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.

Following the Day of Infamy there were these developments: After much classroom discussion, I polled my students to learn their wishes-how many would transfer into alternative classes as proposed by the administration? The overwhelming majority indicated they would refuse to transfer and would stick with me even though it meant risking their academic credits. The sociology department met and voted unanimously to defy the administration's order to seek a replacement and to support my stand and that of my students. "We consider Jessica Mitford to be a member of the sociology department," said their official statement. The student government announced they would invite my class to meet in the Student Union should we be locked out of our regular lecture hail. The academic council, advisory body to the university president, passed a unanimous resolution declaring that fingerprinting is "an infringement of human sensibilities" and "irrelevant to academic endeavor." The Spartan Daily's thunderous editorial denunciation of the administration for kowtowing to right-wing pressures of chancellor and trustees was echoed by the San Francisco Chronicle, which said the fingerprinting requirement is a "breach of ordinary freedoms" exemplifying "a preposterous timidity in the scholastic authority." And the far-off Atlanta Journal: "This presumes, we suppose, the students are well protected from unsafe ideas with fingerprints stashed away in some administrator's file. We don't know whether to laugh or cry." For many days students all over the campus sported labels of my toeprints with the legend, "MITFORD THUMBS HER TOES AT THE TRUSTEES."

The administration, in turn, tried to cool things by announcing I had not been fired but merely "de-hired," and President Bunzel told the press, "We cannot always accommodate conscience when it conflicts with policy," statements that became the object of editorials and unmerciful spoofing in the Spartan Daily. As one Spartan columnist had it, positively bristling with indignation over Dr. Bunzel's remark: "Dr. Bunzel has said that he opposes the fingerprint policy-if not in public then at least in private. As a matter of fact almost everyone

does-faculty and studen.ts. I say to Dr. Bunzel you are making a fool of yourself. You are crumbling into a quagmire of lofty, conservative, status quo thought. You are afraid to take a stand . . . and worst of all, you are betraying a fellow scholar who has brought to the surface a grossly superfluous policy which you know is all wrong."

I was, I must confess, enjoying every minute of. this enormously.

On the whole, I was surprised by the impassioned response of the campus to the "FingerFlap," as my students called it. When school had resumed that autumn, there had been the usual newspaper soundings of the campus mood across the country. According to these reports, universities had by and large subsided into the political apathy of the fifties; "student unrest" was a thing of the past. If this was true of such former strongholds of student militancy as the University of California and Columbia, surely sleepy San Jose would be the last place one would expect a rebellion of such dimensions to erupt, and the fingerprint issue an unlikely rallying point.

Thus in the early days of the controversy, when I first realized I was set on a collision course with the administration, I hardly expected the campuswide demonstrations and near unanimous support of students and faculty. I had thought they would divide into roughly three categories: a minority of militant supporters, a certain amount of hard-hat reaction of the why-don't-you-go-back-where-you-came-from variety, and a large middle group who would feel that while compulsory fingerprinting as a condition of employment was silly and distasteful, the issue was trivial, possibly even contrived. As the sponsors of the women's reception had miscalculated the response of that gathering, so I had misread the temper of the campus as a whole.

It seemed to me, a newcomer to the academic scene, that the Finger-Flap, and the administration's handling of it, struck a sensitive nerve and ignited long-smoldering, deeply felt resentments that far transcended this one issue. For many students and faculty members, it apparently symbolized the petty, arbitrary, bureaucratic treatment they receive in daily doses from those in authority.

In court my lawyer, David Nawi, argued for a temporary restraining order to compel the university to give the students their credits and pay my salary. The judge offered a Solomon-like compromise: I should place a set of my fingerprints in a sealed envelope, and submit them, not to the university but to the court, there to repose until the litigation was finally resolved. The lucky winner, me or the trustees, would eventually be awarded custody of the prints in perpetuity. Meanwhile, my full status as professor would be restored, the university would pay my back wages, I would continue teaching, and my students would get their credits.

David Nawi explained this proposition to the students, and I put it up to a vote. The prevailing view was that the so-called compromise was in fact a clear victory for us, since it exposed the absurdity of the university's rationale for the fingerprinting requirement. According to the chancellor's office, the prints are needed to establish identity of the employee and to divulge any criminal record. It might be months before the court ruled on the matter, by which time my stint as Distinguished Professor would be long since over. Meanwhile, I would be teaching, and the university authorities would not get so much as a sniff of those fingerprints which, they claimed, were prerequisite for this work. Since the students had voted in favor of accepting the judge's proposal, we resumed our regular class work.

Notes from Journal: November 20

Novelle and I spent the weekend correcting and grading some two hundred exam papers-actually, the total haul was more like a huge Christmas stocking than the sere fruits of academic endeavor. Taking me at my word, students had turned in posters, collages, tape recordings, comic strips, scrapbooks; one had composed a crossword puzzle consisting entirely of words that had come up in class ("Lawn in Smog City" = "Forest," "Goodnight, sweet-" = "prints"), another had constructed a miniature velvet-lined casket with dinky bronze handles. We held an exhibition of the artifacts in class, and I read out a selection of the more brilliant papers—but oh, their spelling! Since we are now in the habit of taking a vote on everything, I wrote on the blackboard "CEMETARY or CEMETERY?" and asked for a show of hands; fortunately for the future of the language, the latter won by a hairbreadth. Most have trouble with "it's" and "its," so I proposed a mnemonic device: "When is it its? When it's not it is. When is it it's? When it is it is." I begged them not to say "hopefully" when they mean "I hope," and pleaded the cause of "structure" as a noun, not a verb-losing battles, I fear, since their instructors perpetrate these abuses. But a good time was had by all.

November 25

My muckrakers are taking to their work like ducks to water, and are fast turning into devious super-sleuths. The illegally enrolled are doing best. One of these, a baby-faced, bearded lad in his early twenties, is trying to ferret out the industrial secrets of Mace manufacturers and handcuff suppliers, and has assumed the role of director of a Citizens' Committee for More Secure Jails. In this improbable guise he visits factories and interviews executives, obtaining price lists, specification manuals, promotion material which he gleefully spills out of his briefcase in class like a conjurer producing rabbits from a hat. Predictably, one team has chosen to investigate the origin and application of the fingerprinting requirement and is attacking the subject from a number of angles: How much does the procedure cost? ($4.20 a person, levied against the university by the California Criminal Investigation department.) Is the policy adhered to by all state colleges? (No. San Francisco State, for example, has never bothered to apply it, so presumably on that campus unidentified persons with criminal records may teach and roam at will.)

I'm afraid, though, muckraking is beginning to get out of hand on this campus. A reporter from the Spartan Daily telephoned to say she was conducting a survey of faculty members who had assigned their own books as reading-how much had I netted in royalties from sales to my students of The American Way of Death and Kind & Usual Punishment, both on my reading list? So my teaching is beginning to have some impact, though I must say in an unforeseen direction. The muckraker raked, this time.

In my lecture course on The American Way the variety show idea was working rather successfully. Students seemed to enjoy the diverse, often diametrically opposed, views presented, and began to relish the opportunity to match wits with the guest speakers. We arranged a special showing of The Loved One after the funeral directors' lecture. During sessions on the criminal justice system, some ex-convicts from the San Francisco Prisoners' Union discussed their firsthand experiences with cops, courts, and "corrections." Our next guest lecturer, a superior court judge, tried valiantly to give a convincing picture of the courts as evenhanded dispensers of justice for all, and was vociferously challenged by several students who, at the urging of the ex-cons, had done their homework by going to see for themselves what goes on in the local courthouse.

The Waterbuggers of Yesteryear section was introduced by a tape of "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?", Eric Bentley's dramatization of actual transcripts of HUAC hearings in the fifties, and this was followed in subsequent sessions by Al Richmond, author of A Long View From the Left and for three decades editor of the Peoples World; Bettina Aptheker, a leader of the 1964 Free Speech Movement at the University of California; Frank Bardacke, draft resister and defendant in the "Oakland 7" conspiracy trial of 1968. Our final guest speaker in this section was Charles W. Bates, San Francisco bureau chief of the FBI. In introducing him I explained we were studying Waterbuggers and invited him to tell the students all about FBI surveillance of suspected subversives. Instead, perhaps from force of habit, Mr. Bates launched into a history of the FBI beginning in 1908. Restless students soon began raising their hands demanding to know how many agents in his jurisdiction are assigned to shadowing radicals? Why was Bettina Aptheker followed by an FBI agent for many months during Free Speech Movement activities in Berkeley? How many telephones are now being tapped in the San Francisco area? How many operatives are assigned to college campuses? "I'm not trying to weasel out, but I can't answer that," was Mr. Bates's response to most questions, which caused a student to ponder out loud, "What do funeral directors and the FBI have in common?"

While on the classroom front all seemed to be progressing satisfactorily—in fact, far better than I had hoped—there was more infamy to come: The Case of the Disappearing Paycheck, as the Spartan Daily called it. It was in the course of this new development that I began dimly to apprehend the elusive mentality of the academic bureaucrat-akin, no doubt, to that of his counterpart in government or industry, yet having distinct and subtle peculiarities of his own.

Judge John Mclnerny's order had specified that once I had delivered my prints to the court, I was to be paid "all monies due and past due," which seemed pretty clear. So I was surprised (and annoyed) to discover that my September paycheck had been withheld. Why, and on whose command? Dean Sawrey disavowed responsibility; he said the university lawyers had decided to withhold the check "on their own initiative." President Bunzel by implication washed his hands of it, for he wrote in his San Jose Mercury column that pursuant to the court ruling I would get my pay and the students their credits, "which," said he, "is what the university wanted all along." Larry Frierson, lawyer for the trustees and a party to the court agreement to pay "all monies due and past due," told the Spartan Daily he couldn't recall who first questioned the propriety of paying me for September, but said "we feel we cannot legally pay her."

A few days later President Bunzel admitted to the Spartan Daily that it was he who had called Frierson and suggested that my September pay could be stopped on the ground that I had not signed the loyalty oath until October 1. "If she had signed the oath one day earlier, on September 30, she would have been paid for September with no problem, but she went one day too long," he said, adding that state employees who don't sign because of negligence are not paid for the period before the oath is signed. But Spartan Daily reporters, hot on the trail, learned "from sources," as they put it, that Dr. Bunzel had told the academic council in a closed meeting that "approximately forty faculty members did not sign the loyalty oath in September and the only distinction between Mitford and the other faculty members was her unwillingness to sign"—a prize entry for the "How's That Again?" column of The New Yorker.

So, back to court, accompanied by the usual phalanx of students and reporters. Proceedings were brief, for the judge asked the university lawyers only one question: "Has she performed the duties for which she was hired?" Yes, said they. "Then pay the lady her money!" roared the judge.

The decision on the fingerprinting case, when it was finally handed down in late January (when school was in recess), came as an anticlimax and attracted little notice. Judge William A. Ingram ruled that the university's fingerprint requirement was unsupported by any "validly adopted statute, rule, or regulation." Thus, he said, although he personally viewed fingerprinting as "desirable and constitutional," he was constrained to rule that the requirement was legally unenforceable. The effect of the decision is to invalidate the fingerprinting requirement throughout California's state university system-and, of course, to restore to me the sealed envelope with its hard-won contents. This arrived too late, alas, for the public ceremony I had envisaged in which my students would cremate the prints, place the ashes in a suitable urn, and donate them to the university.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In