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.
It all started in May, 1973, when I received a letter from California's San Jose State University, which began: "Dear Ms. Mitford: I am writing to inquire whether you would be interested in being considered for an appointment as a Distinguished Professor for fall semester 1973." It was signed "Snell Putney, Ph.D., Acting Chairman, Department of Sociology" and was sprinkled with many an oddly turned phrase: "We are wanting someone such as yourself..." "The period of responsibility would be from late September, 1973 through late January, 1974..." "More importantly, we seem to be in a period of rather active intellectual ferment..." "The honorarium for the semester would be slightly over $11,000...”
What on earth, I thought. Was somebody pulling my leg—which of my fun-loving friends would have access to San Jose State's writing paper? And if Snell Putney, Ph.D., indeed existed, what was his native tongue? "That's easy, Sociologese," said my husband. "You'd probably love being a Distinguished Professor; you'd better go after it." So I did.
The pursuit gave rise to many an anxious moment. A professor of my acquaintance, privy to the subtleties of university parlance, was quick to point out that Mr. Putney had not actually offered me the job but merely asked if I would be interested in being considered, the clear implication being that the same letter had been dispatched far and wide to other possible candidates. Furthermore, he cautioned, there would be political hurdles. Any appointment would have to be confirmed by Dr. John Bunzel, president of San Jose State, former head of the political science department at San Francisco State.
Then came the day when Snell Putney, Ph.D., with whom I was soon in constant communication, asked the dread but inevitable question, "What is your academic background?" I sadly told him it could best be summed up in one word: nil. My mother, who did not approve of girls going to school, had brought us up at home; to my deep regret, I had never attended a university, a high school, or even an elementary school. "Oh-ho, that's delightful," said Mr. Putney with his scholarly chuckle, and assured me that this odd upbringing would make no difference to my chances.
Much later, I learned that I was indeed one of some twenty-five to whom identical letters had been sent. Of these, three came down to the wire as possible choices for the job: Paul Jacobs, who had been involved with a student strike at San Francisco State when Mr. Bunzel was there, David Horowitz, an editor of Ramparts, and myself. When the short list was presented to President Bunzel with the department's recommendation that I be appointed, he said, my informant reported, "Well, I'm glad it's not Jacobs or Horowitz; they could be troublemakers."
The contract safely inked, I was interviewed at some length by a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle, who made great sport of my singular lack of academic preparation for the appointment, and of the fact that only three years before, I had been listed along with some sixty others by the House Internal Security Committee as an "undesirable radical campus speaker." The following day a cloud no bigger than a man's hand appeared on my otherwise serene horizon; the Chronicle reported that Frank P. Adams, former president of the ultraconservative California Republican Assembly and currently a trustee of the state university system, had "hotly contested" my status as Distinguished Professor in the sociology department, remarking indignantly that "to me, if she's an authority on death she should be in the morticians' department." That, I thought, was rather a good point.
One of my newfound colleagues in the sociology department told me that the news stories had triggered a flurry of student applications for my classes and a few crank telephone calls. "What kind of crank calls?" I asked. "Oh, just irate citizens demanding to know what an uneducated radical like you is doing on our campus." I observed I did not consider that crank, as the same question had occurred to me.
I was to have two classes, I was told: a large lecture course of some two hundred students, and an honors seminar limited to twenty. But what, exactly, was I to teach? What is sociology, anyway? I put these questions to a professor in the department, but it seemed he hadn't a clue either. "Sociology is a very broad term," he said. "You can structure your classes any way you choose, hopefully based on your own social action research." Ahem, thought I, and it is to be hoped that I may be able to squeeze in a few pointers on talking plain English.
Actually, I found that I was both excited and apprehensive at the thought of assuming my new duties. I had given many a onetime lecture to college audiences, on a hit-and-run basis in which one disappears forever immediately after the event—but a sustained course to students whose future careers might depend on the quality of their college preparation? This was an alarming, yet challenging, prospect.
I spent the summer "structuring" away in collaboration with my student assistant, Novelle Johnson, a reformed airline stewardess from South Carolina, who proved to be an accomplished and experienced guide to the academic scene. She patiently led me through the ABC's of classroom procedure; it would be desirable, she explained, to prepare class outlines, reading lists, examination questions, so together we got these ready. The lecture course would be called "The American Way," a title vague and flexible—enough to enable us to explore the American way of all sorts of things, based on my "own social action research," which I hoped meant I would not have to read any sociology texts but would merely draw on subjects I already knew about: caskets, courts, convicts, con men, the rise and fall of the Famous Writers School...The final section would be "Waterbuggers of Yesteryear," the point here being that the Watergate gang and their counterparts of twenty to thirty years ago cut their teeth in the witch-hunt against the left following World War II. Under this heading we would present the reminiscences of some Old Left victims of the McCarthy era, New Left comments on same, and try. generally to link the radical politics of the two eras. To top it off, we would invite the head of the San Francisco FBI to tell all about electronic surveillance of suspected subversives. In the section on criminal justice we would bring in as guest lecturers lawyers, judges, and ex-convicts. In short, we hoped the lecture course would turn into something resembling a variety show.
The exams, I decided, should be designed to bring out the multiplicity of talents I expected to find among my students. Those more at home in some medium other than prose could turn in a poem, song, one-act play, cartoon strip. All would be invited to translate into English a paragraph taken from a sociology textbook—with the caveat, however, that if they were hoping for a graduate degree in that discipline, they might find themselves at a disadvantage if they learned this lesson too well.
The small seminar (honor students, no less—horrors!) would be a workshop in Techniques of Muckraking, in which students, working alone or in teams according to preference, would investigate some local institution of their choice such as a nursing home, jail, police department, radio station, and so forth.
San Jose is a big sprawling industrial area about an hour's drive from San Francisco. The university, a unit of the state system presided over from far-off Southern California by Chancellor Glenn S. Dumke and a board of trustees, is vast: enrollment is close to 27,000, comparable in size to the Berkeley campus of the University of California, where entrance requirements are stiffer and where the student body, with its long history as bellwether of radical youth movements, is more sophisticated, more cosmopolitan, and perhaps more world-weary.
Looking back over my journal, I see that events of my first week in San Jose pretty much foreshadowed the shape of things to come.
Arrived in a state of high nerves to take up lodgings in the Faculty Club-classes begin tomorrow. Checking in at Prof. Mitford's mailbox I found assorted sociological memoranda and announcements, copies of the student newspaper Spartan Daily full of wise sayings of deans and information about parking regulations, a penciled note from the secretary of the department saying "Miss Mitford, please go to personnel to take the loyalty oath and be fingerprinted," which I threw straight into the wastepaper basket, and—joy of unanticipated joys!—a letter from a local funeral director saying he had read in the papers that I was coming to teach in San Jose and would "be pleased to put my staff at your disposal to tell your students how we care for the dead." My class outlines are ready, all neatly ditto'd. To my annoyance, Somebody Up There had ordered the title Techniques of Muckraking deleted from the seminar outline and replaced with "Sociology 196H," which sounds boring as hell, so they all had to be redone with the title put back in.
Some women faculty members took me and Novelle out to lunch in San Jose's finest eatery—nerves much assuaged by their kindness and several preprandial drinks. In midlunch two men came over to our table, a dean, and a spruce young fellow looking something like a composite of the junior Watergate set we'd seen on television, who introduced himself as lawyer for the university trustees. I said, Oh good, I need a lawyer: I just got this absurd note about a loyalty oath and fingerprinting; there's not a word about either in my contract, so please tell your bosses, whoever they are, to cut out the one-line jokes as I don't intend to do any of that. He replied sternly that it's a rule, I would have to comply with these requirements. The dean, looking grave, concurred. "Then...see you in court!" said I gaily, and on this note we parted.
My first lecture—at last I've found my true vocation. There were more than two hundred students, ranging from fresh-faced late-teens to grizzled heads; I loved them on sight. All nerves vanished, I gave them a brief rundown on How I Came to Be a Distinguished Professor (throwing myself on their mercy), and a short intro, to funerals, throwing in all the jokes I could think of about different layaway plans and how one wouldn't be caught dead in one of the cheaper lines of caskets; showed samples of the Fit-a-Fut Oxford that I'd ordered from the Practical Burial Footwear Company of Columbus, Ohio; passed around copies of my favorite trade mags. Mortuary Management and Casket & Sunnyside; explained the uses of various embalmers' aids like the Natural Expression Former (a plastic device which, inserted into the mouth after rig-mo, as we call it in the trade, sets in, can produce a seraphic smile on the deceased face)...it all went off like gangbusters; they were in fits of laughter.
The university public relations office telephoned in the afternoon to say they would be having a press conference to announce my appointment as? Dist. Prof., which I thought incredibly cordial of them; and one of the deans called to warn me that the loyalty oath and fingerprinting are ironclad conditions of employment, so I'd better get along to personnel to comply with these. I stiffly replied that I should be consulting the American Civil Liberties Union about that.
My muckraking seminar, limited to twenty, is a very different cup of tea from the lecture course. Three of the students, it turns out, are not enrolled in the college, hence are attending illegally, which I find flattering. We've decided to meet in the Faculty Club, an oasis where we can have lunch and bring wine to enliven the three and a quarter hours of class time. My plan: to spend the first several sessions exploring methods of gathering information, which will give everyone time to figure out what particular muckraking project each wishes to pursue. Today, discussed techniques I've found useful in interviewing funeral directors, prison administrators, Famous Writers—how to get them to talk, how to assume various fictional identities to help loosen tongues: pre-need cemetery plot buyer? Nervous citizen anxious about crime control and prison security? Aspiring Writers School student? And how to double-check information thus adduced by seeking out those on the receiving end, so to speak: survivors who have had to foot the funeral bill, convicts, students actually enrolled in the Famous Writers School.
Another deanish telephone call: Had I gone down to personnel yet? I explained I hadn't had time to think about all that or to consult the ACLU; I'd been too busy preparing my classes and meeting with students, so the oath and fingerprint matters had rather slipped my mind. Professor Alvin Rudoff, head of the sociology department, called to say there is a big flurry going on in the administration about all this, and they've been after him to persuade me to comply. He agrees both requirements are absurd and demeaning. I said I'd be back in touch after talking with some Lawyers.
The two funeral directors came to address my lecture class-they were more than up to expectations. "We are in the business of serving people," one announced mournfully, and averred that all this talk of the high cost of dying is non-sense; they would furnish a funeral for as little as $119.50. This sounded like an odd price, and the students demanded a breakdown; the information that the actual price is $117 and the $2.50 for sales tax was greeted with gales of hilarity. A long wrangle ensued between students and guest lecturers about the wholesale cost of caskets—why is it a closely held trade secret? Our undertakers fumbled over and fudged this one, with students in hot pursuit. Novelle's Roarometer, a device she proposes to invent to measure decibels of laughter in my classroom, would have been wagging its head off during this interchange.
Teaching, then, was heady stuff; so was the fracas over the loyalty oath and fingerprinting that began to build up between me and the college administration. To be perfectly truthful about this, I believe that had these requirements been explicitly set forth in my original dealings with the university, I might after some grumbling have complied; for are we not all inured to such bureaucratic absurdities in myriad aspects of life, from obtaining a driving license to applying for a government job? And what of my colleagues, professional teachers whom I had learned to respect as men and women of principle, and their thousands of counterparts in the state university system—who was I to set myself up as some sort of political purist and initiate a challenge when they had not seen fit to do so? Nor was I seeking, as was later charged, a "confrontation"—I had been through enough of those in my time, and yearned only to be left in peace, taken up as I was with the rigorous requirements of my new job. Yet having stumbled into this arena, I was reluctant to withdraw. Thus the warp and woof of my days at San Jose consisted in trying to learn more about the mysterious, fascinating process of teaching and locking horns with the authorities in a series of ever-intensifying skirmishes.
The first of these had to do with the loyalty oath. There is something weird about the wording of the California Oath of Allegiance; although extremely brief, it manages to encompass a number of bewildering and contradictory propositions. If it reads like a truncated version of something, this may be because in the middle sixties, after arduous battle, the ACLU succeeded in excising the most objectionable portion, that which required all state employees to swear that they are not now nor ever have been. As it stands, one must swear to "uphold and defend" the Constitutions of the United States and California "against all enemies foreign and domestic," and further swear that the oath was taken "freely and without any mental reservation." Well (said I to the deans), I think I have done my best to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States against enemies, especially domestic; but the annotated Constitution of the State of California runs to three hefty volumes and covers all manner of subjects. Do I uphold and defend, for example, Article 4, Section 25 3/4, limiting championship boxing and wrestling matches to 15 rounds? I don't know. Perhaps it should be 14, or 16? I do know that I cannot uphold and defend the recent amendment reinstating the death penalty, which in my view runs counter to the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Nor can I uphold and defend the section requiring the loyalty oath, which I regard as an abridgment of First Amendment rights. But (said they) you must sign if you want to work here, it's the law. What if I strike out the words "freely and without any mental reservation" and substitute "under duress"? No, that won't do, you can't tamper with the oath. Then...you are requiring me to swear falsely as a condition of employment?
The section of the Penal Code giving the penalty for perjury, one to fourteen years in state prison, is printed right above the oath. But the same Penal Code would seem to contain an equally stiff caveat for university administrators who require employees to perjure themselves as a condition of employment: subornation of perjury also carries a penalty of one to fourteen years in stir. What, then, if we all end up behind bars as a consequence of my signing? Will it be a race between me and the administrators to see who is rehabilitated first?
We went around and around on this for several days. Eventually I consulted Paul Halvonik, counsel for the ACLU. He advised that since the Oath of Allegiance is a requirement built into the California Constitution, it would take a deal of toppling in court; it might be years before such litigation would be resolved. Meanwhile, refusal to sign would be cause for my immediate dismissal, an event that would doubtless be hailed with unalloyed glee by the trustees. It boiled down to a choice, then, between continuing to teach, and being fired and embarking on an interminable court fight over the oath. Why not sign, making it clear I was doing so under protest? Fingerprinting is another matter, said Halvonik; it is not a constitutional requirement, we could probably win that one.
I had not yet broached the oath matter to my classes-we were far too busy with funerals, Famous Writers, and related subjects—but I discussed it at length with Novelle and Professor Rudoff, who agreed with Halvonik's approach; so on Monday, October 1 (a date that later was to become significant), I went to the personnel office and signed. The previously scheduled press conference to announce my appointment was held a couple of days later; it was surprisingly well attended by TV, all the local press, even stringers from New York and London papers. I took the occasion (to the consternation of the university PR people who had called the conference) to explain my position on the loyalty oath and to denounce the "perjury-suborning" administration.
There followed a few days of press hoopla. The Spartan Daily, to my gratification, published two pages of letters from faculty members supporting my attack on the oath requirement; then it all subsided, and with some relief I settled back into my new occupation. But somehow, in the process of clarifying my position on the loyalty oath, I had forgotten all about the fingerprinting. It was soon brought back sharply to my attention.
My horoscope in today's paper says "Higher-ups may cause problems...do not overspend...rely more on colleagues...p.m., enjoy social activity, relax with mate." It turned out to be pretty accurate. The deans were after me all last week to come in for a discussion of the fingerprinting issue, but since the whole thing seems to have turned dead serious and they are holding up my paycheck, I said I would have to wait until I could get a lawyer to accompany me to the meeting. Today was kaleidoscopic: a book report which I'd been asked to give at a noon faculty luncheon, the meeting with the deans, an afternoon reception given for me by women faculty members.
Following the book report, I braced the assembled professors with a brief polemic on fingerprinting: an arbitrary, demeaning rule promulgated by the chancellor, part of a general policy of Big Brotherism, the dossier-building process through which our life histories can all be stored eventually in giant computers; was much fortified by their expressions of agreement and support.
Bob [Treuhaft, my husband, who is a lawyer] came down from Oakland, and together with Novelle and Professor Rudoff, we breached the deanly stronghold in the administration building, there to confront the massed deans: Dr. Hobart Burns, academic vice president; Dr. James Sawrey, dean of school of social sciences; Dr. Robert Sasseen, dean of faculty. With one accord, these worthies pronounced themselves opposed in principle to the fingerprinting requirement—they even commended me for bringing the issue to their attention. But, I must comply at once or leave the campus. "Then you mean to tell me that you support stand, but you are firing me for refusing to be fingerprinted?" I asked in some astonishment. With one accord they glumly nodded assent.
Novelle and Professor Rudoff pleaded the cause of my students, who would be subjected to real hardship: we were now three weeks into the semester, books had been bought, projects and assignments undertaken—some 200 students would be faced with the prospect of losing credits for courses, some might fail to graduate as a sequence, others would lose grants.
We proffered some face-saving compromises. Professor Rudoff proposed to invite me out for a drink and turn over my glass to a friend of his in the sheriff's office who would lift the prints. Bob suggested that I might continue to teach, so my students would not be penalized by loss of credits, and agree to forgo my salary until the issue had been decided in court. The deans were immovable; these higher-ups conceded that they were acting on instructions from President Bunzel, who in turn was almost certainly actuated by higher higher-ups, the trustees and possibly the my replacement-I learned later that the leading candidate for my job was Clinton Duffy, retired warden of San Quentin prison.
Off to the Faculty Club, where two or three hundred women were gathered for the reception. I took the sponsors aside and told them what had just happened-I had been fired; I intended, however, to meet my class as usual the next morning, but I had no idea what to expect; would the administration try to remove me forcibly? I asked if I might make a brief statement to the gathering explaining my position on the fingerprinting issue and requesting their support. The sponsors were dubious; many of the women there, they said, were not "politically aware" enough to understand these matters: there were teachers from the athletic department, from nursing and homemaking...So in the receiving line, as guests came up with words of welcome, I confided to each one, "I've just been fired." This was greeted with uneasy titters; was it some sort of unfunny joke? Finally, I prevailed upon the sponsors to let me speak to the assemblage. The response was overwhelming. Women shouted their encouragement and support—some left to prepare leaflets calling for a campuswide mobilization at my lecture, others said they would alert the press to these developments, the women's coach came up to say she would bring along the whole football team to be bodyguards and prevent my eviction.
P.m., relaxed with mate, who agreed to stay overnight and come to class with me tomorrow to explain the legal aspects of the matter to my students.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.