Matters of Conscience
Sterling M. McMurrin and L. Jackson Newell
E. E. Ericksen Distinguished Professor
[p. 309] Sterling, when you returned to the University of Utah from your stint in Washington, what were your hopes?
My main hope was that I would have the good sense to stay out of any more administrative positions. I spent three very happy years teaching philosophy. I enjoyed teaching, but my main interest really wasn’t teaching as such, but rather life in a university where I could concentrate on ideas and read and write. I’m not like some faculty I’ve known who couldn’t live without teaching. In fact, when some of them gave up teaching and retired, it wasn’t long before they died. Perhaps it won’t be long before I die, but it won’t be because I gave up teaching.
I’ve talked with your students and even read their evaluations of your courses, and I know your reputation as a teacher, Sterling. Whether you feel an absolute need to be in the classroom or not, you did it with a flair.
Of course I get satisfaction out of teaching, especially when students seem to be learning something; but when the system of having course evaluations came up in the first place in the Faculty Council, I was one who argued strenuously against the idea. I think the best routine I’ve seen is the one you developed for Liberal Education, but most evaluations didn’t indicate whether the student had confidence that the instructor was genuinely competent in his or her subject. That always irritated me.
Whether the instructor is competent on his or her subject is a judgment for other faculty to make, not students! But apart from teaching, you also found great satisfaction in your research and writing?
Yes, in many ways, research and writing are fully satisfying. The problem we’ve always faced in philosophy at the University of Utah is that we’ve always been short on advanced graduate studies. We’ve had very good students; but by and large, the work has usually been at an undergraduate level or mixed undergraduate/graduate level. This has always been a disappointment to me.
[p. 310] A disappointment, but not a surprise?
No, not a surprise. I knew what I was getting into when I left USC and came here; but there’s been some compensation in the general enthusiasm of our students for the subject of philosophy. Most of my students have been intensely interested in philosophical questions.
Whitehead wrote of romance as the first of three stages of learning. In this stage students have enormous enthusiasm as they discover the power of new ideas and skills. You have been romancing students in philosophy for half a century now, and then leading many of them forward.
I suppose there is a good deal to what you say. Of course, philosophical matters very often run into religious matters, and the strong interest in religion and religious issues in Utah has contributed to the enthusiasm for philosophy.
But then those pleasant years that were devoted full-time to teaching came to an end. What happened?
Well, first the Secretary of Labor, Willard Wirtz, called me up and wanted me to head up a committee on manpower for several western states, including Utah. I didn’t want to do it; but I wasn’t going to sit there and tell the Secretary of Labor that I wouldn’t. I thought, “Oh, damn, if they want me to, I guess that’s what I ought to do.” And the governor of Utah, Cal Rampton, got me to arrange and chair a statewide conference on education—a time-consuming job.
That sense of public duty again?
It’s really an over-developed respect for authority, you know, Jack. Wouldn’t Joseph Fielding Smith snort if he could have heard me say that! Work with the Manpower Commission was rewarding in many respects, and the people I associated with were especially pleasant; but it consumed a good deal of time and effort. Later I was asked to chair the federal Commission on Instructional Technology. That took a lot of time and effort, but here again was the federal government. I’ve just never had the willpower to say no. For instance, I served on the board of a national organization on educational television, on the board of directors of the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges, on the Graduate Record Examination Board.
What were your other university activities in addition to teaching?
After returning to the university, I was appointed chair of what was first called the Curriculum Committee but which we renamed the Academic Policy Committee. We were given an absolutely free hand to deal with any subject relating to the university as long as it had to do with education, and the university would supply us with a staff and any [p. 311] information within its power.
It’s now called the Academic Policy Advisory Committee and the members are elected. What were the problems that called it into being?
Well, this committee was originally appointed by the president. In previous years there was no agency with oversight responsibility for the university’s curriculum, to see that there weren’t unfilled gaps or bad cases of duplication among departments and colleges. When I succeeded Homer Durham as vice-president, I gave some attention to that situation but didn’t do anything about it. When I returned from Washington, Daniel Dykstra, who had taken my place as vice-president, told me that he and President Olpin had come to the conclusion that we should form a committee to deal with the problem. It wasn’t the sort of thing I wanted to do, but I agreed to chair what was called the Curriculum Committee—with the clear understanding that we would not do the curriculum job.
So how did you define your role as a committee?
We were strictly an advisory committee, and our job was to examine and evaluate any educational program of the university independently of any administrative interference. We had no powers of action, but we did have responsibility and power to advise the administration and faculty.
So you had no control over finances, no power to change programs, but considerable influence, given the stature of the people on the committee?
Yes, that’s it. By virtue of the wisdom of this group, coupled with our research and the persuasiveness of our recommendations, we had clout; but no one was under any obligation to act on our recommendations.
And what was the work of your committee?
We took as our first piece of business an examination of the College of Business, now the College of Business and the Graduate School of Business. I didn’t think we should have an undergraduate College of Business in the first place. That’s a long story, but, to make it brief, I thought we should have an undergraduate program in accounting and one or two other things but that the College of Business should be a graduate operation. After devoting some attention to the College of Business, we decided that a more acute problem, and a far more pressing one, was the College of Education. After two years of study, we submitted our first report, which recommended that the College of Education be made a graduate school.
[p. 312] Why did your committee decide that education was more pressing than business?
The thing that caused the shift is that the members of the committee—and I was one of them—more and more realized that the problems in the College of Education were more acute. We didn’t want to rush through the thing but rather to make a thorough study, so we devoted many months to our study of the College of Education. At that time the physical education program was in the College of Education along with home economics, and we recommended the creation of a separate college for physical education and a department for home economics outside the School of Education. Thereafter, physical education became the College of Health.
Home economics is now the Department of Family and Consumer Studies, located in the College of Social and Behavioral Science. Having just come back from Washington, it was quite logical for you to have ideas about reforming education on your mind.
Yes, I thought there was nothing wrong with reforming education a little bit. As it turned out, the Faculty Senate was in favor of upgrading the college to a Graduate School of Education and splitting off physical education, modern dance, and home economics. So was the administration. The only objections that I heard were from people in the School of Education. However, the dean, Asahel Woodruff, and Reed Merrill, the education school’s representative on the committee, were in favor of the committee’s proposals. The main substantive thing we came up with—and this is what I personally pushed for—was elevating the status of education as an advanced professional study with a program of liberal education as its base.
Research in education is taken for granted now; sometimes it’s even taken too far and diminishes our attention to other professorial duties. Explain what you see as the problem of preparing teachers and administrators .for the public schools.
Educators are professionals, like doctors; and I think we should provide these people with first-class preparation. Anyone going into teaching or administration should have an honest-to-goodness liberal education as a foundation.
And thirty years later we’re still talking about this, and we still haven’t done it very well.
Yes, and we often talk about it as if it were something new. That’s the thing that always annoys me. It is inventing the wheel all over again. So what the Academic Policy Committee favored—and I was pleased [p. 313] that we went in this direction—was requiring educators to get a good liberal education and then some first-rate professional education on top of that. And that the study of pedagogy should be shifted to the graduate level, like law and medicine.
Well, if you read our report, you will find that we recommended setting up an all-university committee that dealt with teacher education. Such a committee was created, the University Council on Teacher Education. Whether it ever functioned well or not, I don’t know. I was so damned tired of it at the end of those two years that I didn’t bother to follow through to see what happened.
It has fallen ill and been revived and renamed several times. Back to the larger matter, your old Academic Policy Committee is still doing good work, although I don’t know if it tackles projects of the same scope. Its members are now elected and the name was changed about 1968 to the Academic Policy Advisory Committee.
You know what I’m really concerned about? I think that for some purposes electing committee members is a very grave mistake. It’s like electing a board of regents or electing the board of education. People can get in on the basis of their popularity with the voters—a disgusting process.
This sounds like a vote of no confidence in democracy, Sterling.
I’m not as democratic in educational matters as a lot of people on the faculty are. I confess that. I believe in a strong department head and not somebody that is some way or other elected by a department to serve as a coordinator. I believe in strong committees, strong deans, and strong presidents at the university. If they’re not any good, throw them out and get somebody else. That’s the feeling that I have, and that explains my feelings about that committee. I must confess that I selected the members of the committee, with the vice-president’s approval and the approval of the department heads and deans where needed. I wouldn’t have taken the job if the members were to be elected. You see, I think the Utah system of an elected State Board of Education is not a good practice. Why not have it appointed as the State Board of Regents is?
How would you appraise the results of your efforts to reform the school of education?
You know, Jack, aside from the name change to the Graduate School of Education, I’m not sure there was much change. Some of the people were afraid of losing their jobs if the place were upgraded, and I think perhaps some of them should have lost them. When the school did upgrade later on, many did retire early or leave. Another argument [p. 314] was that the prospective teachers would go to USU or BYU to get an education if we made our requirements too stiff. The interesting thing is that the dean of education at USU told me he hoped we would go ahead with our reforms, because then he could upgrade things at his institution.
As you know, the argument that higher standards mean losing students still gets trotted out every time a college thinks about raising its expectations. But it actually doesn’t work that way. Higher standards mean a higher quality of student because their degree is worth more. Raising standards raises interest.
I think you’re right, Jack. The education faculty has been complaining for years that not enough first-rate students want to go into education. I keep hearing it from the students’ perspective. They feel that they won’t get a good education if they go into the School of Education. I think that’s pretty much true all over the country and it’s unfortunate.
It once was, but the University of Utah School of Education and some others around the country now have very high admissions standards for prospective teachers.
Yes, and the task of educating a teacher is a task for the whole university, not just one college. I always tried to break down the isolation of the School of Education. I gradually realized the extent to which the School of Education would not recognize high-quality teaching by other departments relating to teacher education. At times in the past it wouldn’t even let students earn credit toward certification when they took legitimate education work from professors in other colleges.
Could you give me an example?
James Jarrett in the philosophy department was first-rate and very interested in the philosophy of education. His first degree was in our education college, his doctorate from the University of Michigan. After he left us, he became president of the Great Books Foundation, president of Western Washington College, and professor of the philosophy of education at Berkeley. He’s as good a man as there is in this country in the philosophy of education. For a number of years, Jim taught our philosophy department’s course in the philosophy of education. But the School of Education would not let a student taking Jarrett’s course receive credit for that course toward teacher certification! It had to be someone on their own payroll, teaching their own course.
So it was just a territorial concern, not an intellectual matter? What nonsense.
Absolutely. Well, when they were getting around to appointing a [p. 315] person in the philosophy of education in the sixties, I let them know that the philosophy people had a great interest in the subject and would be very pleased to be present when their candidates read papers. Well, Mike Parsons was one of those under consideration. When he gave his seminar, more people came to hear him from the philosophy department than from the School of Education. He was very, very good. We liked him, and I like to think that our favoring him helped him get the appointment.
Mike became a major figure in the School of Education, but he recently moved on to head the education department at Ohio State. In the meantime what steps did you take toward breaking down these territorial walls?
Asahel Woodruff was very interested in this problem. When he was dean, he worked very hard to see that the School of Education was really integrated into the university, recognizing that people all over the campus had as much interest as the education faculty in seeing that prospective teachers got a good liberal education.
One reason for the barriers, Sterling, is that education faculty never feel they’re in control of their own affairs because, to do their job right, they have to coordinate and draw on the talents of faculty campuswide. Other departments can be much more autonomous. They don’t ask the School of Education how to run their programs. But to get back to our topic—your contributions to the university. Did you have your appointment in the faculty of education when you were on the Academic Policy Committee?
No, that came much later. The people in the education school had a very negative opinion of me, generally speaking. I became aware of this when I was vice-president. I was once invited to address them and spoke in essentially critical terms, and it was obvious to me that they didn’t like me. Now, not everyone. I’d been involved in Ashael Woodruff’s appointment as dean when I was vice-president, and I always felt he was not opposed to my views; but it was fairly clear to me that the rank and file of the education school—and I hope I’m not saying this too irresponsibly—had a kind of contempt for me. Not simply a negative attitude toward my views on education, but a personal contempt for me which, by the way, matched the opinion I had of a couple of them.
Contempt is a strong word. What was the source of this mutual enmity? You were critical of some things going on in education, I know, and I expect they saw you as rather arrogant.
Perhaps so, and some of them were highly critical of my policies in Washington. Vice-president Jack Adamson told me that one education [p. 316] professor claimed that he got me fired from my position as Commissioner of Education. This amused me, of course, in view of the difficulty I had in getting out of Washington.
This was a very long-standing disagreement you had with these people? But you were seriously interested in teacher education.
Yes. In the 1950s, when I was still dean of the college, the National Science Foundation got involved in the funding of summer institutes for high school teachers of science. Some of us, including Thomas Parmley in physics, got busy and formulated an application for an academic year institute for high school science teachers. Ours was the second one funded in the nation. When we received the grant, I appointed Parmley to head the program. More than one person in the National Science Foundation told me that they regarded it as the best program of its kind in the nation. It continued for years. We had several of these summer institutes; in the mathematics department, too. Allan Davis in mathematics headed those up. He was interested in teacher education.
In the physics department you appointed a person specifically in connection with teacher education?
Yes. That was Robert Kadesch to teach physics and astronomy. Parmley and his committee were from all across the university, including education. But we wanted high school teachers—if they were able to put in the time and had the credentials—to get a master’s degree. Not in education where they would be bogged down with more education courses, but in the sciences that they taught.
How did you manage that?
We had biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics teachers, so we invented a new degree which the Faculty Council and the board of regents approved—Master of Science Education. That degree was awarded in the education school, you see, but it was under the administration of a broader entity. Some people over in education didn’t like the idea, but we worked it out. Most of the students were not fully qualified for a master’s degree in physics, for instance, but they were for a degree in the teaching of physics. I don’t know whether they still have that degree or not, but that was a damn good thing. Well, I want to establish myself, you see, as a person interested in the preparation of teachers.
Your criticism of the College of Education, then, was over their wish to devote too much time and energy to pedagogy rather than academic content, [p. 317] as you see it?
Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that I am opposed to pedagogical research and study. I wanted to put pedagogy on an advanced level.
Sterling, you’ve been affiliated with three different academic departments on this campus. You began in the Department of Philosophy, you had connections with the School of Education, and the latter years of your career were in the Department of History. Could we turn now to your disaffection with the Department of Philosophy and your intensifying ties with education and history?
As you know, I had fulfilled the requirements for a degree in history and political science as well as philosophy as an undergraduate, but all of my graduate work and faculty appointments were in philosophy. When I came here in 1948 as full professor in philosophy, I didn’t have the slightest expectation of ever becoming affiliated with any other department, although I was sorely tempted at one time in the 1950s to do some things in the law school. But that would not have involved my joining its faculty, even as an adjunct professor.
But your branching out reached first toward the School of Education?
It started in the 1950s and the problems with teaching the philosophy of education. Jim Jarrett had left and Charles Monson, who had earned his doctorate in philosophy from Cornell, was appointed to teach the philosophy of education. He was intensely interested in teaching, just as you are, Jack. Monson was later head of the philosophy department and associate academic vice-president. Well, at some point Monson went back to Cornell on an American Council of Education grant, so they asked me to teach his course in the philosophy of education. This was never a specialty of mine, as you know, and never anything that I was very interested in until I was in Washington. When I was Commissioner of Education, I was asked to address a meeting of professors of the philosophy of education in New York City—I can’t remember its name. I asked the executive officer of the Office of Education to have the specialist on the philosophy of education give me a good sampling of the books these people would use. Well, the Library of Congress delivered to me about eighteen books, and, to be very frank with you, I was horrified with some of the stuff that I encountered.
Can you give me a sample?
Usually, the first part of a text was an introduction to philosophy, sometimes well done and sometimes done by people that didn’t know a damn thing about it. Usually the authors described different schools of thought—idealism, realism, pragmatism, phenomenology, positivism, [p. 318] existentialism—and then launched into an attempt to deal with education in terms of these philosophical schools. Well, much of what I saw really amused me and, in an intellectual sense, disgusted me. So I went up to Queen’s College and told them so.
You told them you were disgusted by the quality of the major texts in their field?
That’s right. Disgusted that they seemed to think there should be a separate philosophy of education for different theories of epistemology, metaphysics, and logic—because that’s the way a lot of this stuff was written. I told them I thought this was just a lot of damn nonsense. Well, there were some very competent people in that crowd with whom I had had previous philosophy connections. I got along famously with these people. A little later they sent a delegation to Washington to ask if I would take the lead in creating a national organization in the philosophy of education. Well, I told them no because it would be a very bad thing to have this done by the federal government.
There is such an organization now. Did you associate with it after you left Washington?
Yes, in fact, I later gave an address to a regional meeting at Berkeley.
Now all of this was preparatory to your becoming involved in the School of Education?
The American Philosophical Association holds separate regional meetings rather than a single national one. Although I had never attended their meetings, the nominating committee of the Central States Division contacted me and said they would like to nominate me to be vice-president; then the following year I would become president. Well, I told them that they hadn’t better do it, as I associated with the Pacific Division. But the same year the Eastern Division asked me to do a paper on the philosophy of education, and the respondent would be a man of considerable stature in the philosophy of education. I was embarrassed because I was so busy that I didn’t get the paper to him very far in advance. This all happened just as we were coming back to Utah, and President Kennedy hadn’t replaced me, so I still had one foot in Washington. Nevertheless, I read the paper and the respondent was very gracious, more gracious I think than I deserved. Well, my paper was primarily a criticism of the most widely used philosophy of education book—though I didn’t name it—and the Journal of Philosophy published my essay. Since then, of course, I have published numerous papers on education.
[p. 319] A number of years later you and Jim Jarrett, who was then at Berkeley, decided to do a book on the philosophy of education together, didn’t you?
It was after I became dean of the Graduate School, so it would have been about 1969 or ’70. It was Jarrett’s idea that we do a text for classroom use in courses in the philosophy of education. We worked on the book, but I didn’t have time. I finally had to throw in the towel, and Jarrett carried on alone with Philosophy for Educators. It’s a Houghton Mifflin publication, now out of print. Too bad, because it’s an excellent book.
What approach did you and Jim take in the book?
There are sizable studies of people of very real competence as philosophers, like Plato, Whitehead, Dewey, and others, dealing with educational matters. And the very man who wrote the awful book that I criticized so severely at the meeting of the Philosophical Association was the editor of the series in which this book appeared.
So your book with Jarrett was to be largely an anthology?
Our idea was that if you want to study the philosophy of education, take a good look at the ideas on education held by the major philosophers. One of the best things about the academic pursuit of philosophy is that you are concerned almost exclusively with the work of scholars of great intellectual stature. There isn’t time to waste on second-raters. But all of this is background to your question about my appointment in the School of Education. During the 1960s we made it pretty clear in the philosophy department that we were very much interested in the philosophy of education from the standpoint of the university’s interest in the education of teachers. Now this, you see, was after the work of the Academic Policy Committee, which stressed that the education of teachers was a responsibility of the whole university.
So you were pleased to offer your support to Michael Parsons, who had joined the education faculty in the philosophy of education. It was after Michael was hired that you received your appointment?
Yes, I was asked to join the education faculty to offer a course in the philosophy of education. I agreed to accept an appointment as professor of the philosophy of education, not professor of education, because I couldn’t lay any claim to that title.
Now that was a full appointment, not adjunct?
That was an appointment as a full professor. They didn’t ever have to pay me anything, you understand, so it was simply a matter of their picking up some free teaching. This was shortly before you came to the university, Jack.
[p. 320] That’s right. The philosophy of education was in the area called Cultural Foundations of Education in the Department of Educational Administration.
Not the proper place for Cultural Foundations, but that’s where it was. I really took an active part in faculty affairs in that department. I regularly attended meetings of the faculty and took a lively interest in its procedures. I felt that it was a worthwhile thing to do. I taught only one class each year; I was still in the administration and teaching two classes in the philosophy department. Shortly afterward they were interested in expanding and asked Charles Monson to teach some education courses. I advised Charles to do it only on one condition—that he have a regular appointment as professor of philosophy of education.
How did things work out for you, Sterling?
My situation was pleasant enough. I had two or three good classes and some rather advanced people, and then the thing just fell off. It became fairly evident to me—and by this time I had come to the history department—that there wasn’t really much interest in my teaching in education. On two different occasions they simply failed to list my course. I found out about it the first time because some students who were interested in taking the course came to see me about it and I discovered I wasn’t even in the schedule for that quarter. When I called this to the department’s attention, the chair said, “Oh, that’s too bad. We’ll just cancel it out this time.” I thought, If they’re not interested in my holding the class, why should I worry, about it? There was still time to announce the class.
What response did you have from the administration of the School of Education?
None. The associate dean of the Graduate School, Richard Kendall, was in the School of Education, and it bothered Kendall some—the lack of any particular interest in seeing that I even taught over there after I had agreed to be on the faculty. He got involved one year, and, through his influence, they put together a first-rate class of advanced students. That class was a very real pleasure. But after that Kendall left the university and the thing dwindled down to the point where the last time I went up to meet with a class there was only one student. Parsons canceled it, and I went back to my office and wrote a letter of resignation.
Canceled your appointment as well.
Yes, I canceled my appointment. It didn’t make any difference to them. Nobody objected one bit to my resigning. I don’t think I as much as received a reply.
That’s surprising. I can’t understand how that could have happened unless [p. 321] there were residual hard feelings in the School of Education that made the faculty and dean deliberately uncooperative. How did you feel about it? This amounts to a serious and painful personal rejection!
You see, I wasn’t on their payroll. When you’re not on the payroll, nobody gives a damn about you. Anyway that was the end of my short-lived career as a teacher in the field of education.
But you had other important involvements in education that continued to bring satisfaction.
Yes, I should mention that during this period I devoted a great deal of time elsewhere to the problems of education. From 1963 to 1975 I directed three projects on schools and colleges for the prestigious Committee for Economic Development of New York, which yielded a number of influential policy statements which I wrote and books which I edited. And I served on several national committees on education, including the chairmanship of the federal Commission on Instructional Technology.
Well, what about your disaffection with philosophy? It occurred about the same time.
It was very early in the seventies while I was dean of the Graduate School. I had some problems with the philosophy department—mind you, the problems were not what you would regard as serious in a personal way, but I always had a sense of disappointment that we were not creating a first-rate department of philosophy. This was the big problem.
It was just maintaining the status quo, so you quit?
Yes. The philosophy department was once the intellectual hub of the campus. I don’t think you could point to any single department that is the hub now. When I was first on the faculty, any number of faculty people would take my courses. The dean of the law school took a course from me in medieval philosophy, two people in the engineering school took a course in the philosophy of history. I had people from the Department of English, two or three of whom are still on the faculty, professors from the departments of psychiatry, psychology, and history. The same thing can be said of Jarrett, Read, and Tanner—they all attracted other professors.
Why did you choose to stay at the University of Utah? You could have gone to USC or a variety of other distinguished institutions to pursue your reading, research, and writing.
Well, I simply have to say that I like it here. It’s home to me. I would rather live in Salt Lake City than anywhere else I’ve been in [p. 322] the world, and I’ve been to a lot of places. I simply don’t want to live anywhere else. I’ve turned down a considerable number of very attractive offers, both in administration and teaching or research. In every instance, from a monetary standpoint I would have gained if I had left here sometimes more than twice the salary that I was receiving here. But I just like it here. I’m a Westerner and I can’t get this terrain out of my system—don’t intend to. I like the people. They aren’t any better than people anywhere else, but they’re my crowd; and the University of Utah, as I’ve said on many occasions publicly, is a far better institution than the people of Utah have any idea that it is. I’m at home in this university. It is a very, very good university. There is genuine academic freedom here. There is a zest for knowledge. Natalie and I have felt that this is a good place to rear a family.
For the scholarly pursuit of philosophy, as I’ve said, it has not been a particularly good thing for me to remain at the University of Utah.
I can see that you were disillusioned with the philosophy department here, and then reminded by the USC offer of greener pastures, but just how did your break with philosophy and your appointment in history come about?
It was back in the sixties, when strange things were happening in the universities. In the philosophy department there was a lot of faculty bickering and I simply became disgusted with it. There wasn’t anything personal about it, but I just felt let down the way things were going. There’s no point in dragging it all out now as it was many years ago and the faculty has changed greatly since then. When I decided to leave the philosophy department in 1970, the tenured people in history seemed anxious to have me, so I joined them. Several years later I resigned from the graduate deanship and moved into Carlson Hall, the history building. I was treated well by my history colleagues, but I always felt like au illegitimate child at a family reunion. I had classes in the philosophy of history and the history of ideas, but the history faculty had changed considerably since I joined the department, and I think many of the new people regarded me as an interloper.
But for ten years or more, you enjoyed the best years of your university work.
Yes, partly because they left me alone and I had complete freedom, but also because I had the support of a wonderful assistant, Jacqueline Jacobsen. I had previously enjoyed the assistance of two other women in the university who had made my administrative work both bearable and pleasant, Lillian Ence and Helen Hyer. I am of the opinion that the secretaries of an institution are the ones who make it work. Without them things would go to hell.
When I resigned from philosophy, I wrote a letter resigning as [p. 323] E. E. Ericksen Professor of Philosophy and also as Distinguished Professor. But the president advised me that the “Ericksen Chair” and the “Distinguished” title both belonged to me and not the Department of Philosophy, so I became E. E. Ericksen Distinguished Professor and Professor of History. Several times after that I was urged by the philosophy department chair to rejoin them. I agreed to teach one class a year as adjunct professor at no cost to the department. As a matter of fact, most of my salary was in the vice-president’s budget, not the history budget.
When were you originally appointed E. E. Ericksen Distinguished Professor? What were the circumstances of this change for you, this step for the university?
It was, as I recall, a short time after I agreed to turn down the latest USC offer. There was no bargaining, and my salary was not affected. But the regents created the Ericksen chair in honor of E. E. Ericksen, and at the same time I was appointed Distinguished Professor, the first person to ever hold this rank at the University of Utah. The Ericksen chair, I was told, was the university’s first chair since the early days when we had the Deseret Professorship of Geology. That chair was discontinued many years earlier. Since my appointment, there have been a number of distinguished professor appointments. Henry Eyring was the second person to hold this rank. Now there are quite a few of us, and proposals for appointment as distinguished professor are submitted to this group for their approval before any action is taken. It is now a rigorous screening procedure. I guess it’s a good thing that I got in before there were any rules and tough standards.
It is a fairly common practice today for a rising faculty member to elicit an offer elsewhere and then see if his or her dean can match it. Do you think offers from USC or elsewhere resulted in your being appreciated more here, materially?
I doubt it. I didn’t ever use offers elsewhere to elicit salary increases here; besides, no one in the administration ever knew about most of the offers I received. I think the university paid me what it could. After my service as Commissioner of Education in Washington, the University of Utah gave me a $500 raise. And that’s not a $500 raise over what I made in Washington, but what I made in Utah before I went to Washington. I would have been better off financially if I had not gone to Washington. It was about $4,000 a year less than the Washington salary. I was being paid $16,000 here as vice-president when I left. The salary in Washington was pegged, I think, at the same salary as people in the House of [p. 324] Representatives—then about $20,000. According to the papers, the Secretary of Education now makes about $148,000 a year. I returned to Utah on a salary of $16,500, but this was what I wanted to do and we could live on it. I never did discuss salaries with my superiors either here or in Washington. I learned about the salary after I took the jobs. I came here as a full professor of philosophy in 1948 not knowing what the salary was until after I had accepted the position. The same was true in Washington. I didn’t know what my salary would be until just before my Senate confirmation. No one had bothered to tell me, and I wasn’t about to ask.
So you chose to stay here as a professor but got sucked back into administration anyway.
Yes, that’s where I made my big mistake. I should have stayed out of administration. I had already paid my dues in administration. I ended up with twenty years in the Park Building, in the university administration!
That chapter of your life put you at odds once more with your own nature. Before moving on to that phase, however, let’s turn to Obert and Grace Tanner’s generosities, large and small, and your role in shaping some of them. Where did their remarkable philanthropies begin?
Well, the first large contribution that I was aware of may have been the gift of a philosophy library to Stanford University. I think it was shortly after the gift of that Tanner Library to Stanford that he made the gift of the Tanner Room in Orson Spencer Hall at the University of Utah. Obert’s business had to be in pretty good shape then or he couldn’t have made that gift because it was very expensive. That library and meeting room in Spencer Hall had its own ventilating system, its own heating and air-conditioning system (before the rest of the building was air-conditioned), fine-furniture book shelves and cabinets fashioned from imported wood, and decorating done by one of the state’s leading decorators.
There is an interesting story behind the funding of the Grace Tanner Dining Room in the Alumni House, is there not?
Yes, David Gardner who was then president of the University of Utah called me on the phone one day and said, “We’re in the business of planning an alumni house and it’s going to be a very beautiful thing.” He said, “You know here at the university we have no place to hold fine dinners, a truly beautiful place for official dinners, and it has occurred to me and perhaps to others that we have nothing on the campus that is named for Grace Tanner. We have things named for Obert and Grace’s children, and for Obert’s mother, so now a lovely dining room named [p. 325] for Grace Tanner would be a marvelous thing. Is there any likelihood that Obert might be interested in funding such a room? I said, “I think he would.” “Well,” Gardner said, “how do you think we should go about it?” I said, “It’s very simple. What you need to do is get an appointment with Obert down at his office on State Street. Go down and just say to him what you’ve said to me.” He said, “We’ll have to ask him for at least a hundred thousand dollars.” I said, “The figure’s not going to bother him, I’m sure of that. Just go down and ask him for it.” David said, “All right, I will.” Not long after that, he called me up and said, “I thought I should tell you that I went down, asked Obert for the money, and he gave it to me.” I said, “I’m not surprised.” About a week or ten days later I was with Obert and I said, “Obert, I see you’re still spreading your money around the university.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I know about that hundred thousand dollars you’ve given to Gardner for a dining room,” and—now this is the point of my telling you the story—he said, “Well, what could I do? There’s David Gardner, the president of that great university, as busy as he is, with all of the things he has to think about, and he took the time to come clear down to my office on State Street to ask me for the money. The least I could do was give it to him.”
As things developed, I think the price went far beyond the hundred thousand because Obert also gave them the tableware and the silverware and the whole shebang.
Obert and Grace were both an amazing mixture of humility and generosity. The many fountains he and Grace donated are surely symbols of life-giving water in a desert region. I’m aware of a list of forty-two of their fountains. Is that the total?
I believe there were more than fifty. The problem is, I’m not sure that Grace knows about them all!
At some point Obert shifted from fountains to endowing lectureships. How did the renowned Tanner Lectures on Human Values get started?
This is an example of how Obert worked. They were dedicating the fountain that he gave to Dixie College in St. George, and the president asked me to come and offer some remarks about Obert at the ceremony. Obert and Grace were there, of course, and after the affair Natalie and I and Grace and Obert all lodged at the same inn. Obert invited us over to talk; so we went to their room. I’d had an idea for some time, so I said to Obert when the time seemed right, “Obert, I think you’ve given enough fountains now,” and Grace interjected, “I think so, too!”
[p. 326] All the colleges and universities in Utah had at least one Tanner fountain by then, and other public institutions in Utah had been given fountains by the Tanners, too.
Yes, and I said, “Obert, I think you should put your money into something else now.” He said, “Well, what?” I said, “I think you should establish a world-class lectureship.” Now I had in mind a lectureship on the order of the Gifford Lectures in Scotland—given at the University of Utah with several lectures by the same person. I said, “I think you should establish a very, high-level lectureship: The Obert C. Tanner Lectures on Moral Philosophy.” “Well,” Obert said, “let’s do it, but it is not to be named for me. What do you think it will take to get it started?” I said, “Well, it’ll take an initial endowment of about one hundred thousand dollars.” “Fine,” he said, “We’ll do it.”
What happened next?
In less than a week the money was in the hands of President Gardner and the planning for what was to become the Tanner Lectures on Human Values was underway, engaging the efforts of David Gardner, Meredith Wilson, Obert Tanner, and me. The Tanners subsequently donated millions of dollars to create these remarkable lectureships. Today the lectures are established and funded in perpetuity at some of the world’s great universities, including Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, University of California, Berkeley, Michigan, and the University of Utah. Annually, they provide a forum for the finest scholars and statespersons in the world. The Tanner Lectures on Human Values are held in high esteem wherever you go today. Obert regarded these lectures as his most important achievement.
Obert and Grace also gave generously to BYU and to many other educational institutions. In 1995 the Tanner Foundation gave $1.5 million to endow the Humanities Center at the University of Utah. It was a marvelous decision.
Yes, they are continuing with Obert’s notable generosity and spirit.
And there is the Sterling M. McMurrin Distinguished Visiting Professorship, which President Gardner asked me to establish in the late 1970s when I was dean of Liberal Education. I chaired the selection of the first ten incumbents. It has been a real boon to the undergraduate programs all over campus to have these people come for a quarter. The position has been occupied by leaders as diverse as Herbert Kelman, Cabot Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University, and Jacques d’Amboise, the great ballet artist and teacher. Running that program was one of the great [p. 327] satisfactions of my deanship.
I remember those distinguished visitors with respect and affection. Reginald Cane’s work in the history of science was of great interest, as was anthropologist Marvin Harris’s.
Fountains of water and fountains of knowledge. Those symbolized Obert’s approach to life. He truly believed in and acted on the great ideas he taught as a philosophy professor all those years—liberty and justice, beauty and goodness. He brought ideas to life.
We could go on, of course, and I wish we could. We’ve hardly done justice to Obert and Grace’s benefactions, at home and abroad, to individuals and to institutions.
Your six-decade rapport with Obert played a significant role in shaping the flow of his instinctive generosity and plentiful resources to many good causes. The two of you, really the four of you including Natalie and Grace, enjoyed a friendship from which tens of thousands have already benefitted.