I start writing I have virtually everything in my mind even down to the grammatical structure of a paragraph or argument. I do most everything in longhand, although when I had a secretary I often dictated the first draft of a long paper and then messed around with the typescript making revisions. Most of my stuff I write in longhand. I have never touched a typewriter or used a computer. When my drafts are typed, I revise them by hand. Editing is the pleasant part of writing for me, not the original draft. And, oddly enough, I can revise in daylight. I just can’t write in daylight.
Writing until two or three o’clock in the morning must mean that you require less sleep than most people?
Not at all, Jack! I think I require more sleep than most, but I just can’t get it. I’ve suffered from insomnia for years. I must have a guilty conscience.
What do you do when you can’t sleep?
It happens frequently, and I usually just lie there and try to sleep; but one of the things that keeps me awake is the thought of something I ought to be working on. I worry a lot at night and I can always use the time thinking up something good to worry about. I’ve got a reading light by the bed, and I’ll often just flip the light on and read for awhile. Of course, I can always get up, go in the other room, and turn on the [p. 222] TV. That often puts me to sleep. Very occasionally I’ll take some across-the-counter stuff, but I don’t like to do that.
I remember, when I was Roald Campbell’s doctoral student, praising Andrew Halpin’s essays or journal articles in education. I always thought he expressed himself extremely well. Roald said, “Would you like to write like that?” I said, “Sure, I would.” “Fine,” he said. “It takes Andrew about ten drafts before he’s willing to release a manuscript for publication.”
Ten drafts! Is that right?
Yes, and I think I may have done six on occasion, but never ten. I believe my record of six was on my “Liberal Spirituality” article for Dialogue recently, and it needed one more! Now you are known for a felicitous but complex style, Sterling. Do your final drafts come relatively easily? Are you a two-draft writer, or a six- or ten-draft person?
I’d say I’m a three-draft man on papers. I fiddle around with the manuscript in my mind for a long time, then I write out one draft in longhand, then have it typed, and then work it over again. Well, maybe four times. I usually have some additional ideas before I read or publish it, so I write in more revisions. On the other hand, a book or chapter might involve many, many drafts.
When you go to your cabin on Kolob Plateau, or take a vacation trip with Natalie and the family, do you haul your work along or leave it behind?
I always take some—not a whole lot. If I’m going to a conference, I’ll take along something to work on during the flight and in the hotel; but when I go to Kolob, with no phone or electricity, I usually take less. We just indulge ourselves in the quiet and in family and friends.
When you and Natalie steered us to the cabin nearby, you helped us realize a two decades’ dream. What do you read when you have free and uninterrupted time?
I never read novels and I despise short stories, but I like history for recreational reading—intellectual history, the history of Rome and Greece, the history of Egypt, sometimes Oriental stuff. My main reading is intellectual history, but I read a lot of philosophical material—epistemology and metaphysics.
You seem to have a distinctive pattern for writing. What about for reading? Every room in your Salt Lake home, your Kolob cabin, and your St. George condominium is filled with books!
Most of my books are in my study at home, but I rarely carry a book from one place to another. I have certain books in the kitchen, certain books in the living room, others by my bed, and so on. If I’m in the living room, I’ll pull a volume of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman [p. 223] Empire off the shelf and just read wherever it falls open. I greatly admire his style and use of the language.
Do you usually march right through a book or dip into it at random?
No, I usually dip in only when I know the book well. Quite frequently I read the notes first, though. In fact, I will often read the last notes first, and then work toward the beginning notes. The notes are frequently more interesting than the text. I guess I am a browser. I open up a book and absorb it somehow. I read the final pages first.
Sterling, I have here The History of Philosophy, the third edition in two volumes by B. A. G. Fuller, professor emeritus of philosophy at USC, revised with additions by Sterling M. McMurrin, professor of philosophy, University of Utah, published by Henry Holt and Company, as it then was. You inscribed the book “To my darling Mother, Sterling,” June 1955. Tell me how you got involved with Fuller. Who was he?
Well, Fuller was a very brilliant man in the history of philosophy, especially in Greek philosophy. He had taught at Harvard and came to USC back in the late twenties; but when I was doing my work there as a student, he was retired from active teaching and rarely came in. I was given his office to use when he wasn’t there. He lived down in Mexico when he was away from Los Angeles, so he didn’t come in often; but that’s how I became acquainted with him. It was a very casual acquaintance, though I knew quite a lot about him. This book came out in 1938 with a revised edition in 1945, and it was very widely used. I had a lot of admiration for his work as a scholar, and he was an intensely interesting person.
So how did you become involved in revising his book?
I was living in New York in 1952-53 and I got a letter from the Henry Holt Company asking me if I would revise and update Fuller’s history. Fuller concurred with the request. I agreed and plunged in, but I didn’t ever team up with him. In fact, I really wasn’t well acquainted with Fuller. I met him several times, but I never saw him after I joined the USC faculty in 1945.
Apparently it was the publisher’s idea; Fuller did not propose that I redo the book. But he wrote and told me he was pleased that I had accepted the contract. He kept his hands off completely and made no suggestions of any kind, except one. He wrote, “Living here in Mexico, I’ve been giving quite a lot of attention to Latin American philosophy; and if you would like—” he put it that way “—if you would like to include a chapter on Latin American philosophy I would be very happy to write one for you.” Well, the plain facts are that books on the history [p. 224] of philosophy had completely ignored Latin American philosophy, so of course I took Fuller up on his offer. He wrote a long chapter and I divided it into two.
How much work did you do on your revision, Sterling?
Well, the publisher had said not to make any unnecessary changes; and I certainly didn’t see any point in doing much with his Greek sections, since that was Fuller’s forte. I made some revisions in the Roman and medieval sections, but my revisions and additions are mainly in the modern period, the second volume. There was little or nothing on neo-scholasticism, phenomenology, or pragmatism. I added sections on those, and then I wrote chapters on such things as scholastic philosophy, logical empiricism, and existentialism.
I spent a couple of hours with the book last night, and I thought it’s an unusually good reference work. Very well organized.
It is a good book, and at one time was the most widely used history of philosophy text in American universities. I’m sorry that it was taken out of print by the publishers. When they told me it was going to be discontinued, they asked if I would write another history of philosophy for them. In fact, I signed a contract to do it. I had already signed a contract to produce a couple of volumes of readings that would be companion volumes to the two-volume history of philosophy.
I was an administrator by then, and it just used up my time. I wish I had done the writing. I wish I’d been doing that instead of hassling over faculty problems.
What was your arrangement with the publisher on Fuller’s book?
The publisher offered me either a flat fee or part of the royalties. Fuller had indicated that he wanted to split the royalties with me. My own inclination was to take the flat fee because it was a sizable sum; but the administrator in the publisher’s college books department advised me to take the royalties, and it paid off rather generously over a number of years. I believe after his death Fuller’s heirs received 60 percent and I received 40, which was certainly fair as far as I was concerned. Holt asked if I had any objection to their authorizing a Polish translation. They later published an Oxford edition, too, which was sold only in India, Ceylon, and Burma.
Fuller died shortly after the revised edition of the history came out?
Yes, and I became the sole owner of the work. There were never any royalties from the Polish edition, but I recall receiving some from [p. 225] the Oxford edition.
Let me ask you about the Henry Holt book of philosophical readings that you did with Jim Jarrett in 1954.
Jarrett and I both taught contemporary philosophy at the University of Utah, and there wasn’t a good collection of up-to-date contemporary stuff that you could put in the hands of the students. We wanted something that would include phenomenology, existentialism, and positivism, the three more recent developments along with the traditional stuff on pragmatism, idealism, realism, and so on. So along about 1951 we decided to put together a volume of readings. We were working on it while I was redoing the Fuller book, so after I’d settled a contract with Holt on that, I said, “Well, what would you think of doing a volume of readings on contemporary philosophy?” They liked the idea, so Jarrett and I finished it up and sent it in. It was published as Contemporary Philosophy just about the same time as A History of Philosophy.
You were busy with many projects and responsibilities in the 1950s. What about physical recreation, then and now? What do you do for fun, and to stay fit?
I don’t jog, if that’s what you mean. I have back trouble and jogging would kill me off. Natalie and I take walks in our neighborhood and in the mountains—not long or steep ones, but walking. I’d say that horses have been my main recreation, and I own some Tennessee Walkers. As you know, people who have horses not only ride them but like to lean on the corral rails and look at them. That’s an important part of owning horses. They’re magnificent animals. We have always liked driving trips, too; we have crossed the country many times by car. If there’s time, we still drive to California or the northwest. But I’ve always been a special fan of trains.
Traveling by rail is a lovely experience.
Natalie and I always get a bedroom so we’ve got some privacy where we can read, spread things out, and so forth. We’re quite addicted to trains.
How many horses do you have now?
We are partners in raising Tennessee Walkers with my nephew, Bill McMurrin, who, as you know, is an architect who lives in St. George. We own some property together and keep about ten horses there. It’s only a couple of acres but we call it a ranch. You know, Jack, in my next incarnation I plan to be a Tennessee Walking horse, live in Utah’s southern canyons in the winters and on Kolob in the summers. If you’re a horse, you can’t get anything better than that.
[p. 226] Not only that, but they seldom suffer from insomnia and hardly worry at all about writing.
That’s right. They’re not hurting one damn bit.
In 1960, however, your appointment as academic vice-president meant less time for good things like riding horses and taking leisurely trips with the family. How did this happen?
President Olpin used to walk down to my office from time to time, just to pass the time of day and do a little gossiping. One summer day he walked in and said, “Homer Durham is leaving to take the presidency of Arizona State and I’d like you to take his place as vice-president.” I was surprised but I agreed. I began my duties as soon as I got back from Aspen, Colorado, with Natalie and the kids that summer.
What kind of appeal did that new administrative post have for you? Did you accept Olpin’s invitation out of duty to the university, out of respect for Olpin? Or was it something you were genuinely attracted to?
Well, to be very honest with you, I never enjoyed administrative work. But I discovered that I was able to do it. I kept getting asked to do it. I was pleased of course that Olpin and the regents wanted me for the position. But if you’re asking whether I would have sought the job, the answer is no.
Did you consider saying no?
No, I didn’t consider saying no. I just told him yes, partly because I felt I owed it to the president to do anything I felt I honestly could do—and partly because I didn’t think being vice-president was any worse than being dean of Letters and Science. Except for doing the budget! That was definitely the worst part of the vice-president’s job. In fact, when the offer came to go to Washington as U.S. Commissioner of Education, my first thought was, “Oh, boy! This is a chance to get out of doing next year’s budget!” Dealing with many hundreds of millions of dollars in Washington is a lot simpler than dealing with a few million in the university.
Who succeeded you as the dean?
Boyer Jarvis was made acting dean; then when he went to Washington, Jack Adamson became dean.
And who became vice-president?
Daniel Dykstra, who had been dean of the Law School. He was vice-president for several years, very competent, absolutely first-rate. He eventually left to take the deanship of the Law School at the University of California at Davis.
[p. 227] You were academic vice-president less than a year, but I believe you did quite a few interesting things.
Mainly, they had to do with faculty regulations, regents’ regulations, routines for appointing faculty, and due process. I simply picked up in a sense where Homer had left off. This was a period in the university’s history when we were paying more and more attention to how you go about settling on a person for the faculty and how you go about getting rid of people from the faculty. The whole question of due process was drawing attention from the courts. I worked on that quite a bit. And then there were internal things, for instance, the Middle East Center had been established and Olpin wanted to have it right under him. Well, when I became vice-president, he wanted me to take on the Middle East Center, too, and I did.
On promotions and appointments, you had discovered as dean that in more than one department there was not just looseness but some skulduggery.
Yes, for instance, a department head had to get faculty signatures on recommendations for tenure, promotion, and appointment. One department head, I discovered, would go to a faculty person and say, “If you will sign this, then so-and-so will sign it,” and then use the first signature as leverage to get the second signature—playing faculty off against one another without any substantive discussion of the candidate’s merits. Really, it was outrageous.
And how did you solve that problem?
The previous form had required a person to sign and also record how he or she had voted on a given appointment. I designed and implemented a form requiring faculty to sign their names—but not recording their vote—attesting that the faculty met on such and such a date, who was present, who was absent, and what the total vote was for and against. Now that, you see, seems like a trivial thing; but before we had it, some department heads were fine and others were pulling all kinds of shenanigans.
Sterling, could you comment on changes in the hiring and firing of faculty from your appointment here until you retired in 1988.
Well, at first there certainly wasn’t much of an explicit routine laid out for governing either hiring or firing. When I became dean of the college in 1954, I implemented a procedure that was fairly standard in other universities and which governed hiring at the University of Southern California. The understanding was that there was a three-year period of mutual probation. It wasn’t formal or spelled out in a contract or a regulation, but we’d explain this clearly during the hiring process.[p. 228] If a new professor was not satisfactory, we’d give him or her at least a year’s notice enough time to find another position—but for three years they were on a trial basis. The department heads in the college went along with this, and there was no objection from the faculty.
What about firing someone?
If the department decided by majority vote that it didn’t want a non-tenured professor anymore, we’d give the person adequate notice and that would be it. They always left—not always cheerfully—but they left.
So there was no litigation in those days?
No, no litigation and a minimum of committee activity. I don’t mean that we dropped people arbitrarily, not by any means. I can best report on this for the Department of Philosophy. We would have very serious discussions; but we dropped several people between 1954 and 1961.
That sounds like a large number from one department.
A couple of them resigned, so I shouldn’t count them; but we dropped others because they were not satisfactory teachers. We dropped one because he wasn’t responsible. He would sit up half the night with his students drinking beer and then sleep the next day and miss his classes. I might say, he went to Japan and sent us back a postcard from San Francisco with a photograph of Alcatraz on it. He wrote: “Dear Former Colleagues, wish you were here.”
Today, of course, AAUP guidelines specify a maximum seven-year probationary period; it is “up-or-out” at the end of six years—you either get promoted and tenure or get fired. If you aren’t fired formally, you get tenure by default.
We did have tenure rules, but the up-or-out policy came later. When I came to the university, there was a length of time specified for achieving tenure if a person was an assistant professor, a little less time if he came as associate professor. I came as a full professor and I’m not sure how long was required—three years, I believe. The idea of early tenure didn’t occur to any of us. I received no credit on tenure for the time I taught at the University of Southern California. But the same two-way rule applied. If you were not notified that you were unsatisfactory before the time was up, you got tenure automatically. I remember one or two cases during the 1950s where unsatisfactory people were notified a little late and they were able to keep their jobs. These became battles—not in court, but within the university. In one case, the situation was laid before the regents and they supported the faculty member.
[p. 229] Wasn’t there an instructor dismissed without adequate notice back in the 1950s, and the case went all the way to the regents?
Yes. The result was what we called for many years the Bamberger Amendment. Clarence Bamberger, a member of the regents, took an interest in this case and insisted that, as I recall, people be given not less than three months’ notice. Well, in the College of Letters and Science, our typical practice, as I’ve already said, was to give a year’s notice unless there was some strong nonacademic reason like criminal activity for dropping them.
Today the process is more elaborate. Department students evaluate teaching and advising and provide a written report. Then the departmental faculty committee, made up of those at or above the rank to which the person would be promoted, convenes, reviews the whole record of achievement, and votes. The case moves next to the department chair, then to the College Faculty Advisory Committee, then to the college dean, then to the University Promotion and Tenure Advisory Committee, and finally to the vice-president, president, and trustees. All these steps, plus an appeals loop! How many of those steps were in place when you were dean?
Not many of them. It was rather easy then to drop a person. I think, however, the university was very well behaved in the way it did drop people. But the decision was made primarily in the department. The department would notify the dean. If a person wanted to appeal the decision, of course, that’s a different matter. He could appeal it all the way up to the regents. That was taken for granted, and I can tell you of one rather interesting case in an appeal. This was in the sciences. The division head told me that they had a man who had been there for a short time who was a good scientist and a good teacher, but the faculty couldn’t stand him, the students didn’t like him, and they simply were rebelling against having this man around.
It didn’t have to do with the quality of his work as a scientist?
No, the faculty had decided they wanted to drop him for other reasons. This was a unanimous decision of the departmental faculties and the head of the division, who, with the several department heads, were an executive committee. When they reported their recommendation to me, I said, “Go ahead. Let him know that he’s to be terminated, but tell him that he has a right to appeal up the line to me and beyond. A short time later he came to see me. I had never met him before, except when he was first appointed. I interviewed all of the people before they were appointed in my college. Anyway, he asked, “Do I have a right to appeal?” and I said, “Yes, by all means.”
I got all the department heads together—the head of the division [p. 230] and the department heads—and we met with the professor around the table. As chair of the affair, I asked him what he had to say. “Well,” he said, “I simply want to know why I’m being fired. I haven’t been given a reason for it.” “Well,” I said, “we’ll ask these people right now just what their reason is for dropping you.” So I went around the table asking these five people, one at a time, to explain to Professor X why they wanted to get rid of him. Believe it or not, every one of them refused to say a thing. Each one shook his head in the negative and passed.
This wouldn’t be tolerated today. It’s outrages like this that have brought all the procedures that ensnare us today.
That’s right. That’s absolutely right. So when all of them refused to give him a reason, I said, “Well, I know why they’re dropping you, so I guess I’ll have to tell you why. They don’t want you around here anymore because they regard you as an ornery son of a bitch.”
You would not get by with that today either!
Not at all. Nowadays, everything calls for litigation. It may be more just, but it is also more mechanical and less human. There is no good will or humor left in our system. Well, the professor laughed. He laughed! I greatly admired him. He got up and said, “That’s all I wanted to know.” Then he went around the table and shook hands with everybody. That was the end of it.
That is remarkable.
And it’s absolutely true. We were much involved during that decade in sorting out these things, but you know it takes time. It really takes time. Now in telling you stories like this I don’t want you to get the impression that the university was unfair with people, or cavalier or arbitrary. It’s just that if there were people whom we didn’t want around for good reason, we got rid of them. But I believe the university was very decent and generous.
You may be aware that we have very complex procedures now, even for revising our promotion, tenure, and retention policy. The system has become so unwieldy that nobody can understand it and any change seems to take forever—it takes a solid year for the vice-president’s office to review revisions in departmental policies.
I agree with you. It is too complex and there’s too much inclination to appeal this and appeal that, and yet I’ve seen cases in recent years where it was very important for us to have these broad avenues of appeal. The appeal side of it is tremendously important.
It is, and my idea is not to trim the opportunity for appeal or reduce the fairness in the system. It’s to make it simpler and clearer so that fairness [p. 231] can be more easily identified when the issues surface and action can be more timely. Earning tenure and promotion to associate professor is tantamount to securing your foothold in the profession. The assumption used to be that, if you were reasonably competent but didn’t receive tenure at the University of Utah, you’d simply go somewhere else and earn it there. Now, however, the job market is so competitive that if you don’t make tenure where you start out, you’ll likely not become a college professor anywhere else. Do you know now what happened to those half dozen who were not retained in the philosophy department in your early years here on the faculty? Perhaps one reason for the increasing formality and legalism of terminations today is that people’s whole professional careers are on the line.
Yes, these people I’ve mentioned, and others in the 1950s and sixties, could get other positions. I don’t think any of them had any real difficulty getting other positions. They were people who had good degrees from fine institutions; American education was still growing rapidly, money in education was generally improving, and there was a shortage of people for university teaching positions. So I don’t think any of them were severely handicapped, except of course the one who was blatantly irresponsible. That is another matter.
These conditions changed around 1970, however, when an immense surplus of people qualified for university positions in history and languages appeared—when student enrollments leveled off but Ph.D. production didn’t. That spread to other fields rather quickly, too.
Yes, if we could find somebody who knew the times tables, we’d give him a position in mathematics. Let me give you an example. We sent one or two of our mathematics professors to a meeting of the American Mathematical Association in Texas to recruit people for our mathematics faculty. What they discovered was that recruiters from other universities were getting onto airplanes that were flying into Austin and offering mathematicians jobs before they got to the convention! Competition was fierce. So a mathematician fired from one job could easily find another. But our way of handling the hiring and firing of all faculty was altogether too loose. But now, I think, it is far too complicated.
Maybe we can oscillate back to a happy medium.
In the late 1970s President David Gardner asked me to chair a committee to hear an appeal from a person who had been denied tenure and was to be dropped from a departmental faculty. It had gone right up through the normal process to the vice-president’s office and the faculty person had lost. There was still the possibility of appealing to a special ad hoc committee which the president could create, and this was [p. 232] the committee I chaired. We had legal advice from Vice-president Arvo Van Alstyne, who had a fine legal mind, and the person involved had a very competent lawyer. We had several hearings with a considerable number of people testifying from the relevant department and the college. The thing was handled very rigorously.
What was your decision?
We found substantial procedural errors and recommended that the tenure review process start afresh. The president took a look at my report and said, “We’re not going to start the review process over again. We’ll simply give the person tenure.” That person is still on the faculty. Here’s a case that illustrates the importance of having strict regulations and following them closely. I think I learned about as much from that case as any other about the importance of due process.
You mentioned procedural matters having to do with students?
Yes, very soon after I took over as vice-president—a matter of days, as I recall—Olpin came in with a stack of papers on canceling the out-of-state fees for graduate students. He said, “Dean Eyring is in favor of canceling out-of-state fees for virtually all graduate students and Homer goes along with him, but I don’t think we ought to do it quite that way. Can you give it some thought?” I set up a committee to examine the merits of such cases and the number of exceptions to the fee was greatly reduced. Well, there were a lot of things like that, and I certainly don’t say these things in criticism of Homer. He had done a great deal to bring order out of considerable disorder, and Meredith Wilson had done the same thing.
Did you feel you left any major unfinished projects when you accepted the appointment in Washington?
Oh, of course I did. I think one that I should have done more on had to do with college councils. We didn’t have regulations requiring them in those days; but in the College of Letters and Science, I created an informal council—meaning that it wasn’t provided for in the faculty regulations. This council was made up of the heads of the twenty-three departments—
Oh yes, counting the three ROTCs. So I would have quite regular meetings with department heads to transact business. Well, when I became vice-president, I could see the benefit of having college councils university-wide and was working at it when I left. I was pleased that they were later made a matter of policy.
[p. 233] Lillian Ence worked with you over a long period of years as your assistant. Was she with you when you were vice-president?
I’m glad you asked, because I want to say a few things about her. I had known Lillian and her husband, Don, when I was a student. They were a little older than I. Lillian was typing Ericksen’s book on social ethics during the spring of 1937. She was working mostly in Ericksen’s home, and I was there quite often. Well, I was also writing my master’s thesis, and Lillian volunteered to type it. Don was also a capable typist; and between the two of them, they typed my master’s thesis and they wouldn’t take a cent for doing it.
So your ties go way back.
When we moved back to Salt Lake, we’d run into them downtown, and Natalie became aware that Lillian was a secretary for General Motors at their offices here. I desperately needed an able assistant, and I had had two of them who stayed only a short time. I was at my wits’ end when Natalie said, “I’m going to call up Lillian Ence.” I said, “Look, Lillian’s making much more money where she is. She’s not going to take this job.”
But Natalie went right ahead and called her.
Called her, interviewed her, and I hired her! And Lillian took a salary cut in coming. She was not only absolutely first-rate, she was phenomenal. She was everything that one could ask for in an assistant from the standpoint of executive ability, administrative talents, ability to get along with other people, and first-rate stenographic talents. She had been a student at the university, and then, as an administrator, she learned everything about the institution and its people—becoming an inexhaustible source of information and advice about every problem that came up.
Did you take her with you to the vice-president’s office in 1960? I remember that she was in the president’s office when I came in ’74.
Yes, she went with me to the vice-president’s office, but I’m not sure when she moved on to the president’s office. It was sometime during Jim Fletcher’s administration. She stayed on there during the administrations of presidents Fred Emery and David Gardner. I’ve already told you how I agreed to be provost of the university only if I could talk Lillian into being my secretary, but Fred Emery, who was then vice-president, wouldn’t give her up! Everyone wanted Lillian’s assistance, you see, she was an institution.
Indeed, her portrait by Al Gittins hangs in the Winder Board Room with yours and a few others. Pursuing now your collegial connections with Boyer [p. 234] Jarvis, when did you and he first work together?
In Tucson, when I was director of the LDS Institute of Religion there and Boyer was a student. I’d taken the position at the end of a school year but I wouldn’t be moving to Tucson until fall. Somebody had to look after the institute building and grounds during the summer. I was replacing Daryl Chase, and he and I conferred about who could do the job. We both knew Boyer. He had a summer job in the Valley National Bank and also worked as a radio broadcaster. So we went down to the bank, found Boyer, and said, “How would you like to live in the institute”—it had a beautiful apartment in it—”and just look after the place?” Boyer accepted and we have had a great deal of contact ever since.
But then you left Arizona?
Yes, and when Natalie and I were in New York on the Ford Fellowship, Boyer was working on his doctorate at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. We drove through Chicago on our way back just to call on Boyer.
When did Boyer come to the University of Utah?
Boyer did his doctoral dissertation on nineteenth-century Mormon oratory. Ah, those pre-microphone days in the Tabernacle. They were all orators. I was in my first year as dean of Letters and Science when Boyer came to town to work in the Church Historian’s Office to examine old Mormon speeches he was working on for his dissertation. Of course, he needed some kind of work. Boyer was not married and he had taught at the University of Arizona, Northwestern, and a year at Dartmouth—very fine experience, you see. Hal Bentley was director of the Extension Division and he needed an assistant in the worst way, had funding for an assistant, and was actually looking for an assistant. I knew Boyer Jarvis’s unusual talents and argued for him until I was blue in the face. Here was Hal’s chance to get an assistant who wouldn’t let things fall through the cracks. He’d say, “What if he doesn’t pan out?” I said, “Hell, Hal, if he doesn’t then fire him. That’s the way we do with faculty.”
But nothing doing?
Nope, Hal wouldn’t budge. Well, just when I was giving up on Hal, Homer Durham came through with some funds for an assistant for me. So I gave that job to Boyer. As soon as I did that, Hal changed his mind. He came around saying, “Why didn’t you tell me that Boyer Jarvis was Joe Jarvis’s son? I’ve known Joe Jarvis ever since my Mexico days.” “Well,” I said, “what’s that got to do with it?” Later Boyer worked for [p. 235] Hal and for me simultaneously. Then both of us wanted him full time and both of us had the funds. It became a kind of a tug of war.
That put Boyer in a good but difficult position.
It certainly did. He could have had either job. If Hal had taken him first, I wouldn’t have had much to bargain with; but he’d been working with me for some time. So we just put it up to Boyer—both offers—and Boyer took my offer.
Well, you did a marvelous thing when you got Boyer Jarvis anchored to the University of Utah. I don’t know anyone who’s done more for this place than Boyer in the last twenty-five years. He was the conscience of the institution until he retired in 1989.
That’s right, and everybody says the same thing, you know. Two of the people who became vice-presidents in recent years told me that they took the job only with the understanding that Boyer would stay there and work with them as associate vice-president. He’s a remarkable person in more ways than one. Just virtually works himself to death. On weekends, for instance, or any time till about seven at night, if I needed to call Boyer, I’d always try his office first. And he does many, many things in community service United Nations, NAACP, Committee for Russian-American Relations, and organizations of that kind.
Another of your lifelong friends, Obert Tanner, was a remarkable faculty colleague and university teacher, although most people in this community know him for other achievements. What were your experiences with him when he taught at the university?
Obert had a very distinguished career as a teacher that has nearly been lost from the public consciousness. I’m very pleased that in 1986 the plaza and fountain between the Student Union and the new Student Services Building—both of which he donated—were named in his honor. He’s been a civic benefactor of the most impressive kind. He joined the faculty, I believe, in 1946, just before I got here in 1948. Ericksen was still dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and head of the philosophy department.
Where was Obert educated?
He had a master’s and most of a Ph.D. from Stanford, but he started out with undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Utah. He was admitted to the bar but wasn’t interested in practicing law.
Obert’s mind ran naturally toward what ought to be, not with precedents or toward the past.
Yes it did. He’d taken work in philosophy with Ericksen when he was a student—he was about ten years older than I am—and with [p. 236] Waldemer Read. He went to study the philosophy of law at Harvard, which suited him well, and later at Stanford he became good friends with Charles Hartshorne and especially C. I. Lewis—Clarence Irving Lewis—a leading philosopher of this nation in his later years. Obert always called on Mrs. Lewis when he visited Boston or Cambridge, and the Tanner Lectures at Harvard are given in honor of C. I. Lewis.
Did you know Lewis?
I was familiar with his works, of course, and I had a brief but very pleasant association with him at Harvard. We were chatting one day in his office, and he said, “I’m due for a lecture, and I wonder if you’d like to join me?” As we were walking toward the lecture room, he added, “This is my last lecture. I’m retiring.” Well, at Harvard, last lectures are quite ceremonial events. Many people from around the university came to hear him and I joined heartily in the applause at the end. But that was nothing like the association Obert had with him at Stanford.
Obert once told me an amusing story that involved the American philosopher Morris Cohen, who was then on the Harvard faculty. Obert liked to argue, so he got into a wrangle with Cohen in a philosophy of law course and wound up by saying, “Your position is contrary to everything I’ve learned in theology.” Cohen responded, “Well, young man, my advice to you is to stick with theology.”
So at that point Obert went to Stanford?
That’s right. I don’t think he finished his degree at Harvard. He and Grace and Natalie and I became fast friends in the early fall of 1938. I remember that it was the fall of 1939 when he told me Stanford had invited him to join the faculty of the Department of Religion, which was then being organized, even while he was still a graduate student.
Quite an honor! Did it interfere with his graduate work?
Of course, as it always does. He was acting chaplain the next year when the chaplain went on leave. When he decided to move back to Utah, they tried to get him to stay and accept the regular chaplain’s appointment. It kept him busy! He performed marriages for the students in that magnificent chapel at Stanford, and then the alumni would come back and have their babies baptized. He had regular Sunday services, too. Obert and Grace’s oldest son died of polio at age twelve while they were in Palo Alto, and I think that made them want to come home to Utah. So he and Grace moved back, and Obert took the position in our philosophy department.
[p. 237] Was his jewelry business, the O. C. Tanner Company, already booming then?
Absolutely. Obert started that business in his mother’s basement when he was an undergraduate and ran it until he died in 1993. That’s nearly seventy years. And yet he also went to school or served as a full-time professor right up until he retired from the philosophy department at the University of Utah in the early 1970s, keeping the growing business going with the help of his sister, who managed it while he was at Harvard, and his nephew, Norman Tanner, who had a big hand in the operation for a long time.
And at the university …
He and I shared an office from 1948 until I was made dean in 1954. Obert functioned just like any other faculty member—engaging in extended conversations, taking part in examinations, teaching full-time, becoming involved in recreational affairs, coming to evening events and lectures—and we had many of them. He taught at the university for a quarter of a century. It was astounding that he was able to do all this and develop the business into a global operation at the same time.
He must have had a remarkable business sense; and he certainly had inexhaustible energy.
Oh, there’s no question about that. And he himself gave most of the credit to the excellent people he had working with him. He used to talk with me about the business. Besides that, we had one phone and it was on my desk, so I overheard most of his telephone conversations. He had a sense of when to take a chance on things, and he could make decisions very rapidly. Somehow he usually made good decisions. But he never talked about making money. He liked to talk about creating high-quality jobs and, later, about gifts that would make our community better or stronger.
Obert’s book, Christ’s Ideals for Living, is a remarkably broad-gauge religious text that sets Jesus’ life and teachings in the larger history of ideas globally.
That was during the 1950s. He wouldn’t have done it, but church president David O. McKay pressed him personally, knew what Obert could bring to the task. Waldemer Read and I strongly urged him to do it too. We thought it would be a good thing for the church if Obert would write that book, and of course it was a good thing. The book is widely read even today. Well, these things interfered with his finishing his doctorate; but when it became evident that Obert was not going to get the degree, there was no point in not making him a full professor. [p. 238] So this was done. Obert was a marvelous teacher, as I’m sure you know. He had an unusual facility for getting students to think and to think carefully about matters pertaining to philosophical, religious, and moral ideas. Really a teacher of great talents. When he was in his late sixties, he wanted to retire and spend more time traveling, but we urged him to just retire part-time—teach one quarter a year and have the other two quarters off.
Although Obert’s business struggled in the early years, I understand he was as generous at heart then as he was later when his resources were enormous.
Yes, and he always seemed quite indifferent to compensation from the university! He taught, I think, for almost a year and never got a paycheck, until someone called it to the administration’s attention. Obert would typically let all his third- and fourth-class mail accumulate on his desk, then put a wastebasket at the end of the desk and just push everything off. More than once I had to salvage his salary check. I’d say, “Now, Obert, this pile has a check in it.” He’d say, “Check? What do you mean ‘check’?” I said, “Obert, the university pays you for professing and this has your paycheck in it.” He was truly indifferent about it.
Did Obert write in the field of philosophy?
Only locally, but what he did was important. We established in the very early 1950s a philosophical lecture series. We called it the Great Issues Forum and it lasted for fifteen years or more. Each of us on the philosophy faculty would write and deliver a lecture at least once each year that could be published. Obert always participated in those forums and in this connection he wrote quite a bit of stuff, some of which was published. Obert wrote and read a number of lectures having to do with educational and social issues. He was very much in demand to lecture on major civic issues as well as philosophical, religious, and educational subjects. Most of this was not intended for publication at the time, but he brought much of it together at the end of his life, and the University of Utah Press published the edited collection in 1989 as One Man’s Search: Addresses by Obert C. Tanner. This book was a source of great satisfaction for him.
Tell me more about his teaching. What did he do in a classroom that made him so effective in pushing students and colleagues to think?
The students liked him partly because his technique of teaching was to challenge them in their views. A Socratic method. He would raise questions that were quite central to their interests and their thinking. While Obert had an excellent reputation as a teacher among faculty members too, he had something of a negative reputation among some [p. 239] people in the community, especially in the church, as you might expect. They didn’t want their sons and daughters to be required to do any independent thinking, so Obert had his critics like all true scholars have; but, aside from that, he had an excellent reputation. He was quite dramatic. He wasn’t a dull lecturer like some of us. He could at one and the same time entertain and inspire the kids. He could really do it.
Did faculty ever resent Obert for having made himself such a success in business, while gaining such recognition here on the campus?
I had a feeling that there was some resentment against Obert. On the other hand, as Obert became more prominent in the state and made public statements which would get into the press and so on, the faculty became more and more aware that he was one of higher education’s chief assets in this state. There’s no question about that. He took on people like the ultraconservative anti-communist Cleon Skousen, for instance, in a big debate at BYU. Obert did many things that showed on the one hand that he was completely committed to intellectual honesty and academic freedom and on the other hand that he wasn’t scared of anybody—that he said what he thought. As this became more widely known, he became an object of very considerable admiration, not only at the University of Utah but increasingly regionally and nationally.
Obert’s application of ideas to real situations seems to be a theme throughout his life. It characterized his teaching, and it was manifest in the O. C. Tanner Company. His was both a moral and a practical philosophy.
That’s quite right. Obert was very pragmatic in his views, very practical in his behavior. He didn’t approach the problems of philosophy, as far as I could see, in a purely academic manner. It was his life philosophy, his moral beliefs, and his attitudes toward the big questions we all ask that set him apart.
Give me an example.
Obert would come back from a class trailing several students who were arguing with him. I remember one student saying, as he entered the office behind Obert, “Apostle So-and-So said…” And Obert turned around and said, “Now, I want you to get one thing straight—that So-and-So and I are diametrically opposed on any subject that you want to name.” That way of dealing with the students, you know, was a source of delight to them and also consternation in some cases—in cases, for instance, where the So-and-So was one of the LDS apostles and the student was Mormon.
Obert’s teaching illustrated the importance of intellectual freedom, one of the [p. 240] basic values that defines the higher learning. Let’s talk about the university’s first public battle over intellectual freedom. I’m talking about the American Association of University Professors’ 1915 investigation of the University of Utah on charges of violating academic freedom. At that time the AAUP was just cutting its eyeteeth as a national force—this was the first of hundreds of cases the organization has tackled in its quest to define and protect free inquiry in higher education.
It all started here in the spring of 1915 when President Kingsbury told some young, popular professors who had come from outside the state that they wouldn’t be needed for the next year and that there would be no hearing on the matter. They had been outspoken about what they viewed as Kingsbury’s narrow views and autocratic manner. The board of regents backed the president, but many alumni and students were up in arms and some from the community joined in protest. Seventeen faculty members resigned, led by Ansel Knowlton and George Wise. Kingsbury happily accepted all the resignations. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Committee A, came out to investigate the case. Arthur O. Lovejoy of Johns Hopkins University headed the visiting team, and John Dewey was one of three distinguished scholars who were involved in judging the evidence and formulating the conclusions, though he did not come to Utah.
The AAUP filed a very critical report on Kingsbury’s actions, and therefore on the university as well, disapproving the dismissal of the professors for expressing their views, finding that reasonable due process had been ignored, and concluding that “the Board denied the limits of freedom of speech in the university in such a way as to justify any member of the Faculty in resigning forthwith.” They didn’t mince words.
Yes, and the issue was further inflamed by what was seen as Mormon church interference, although the committee did not concur with this charge. Chamberlin, in writing the history of the university which was published in 1960, deemed evidence of church interference “wholly circumstantial.” E. E. Ericksen, for one, would talk to me about it. I’m not sure how much students in general knew about it in my student years, but it was still a lively subject of discussion among the older faculty in the late 1940s.
This was the first academic freedom case investigated by the AAUP, which had just been organized. I guess they wanted to do it right.
Walter Metzger, the historian at Columbia who was later the chair of Committee A—AAUP’s academic freedom committee—made a thorough study of the Utah case some years later and wrote an article on it for the AAUP journal.
[p. 241] I’ve talked with Metzger about it. I brought him here about 1980 to give a Liberal Education Lecture on academic freedom.
I must have been away, or I certainly would have attended, Jack. Metzger and I had a day together in 1965, at a conference in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. We discussed the Utah case at length, and I tried to convince him that he should come to the University of Utah, take another look, and write an article entitled, “The University of Utah Fifty Years Later.”
In 1965 you were provost of the university. Putting two and two together now, this 1915 embroglio over firing faculty members without due process must have inspired you and others to clarify and codify faculty personnel policies when you were in a position to do so?
Yes it did, no doubt about it. In fact, I described for Metzger our new policies and procedures in dealing with faculty and the discharge of faculty, especially in matters relating to due process. I was really candid with him, and Metzger said—I’m not exaggerating this—”Well, if that’s the case, you’re in better shape at the University of Utah than we are at Columbia.” In fact, he said he only had one criticism. “Your policy is to give people an appeal hearing before you actually take the action. I’d fire them and then let them appeal.” Now I regarded Metzger then as the leading authority on the subject of academic freedom in the country, absolutely first-rate.
And that was his only criticism. He was tougher than we were.
As you see it, Sterling, what are some of the limits of academic freedom? Have you seen it abused?
In the sixties, when there was a lot of student trouble and some faculty discontent in connection with the Vietnam War, I was one of those who felt that some elements in the faculty were really attempting to politicize the institution. I suggested to James Fletcher, who was then president, that we invite Metzger to come out here then to give some lectures on academic freedom and let the faculty have at the issue.
In other words, you don’t believe that the university, this one or any other, should take a stand on public issues because that would encroach on the right of individual scholars to think or speak freely? In the early 1990s we had a new manifestation of this issue in the so-called political correctness or “PC” movement to ban particular words or ideas from campuses—politically or socially unpopular terms or notions. This is why free expression for scholars is not a right, but a duty, in Jefferson’s terms. I find his idea compelling, even though it preceded the modern definition [p. 242] of academic freedom.
You are absolutely right, Jack.
Now I’m sure the university felt like a free and exciting place in the thirties and fifties; but as you look back, how would you compare the degree of academic freedom of faculty and students then to now, here at Utah, or at other major universities?
I have to say that as far as I was aware, we had as much academic freedom then as we have now; but I can give you a single example illustrating that things weren’t as open as they now are. The years 1933 through 1937 were crucial years for academic freedom in Utah, in my opinion. But I think the person most responsible for fighting and winning the battles to create an atmosphere of academic freedom here was George Thomas. The result of the 1915 fiasco was that Kingsbury left as president in 1916, and John A. Widtsoe became president. Widtsoe was president for five years—until 1921; then he left to become an LDS apostle. Thomas then became president.
And he remained president for twenty years.
Yes. He had some time to get things done. I think Thomas was pretty tough-minded, the two-fisted variety. A Mormon, but a Mormon of great independence of mind and behavior. And that’s certainly the reputation he had among the faculty. Even as a student, I was in his office a number of times and had several conversations with him. He was, I think, a man of very great integrity. He was the kind of person who could stand up to anybody—the church, the government, you name it.
What kind of support did he have?
I’d say it was substantial. The faculty had great confidence in him. He was very involved, for example, in the timing of the philosophy of religion course and his decision that Dean Bennion had to be the one to teach it. After its successful introduction, however, Dean Bennion had a completely free hand in teaching what he wanted to, and in later years others like Obert Tanner and Eph Ericksen joined in offering the course. I once asked Waldemer Read, who’d joined the philosophy faculty about 1928, if he had ever heard of the philosophy department experiencing strictures or even serious administrative criticisms in matters having to do with academic freedom. He said, “From the time I came here, I have never known of anyone in the department experiencing any pressure from the university administration of any kind.” I believe, Jack, that this university has for some time been, and is now, as free as any in the world. Perhaps we’re lucky that in the Brigham Young University the church has its own university to kick around!