Pitt in the Making: Clashes with state have taken many shapes

Editor’s note: Pitt in the Making is a new occasional series looking at the history of the University.


Picture a mirror world, in which a Democratic Pennsylvania state legislature demands that Pitt’s education be more “liberal” and that professors get tenure — instead of one-year contracts — or the governor will withhold Pitt’s state appropriation.

Now picture Pitt’s mirror chancellor calling the idea of tenure “silly” and saying “the question of academic freedom has been brought about by men who are immature and mentally a bit out of proportion.”

That mirror year was 1935, and the chancellor was John G. Bowman. His administration had nearly finished building the Cathedral of Learning, would create Pitt’s first medical center and eventually had football coach Jock Sutherland winning five national championships.

But Bowman would spend the next two years battling to retain the state’s support — or alternately claiming Pitt could do without a quarter of its income, thank you very much.

Bowman had already proven a foe to any professor or student group that might spout thoughts upsetting to the University’s wealthy benefactors ‚ local industrialists and bankers such as former Republican Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon. Mellon’s largesse might just be needed to finish all 42 floors of the Cathedral, still two years from its dedication. Bowman had nixed students’ Liberal Club in 1929 and lately fired Ralph E. Turner, a history professor whom a University report said held religious views that were too “irreverent.”

All of this was enough for Pitt to land that December as the only college on the blacklist of the American Association of University Professors, meaning no new Pitt hires could join the group. The AAUP report found that, worse than Turner’s firing, Pitt profs dwelt in “an atmosphere of fear, uncertainty, and timidity … because of the autocratic policy of the university's administration. This policy is based upon whim and caprice.”

And, they said, the University did actually have a code of tenure, but it had been ignored for the past 15 years under Bowman.

More crucially, the incidents caused the Pennsylvania legislature to investigate Pitt’s practices and the governor, George H. Earle, to sit in on a meeting of the University’s board of trustees.

Earle didn’t like what he saw. For the price of $1,118,000 — Pitt’s biannual appropriation — he insisted that Pitt put state officials and alumni-elected members on its board, which he termed “self-perpetuating.” Pitt must also figure out some kind of tenure scheme, he said.

Bowman appointed a study committee at the end of 1935. But he clearly wasn’t budging.

It was the “man of mediocre ability,” he said, who “is the one who makes the loudest noise about wanting assurance of a life-time job.”

Tenure would only “stabilize mediocrity,” he added.

Bowman, who had once called Turner among Pitt’s “ten best teachers” was now saying: “If I had made a mistake in the Turner matter it was that I should have fired Dr. Turner three or four years before. … Academic freedom is the privilege to devote oneself to study and research. It is not the privilege to engage in partisan propaganda and expect the university to protect one from the results.”

Months later, Bowman was still at it: “Neither will we ever compromise our opposition to having ‘free speech’ mean that a man can do as he pleases under the university's protection — sneer at religion or bring in political propaganda.’”

He mused about taking Pitt entirely private as well, rather than change the board structure.

“The state furnishes only one-quarter of our income,” he added. “We would not have to close down if the appropriation should be discontinued.” Pitt would face only minor problems, he said: “There would be no more free tuition (for some students). We would have to cut down the faculty and drop a couple of thousand students.”

Gov. Earle shot back: “Chancellor Bowman is far more interested in the magnificence of the buildings and the size of the enrollment of Pittsburgh university than he is in the students themselves.’”

On March 11, 1936, Earle gave Bowman a final warning, shifting from his demand for state officials on the board: “You have over a year in which to place upon your board 15 members — 10 members elected by the alumni as a whole and five members as elected by the alumni or faculty as a whole.”

Bowman said Pitt would keep studying both matters.

By the end of May, the Pittsburgh Press reported breathlessly that, “wealthy backers of Chancellor John G. Bowman and friends of the administration are underwriting a ‘war chest’ equal to the state’s biennial appropriation. This ‘war chest’ is being raised with two ends in view. First — the University will not be forced to accept the governor’s ultimatum that the school must revise its present setup and provide for further alumni representation on the self-perpetuating Board of Trustees or lose $1,200,000 in state funds. Second — the money will be a temporary ‘stop-gap’ until the next gubernatorial election, then many friends of the University believe the Republican Party may again come into power and approve the University's regular appropriation ‘with no strings attached.’”

It was a fair bet: Earle was that rare thing — the only Democratic Pennsylvania governor between 1895 and 1955. Trouble was, Bowman himself had no plans to leave.

The minority Republicans decided to take revenge on their Democratic governor by proposing to investigate Earle forattempts to interfere with the orderly management of educational institutions which have been receiving financial assistance from the people of this Commonwealth and which have been striving to stamp out radicalism and the teaching of dangerous and un-American doctrines,” but their bill went nowhere.

Two years into the fight, it took a board visit of local officials, including future Pittsburgh mayor David L. Lawrence, who was then secretary of the Commonwealth, to get Pitt’s board to allow 15 of its 30 trustees to be elected by alumni.

Pitt got its appropriation, but the Post-Gazette knew that Bowman had really won his battle. The alumni who would vote for half the trustees were not all Pitt alumni, but just the members of the alumni association — whose leaders were all about pleasing Pitt’s administration. Their choices for board members were hardly likely to bring liberal voices to the table.

And the push for tenure changes went nowhere. In September 1939, yet another tenure study committee concluded that the average Pitt professor was staying 18 years now, as compared to nine years in 1920. Thus, the real problem, said the report, was that Pitt should only “establish an official code of tenure (to) give the institution credit for its actual practices” — of giving 18 one-year contracts in a row to some professors.

Why were tenure rules still being ignored? Partly for fear that committing to tenure for too many professors would outpace the state appropriation, the report admitted.

When Bowman quit in February 1945, a special office of president was created just for him, which also disappeared when he left. He was charged with “the maintenance of those spiritual and cultural ideals which always had a central place in his thought for the University.” He had already been, for many years, the highest paid academic official in the entire country.

His parting statement, giving his reasons for leaving, included one last shot at the idea of tenure: “For some time I have felt that men stay too long in office.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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