My Short and Happy Life As a Distinguished Professor

An old hand at raking muck, the author balked at permitting that hand to be fingerprinted as the price of a job teaching her craft at one of California's giant campuses. Therein lay the rub; read on.
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The unexpected intransigence of the administration, their rejection of every offer of compromise, made me pause to consider my legal position. Having swallowed the oath, I had gagged on the fingerprinting. What now?

My lawyers told me I had a very strong case. My contract said nothing about fingerprinting; the law which establishes the fingerprinting requirement for teachers in the California system from grade-school level through junior college had, possibly through oversight, not been extended to include the state universities. The administration had been unable to cite any statutory basis for the requirement; the best their lawyers could come up with was a 1962 memo from the chancellor's office to all state college presidents instructing them to continue "the existing policy" of requiring all employees to be fingerprinted. The origins of that policy had, it seems, been lost in antiquity.

I could refuse to be fingerprinted, let the university fire me, then sue for breach of contract. "You can just take a long vacation and get paid for not teaching," I was assured. My lawyers were surprised, as I was, when I blurted out, "But I want to teach; I can't bear the thought of giving it up."

My insistence on continuing to teach ("your inexplicable attachment to your new calling" was the way one lawyer put it) made the lawyers' task much more difficult, however, and the outcome more uncertain. It meant racing to court to find a judge willing, on the basis of affidavits alone, to sign a temporary restraining order commanding the university, pending a full-scale hearing to be held later, to reinstate me with full pay and to restore course credits for my students. They would try, they said, but were not at all confident that a judge would be willing to stick his neck out that far. If the judge refused to do anything without a full-scale hearing-and that would require at least two weeks' notice-there would be a further period of uncertainty as to my status and that of my students.

For my own part, I was fully prepared to weather it. After all, I did not plan to remain in academic life. But what about my students, whose academic careers could be seriously disrupted while litigation meandered on? And my colleagues in the sociology department? These nagging questions dominated my waking hours.

Notes from Journal: October 11

Today was what Novelle calls, in her soft Southern drawl, "the Da-a-a-y of Infamy." She came over early with her trusty tape recorder (she is preserving all this for History), and accompanied by a dozen students, we walked over to the lecture hail. Rumors abounded-some said there was a sign on the door posted by the administration saying "Mitford Lecture Canceled," others warned that security police, prepared to drag me off the platform if necessary, were on hand to prevent the class from assembling. To forestall a lockout, we decided to arrive fifteen minutes early and seat ourselves with the previous class held in that hail. As we approached the building we saw hundreds of students assembled on the lawn, some with placards reading "We Want Jessica, Not Her Fingerprints," a forest of television equipment, swarms of reporters. We made our way through and into the classroom, which was packed to the rafters—my usual attendance of two hundred students augmented to seven or eight hundred. A cheer went up as we came in, and a young man introduced himself as student body president could he make a brief statement from the platform? Yes, indeed, said I. Dean Sawrey was on hand looking most uncomfortablemight he read a brief statement from the platform? Yes, Dean Sawrey, in this classroom we defend and uphold First Amendment rights of free speech for all; anybody can have his or her say without fear of censorship.

I called the class to order at the appointed hour, and announced that we were fortunate to have several distinguished guest speakers with us today; first, Rudi Leonardi, president of the student body. Leonardi (whom I had rather expected to take a middle-of-the-road position, possibly try to mediate my differences with the administration) came on like an avenging angel: "On behalf of students searching for, new ideas on this campus we offer support to Jessica Mitford....This university, whose primary role is one of disseminating information to students, has resorted to academic backstabbing."

When the roar of applause died down, I reminded the class that we are studying the American Way, and said that our next distinguished speaker would doubtless shed some light on the American Way of College Administration—Dean Sawrey. Shaking like H*Y*M*AN K*A*P*L*A*N's aspirin leaf, Dean Sawrey (Novelle pronounces it "Sor-ry!") read a six-line statement, the burden of which was that I have been removed from the faculty and am unauthorized to teach, no credits will be given for my classes, the sociology department is seeking a qualified replacement. To a crescendo of boos, and shouts of "She is qualified!" he hurried off the platform. "Dean Sawrey!" I called after him. "There are several hands up—it's customary in this class to respond to students' questions." But he made rapidly for the exit, for which I apologized to the students, observing that there are apparently lots of questions but no answers.

Bob gave a rundown on the legal situation and the complexities of the forthcoming court battle. There followed impassioned discussion from the floor. A thirtyish student, veteran of SNCC and draft resistance: "These cases can't be won in court alone; success depends on mass support of the students beginning with everybody in this room!" Roars of approval. A young political activist: "What about the Angela Davis case, right here in San Jose? Doesn't that prove something about the importance of mass movements against injustice?" A serious and usually reserved young woman who seldom speaks up in class: "The fight is up to us! We can show the administration we're not going to be pushed around by maintaining the integrity of this class." And so it went, until even I felt slightly overcome by emotion; for the first time in my teaching career I adjourned the class early.

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