Matters of Conscience
Sterling M. McMurrin and L. Jackson Newell
Controversies in Education
[p. 279] Let’s turn to some of the tough issues, now, Sterling. You’ve identified three primary educational issues for that period: (1) federal aid to education, how much and under what conditions, (2) civil rights and the access of school-age children to equal educational opportunity, and (3) how to improve the quality of American education. Did they emerge in any particular order as you assumed your responsibilities in Washington?
Actually, I was involved in all of them simultaneously. There were, of course, many related issues—funding for the education of the children of migrant workers, funds for the education of Cubans in Dade County, Florida, education of the handicapped, the problems of schools in the inner cities, always the large problems of assisting college students financially and providing funds for the schools and colleges to improve scientific work, foreign language study, etc. In those days a major piece of legislation was the set of amendments to the National Defense Education Act, umbrella legislation that had been enacted earlier.
Many of these questions seem to be related to equalizing access to education.
That’s quite true. There was not as strong an appreciation of the problems of the inner-city schools as there is now; but, as a matter of fact, that is one of the things that we jumped into right at the beginning. Secretary Ribicoff and I referred to it in our first conversation; and the first legislation that we sent to the Congress, a large federal aid bill for the public schools, earmarked something like $100 million in additional funds for inner-city schools—modest funds by today’s standards, but it was a beginning. The Senate passed it, but it didn’t survive the House.
This was part of the reawakening of the national conscience that came with the Kennedy administration—after the lull of the Eisenhower years.
Quite true. By the time I left Washington, for instance, we were all much more conscious of urban problems and discrimination. Boyer Jarvis, Robert Rosenzweig, and I, with some others, visited schools in Harlem to see for ourselves what the hell was going on. That was [p. 280] certainly an education for us.
Now was that something your predecessor didn’t do?
It wasn’t as crucial an issue at that time. My immediate predecessor, Lawrence Derthick, was a school superintendent; and I’m sure he was more conscious of this problem already than I was. However, after becoming commissioner, I soon got involved with the superintendents of schools in some of the big cities that had severe problems—Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and, to a lesser degree, New York and Los Angeles. I was also quite involved with superintendents in medium-sized cities. I mention this simply because I became involved very early with this inner-city problem, but we couldn’t move the Congress on this. I mean we weren’t able to get any money to concentrate on the central city problems while I was in Washington; but in the first package on federal aid that we sent to the Congress—which was nowhere near as large as it was when it eventually passed—as I recall, 10 percent of the total funds were earmarked for ghetto schools. As far as I know, that’s the first time anything like that had been done.
Wilbur Cohen was a key man in the legislative process, Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare for Legislation, a wonderful person, one of the creators of the Social Security system in his earlier years. Wilbur’s field was social work, but he later became dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan. I worked very closely with him in addition to the appropriate people in the Office of Education, of course, in the development of legislation for education.
What about federal aid to education?
The big controversy was we don’t want our schools run by those guys in Washington; and if they give us money, they’ll start to meddle. Well there’s a certain amount of truth in that, no question about it. We have seen that happen with the federal financial support of research and scholarships in universities. I could appreciate this opposition to federal aid. At the same time I was very much in favor of federal aid because it was obvious that the schools needed more funds. Equalized student opportunity is as much a problem now as it was then; but the place I felt that federal aid was especially justified was in connection with areas in education where the national interest was at stake and where, without federal assistance, very little if anything could or would be done.
By “national interest,” do you mean military security or social and economic well-being?
Both of those, Jack. You’re on the right track. Before I went to [p. 281] Washington, the NDEA—the National Defense Education Act—had been passed in 1958. This act, which provided federal funds, was pretty much geared to science and engineering education. Much that was done on legislation when I was commissioner had to do with the development of amendments and additions to the NDEA. What I undertook to do, with some success and certainly cooperation from others, was to expand the whole concept of what constitutes national defense.
Moving from national defense to national security?
Yes, whatever is necessary to strengthen the nation. I took the position in testimony before congressional committees that the strength of the nation involves much more than engineering and technology, that the strength of the nation is to be found in a sense of history, a respect for tradition, and the capacity of people to cultivate moral and spiritual values.
I remember about that time that David O. McKay said, “A citizen who loves justice is better than a battleship.” It was that very perspective that you espoused in Washington.
A very fitting expression of that principle. And, yes, I wish there’d been more understanding of that matter among some Washington functionaries. Some, but by no means all, of them were just damn dumb about such ideas. All they could see was machinery—that the strength of the nation is to be found in tanks and planes and nuclear bombs. At the same time a lot of errors were made by some of the schools in their use of federal funds. We were subject to a great deal of criticism.
But you were involved in broadening their purpose and getting them more funds?
I was very committed to that. The non-governmental Council of Graduate Schools was established when I was in Washington. They held their first meeting in Washington and asked me to address them. I spoke about this problem since these were all graduate deans involved in administering NDEA fellowships and other funds in higher education. The dominant figure among deans of graduate schools was Peter Elder, at Harvard. When NDEA fellowships were being established, Elder was the chairman of the committee that worked on the question of what subjects would qualify. By the time I got to Washington, there was a great deal of energy spent by the Wall Street Journal and many other publications criticizing some of the fields in which these fellowships were being awarded.
These critics were pretty shortsighted. I’m surprised. And you were defending [ p. 282] the broader use of NDEA funds?
Yes. I wasn’t defending the practices simply because the grants were being handled in the Office of Education, but because I believed they needed to be defended and I wanted to expand their base even further. When I was addressing the first meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools, I stated that the strength of the nation is to be found in things other than machinery, engineering, and the physical sciences, and I referred to the fact that James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, among other founders of this nation, had something like a classical education. Peter Elder stood up and yelled, “Hear, hear!” I think it made a good impression on that crowd.
Certainly sounds like it! How did you go about making policies for the U.S. Office of Education?
I adopted a practice of making very sure that the people who had to live under the commissioner’s regulations were parties to making the regulations. I’d see to it that every regulation was formulated with the assistance and certainly the approval of representatives of the groups that would be affected. The commissioner’s regulations had the force of law. It would be outrageous if a bunch of bureaucrats in Washington formulated them alone. I tried to simplify them, too. I felt that many of the regulations governing the administration of existing legislation were far too complex. Of course, a good deal of the work of drafting regulations had to be done by the legal counsel within the Office of Education. They had to formulate the regulations in legal terms and make sure they related properly to the legislation. That was a very large task.
Could you give me an example?
I would get letters, sometimes from state school superintendents or superintendents of school districts, complaining about federal control. You see, they already had some funds from the federal government. Under the NDEA, for instance. Whenever I got a letter complaining about federal control, I would write back and say, “If you will describe the situation and tell me in what way the federal government is interfering, I will see that it is stopped.” You know, in very, very few cases did they ever follow up on this invitation.
I remember one complaint from Minnesota. I said, “You let me know when you and your representatives can meet with me, and I’ll come to Minnesota and we’ll thrash this out.” Well, I heard nothing more from them. But the Association of School Superintendents in New Mexico wrote saying that they had some very real problems with the [p. 283] funds that they were receiving from the federal government. Some of them couldn’t live under these regulations. I think I surprised them when I called them up and said, “You set the date, and I’ll come with the appropriate people who are involved in administering the regulations, and we’ll work something out.” I took Jack Hughes, the executive officer, a very competent man, and another specialist; and we spent a day with the New Mexico State Commissioner of Education and six or eight school superintendents. We had a first-class session, and they put before me some problems that were just outrageous.
How were they outrageous?
One of the regulations, for instance, had to do with money for the sciences in the high schools available under the NDEA legislation. One superintendent said, “We can’t qualify for any of this money and we need it. The regulations require a certain sophisticated kind of bookkeeping to keep track of the money. There’s nobody in our county who knows how to do it.” Well, that was a hell of a situation, but I took care of it.
When I got back to Washington, I appointed a committee to go over all of the regulations of the Office of Education relating to federal legislation to simplify and clean them up. That’s an enormous task—couldn’t be done in a short time—but it was obvious to me that some of them were so cussed complex that a lot of those people couldn’t understand what was meant half the time. I couldn’t either.
Did you succeed in getting them simplified?
They were working on it when I left Washington. I’m not sure they continued after I left; but if they did, I would say that’s maybe one of the better things that I did—if I did any good at all—because the regulations which are established by the commissioner, now the secretary, have the force of law.
They can be a disgusting source of difficulty for those affected by them.
As can a simple lack of communication. For instance, the federal people in charge of building freeways would shoot their roads right through a school district with no concern for the effect on the schools. So I got them together with several superintendents of schools so that they’d better recognize and understand their impact on other things than traffic. I tried a number of things like that.
Now this brings us to the issue of racial desegregation to provide more equal access to American education. Did, in fact, the influence that came with NDEA funding, for example, end up being a lever in the civil [p. 284] rights movement?
I can see where you’re going with that question, Jack. As a nation, we were just getting into civil rights enforcement when I went to Washington. I got one of the most amazing letters from Texas, addressed to me and Secretary Ribicoff. Attached to it was an article from a Texas newspaper reporting Ribicoff and me at some affair defending federal aid to education. The attached note was quite rude. It said, “You stubid asses”—spelled with a “b.” I sent a copy over to Ribicoff, “from one stubid ass to another.” I got more than one letter of that type. Most of them came from Texas.
Now this is only seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Were you already encountering heavy resistance to federal efforts toward desegregation?
Yes. I received quite a few letters blasting me for our desegregation policies. As you well know, the Department of Justice assumed the responsibility for enforcing school desegregation. We would certainly pitch in to solve problems, but it was not the task of the Office of Education to enforce the law. In one case, somewhere in Virginia, there was a threat of violence over desegregation. A church leader wrote to me and said, in effect, “You’d better get down here, if you can, and do something about this.” I thought I probably should go down, if there was any good I could do, so I talked to my associates who were involved in this sort of thing. Ralph Flint, a major player in the Office of Education, and a Virginia historian, told me that it would be unwise for me to get involved. He said, “Mr. Commissioner, you set foot in that county and your life won’t be worth two cents.” He meant it.
What did you do?
I consulted my legal counsel and others to determine whether there was any possibility of my being helpfully involved in that fracas. They advised against it and I didn’t go.
Were there occasions where you did take direct action?
Let me give you an example. The Office of Education furnished funds to school districts that were impacted by federal installations. This was the most popular federal aid program because every state got in on it. You know the situation—federal property is not taxed, so schools for the children of people who work or live on federal property such as military bases have been financed in part by federal funds in lieu of taxes. Even Senator Goldwater, who wrote a book against federal aid, was in favor of this federally impacted type of aid. I tried to point out to some of those members of Congress and to the senators who were opposed [p. 285] to federal aid that they were getting federal aid to education when they made such great efforts to get federal installations and then had federal money for education.
It’s only “federal aid” if somebody that you don’t like or don’t want to help is getting it.
I don’t know whether anybody in the Congress ever opposed the law providing funds for federally impacted school districts. The administration’s view was that an unjustifiable amount of money was going to that purpose—in fact, the Eisenhower administration had held the same position—so at each legislative session we recommended that that money be reduced, suspecting, of course, that it would not be reduced.
Futile but sincere! But to get back to the problem of segregated education…
We discovered that some segregated schools were receiving federal impact money. Now we drew up a regulation that, if the schools were on federal land and received these funds while refusing to desegregate, the U.S. Commissioner would become their superintendent. That helped to straighten them out—to my relief! I certainly didn’t want to be superintendent of a bunch of local schools!
This is an example, you see, of how the federal money could be used to support the efforts of the Justice Department in desegregation. Another case was in connection with academic-year or summer institutes. These institutes, as you know, were established to bring high school teachers back to college for further study of their subjects.
Clearly the Kennedy administration was getting more assertive in the arena of civil rights.
Yes. I wouldn’t have known without being told that this was the very first instance of the federal government denying funds to institutions on the basis of racial discrimination. I issued a regulation that any college or university that discriminated on racial grounds could not receive a grant for one of these institutes funded by the Office of Education. Well, several known discriminators in the South withdrew their applications immediately. This didn’t force them to give up discrimination. They simply gave up the grants.
But this sort of loss eventually had an impact on them and their constituents.
There was some difficulty with several things we sought to do. We wanted to set up under the auspices of the Office of Education a kind of clearing house for information about how some school districts were desegregating successfully so that school officials could study how to do it. We would gather and disseminate information, develop model policies and techniques, develop experts, and so on. Well, we drew up [p. 286] a proposal to submit to Congress. Adam Clayton Powell, the flamboyant New York representative and chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, was all for this kind of thing. I thought he was a crook and a lot of other things; but he was one of our best supporters. One day I was preparing to leave my office to testify before Powell’s House committee about things we were doing to assist in desegregation, when, just before I left for the hearing, I received a call from the White House requiring me to delete the reference to a desegregation clearing house.
Why? I’m interested in the reason!
They told me that the president had been advised that Lister Hill, the Democratic senator from Alabama and chair of the Senate Education Committee, might be defeated in the next election if this clearing house on desegregation went through. Well, the president couldn’t afford to lose Lister Hill. He was a powerful figure, otherwise a first-rate Democratic senator, and a strong supporter of education. So we had to throw that out.
The pragmatics of power and politics.
That was a great disappointment but something I certainly could understand. The committee before which I testified that day was delighted with the rest of my testimony relating to civil rights, but I was disappointed in not being able to add the clearing house proposal. Well, those were simply some indications of the kinds of things that we worked at in connection with the whole business of racial discrimination.
Did you get that kind of interference at other times from the White House when you were working on problems or legislation?
Very, very rarely. There could have been more interference if it weren’t that the Secretary and the president and I seemed to be in full agreement on virtually all educational issues. One of the big problems, of course, was the question of how you get federal aid into public schools but not parochial schools. This was the issue that defeated the first real general federal aid bill which we sent up to Congress. This bill provided all states with general, uncategorized funds. As I recall, there was one major stipulation, that the federal funds were not to be used for teachers’ salaries. Now that didn’t make any difference, because if you used the money on remodeling or something like that, the money saved from the school budget could be used for teachers’ salaries; but that stipulation was necessary to get the bill passed. The other factor, as I have mentioned, was setting aside a percentage of the total funds for inner-city schools in the larger cities. With the exception of those two provisions, [p. 287] it was completely a general aid bill, the first one, I believe, ever to be sent to Congress.
How was the money to be awarded?
According to the number of students a state enrolled, the number of hours the students spent in school, and so on. Every state got in on it on the same basis with every other state except for the big cities, and they got a bit more. It passed the Senate but didn’t get out of the House Rules Committee. Failed to pass by one vote. That was my biggest disappointment in Washington. If it had passed, this country would have had its first general aid bill for education.
What was the snag in the House?
A member of the House Rules Committee from New York was for the bill; but, by damn, he was also going to have money for the parochial schools. He was Catholic.
One man, one issue.
Just one man. Now I didn’t get into the back-room hassle with him because of my agreement with Ribicoff and Cohen that they’d worry about the political end of things. But I had hassles with other Congressmen over the parochial school issue. As you know, the president was Catholic and wasn’t about to go back on his guarantees that his Catholicism wouldn’t dictate his policies. But we worked at several plans to assist the parochial and other private schools indirectly.
Did this disappointment have anything to do with your decision to return to the university in the autumn of 1962?
Oh, no. That’s another story. I didn’t leave Washington because I was frustrated, although that was reported in some papers. I didn’t suffer from frustration. It’s like the fact that I don’t ever suffer from disillusionment with the church. I was not illusioned in the first place. If you’re not illusioned, you don’t suffer from disillusionment. I took it for granted, you know, that you win some and you lose some. Well, that was the first big one and we lost it.
Tell me your views on the interplay between the two dominant movements affecting educational policy in that era: desegregation with its aim to equalize educational opportunities for Americans and the Soviet technological challenge which demanded increased excellence in U.S. education. Were those two movements contradictory or complementary?
Well, of course, it went in both directions. There’s no question about that. The attempt to equalize opportunities in education can actually pull things down to a kind of dead-level mediocrity. I was very much opposed to that and made dozens of statements either in addresses [p. 288] or to reporters about how excellence could not, as a practical matter, be achieved across the board and that we had to concentrate on certain areas first. I learned that the hard way when I was dean of the College of Letters and Science. Departments that were willing to pay some people more to get them—mathematics, physics, and chemistry—are now the strong departments in this university, and departments that just wanted to pay everybody the same turned out to be the weaker ones.
That must not have been a popular position in Washington.
It’s one of those areas where, no matter what the ideal is, the reality is pretty easy to perceive. I was completely committed to the idea that if you just spread everything around, you create mediocrity. Equal opportunity doesn’t guarantee equal achievement.
Wasn’t it about this time that John Gardner wrote Can We Be Equal and Excellent, Too?
I believe so. One thing I did in the Office of Education was to establish a lecture series to bring in some high-level people to address the staff on educational problems. Gardner was one of them. I hadn’t met him before, but I’d read his stuff. I learned that he was one of those who proposed me for the commissioner’s position. Gardner told me he’d rather talk with my immediate staff than with the whole auditorium full of staff—that would have been fourteen or fifteen hundred people so we had lunch with a small group in my conference room. I had great admiration for Gardner; and almost immediately after I left Washington, he asked me to serve as a trustee of the Carnegie Foundation.
And you accepted?
Yes, and served for quite a long time. I guess I’d still be there, but I was on a committee of the trustees that took up the question whether the trustees should serve forever. All of the trustees except me and a couple of New York bankers were university presidents. The understanding was that their terms as trustees would end when they left their presidencies. Well, there was considerable rotation among the presidents, so I raised the question about how long I was supposed to be there. “Well,” they said, “you were appointed simply because you’re you and not for any position you hold, so you’ll stay indefinitely.” I might not have minded doing that, but I voted with the committee recommending three-year terms, so eventually I rotated off.
Back to John Gardner …
When he was asked to be Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, he asked me what problems I could see looming there. Later on he told me, “Those were just exactly the problems I faced.”
[p. 289] You later invited Gardner to speak at the University of Utah’s commencement exercises?
Yes, we wanted to give him an honorary degree and have him give a commencement address—sometime while he was secretary of HEW. President Fletcher asked me to set it up. My relations with Gardner were very warm and pleasant, so I was delighted to arrange it. I called on him in Washington and asked, “What kind of degree would you like?” and he said, “Well, what do you have?” I said, “We’ve never given this degree before, but what would you think of a Doctor of Humane Letters?” I coined that degree right there on the spot.
Oh, you did? I thought it was an academic tradition.
It’s become one. He thought that would be great, so we’ve been giving them ever since. When Gardner came, they didn’t have flyways—those tunnels from the terminals to the doorways of the airplane. You’d go out to the plane to meet people and they’d walk down a portable set of stairs. Well, of course, the plane was surrounded by the university’s public relations people and reporters. When Gardner came off the plane, he saw me and waved, but we were inundated with all these reporters and photographers. We couldn’t even get through the throng to shake hands with each other. They swept him away to the interview room at the airport and asked, “Why did you come to Salt Lake?” He said, “My main purpose in coming was to have a visit with a friend of mine, Sterling McMurrin.” You know, that pleased me, because they’d just been shoving me aside when I tried to get to him.
I was greatly impressed by Gardner’s work on reconciling the quests of excellence and equality.
I was determined to do something more valuable in my position as commissioner than simply spread the money around. I felt that the Commissioner of Education should pay attention to education—and not just to money.
What a revolutionary thought! How about an example or two?
Naturally I’m picking out the horrible examples, but they’re important. Under the policies of the administration, you’re not supposed to have any formal news conferences until you’re sworn in. I was interviewed in advance by plenty of news people, but the swearing in is ordinarily followed by a formal conference with the press. Immediately following my being sworn into the office, I met the press in a rather large conference room and gave them a press release which I had written while I was still commuting back and forth to Utah. One or two of my close friends were in on it—Waldemer Read and Boyer Jarvis. I came [p. 290] out solidly for merit pay for teachers. I felt then and I feel now that if you’re going to raise the level of American education, the first thing you do is raise the level of teaching. It’s hard to raise the level of learning without raising the level of teaching; and hard to raise the level of teaching without paying for it. I concentrated on the problems of teacher education the whole time I was in Washington.
Now this was your first press conference, at least officially?
Yes, and there was quite a procedure. A couple of days before, the key people from HEW’s public relations office came over to drill me. The head man later became a rather close friend, but he kind of annoyed me at first. They were going to come over and put me through the paces to show me what reporters would do, you know. Hell, I’d met with plenty of reporters before; but this was well intentioned and I suppose was worth something. They ran through about fifteen minutes of difficult questions having to do with school finance, desegregation, equality, and so on; and there were staff people around to feed me information if I needed it. Well, I answered their questions; and after a little while the man in charge closed his book and said, “There’s no use pursuing this any further. McMurrin can answer more questions than we can ask.”
Did this mock press conference help you?
It was very useful on a couple of points. I asked how long a press conference goes on, and it goes on until the senior press person says, “Thank you.” Quite informal, but that’s how it’s done. They told me that the press dean at my conference would be Mr. Hodenfeld, the Associated Press education writer. He later wrote an excellent book on education. As the reporters left the room, I heard one of them say, “This commissioner thinks in long paragraphs.”
I welcomed this press conference, because I wanted to say some things that were, in fact, critical of American education. I wanted to urge the improvement of teacher education, highlight the lack of genuine liberal education as the foundation of the education of teachers, stress merit pay for teachers, and in general strengthen the intellectual quality of the schools by insisting on more emphasis on knowledge and the cultivation of reason.
You got to the heart of it there, Sterling.
The formal statement was carried in full in many newspapers because it wasn’t terribly long; and, of course, the thing was on the national wires and was written up in the newspapers all over the country.
I understand that the National School Boards Association got snared in a [p. 291] paradox involving federal control of education?
Yes. The National School Boards Association made a major move to establish a National Board of Education. I was kept advised about it and Edgar Fuller, executive director of the Chief State School Officers, was pushing strongly for it. People hinted to me that he had plans to run the thing. I don’t know about that, but I was invited to address their legislative body of about fifty people. It was at a national meeting, I think, in St. Louis or Kansas City. After they took action on the matter, it would then be submitted to the whole body. I talked about two things. I wanted to convert them to the idea that for certain purposes, federal aid to education was a good thing. You wouldn’t have to convert people to that proposition today, but most school board members then were opposed to federal aid. I took the approach that schools were increasingly being asked to act in the interests of the nation as a whole—and cited language and sciences as two examples. Keep in mind that the Cold War was at its height. Well, I felt that I made some headway on that point. If they were doing the nation’s work, then it made sense for the federal government to help foot the bill. Then I turned to the second point. I called their attention to the fact that the whole idea of a school board was a board of control. They were the very people who didn’t want national control of education. I said, “You don’t want the Commissioner of Education to control the schools, yet you’re apparently going to create a national school board. What would be the function of that board? It would be to control the schools.” I drove this point home quite forcefully. Well, when it came to a vote, they voted it down, and more than one person told me that my speech changed their minds and prevented the creation of a national board of control.
Any reaction from Edgar Fuller?
Oh, yes. He called me up the next week very indignantly and said, “I just want to tell you that you did a very bad thing.” He was damn mad. And I just shot back, “I think I did a very good thing. You tried to do a bad thing.” Later pro and con statements by Fuller and me on the national school boards idea were published together in some education journal.
I suppose you did a fair amount of business with the Labor Department?
Well, yes, I had repeated contacts with the Department of Labor. As you suggest, problems of education and problems of labor were very often intermixed. The Secretary of Labor asked me to serve on an interdepartmental committee that worked on such problems. Boyer Jarvis, our mutual friend, handled most of our affairs with the Department [p. 292] of State, especially with respect to educational matters affecting other countries and conferences with other countries.
Did Boyer enjoy that assignment?
I believe so, and he was certainly an excellent person to deal with them. He made a close friend of Carlton Savage, a very talented career man and a delightful person. Carlton was on what I think was called the State Department’s Planning Commission. Boyer dragged me over to the State Department once just so I could meet Carlton. We became close friends; and as a matter of fact, the first year I was back at the University of Utah, Carlton was here as a visiting professor. Boyer also conducted certain international negotiations under the authority of the State Department. He went to Japan, for instance, on an educational mission for the government. He also represented the Office of Education in dealings with the United States Chamber of Commerce.
I had a number of connections with the Children’s Bureau, another agency within the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and some legislative interactions with the Social Security Administration. The Surgeon General and I became involved in a variety of ways. And NASA. We shared the building with them.
What was your business with them?
NASA was financing certain scholarship and trainee programs. We also had extensive involvements with the National Science Foundation. I already had connections there because of the University of Utah’s involvement with NSF programs. And then there were involvements with the Department of Defense education on military bases or the education of American service people overseas. Some leaders in the Department of Defense wanted to transfer all these military-base schools to the Commissioner of Education, but I didn’t take much to the idea and it wasn’t done.
Why didn’t the idea appeal to you?
It would have made the Commissioner of Education into a kind of school superintendent. A related involvement was the federal money that goes to school districts impacted by federal operations. Here are two or three other items. Under law, I was some kind of head of the Future Farmers of America and, I think, the girls’ outfit—the Future Homemakers of America—because these organizations had some kind of national charters. I also sat on the District of Columbia commission that licensed M.D.s and other professionals. When I went to my first meeting, the chair said, “You’re the first Commissioner of Education who has ever bothered to show up.” I went to at least a couple and found [p. 293] it rather interesting.
There were probably appointments that got you involved with other agencies as well, weren’t there?
Yes. For instance, I was appointed by the president to the Commission for the National Culture Center, later named the Kennedy Center. Very time-consuming but quite interesting. I remember lengthy discussions about where to locate the center. We ended up putting it down along the river below the State Department, next to the Watergate—which wasn’t there in those days. The president also appointed me to the Board of Foreign Scholarships, and the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, appointed me to the United States National Commission for UNESCO.
Did all of these interconnections come about as a matter of course, or did some of them develop because of personal interests?
Many of them were just built into the job, of course; but there were real problems in the relationships among departments. Often a piece of legislation would bring us together—a bill that the Department of Labor wanted, for instance, or health in the schools would involve the Surgeon General. But with the heads of some other agencies of the government, I felt that we needed an interagency committee or commission that would be required by law or by executive order. We initiated the creation of an extralegal commission, which I chaired, and had excellent cooperation in actions involving the director of the National Science Foundation, the Surgeon General, the chair of the president’s Scientific Advisory Committee, the director of NASA, the chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, and two or three others. Federal money for educational purposes was flowing through the hands of all these agencies, and it didn’t make much sense for everyone to be going in his own direction without any coordination. We created this extralegal entity on the basis of our common interests, and Congress mandated the creation of such a commission after I left Washington.
So it was codified and continued?
I seem to remember reading that it had been discontinued, but I’m not sure. It turned out to be valuable for us in coordinating our efforts and putting some curbs on power grabs. I was dismayed at the hassles over territorial boundaries or “turf.” It just astounded me.
For instance, there was legislation that provided funds for educational television, and the undersecretary of HEW really wanted to get hold of that operation. Highly placed people in the Office of Education frequently would tell me, “Now, we have to hang on to such-and-such. [p. 294] It’s our bread and butter.” I heard that expression over and over. I thought, “For hell sake, these things should be where they should be, independent of whose bread and butter they are.”
But if you don’t watch the politics yourself, such things can well end up where they shouldn’t be! Your situation was exacerbated, however, by the aftermath of the Sputnik scare?
Oh, no question about it. Science and engineering, that’s where most of it was. Of course, there were funds for medical schools, but that was under the Surgeon General and the director of the National Institutes of Health, so we weren’t involved in that.
Now tell me about the McMurrin Plan for the state of Mississippi.
Well, this was involved with the problems over segregation. I had picked up that expression from Henry Steele Commager, when he gave a major address at the Utah Conference on Higher Education. There was a lot of controversy over athletic programs, and Commager said, “I want to give you what is called at Columbia University the Commager Plan for intercollegiate athletics: fire the coaches.” So I came up with the McMurrin Plan for Mississippi.
Wait, you had one for athletics, too, didn’t you?
Yes, that was here at the University of Utah. I introduced it in the Deans’ Council, back in the fifties, for half-time activities to get rid of this wasteful marching band business. The McMurrin Plan called for a large electrically powered stage or float that would move slowly around the field, with an absolutely first-rate performance of a small band or combo with singers and great sound. I thought it would be a damn sight better entertainment than these kids marching around and wasting so much time with rehearsals. I was serious, but President Olpin didn’t think it was at all funny.
Universities do exist for students, you know! Well, how about the McMurrin Plan for Mississippi?
My plan was to throw Mississippi out of the Union. Just that simple. Do it in a single stroke.
If you had just come along a century earlier to advise President Lincoln … ! Sterling, I think I see the same theme in your relations with national educational organizations as with the Mormon church; they all have noble goals and mostly leaders of good will, but they and their organizations often run amok.
You’re right. There’s a kind of evil in the bureaucratic structure of any big institution—universities not excepted. It’s outrageous in the federal government and very bad in the Mormon church. I suspect [p. 295] it’s true of most churches, including the Catholic church; but at the same time I want to comment on the survivability of the Catholic church. It’s simply the most impressive organization in human history because it’s lasted the longest—and that makes it the wisest of all institutions. One of my great teachers, Heinrich Gomperz, a secular Jew whose ancestors had been converted to Protestantism, held that the Catholic church is organizationally superior to any institution the race has produced.
This could be because it never forgets where its bread and butter is, and it guards it well. And it only took about three hundred and fifty years to pardon Galileo!
Perhaps it errs too often on the side of caution. But I think the Mormon church should study the Catholic church—not to copy its repressiveness, but to learn from it the lessons of survivability.
Where did your lifelong resistance to bureaucracy come from, Sterling?
I suppose this sort of thing is instinctive, Jack, a love of individual freedom. I don’t think it was my parents. They felt the Republican Party was on the side of righteousness, but they were really quite apolitical. We talked endlessly about religion, but the discussions concerned doctrine and the latest local sermons. The idea of a church bureaucracy never even came up. I don’t think there was one then—nothing like what we have now. But you’re right about resistance, Jack. Bill Carr, the executive director of the NEA, and I were being interviewed on some television program; and the interviewer commented to Bill, “Now, Mr. Carr, I take it that one of your main jobs is to keep an eye on bureaucrats like McMurrin.” I thought, “My Lord Almighty, am I a bureaucrat?” I had never been so shocked in my life.
In one sense he was right, of course, by virtue of the office you held, even though you took steps which could be considered anti-bureaucratic.
Oh, several. I recall disbanding one organization created by a predecessor with representatives from social organizations from all over the nation who met periodically with the commissioner in an advisory capacity. I didn’t like the idea of groups’ representatives lobbying the commissioner, although I was certainly happy with competent advisers. It made some of those people as mad as the devil when I did away with their organization.
But you had nothing against tapping experts for advice and counsel, did you?
I should say that I was interested in establishing a panel of consultants [p. 296] to confer with me on educational matters, experts in education and people of unquestioned wisdom and good will. I had in mind persons like James Conant, John Gardner, Meredith Wilson, James Allen, Francis Keppel, and Benjamin Willis, who would come together and work over the basic problems faced by the nation in education. This plan was not popular with some in the Office of Education, and they obviously wanted me to drop it. I got it approved, however, just before I left Washington. But my successor didn’t follow my intention. Members of the panel who were appointed (not those I have listed) were consulted on an individual basis.
Returning to your aims as commissioner, what themes did you pursue in your call for excellence?
One of the phrases I found myself using quite often was the need for more “intellectual rigor.” That may not have been the best word; but what I meant was that teachers should know their stuff and students should take their studies seriously—that time in schools should be devoted to important educational pursuits.
I’ll tell you an interesting story about “rigor” and the reporters. I’ve already expressed my admiration for Hodenfeld. A brilliant person and one of the best education writers in the country. He often was associated with a Ms. Ferrer—they’d interview me together. She was the education writer for the New York Herald Tribune, and he was the education writer for the Associated Press.
Hodenfeld and Ferrer complained because I seldom spoke from a prepared text, which meant that when they attended a lecture by me they had to take notes. So they composed a parody of “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” which went, “Old McMurrin had a school . . . with a vigor, vigor here and a rigor, rigor there…” They said, “The next time you give a speech without a manuscript, we’re going to stand up and sing this song.” Well, not long afterward I was addressing a national meeting of the AFL-CIO. Hodenfeld and Ferrer were on the very back row, and Hodenfeld held up a manuscript and pointed to it inquiringly. I shook my head, and I’ll be damned if the two of them didn’t stand up. I was actually afraid they were going to start singing, but they just mouthed the words and mimed it.
That sort of rapport with the press is rare and should be savored. Maybe you weren’t a bad bureaucrat after all!
Thanks, but let me tell you that I discovered later that some of my critics in the NEA building thought that by rigor in education I meant simply loading more homework on students.
[p. 297] Sterling, how would you summarize your achievements as U.S. Commissioner?
Here I think I should mention just three or four things. In the first place, I believe that I established the independence of the U.S. Office of Education by convincing everyone concerned that the Office of Education was an instrument of the government and served the public interest, and not an appendage of private professional organizations. When I returned to Washington for the first time after leaving office, the deputy commissioner, who had been one of the chief offenders, said to me with much enthusiasm, “I want to tell you, Mr. Commissioner, that the people around here now realize that they are working for the United States government and not the NEA.” That development was far more important then than it might appear to be today.
It must have been deeply satisfying to you, too.
A second and related development, in my opinion, was the breakthrough in the matter of serious analysis and criticism of the nation’s educational establishment. Today, when criticism of the most radical kind comes from within the educational community itself, even the teachers’ unions, it’s difficult to realize that when I opened my mouth in Washington insisting that major changes were overdue, the educational bureaucrats and a large segment of the educators themselves were shocked. I wasn’t greatly surprised at this because already, when I was in the administration of the University of Utah, I was held in contempt by some people in our School of Education. But things have changed—for the good.
The nation is now aware that things are not in the best of shape in our schools and no one hesitates to say so. What about policy changes?
Of course. Success in an executive post in the government is judged largely by the legislation that is enacted and here the verdict is somewhat mixed. There were comparatively minor pieces of legislation affecting education that were passed with little difficulty, and the important NDEA amendments, but the three major proposals we sent to Congress—general aid for the schools, the improvement of educational quality, and funding for facilities for higher education—were major battles; and on these we were defeated. The first I have already mentioned. The act didn’t get out of the House Rules Committee because of the parochial schools issue, and the last was defeated by a last-minute drive on Congress by the NEA, which didn’t want to see funds going to the colleges and universities before the public schools received a big appropriation. But we had made every effort to get general federal funds [p. 298] for the schools before turning to facilities for higher education. This finally passed at a later time, I guess during the first session under President Lyndon B. Johnson, when he managed to get through the Congress many things which had been turned down before the assassination of President Kennedy.
What about the “Quality Education Act”?
It didn’t pass during my time there. I was anxious to get this bill enacted into law. After revision, its provisions became parts of other laws. I was pleased about that. It was a strategic attempt to garner support for improved quality after the bill for direct aid failed. The HEW Secretary and the Assistant Secretary for Legislation and the president went along with me on this with a lot of enthusiasm. That proposal included a provision for centers for educational research which were later established by law.
We proposed those three large pieces of legislation: the bill for general funding of public schools, a less general bill to improve the quality of education in the schools, which also didn’t pass, and a separate bill for supporting higher education faculties. As you know, there was a desperate need to finance science buildings and labs. Our bill provided funds even for private schools, so long as the money went to basic education, not recreation or physical plant. That bill passed the Senate and there was every indication that it would also pass the House, but the NEA defeated it. I learned about it while I was driving back to Salt Lake City after my resignation. It was a great blow to me.
What was the nature of their opposition to it?
The NEA was determined—I’m going to put it that way—that higher education was not going to get this money. They were afraid that it might delay getting large funds for the public schools. They put on a last-minute campaign, contacted every member of the House of Representatives the night before the vote, and told them that the NEA did not want that bill to pass. At least that’s the information given to me. I was told that President Kennedy, who was strongly behind this bill, got Bill Carr and some of the other key people from NEA in his office and told them that, if they ever pulled any shenanigans like that again as long he was president, there would be no legislation from the White House supporting public schools. Scared the hell out of them. At least, that’s the information passed on to me.
Another effort of yours was to get federal funds for nonscientific subjects.
Yes, in the same way that the National Science Foundation was investing federal money in school science, through such needs as science [p. 299] teacher education. I began with English and history by securing additional money for education in the already-approved federal budget. From a larger perspective, even with our major legislation that failed in the Congress, we were successful, because we made some real breakthroughs in impressing Congress and the public with the broader needs of education that should be the concern of the federal government. It takes time to get things done in Washington, and we made a good beginning—some important breakthroughs.
What about some other things having to do with the structure and operations of the Office of Education?
My predecessor, Dr. Derthick, had created a committee to study the office and make recommendations relating to its policies, organization, and functions. The committee submitted its report to me and, on the basis of its findings, we radically reorganized the place. I believe and hope we improved it. But of course, it has been changed a great deal since then.
You had something to do with that, didn’t you?
Yes. After I resigned as commissioner, I more than once testified before Congressional committees with the argument that education should be a department with full cabinet status.
I’m tempted to mention a rather amusing thing relating to my attempts to improve affairs in the Office of Education. Each evening after most everyone else had left my office, my assistant, Lucille Anderson, would bring in a large stack of documents for my signature, turning them over one at a time, and describing them. Many of them were materials requiring my approval for publication—pamphlets and sometimes entire books. I read enough of this stuff to convince me that much of it was at worst worthless and at best mediocre. So I assigned the task of passing judgment on publications to Boyer Jarvis when he joined me in Washington. Boyer had excellent talents for this sort of thing and waded into the task with his usual diligence. Soon the word “Jarvis” became a verb in the Office of Education. A person whose material had been denied publication would sometimes say, “It’s been Jarvised.”
Weren’t you involved in a controversy with Admiral Hyman Rickover?
I really was not in any controversy with Rickover. Congressman John Fogarty, who chaired the subcommittee on education finance, had invited Admiral Rickover to submit to Congress a statement on the condition of American education. As you know, he was the father of the atomic submarine and one of the chief critics of American education. He was a very outspoken critic of the Office of Education. Admiral Rickover had made a study of Russian schools. His statement was a [p. 300] pretty good-sized book comparing American education unfavorably with Russian education. In Rickover’s book American education looked very bad. Well, I thought that Rickover was naive in some of these matters, but he was a very valuable critic of American education. As a matter of fact, I invited him to lecture to the professional people in the Office of Education. Some of my staff suffered real consternation over this. The idea of bringing the enemy right there to talk to them horrified them. Some others were pleased.
At an early press conference, I mentioned that I intended to get advice from people across the country, including leaders outside of education. One of the reporters there said, “Does that include Admiral Rickover?” I said, “Yes,” and that got into the news reports.
What did Rickover talk about?
He didn’t come. He declined the invitation. I don’t know what his motives were in declining. My contacts with him were primarily through letters and phone calls. I might just say in passing that he later put me in two of his books on education. In one of them, he stated that he liked what I was doing with education in Washington but he was quite sure that I wouldn’t want to stay there very long. He said, “I hope Mr. McMurrin will stay long enough to get his ideas translated into practice. But, in any event, it is encouraging that for the first time in many decades there is someone at the head of the Office of Education who does not have the National Education Association viewpoint.”1
Anyway, Rickover had submitted his very critical document to the House Committee in 1959. The next year Fogarty had invited my predecessor, Lawrence Derthick, to submit a statement of response. My staff had told me that he would ask me to submit one as well. Sure enough, the next time I was before Fogarty’s committee, he asked me for a statement on the condition of American education. He said, “We had one from Rickover and one from Derthick. We’d like a statement from you.” Of course, I assured him that I would prepare such a document.
Well, I assumed that I would write that statement; but the deputy commissioner said, “Now, Commissioner, this is the way it’s done: the NEA appoints a committee, we appoint a committee, and the two committees together compose the document.” I’d read Rickover’s and [p. 301] then Derthick’s statements. Both were entire books. Derthick’s, in my opinion, was simply a whitewash of American public education. Neither paid much attention to higher education, as I recall. So I said, “If it’s my views Fogarty wants, it’s going to be my views and no one else’s that he gets. I’m not going to confer with anybody. It’s not going to be a whole book like Derthick’s and Rickover’s were. It’ll be simply an essay.” Some of them liked that. Jack Hughes, who was the executive officer and a kind of revolutionary, couldn’t believe it at first, but I could tell that he liked what I had to say. “Now, can you do it by the deadline?” he asked. “I’ll have it,” I said.
And you did.
Yes. I’m not going to argue that it was good, but it was good enough that the Saturday Review published it; it has appeared in several books; and of course it was published in full by Congress.
How did you do it?
The way I always wrote stuff in Washington. I sat up in bed one night and just wrote it in longhand. Then I had it typed and messed around with it a little for a day or two.
What did you say in it?
I laid out what I thought was wrong with American education. Hughes came in after it was typed and said, “You wouldn’t let anybody else have anything to do with writing it. Are you going to let any of us read it?” I said, “Sure, you can read it if you want to. I’d appreciate your comments on it.” He read it, and so did Ralph Flint, Boyer Jarvis, and Robert Rosenzweig. I remember adding a sentence as a result of Boyer’s and Rosenzweig’s comments. Hughes and Flint talked with me about it. They had one recommendation—they advised me not to use the word “social” because it would make some in the House of Representatives think I was a “socialist”—but they apparently liked it.
How was it received?
Quite well, I’d say. Congress had it printed, and my secretary brought in four or five copies for me. I quite liked its looks. Two or three days later I asked my secretary, Mrs. Worsley, “Do you suppose that we could get some more copies?” She said, “I rather think we can. Congress has published over a hundred thousand copies.”
If you were doing it again today, would you do anything differently?
I wouldn’t take anything out, but I would add an important item. I was conscious, of course, of the problem of the inner-city schools but didn’t make specific comments on them in this paper. My comments [p. 302] were designed to fit all schools. Beyond that, I’m afraid it simply sounds as if it were written by a university professor.
How about the same question applied to your commissionership as a whole? Is there anything you would have done differently if you were going back there again?
Well, I’m sorry we weren’t able to do more with the problems of education in the inner cities. It was really James Conant’s work on urban education that brought this issue to the nation’s attention. Now I had some sessions with Conant. He and I were on a couple of programs together and had one or two private sessions besides that in which we discussed these very issues. I’ve always been sorry that I didn’t do more along those lines when I was in Washington.
One thing I regret is that I lacked adequate confidence in my own judgment. I now realize that at times I yielded unwisely to the persuasions of others because of their more extensive experience in Washington. In the matter of the big-city schools, Los Angeles had an association of inner-city high school principals, and the chair was the principal of my old high school, Manual Arts. He invited me to meet with them and discuss the problems of the inner-city schools. It was a very worthwhile session. They asked me to address the student body. It was so large that they met on the bleachers of the athletic field. It had been almost entirely white and middle class when I attended, and now it was generally poor and almost completely black with a few whites and a few Asians. The demographic shift was dramatically clear. There was also a faculty luncheon, which I enjoyed very much, especially since two of my teachers were still there: James Bluet, a wonderful man, head of the physical education department, and Miss Elizabeth Mottern, the very attractive music teacher. She gave me a hug, and I said, “This is a hell of a time for us to start this sort of thing. We should have got at it when I was here as a student.”
Looking back, Sterling, would you say you enjoyed working in Washington?
It wasn’t unpleasant, but I wasn’t there for a good time like some people who hold appointments in Washington. I took the position because I felt it was the proper thing to do. Reporters would almost invariably ask me if I enjoyed my work, and I nearly always answered, “I’m willing to do it, but I’m not required to enjoy it. I don’t especially like administrative work.” Some people thought it was terrible for me to say that, but it’s simply a matter of being honest.
In my observation, people who go to Washington either get caught up in [p. 303] the headiness of being close to power or they tend to be revolted by the influence peddling. You were effective in dealing with the politics, but you also seem to have been displeased by the politicking itself.
I think that’s a fair assessment. I was realistic enough not to be disenchanted with things. I must say, Jack, that when I left Washington, I didn’t capitalize on my government experience to make money, though I had plenty of opportunities. I was under pressure from two lecture bureaus to let them schedule me for lucrative lectures across the country—disgusting. Even then the bureaus had plenty of ex-federal officials capitalizing on their Washington experience. But I must admit to some regret in later turning down an invitation to appear on a TV program in Honolulu where I would meet with two famous people, all three to come in blindly and discuss a variety of issues. When the TV representative became convinced that I wouldn’t do it because it was an entertainment program, she revealed the secret of who the others were. Both were my two favorite movie stars—one was Burt Lancaster who died recently and the other was Ernest Borgnine. I would like to have made their acquaintance.
Perhaps one reason for your relatively low frustration is that education in some fields was getting federal money without having to fight hard to get it?
That’s an astute observation. The sudden upsurge of interest in science and engineering generated a lot of money for those purposes. Such things as atomic energy for power plants, the establishment of NASA, and the very rapid growth of the health sciences in connection with the National Institutes of Health all benefitted education. To say nothing of the great problem of providing armaments to carry on the Cold War.
Not to mention the idealism of the Kennedy administration.
Oh, that’s very true. I felt that idealism. I didn’t go overboard on this kind of thing, as I’ve told you, because I’m not politically involved—
But isn’t it fair to say that you have a sense of mission about making institutions more humane, more responsive?
Yes, I had a general feeling of satisfaction with what was being done and—this is what you’re leading up to, isn’t it?—that made it easier to avoid getting frustrated.
Yes. You did mention being disgusted by the territorial battles. Anything else?
Oh, I was disgusted when pressure was put on me a time or two to hire or fire people when there was no justification for it. Pressure was on me by Secretary Ribicoff once to appoint a Texan to be the [p. 304] commissioner’s representative for a number of Southern states.
What did you do?
Well, I resented the political overtones. One of the Texas senators was pressuring Ribicoff on the matter. But after I’d made a thorough investigation of the man’s credentials, I made the appointment. It ended well, though, since the person in question was very well qualified and it did, in fact, turn out to be a good appointment. Another incident was pressure to discipline an individual highly placed in the Office of Education because of something he’d done when Eisenhower was president.
Make him the administration’s sacrificial lamb?
Something like that. In another case a highly placed man in the Office of Education was under the gun from Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, who insisted that I fire him. The man had erred unintentionally on a very minor thing and had apologized, but Powell was determined. It was a matter of race. I simply refused to give in and Powell gave up. That’s the kind of stuff I didn’t like. They were all quite minor, you understand, although I saw incidents in other departments that I think were absolutely disgraceful.
Now, you left the commissionership in August of 1962?
It was September or October. The president did not appoint a successor to me for some time, so the people in the Office of Education kept getting in touch with me, and I went back to Washington several times simply to carry on the work.
But you’d already relinquished the title?
Oh, yes. Though I had sent in my resignation to the president, it was a long time before I received a reply. So finally I canceled myself out; I sent the finance office instructions to quit paying me because I was leaving.
What factors contributed to your resignation?
As I said in my letter of resignation to the president, it was purely a personal matter, not work related at all. Abraham Ribicoff got hold of me one day and said, “I need to tell you that I’m planning to resign. A senate seat in Connecticut is open, so I’m going to run for that seat. I just wanted you to know.” It was a foregone conclusion that he would be elected.
Well, to be very frank with you, Jack, I was tired of administrative work—not physically tired or mentally tired but just tired. When Ribicoff said that, I thought, “By damn, if he can leave gracefully, why [p. 305] can’t I?” I instantly said, “Now, this gives me an opportunity to resign, too.” Well, Ribicoff was very much opposed to that. He promptly called the chief of the HEW legal department, Mr. Wilcox, who came right up and the two of them started to work on me. He had Wilcox explain that since I was an appointee of the president there was no reason why I should resign just because the secretary was resigning. I listened patiently and then said, “But don’t you see. It gives me an opportunity to get back to teaching, and Ribicoff’s replacement can get in on the appointment of my successor.” They argued very hard against this.
Flattering, all the same.
Yes, but I saw my chance. Ribicoff felt that the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was a real problem. He was of the opinion that it could not be administered properly and that it should be divided into more meaningful units. “The first thing I’m going to do when I get into the Senate,” he said—and I knew he would—”is introduce a bill to create a cabinet-level Department of Education. It’ll pass, and the president will appoint you Secretary of Education.”
That was his carrot to get you to stay, was it?
Yes, and frankly, it was the wrong carrot. That didn’t appeal to me one bit. And, as a matter of fact, it took many years to get that department established.
What did your staff say about it?
I’ll have to say that they brought every conceivable pressure to bear on me to stay. I don’t know whether I was so easygoing that they had their own way or what, but they worked like the devil to get me to stay. The president appointed a new Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Anthony Celebrezze. He went to work on me immediately, urging me to rescind my resignation. I liked him, and he was so persuasive that he half changed my mind. But when I got home from work on the day that I told him I might reconsider, there was Natalie half-packed, and the children were finally resigned to going home and were starting to anticipate it with pleasure. It was no good. I told the Secretary I wasn’t going to change my mind.
If Ribicoff hadn’t resigned, would you have stayed on for the four years?
Oh, sure, unless another good excuse had come along. But I had an even more personal reason for wanting to leave. President Olpin had asked Boyer Jarvis to come back to the university to be dean of the summer session. He also became the president’s executive assistant. Natalie would greatly miss Pat Jarvis. They were and are the warmest of friends. Their relationship was very important to Natalie, who had five [p. 306] kids to wrangle. Boyer and I would leave for the office at 8 a.m. and usually not get home until after eleven. I had to be out of town a great deal. Sometimes I would fly back in, go to my office, and fly out again without ever going home. So Boyer’s and Pat’s leaving was another reason for my resigning. Natalie would greatly miss them. And I thought it wasn’t entirely fair to Natalie to have the whole burden of rearing a family.
When did you actually resign?
Ribicoff told me of the date that he would resign, and I was planning to announce my resignation on the next day; but I picked up the Herald Tribune in Paris, and there it was. He’d jumped the gun a bit. When I returned to Washington, I called on Senator Bennett and Senator Moss to inform them of my plans. I thought this was proper, since both of them had appeared at the hearing on my confirmation and supported the appointment. When I went to Senator Moss’s office, he was in Utah; but his aide said, “Oh, he’s on the phone right now and he wants to talk to you.” So I got on the phone and told him I was planning to resign. My resignation was leaked by someone to the press, which created some consternation over at the White House.
I’ll bet it did.
Reporters began calling the president’s public relations director from all over the place. Pierre Salinger got in touch with our public relations people and told them not to confirm that I was resigning. I’d sent my resignation to the White House within an hour or two after talking to the senators, but it was the president’s decision when to release news of my leaving to the press.
Did you get any other reaction from the White House?
Well, I went over to the White House for a session with the president’s appointments secretary, Mr. Dungan. Dungan said that the president had indicated that if I insisted on it—that’s the way he put it—he would accept my resignation; but he’d like to know whom I would recommend to replace me. I gave him three names.
Who were they?
Francis Keppel, the dean of education at Harvard, was my first choice, and Dungan immediately said, “There are people in the White House who are acquainted with Keppel, and the president is not going to appoint him.” So I just gave him my other two recommendations—James Allen, who was Commissioner of Education of New York, and Harold Howe, a highly successful superintendent of schools in New York State.
[p. 307] Did President Kennedy follow your advice?
Yes. All three of these men succeeded me as Commissioner of Education. But not in the exact order I recommended them. Frank Keppel was appointed by President Kennedy, Harold Howe was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson, and Jim Allen was appointed by President Richard Nixon. So, you see, I was bipartisan.
But there was no action from the White House on my resignation for a very long time. As I said, I couldn’t get an official acknowledgment of my resignation, so I stayed as long as I could even though Lillian Ence had already rented a house for us in Salt Lake. Eventually, however, we sold our Washington home, I told them to cut off my paycheck, and we started to drive back to Utah.
Were you somewhat distressed about this?
Oh, not seriously, but the result was that I still had a lot of government business to handle. I must have carried on four or five conversations as we drove back to Utah, calling back and forth and thereafter returning several times to Washington. Eventually, at some point that fall, I got the letter from the president accepting my resignation and expressing appreciation to me. Wayne Reed, my deputy, was acting commissioner and remained in that position until Francis Keppel was appointed. I’ve often wondered about the details of Frank’s appointment.
What honors did you receive while you were commissioner?
You know, I’m not sure, but there were several honorary doctorates and special awards. I think the first honorary degree was here at the University of Utah, at spring graduation in 1962, since I remember they had me deliver the commencement address. Another honorary doctorate was awarded in 1962 by Delaware State College, which is a predominantly black college. Quite a bit was made of the fact that I was against racism. Then an honorary doctorate at Clark College in Massachusetts, one from the University of Southern California, and others followed after I left Washington. There were a few special honors from universities, including Columbia, New York University, and the University of Southern California.
So you settled down again to teach and do scholarly work at the University of Utah. How did it feel?
I left Washington because I’d had all I wanted of administrative work and wanted to get back to teaching and writing. There were three pleasant years teaching and the next thing you know, I was involved again in administration.
You surely were.
1. Rickover, American Education: A National Failure (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1963), 183. He originally made this statement before the Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives, 2nd session, 187th Congress.