Matters of Conscience
Sterling M. McMurrin and L. Jackson Newell
[p. 329]President Ray Olpin’s retirement from the University of Utah presidency precipitated a host of administrative changes and got you involved again. How did this happen?
When I came back from Washington in 1962, President Olpin was already preparing for his departure from office. When he did retire in 1964, the regents used what I think proved to be a very unwise procedure to search for his successor. They established their own search committee and also a separate faculty search committee, chaired by Fred Emery of the Law School. I met a couple of times with the regents’ committee at their invitation, but don’t recall ever meeting with the faculty committee.
This dual arrangement sounds like a recipe for inter-tribal conflict.
Oh, it certainly was. But in my consultations with the regents, I strongly urged the appointment of someone who had not only academic credentials and experience but who also understood business, industry, and economics. It seemed evident at the time that the university must get tied more closely into the economy of the state. I mentioned James C. Fletcher, whom I knew slightly, as someone who seemed to fit this bill. I had met him in California, knew he was highly successful, had a doctorate in physics from Cal Tech, and had studied at Columbia. He was a leader in the aerospace industry and a person of considerable sophistication. As you know, Jack, he is the candidate the regents eventually appointed.
Were you a disinterested party in this process, aside from making the initial recommendation?
Well, I actually had a little more to do with it than that. I was in New York when I got a phone call about midnight from Jim Fletcher. He was calling from Salt Lake City, where the regents had just offered him the presidency of the university. He wanted my advice about whether he should take the job. I told him that he certainly should, that the university was in desperate need of someone who could have the [p. 330] confidence of the business and industrial people in the state. Then he said, “But you know, the faculty is opposed to me.” I said, “I didn’t know that you knew that.” Then I tried to convince him that the faculty committee’s opposition was not personal but represented their strong preference for an academic candidate. I told him that after he’d served as president a very short time, the faculty would come to respect him.
Which, in fact, happened.
Yes. Fletcher was highly successful and built exactly the kind of ties with the community that I felt were necessary. He acquired the land for the Research Park, for instance, which has proved to be an excellent cooperative effort with industry.
Shortly afterwards you were appointed Fletcher’s provost. How did that happen?
Jim had been president for about a year when Jack Adamson, who had been academic vice-president since Olpin’s final year, decided to leave the administration even though he liked Fletcher a great deal. Jack got a year’s leave of absence to do postdoctoral work in English at Harvard. When it became clear he was going to leave, Fletcher bludgeoned me into going back into the administration. I didn’t want to. I’d been out of the administration for three years, ever since returning from Washington. I didn’t want to have anything more to do with it.
But you’ve done it much of your life, Sterling!
Yes, over twenty-two years’ worth.
There have been some rewards, at least intrinsic ones, that kept you at it.
Well, the main one is that you do what you think you should do, what you feel you owe to your university or to your nation. And of course, the people with whom you associate are the best reward.
How did President Fletcher persuade you?
I held out for several days. Fletcher wanted to create the position of provost or chancellor, and this officer would be in charge of the internal functioning of the university—its educational program—while he handled the outside stuff like legislative relations, public relations, and business and community relations. The business vice-president would report to both Fletcher and the provost, but the academic vice-president would report to the provost. I didn’t want to do it.
What was it, however, that you couldn’t resist?
A secretary! I needed a secretary! I was completely and totally swamped in the philosophy department, which had one typist for the entire faculty. I gave the commencement address at the University of [p. 331] Chicago, for instance, and the president asked for a copy so they could publish it. But I couldn’t get it typed in a reasonable time.
So you took that job with Fletcher.
Yes, and we ended up calling the position “provost” rather than “chancellor.” I was to have Lillian Ence again as my secretary. She had been Jack Adamson’s secretary and was a marvel of organization and efficiency.
Did your life then become easier?
No! That’s what’s so ironic. Fletcher and I had to choose an academic vice-president to replace Jack Adamson, and I suggested Fred Emery. There was no doubt about his qualifications, but he chaired the faculty committee that had gone on record as opposing Fletcher’s presidency. But Fletcher instantly said, “That’s the person I’m thinking of !” He immediately phoned Fred and asked him to come up. Fred was due for a leave, to teach either at Berkeley or Stanford, and had his plans all made; but he agreed to come on as vice-president.
But you lost Lillian Ence to Emery.
Right. He insisted that he couldn’t function without Lillian, so Lillian remained as secretary to the vice-president and I lost out. The appointment of Emery indicates Fletcher’s broad-gauged tolerance. He held no animosity toward Fred for his opposition. He held no grudges. In fact, not long after we’d both accepted these new positions, Fred and I were in Fletcher’s office arguing about something. I can’t remember what the issue was, but Fletcher and I agreed and Fred opposed the position. It was a pretty stiff conflict of opinions. When the meeting ended, just as Fred was walking out the door, Fletcher said, “You just remember that I became president over your dead body.” We all laughed, and any difficulty that might have remained as a result of the exchange just dissolved. I always thought this incident captured Fletcher’s character and leadership ability.
That’s a powerful testimonial, and well deserved. Would you care to comment on your experiences as provost?
This was a busy but rather confusing year. There were countless things relating especially to research, graduate work, and government contracts that had to be straightened out. Emery and I divided up a good deal of the work, he taking the regular departments and I the rest, such as libraries, television, radio, continuing education, the graduate school, and a host of others. I had an assistant, Keith Wilson, who was a pleasure to work with. With him I was involved in the abortive effort to create an Aspen-like cultural center in Deer Valley and Park City. With [p. 332] Brigham Madsen in Continuing Education, I oversaw the establishment of the Repertory Dance Theatre, and I became involved with Ardean Watts in the formal creation of a university opera program that eventually became the professional Utah Opera Company. The university’s reaccreditation took a great deal of time—the list goes on and on. One of my main interests was bringing some kind of order into the whole process of establishing and administering graduate programs and graduate degrees.
You were involved in setting up the Distinguished Teaching Awards. What do you think of that program after thirty years?
I’ve seen instances of their being given to teachers who really didn’t know very much about their subjects, but they convinced the students. I’m afraid that sometimes it has been a popularity contest. But I think overall that the awards have been given to people who genuinely deserve them.
Now you were in the administration during Fred Emery’s presidency, too?
Yes, when Olpin retired, the question of the presidency was brought up with me by the regents’ committee and I said, “Absolutely not.” Then when Fletcher left to direct NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, I was part of an informal group that the regent’s chair brought in to discuss how they should proceed. The regents decided to give Fletcher a leave of absence.
The idea was that Fletcher would come back?
Not exactly. The regents planned to appoint a president for a term of two years; and at the end of the first year, they would establish a search committee. They might find for Fletcher or they might recommend that the two-year appointee—who turned out to be Fred Emery—continue. Or it could be someone else—as it turned out to be.
You were all for Fred’s appointment?
Yes. My name was thrown into the hopper, and I got it out damn fast. Fred was an excellent president at a time when a legal mind was needed in the leadership. Before his time was up, the regents appointed a proper search committee with several of their own members plus administrators, faculty, alumni, and a representative of the public at large. Pete Billings was chairman, and I represented the administration. Again some wanted to push me for the job, and I said, “No.” When they persisted, I wrote a letter to the chair saying that under no circumstances would I be willing to serve as president of the university. That took care of that. David Gardner was appointed president. I had decided after a few months in the provost position that it was a bad idea, and I [p. 333] recommended to Gardner when he came that he drop that position, which he did immediately on assuming his office in 1973.
You’ve convinced me, Sterling, about your lack of executive ambitions!
Hell, yes, Jack. I hired on as a schoolteacher, and I wanted to be a good scholar, but I put so damned much time in on administrative work that I never became a good scholar.
You can’t say that.
I can say it. It takes time.
But you did always hang on to your teaching.
Yes, and that was a real satisfaction. During the whole twenty-plus years as dean, vice-president, provost, and later dean of the Graduate School, I always taught classes—at least one class per term except when I was away on a leave of absence. Incidentally, clear back when I was dean of the college, Homer Durham told me about a department head in the fine arts college who didn’t teach at all. He was really outraged. I was, too.
Today most deans teach rarely, if at all. It is a real loss for them, their students, and the university. Some don’t publish, either; they become academic managers and that’s it.
I published quite a lot of stuff in my field, and each year I wrote the philosophy articles for the Britannica Book of the Year, which kind of kept me up to date, even though it was a problem to find the time and energy to do it. I was expected to read the major philosophical works that had come out that year—an impossibility. Even when I was in Washington, I wrote that article and gave some lectures in philosophy.
How long did you continue to write the Britannica articles?
I started in 1952, so the first article came out in ’53. I finally quit because they kept cutting down the amount of space they allotted to me. I thought it was outrageous when they gave more space to the attempt of Evel Knievel to jump the Snake River on a motorcycle than they gave to my article on philosophy. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I wrote to the editor and said, “This is the end.”
We’ve referred several times to experiences you had as dean of the Graduate School. How did you get into that job?
I was searching at the time for a person to take the graduate dean’s position. Henry Eyring was turning sixty-five the next year, so we’d need a new dean by 1 July 1966. I was looking very hard for a person to replace him, and I wanted to get a Nobel Laureate. Henry was no help. He’d say, “Quit looking for someone else. It’s the best job in the [p. 334] university. Take it yourself.”
And President Fletcher said to me twice, “You shouldn’t have trouble finding the person you want. It’s the best job in the university.” The second time Fletcher said that, I said, “Jim, if you say that again, and Henry Eyring keeps saying it, I’ll just take the job myself.” Well, I was just kidding; but I told him I was resigning from the provost position at the end of the year and not long afterward, he asked me if I would take the Graduate School on. He said, “I’ll let you out of the job of provost if you’ll take the position of dean of the Graduate School for five years.” Well, hell, I thought, that was a decent enough trade. So I agreed. I had convinced him that I wanted to get out of the provost position.
Five years? But you were dean for twelve.
Yes, that’s another story. At the beginning of the fifth year, I told the vice-president, “I understand that you review deans every five years.” He said, “That’s right.” “Well,” I said, “don’t review me because I’m through at the end of this year.” I was very serious. Well, he didn’t want me to leave, and Fletcher had no recollection whatever of any five-year understanding. I had this battle every year for seven years or so, seriously wanting to retire from administration. But I held that job until I was sixty-five.
How did you finally manage to leave?
Well, Rick Davern became vice-president; and the first piece of business he found on his desk the first day was my letter of resignation, explaining that I had taken the job for five years and, since this was my twelfth, it was certainly my last year. He said, “Will you reconsider?” I said, “Hell, no.” He said, “Will you hold up your decision for a while?” I said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll hold up my decision until January 12th. That’s my birthday. And on January 12th, I’ll give you my decision, but it’s gonna be exactly what it is now.” And it was. My resignation became effective at the end of the 1978 academic year.
Anyway, when I agreed to take the graduate deanship, it was with the idea that I’d do something about the proliferation of graduate programs and degrees, a problem that greatly concerned me.
How about a little history here, Sterling.
The University of Utah launched into Ph.D. programs starting in the 1950s with utter abandon, without any regulations governing the appraisal of its resources or even of the needs of the students to be given Ph.D. degrees. There’d been master’s degrees for some time, but the first Ph.D. was established in chemistry when Henry Eyring came as dean. Chemistry was a field in which we were highly qualified. But we [p. 335] added many other Ph.D. programs after that in some fields where I didn’t think we were qualified or had any business preparing scholars at that level.
About a week or ten days after I became dean of the Graduate School, I asked the secretary, who had been Henry’s secretary, to give me a list of the dates on which all of the doctor’s degrees were established. She looked through the files and told me she couldn’t find any such list. I said, “Dean Eyring can direct you to it.”
The next day Henry came over to the office to pick up some mail; and when he left, I walked out of the building with him. He said, “You know, there’s no need for you to look for the dates when those degrees were established. We didn’t take any formal action to create them.” I gasped. “Henry, what are you talking about?” He said, “No, if somebody showed up with a program for a Ph.D. degree that was approved by five people who had Ph.D. degrees, then I approved it.” Well, I had known that the decision to have a Ph.D. program in philosophy was approved simply by a telephone call from the department head, Waldemer Read, to Dean Eyring.
Those were certainly simpler times in organizational life everywhere. Today we have the opposite extreme in universities and almost every other institution. Gridlock.
Certainly. And I should say that no faculty member has made the contribution to this university that Henry did. But this situation was extreme. I had been on the Graduate Council while Henry was dean, and some quarters we wouldn’t even meet. I immediately set up regular monthly meetings, as a step in the right direction. Every school and college had one representative on the Graduate Council, and that person was selected by me in consultation with the head of the school or the college. Everyone was appointed for three years, and every year a third of them went off, although they could be reappointed.
Didn’t you also have students on the Graduate Council?
I did my damnedest to include students. I took up the idea with the dean of students and the student body president, and, do you know, I couldn’t get the students interested. They’re always complaining that they aren’t included in everything; but it was three or four years before I could get the student leaders even interested in appointing students to the Graduate Council. I wanted them to be graduate students, and there was then no graduate student organization. You understand I didn’t lose any sleep over it; but even when we finally got some students, I think only one ever bothered to come to the meetings more than once.
[p. 336] That’s interesting. In the years I worked with the Liberal Education Council as dean—1974 to 1990—we generally had three students appointed and two would drop out after the first meeting or so. It was very difficult, even with an undergraduate program, to have consistent student representation.
I know what you mean.
How did you approach the job of establishing procedures for internal review of graduate programs? You really put us on the map in that regard.
Well, I just sort of eased into that. I was, for a number of years, a member of the Higher Education Commission of the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges; and while I was provost, the commission was preparing to examine us for reaccreditation. The chair of the fourteen-person committee, Henry Hanson, who was dean of the graduate school at Oregon State at Corvallis, called on me to apprise me of their intentions. He said, “I’m just going to tell you that one of the things that we are going to examine very, very carefully is graduate degrees.”
Well, I thought that was wise. Fletcher insisted that I take on the job of doing the university’s report to the accreditation commission, which I did. It’s a book three inches thick, but I was at least able to show that we were working to improve the situation. We came off all right. Ten years later, damned if I didn’t get tied into that job again and produced the accreditation report for 1976. It was a time-consuming task.
I served on that committee with you. I believe that was the first occasion that we really worked together on something, Sterling.
That’s right! And a hell of a lot of work it was, too, wasn’t it?
Back to the review process…
Well, with the Graduate Council I set up a two-fold system. The first was to develop a regularly scheduled review for graduate degrees and programs to determine their quality and whether they should be continued. The second was to develop a set of policies, rules, and procedures under which new degree programs and new degrees would be established. It took a little time, but we got both of these procedures on the road.
And they’re still being followed today. Did you run into any opposition? I imagine some of these degree programs were considered private fiefdoms.
No difficulty with the departments but some with the council itself. I had an unfortunate experience at the start. The representative from the medical school had an intense interest in these new procedures. He was very active, all for it; and I thought, “He’s the guy to appoint as chairman [p. 337] of the committee to work with me.” But he was a disaster. He wanted everything to be secret. I think he had been on the faculty at UCLA before he came here—at any rate, he knew a lot about UCLA, or he thought he did; so he insisted that when we conducted the review of a department that it be done secretly. Hell, I couldn’t believe what I was listening to! Unfortunately that held us up, because I refused to go along with his kind of stuff. So I just marked time until the end of the year when he left the Graduate Council. That kind of slowed up the process.
It’s difficult to believe that he thought they’d get any cooperation with that system.
That’s right. He didn’t believe that everything should be open, with people knowing what was going on. I needed money to hire a person at least half-time to direct this operation under my supervision and deal with the departments in getting the reviews done. Of course, we needed money for secretarial help, to pay travel and honoraria for outside reviewers to examine proposals for new programs and degrees, to review the departments, and to appraise dissertations. The system that I worked out was to have outside reviewers from leading universities as well as internal reviewers—from inside the university but outside the department being reviewed.
How did you choose them?
The department would not select the reviewers, but it could make nominations. Outside reviewers were appointed by me, in each case one from a list of three submitted by the department. If I didn’t approve of anyone on the list, then the department could submit another list. And it was understood that we wouldn’t bring in a person that the departmental faculty seriously objected to. An outside reviewer was appointed in each case to read doctoral dissertations picked at random and sent to him or her. That saved on travel, even though we paid quite a substantial fee to the critic. Some of them would just blast those dissertations all to hell.
What about the internal reviewers?
We selected three people from outside the college. Again we didn’t select anyone the faculty under review was absolutely opposed to. Later we also paid them a small honorarium. The response of the administration in providing funds was excellent. We always had all of the money that we needed, though we were careful in the way we spent it.
So you had some staff?
Yes and no. I did appoint a person half-time with a decent half-time salary, and he proved to be completely unsatisfactory. He was from [p. 338] outside the university, highly recommended, and I thought he would do a first-rate job. When he proved to be incapable of the job, I assigned it to the assistant dean, who later became associate dean. I suppose that’s the way it’s still done.
What was your procedure?
The reports would come to me, I’d see that the departments got copies and they would consider them and give me their response. I’d take the report and response to the Graduate Council for action. The department head and anyone else he or she wanted to include would come in for the hassle and sometimes those meetings became very heated and the discussion on a particular subject would last for several meetings.
What kind of results did you get?
The reviewers could recommend dropping a program or a degree, putting them on probation, not taking any disciplinary action but blasting general hell out of the faculty or their teaching capability or their lack of research…
Or commend them?
Or commend them. Lots of commendation. Some of them came through beautifully. After the Graduate Council made its judgment, the decision went to the academic vice-president, who normally took it to the Faculty Senate, the president, and the Institutional Council (Board of Trustees). They all took a serious interest in what was going on. Everything we ever recommended was endorsed by the administration when I was dean. If we recommended dropping something or putting something on probation—then that’s what happened. Over a period of years we dropped a number of degrees and programs. The State Board of Regents approved our actions, but they’d always announce it in their reports and in the newspapers, by hell, as if they were cleaning up the University of Utah—making it appear as if the actions had been initiated by the board.
I have heard that on one occasion you were quite unhappy with the state board on the matter of a degree.
The Board of Regents, which had the final say on degrees, wanted to assign the Ph.D. in education to Utah State in Logan. So they abolished our broad powers to offer a Ph.D. in education, gave it to USU, and assigned us the Ph.D. in educational administration. I, as dean of the Graduate School, first learned about this board action by reading it in the newspaper.
[p. 339] That’s astonishing. Did you know this deal was under consideration?
No. But some higher-ups in our administration knew about it, and they didn’t even bother to tell me.
How did some of those reviews go?
They went very successfully. The first two set the precedent. Pete Gibbs, chair of the physics department, said they’d like to be first; and, of course, they came through with flying colors. The next department we selected was the theater department. Keith Engar, who was the chair later, said, “I didn’t take this thing very seriously,” and I said, “Hell, Keith, you’d better take it seriously. This is serious business.” The theater department didn’t do too well in its review. The Graduate Council was ready to vote to throw out their Ph.D.
Two of the three outside reviewers felt it didn’t have a satisfactory program. One reviewer from the University of Colorado took that position very strongly. I said we’d better hear from the students, so I asked Engar to send me over a list of his Ph.D. candidates who lived nearby; and I picked out two men and a woman at random and invited them to come in. All three of them argued in favor of keeping the degree, and, believe it or not, they did a better job of it than the faculty. The woman, especially. Her name was Marilyn Holt, and I learned later she had been Miss Utah. She later became professor and then head of our theater department. My hell, she made such a case for the Ph.D. program that the department won the day.
It was an interesting case. One question was whether operating a community theater was a proper activity for a university theater department—whether it was genuinely academic. I took the position at the time that the university’s Pioneer Theatre was built in part as a community theater.
Otherwise I doubt very much that organizations like the Mormon church and Kennecott Copper and the Utah legislature, all contributors to the building of the Pioneer Theatre, would have had much to do with it.
Exactly. So I defended the program as long as they were doing high-level creative work, whether it got on that big stage or not. There was a minority opinion that it shouldn’t be doing popular musicals, but I defended it because I knew its history and its value for the community. Actually, they were turning out quite a few degrees, which is more than you could say for some departments like the philosophy department.
Did the philosophy department come under review during your tenure?
Yes, more than once; and it had trouble. I really saved the [p. 340] department, although several faculty members thought I was trying to do them in. I did my damnedest to save them while being perfectly honest with the Graduate Council. It really came down to two issues. First, productivity. There was very little demand from the students for a Ph.D. in philosophy. I used to urge masters’ students to go somewhere else for their Ph.D. I didn’t ever encourage them to stay. I thought we were perfectly competent to award a master’s degree, but I was concerned about getting into a Ph.D. program at that time. I don’t mean to imply that we gave the degree loosely.
What was the second issue?
The second problem was the faculty’s lack of research. I was never strong on this “publish or perish” business; but, still, in a philosophy faculty, you needed more research activity than we were then having. On the other hand, the outsider reviewers, though critical of the department, were not in favor of dropping the degree. They felt it would cripple the department, and I agreed. So, on that basis, it was saved. Let me mention one more department.
The Department of Education?
Yes, with the college reorganization, that would be the Department of Educational Studies. The dean, Robert Erdman, was on the Graduate Council, and he was a strong critic of this department. As far as we were concerned, it was in educational shambles, and we used the term “bankrupt” in our report. We recommended it should be put into receivership, which it was. The dean administered it directly—or, at least, he assigned Michael Parsons to do it until it pulled itself together.
The same term—receivership—was applied to the sociology department and the same solution—an outside chair—was applied in 1985 or 1986. So that was terminology you invented?
Well, we borrowed it.
What do you remember about the other departments?
The mathematics department came through in fine style. There were complaints in the biology department that undergraduate work was being neglected in favor of graduate work. These reviews really put the departments on their toes. The Graduate School administered degrees in several Medical School departments—masters’ degrees and Ph.D.s. But the Medical School was interested in having us do the whole damn works. I can’t remember what we decided there, but, of course, we were not involved in the professional medical work. We had no direct authority in the case of the law school, and they didn’t want us to review them. They said they were adequately covered by the [p. 341] American Bar Association and the Association of Law Schools and so on. My recollection is that later they gave in and were reviewed just like all the other departments.
What about the other professional schools?
No problem. We did reviews of business, engineering, and so forth, as well as the departments in fine arts.
And you set out to review each department and degree every five years?
That was our original intent, but we couldn’t get around to them in that length of time. We lengthened the review cycle to seven. There were always three or four going on at once.
Did you also work with undergraduate degrees?
In general, I’d have to say that undergraduates display a remarkable lack of interest in their own education. After the graduate review process had been going for some time, the University Senate created a committee to review undergraduate programs. I had nothing to do with it; but it was apparently not very successful, so the committee gave up on it.
Did they turn it over to the Graduate Council?
No, the committee just recommended abolishing it. When they made their report to the University Senate, the senate said they’d be willing to abolish the committee if the Graduate Council would take on the task of undergraduate reviews. I wasn’t interested in doing it, but the Graduate Council considered it very seriously, and we decided to tackle it, to add undergraduate reviews to our graduate reviews.
Did you have strong support from all of the presidents during this period?
I’d say so. Fletcher was very interested, of course; and Gardner liked what he saw. The budget was already making them consider what they should keep and what to drop. These reports became very important in making central administration decisions about what to fund.
Did your recommendations include funding?
I should have mentioned that earlier. From the beginning we decided not to make any financial recommendations, because I saw us functioning simply as an educational operation. We had no central administrators on the Graduate Council. I was very opposed to that idea. In fact, I usually avoided having deans on it—and just a few department heads. David Gardner urged us to make any kind of recommendations we wanted to, including funding; and after that we became more involved in financial matters.
Were you comfortable with that?
Well, to the extent that a good percentage of the things we had to [p. 342] deal with involved money one way or the other, yes. But I would have been happier to just deal with education without worrying about the damn money. Fletcher had a tendency to say, “Look, you go ahead and say what ought to be done, and I’ll worry about the money.”
That’d be nice for anybody, wouldn’t it? To what extent was this review process being used elsewhere?
I was astonished, Jack, that we were the pioneers. As soon as I was appointed graduate dean, I sent out letters to at least fifteen major institutions, asking their graduate deans or vice-presidents about their review procedures and policies. Not all of them answered; but from those who did, without exception, they said, “We’re not doing any thing, but if you develop something, we wish you’d let us know.”
So you were acting without precedent.
Yes, but it didn’t take me long to decide the kind of thing we should do. It worked out exactly as I hoped it would, and I consider it a plus in my administrative legacy. We began to get inquiries from all over the country, and I was asked to describe our system at graduate school meetings. I addressed the national body of graduate school deans in Williamsburg, and we were so flooded with requests that we ran off materials and had packets ready to send to other institutions who requested information.
A mail-order operation! It sounds to me as if you affected the entire system nationally.
I believe it did. Any number of people told me so, especially graduate deans.
Given your ties to USC, you must have had some conversations with David Gardner when he was being considered for the presidency down there about 1978.
Yes, I did; I had conversations also with members of the USC search committee who consulted me about Gardner. They wanted him and thought they had him. But he went to California instead, later on, of course.
Yes, I thought it was a pretty close decision from this end. Sterling, you’ve frequently been involved in making important personnel decisions yourself. What criteria have guided your judgments when you’ve chaired search committees?
Well, I take it for granted that a university is a teaching and research enterprise. Take teaching. I don’t want to see anybody on the faculty who doesn’t thoroughly know his or her subject. People say, “I teach students.” Well, I must say, I don’t teach students. I teach subjects and [p. 343] hope that some students come around once in a while and profit from my teaching. I think the “I teach students” attitude is quite appropriate for an elementary school, but a university is a different matter. An on-going, up-to-date knowledge of the field is absolutely essential for appointment as a teacher. You appoint a person to teach physics because he or she is a highly competent physicist—not because of a good attitude toward students.
But as essential as such knowledge is, you still have to teach it, and the processes developing it, to students!
I’ll grant you that, Jack. But you still have to have a person who is involved in continuing research. I suppose there are some exceptions, for instance, ancient history, where our knowledge doesn’t grow very rapidly, but still that scholar must be involved in continuing research in the field or related fields to broaden his or her understanding and perspectives.
What about teaching methods?
You hear a lot of people talking about how the lecture method is bad. You’ve got to get into discussions they say. This is a lot of nonsense, as far as I’m concerned. If a person handles his or her subject best by lecturing, let him lecture. I’m reminded that Alfred North Whitehead, after he came to Harvard in the 1920s, made the statement that he had tried very hard to be a good American and use the discussion method of teaching, but he finally had to abandon it. Most teachers actually teach the way their own teachers taught them; and I must say very honestly that I’ve learned the most myself from teachers who lectured and really knew their stuff.
Whitehead was clever there, Sterling. He should have said the Greek way of teaching, instead of the American way. Socrates invented it! I’ve heard you praise Ephraim Ericksen and Obert Tanner for engaging their students in discussions. Isn’t this a matter of style rather than value?
Well, yes, that’s true. Ericksen wasn’t a good lecturer. He was a fine discussion leader, and I’ve gained more from Ericksen than from any teacher I ever had. But it was not what you would call knowledge. What I gained from Ericksen was a capacity to look critically at ideas and examine them carefully. I’ve learned other things from people who discuss—but the main value there was in arguing with my teachers. They, on the one hand, were able to show what a poor arguer I was and stimulate my desire to engage more skillfully in critical thought.
Weren’t they, then, masters at pushing you—goading you into discovering and developing knowledge yourself? Didn’t they make you a more perceptive reader [p. 344] and a keener listener even to lectures?
Yes, though of course no one can do much with the Socratic method in a class of four or five hundred students or fifty or seventy-five. You don’t engage in much discussion in those circumstances. More advanced students should probably be “discussed with” more than “lectured to,” but many beginning students don’t know enough about the subject to carry on a very intelligent discussion.
My courses at the University of Utah have usually been ten and fifteen students. Most of the time I have lectured in a very informal way, but the students always knew that they could interrupt me at any time to interpose ideas, agree with me, or deliver their own sermonettes. I tried to keep their sermonettes down in length, and to argue my own views, unless they really wanted to get into the act. My presumption is that the teacher is the teacher because he or she knows more about that particular subject than the students. Granted, that’s not always a safe assumption.
I hear you, Sterling, and I agree up to a point. But one of the reasons undergraduate students don’t know enough to engage in serious debate is that they have rarely been expected to think for themselves. All that most of them have ever done is take notes and spit the stuff back. What sort of motivation does that endless process provide? Why do we blame the students? Well, what kind of research do you think teachers should be involved in?
That varies according to the teacher’s field. Creative work in the arts is equivalent to research—although it’s stretching it a bit for me to call a symphony or a sculpture research. There are more appropriate words. I think of a scientist in a laboratory or the scholar in the library as engaged in scientific and scholarly research.
How do you define scholarship or research and how are they related to publishing? Is publishing in scholarly journals the best or only tangible evidence of scholarly achievement?
As I’ve already mentioned, I really don’t go along with that “publish or perish” stuff. Now if someone is doing first-class intellectual work, whether it’s in history or poetry, chances are he or she will publish a great deal. But I wouldn’t judge scholarship on the basis of whether it gets beyond the scholar and out to the educated public. At the same time I’d say that the institution’s responsibility is to add to the world’s knowledge. I’m not opposed to the idea of putting pressure on people to do research; and in fields where research output takes the form of writing—it seems most appropriate to get it published. History and philosophy are both examples. I could name people who have been [p. 345] among the most prized professors in this university, who were first-rate teachers and real scholars, but who rarely published anything, and then only under protest!
Louis Zucker in the English department. He was a man of immense learning and monumental scholarship, a scholar of major proportions. But, hell, you couldn’t get him to write anything. His name appears on no books. I couldn’t name more than three or four articles he published, and I was acquainted with him from about 1934. He had so many books in his office that his desk, side chairs, and floor were stacked high. He could hardly get in there himself. Now I’m not saying it’s necessarily a mark of virtue to fill your office with books. He would have never been promoted beyond instructor if it depended on publication. But his students would swear by him. I had him as a teacher. I’d swear by him. He was great.
One of our dilemmas today is that we put enormous pressure on new faculty to publish, so they pick out a very narrow specialty and make it even narrower, but they publish! That is a wholly different kind of scholarship than a Louis Zucker or a Jack Adamson whose knowledge is broad and deep and for whom integration and meaning are the point—and the joy of it all.
Exactly. Where do we find the generalists today who can synthesize things for us and engender genuine wisdom? I sense you have a pessimistic concern about the future of academic scholarship, which I certainly share. However, Bertrand Russell says that you can’t love everyone in general unless you love someone in particular. So I think it’s appropriate for everybody in academic life to have a specialized field or fields in which they are very competent. I think a scholar has to know some things very well in particular, otherwise he can’t know very much in general.
If you were to suggest university policies that would encourage wise generalists—people who are very liberally educated but also have a great depth somewhere—what would you change about our current practices?
I think I would drastically change the financing of higher education. Now most of the funds for research go to the sciences, engineering, and medicine. Faculty in the sciences are paid more than faculty in the social sciences, humanities, and arts.
Which has caused artists and humanists to behave and talk like scientists, sometimes betraying their own gifts. This sort of thing shows the power [p. 346] of market conditions.
Market conditions, yes, but also the temper of the culture. It is not just how universities wish to use their money, but where the government and industry are willing to invest. It involves such things as the miserably low pay scale for teachers in elementary and secondary education. If we want great teachers in the public schools, we’re going to have to pay them more. Otherwise, they’ll be picked off by private industry and business. During the 1960s I met with an assistant superintendent of Salt Lake City schools to discuss staffing problems. I remember he was specifically concerned about finding first-rate physics teachers for high school. I asked, “How much do you pay a B student from the university to teach driver education?” He told me the pay scale according to seniority. “Now,” I said, “if you have a straight-A student from mathematics and physics, with the same service record, etc., how much do you pay him? …. Exactly the same,” was the reply. “Well,” I said, “you’re just going to have to set up differential pay scales, the way we do at the university.”
I don’t know what faculty pay scales are now at the university; but when I was dean of Letters and Science, in general we paid our mathematicians more than we paid our language teachers. And if we hadn’t done so, we probably wouldn’t have had a mathematics department at all. Mathematicians were as scarce as hen’s teeth.
So how can we finance the humanities, Sterling?
That’s a problem. Much of the research money comes from the federal government, and many of the people in Congress can’t see that the humanities are of much value. When I met with congressional committees, I was frankly appalled at the ignorance of some people, especially in the House of Representatives, of the value of the humanities. They kept saying they wanted federal money to strengthen the nation, but that meant two things: engineering armaments and manufacturing armaments. That’s what they thought strengthened the nation. To make a nation more intellectually literate didn’t impress them much.
For most citizens the best reasons to support education are jobs, defense, and industry.
Sure. The idea of having a literate, educated society for the sake of having a high-quality intellectual, spiritual, and moral life in the nation is completely overlooked. My predecessor in Washington had just approved NDEA fellowships for the study of folklore, and I had to defend that decision before a committee in the House of Representatives. Now I admit it’s not particularly easy to make a case for the [p. 347] positive effects of folklore research on the strength of the American people, but I argued that such knowledge has an impact on the moral and spiritual quality of the nation. That meant nothing to one member of the committee. I argued and argued, and all he would say is “I don’t see it.” All he could see were guns and ammunition for strengthening the nation.
Do you think of researchers as creating knowledge or discovering knowledge? Is truth lurking there some place, waiting for us, or do we make meaning, wisdom, and knowledge?
I personally think we create knowledge on the basis of discovering what the facts are, but we don’t create the facts. I’d say that achieving knowledge of the world—a more extensive, more accurate understanding of it—is 50 percent of the function of a university. It’s not the function of a secondary school. The primary function of a secondary school is to communicate knowledge, generate rationality, and encourage learning, but the university has an immense responsibility to advance knowledge through research as well as to communicate knowledge through teaching.
I like the notion of “advancing” knowledge because it allows room for both discovery and creation. This whole issue has become so politicized, so ideological, in universities today.
That’s very true. It’s also true—and very unfortunate—that those who tend to be less involved in research simply don’t want to do it. And, of course, some first-rate researchers who have a lot to offer as teachers just don’t want to teach. I recall, when I was dean of Letters and Science, appointing a very good young man as assistant professor, I believe in chemistry. He told me that he was a research man and didn’t want to teach. I told him, “Unless you take a position entirely on soft money, you will have to teach.” Well, he was very good as a teacher and still is. He just didn’t want to do it. He loved working away at his subject and really produced research, so he was a very valuable person to the university.
I don’t think, however, that the chief problem is to encourage research. Lots of money is pouring into it in some fields, and that appears to be incentive enough. The real problem is guaranteeing that every person who goes through a university comes out with at least a liberal education.
It is indeed. And that takes inspired teaching by liberally educated professors.
And that, of course, brings us to the core question of what constitutes a liberal education.
[p. 348] The great dilemma, practical as well as philosophical, is whether we can go back and assemble a new canon of enduring ideas and works that represent the global human heritage, humanistic, scientific, and artistic. If students were exposed to this sort of core curriculum—assuming the faculty could come to some agreement on what it would be—we could at least claim to offer a liberal education for the twenty-first century.
Yes, I think it’s an error to think of liberal education in terms of the great books. Now I have nothing against the great books, but they’re too focused on the past. I know you agree with me that liberal education is the type of education that liberates the mind, that overcomes ignorance, superstition, and prejudice.
Let me give you an example. When I first joined the university faculty, I was rather active in Phi Beta Kappa which is, of course, for students in liberal studies. I remember a real hassle over whether to classify journalism as a liberal study. I don’t now recall how it came out; but I’m prepared to say that one might find liberal studies anywhere in the university. Certain business courses in labor and management might qualify. National and international problems in finance should qualify as liberal subjects. Therefore, I think it’s a very bad approach to liberal education to describe it in terms of university departments or disciplines. The key question is: to what extent are these things essential to a high quality culture and a strong social order?
So much depends on how a course is taught—the attitude and approach of the teacher is everything. I’ve seen literature taught as a narrow vocational skill and school finance taught as an exploration of equality and justice and a quest for human dignity—a truly liberating experience for students. You see, I like to think of it as distinguishing between great books and noble ideas—such as liberty, justice, mercy, the good, the beautiful, and so forth. These might well be manifest in a whole variety of applied fields. The field of labor relations is an excellent place to explore ideas about justice.
Quite tight, Jack. I’d like to hear more about your noble ideas.
I like to define noble ideas as the enduring concepts that nobody can live one day without having to confront, either consciously or unconsciously. Someone who may give no thought at all to the notion of equality is still making decisions every day that advance or assault human equality. How do you treat a little sister? Who do you vote for? Do you laugh at a racist joke? And on and on—everyday stuff A liberal education ought to help students come to grips with truly important ideas in a way that anchors their own thoughts and informs their actions daily and for a lifetime.
I certainly like that approach; and what you say suggests that a person [p. 349] would not be liberally educated unless he or she has actually developed the habit of critical thought—not just that he or she recognizes it but that he or she habitually does it. You don’t have to advertise what you’re thinking all the time, but you have to think all the time. The liberally educated person has learned to examine himself, or herself, his society, and the world, and to do it intelligently, critically, and positively.
I’d go farther than that, Sterling. I think noble ideas and critical thought must be reflected in the way a person lives and acts before I would agree that the individual is liberally educated.