Think a bit about the history of these past twenty-five years in the United States—the years of the black revolt and the movements of women, prisoners, native Americans; the years of the great campaign against the Indochina war and the illumination of Watergate. It was in these twenty- five years that the Establishment began to lose control of the minds and the loyalties of the American people. And since about 1975, the Establishment has been working steadily, with some desperation, to reassert that control.
In those years of the movements, great numbers of Americans began to take democracy seriously—to think for themselves, to doubt the experts, to distrust the political leaders, and to lose faith in the military, the corporations and even once the untouchable FBI and CIA. In mid-1975, the Harris poll, looking at the years since 1966, reported that public confidence in the military had dropped from 62 percent to 29 percent, in business from 55 percent to 18 percent, in the president and Congress from 42 percent to 13 percent. When the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan posed the question, “Is the Government run by a few big interests looking out for themselves?” the answer in 1964 was “yes” from 53 percent of those polled.
Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington reported to the Trilateral Commission—a group of Establishment intellectuals and political leaders from the United States, Europe, and Japan, assembled by David Rockefeller and Zbigniew Brezinski in the early 1970s— on what he called “The Democratic Distemper.” “The 1960s witnessed a dramatic upsurge of democratic fervor in America,” Huntington observed, and that troubled him. He noted that in 1960 only 18 percent of the public believed the government was spending too much on defense, but by 1969 this figure had jumped to 52 percent. He wrote: “The essence of the democratic surge of the 1960s was a general challenge to existing systems of authority, public and private. In one form or another, this challenge manifested itself in the family, the university, business, public and private associations, politics, the governmental bureaucracy, and the military services. People no longer felt the same obligation to obey those whom they had previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank, status, expertise, character, or talents.”
Huntington was worried: “The question necessarily arises, however, whether if a new threat to security should materialize in the future (as it inevitably will at some point), the Government will possess the authority to command the resources, as well as the sacrifices, which are necessary to meet that threat.” We were beset, he wrote, by “an excess of democracy.” He suggested “desirable limits to the extension of political democracy.”
Let us imagine the nation’s elite addressing itself to he problem posed by Huntington. If the proper respect for authority is to be regained, then surely the universities must do their job. It has usually been possible to count on them to fill the lower ranks of the Establishment with technical and professional people who, fairly well paid and engrossed in their own advancement, would serve as loyal guards for the system. But in the early 1960s, young black rebels came off the college campuses and formed the militant cutting edge of the black movement, and then the universities became the focal points of teach-ins and demonstrations against the war.
True, the loss of allegiance extended far beyond the campus, into the workplaces and homes of ordinary Americans, into the army ranks where working-class GIs turned against the war. Still, with twelve million young people in college, the fear of a working-class–professional-class coalition for social change makes it especially important to educate for obedience. And the intensifying economic pressures of unemployment and inflation may suggest to the national elite that it is now easier, and also more necessary, to teach the teachers as well as the students the advisability of submitting to higher authority.
Thus, it may be part of some larger reordering of the nation’s mind when the president of Boston University (BU), John Silber, says on national television (CBS’s 60 Minutes, viewed by thirty million), “A university should not be a democracy. . . . The more democratic a university is, the lousier it is.”
As soon as Silber became BU’s president in 1971, he began to act out his philosophy by destroying what is at the heart of humanistic education—the idea that students and faculty should have a decisive voice about the way education takes place. And he had an additional target— the idea that workers at the university should have some right to decide the conditions of their work.
Those of us who are involved in the intense, sometimes bizarre battles at Boston University have not had much time to step back and look for some grand national design into which we might fit. Furthermore, it seems immodest; we have not yet become accustomed to the fact that our campus, with its nondescript assortment of buildings straddling Commonwealth Avenue in the heart of the city, with its heterogeneous enrollment of 20,000 students, has begun to attract the attention of the country. It is as if a rare disease had broken out somewhere, and was being observed by everyone with much curiosity and a bit of apprehension.
John Silber, formerly a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, had hardly settled into the presidential mansion—a twenty-room house, rent-free, only one of the many fringe benefits adding up to perhaps $100,000 a year which augment his $100,000 salary—when he embarked on the process the Germans call Gleichschaltung— “straightening things out.” He quickly made it clear that he would not tolerate student interference with military recruiting at BU for the war in Vietnam. Early in 1972, his administration invited Marine Corps recruiters to a campus building. When students sat down on the steps of that building, remaining there firmly but peaceably, he called the police. Arrests and beatings followed, and Silber said he was maintaining “an open university.”
The university that was “open” to the Marine Corps turned out to be closed to the campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which lost its charter and its right to meet on campus because a scuffle had taken place during an SDS demonstration. The logic was established: SDS was a violent organization, while the Marine Corps had a well-known record for pacifism.
A series of demonstrations followed, to which police were called again and again, and which they broke up with arrests and brutal beatings. The turmoil led to a huge assembly of the Faculty Senate, which voted overwhelmingly that Marine Corps recruiting should be halted until faculty and students could discuss and vote on whether it should be resumed. Silber simply ignored the resolution. That summer, without the called-for campus discussion, he polled the faculty through the mail, not specifically asking about Marine Corps recruiting, but rather about whether the faculty wanted an “open university.” The answer, of course, was yes, and the recruiters were on campus to stay.
That fall, the students did vote, in an unprecedented turnout. A large majority rejected the policy of military recruiting on campus. Silber ignored them too. Picketing students, he said, were “primates,” and votes did not matter. “I would be much more impressed,” he told the student newspaper, the Daily Free Press, “by a thoughtful document that was brought in by one single student than I would by a mindless referendum of 16,000.” He would decide who was “thoughtful” and who was “mindless.”
The centralization of power in Silber’s hands, his contempt for faculty as well as students, his attempts to push tenured professors at the School of Theology into resigning, his repeated attacks on the tenure system—all this led to a burst of faculty unionization under the auspices of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Silber, confident of his oratorical powers, went to faculty meetings at the various colleges, arguing that a vote for unionization would mean the end of the “collegial” model and the introduction of the “industrial” model at Boston University. Nonetheless, the faculty voted by a clear majority for a union. In the next four years, the Silber administration spent huge sums of money before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and in the courts, trying unsuccessfully to overturn that vote.
Silber’s argument against the AAUP was that well-paid and articulate college professors don’t need a union. But when other employes tried to act in concert to improve their situation, his administration did its best to beat them down. Workers at the Student Health Clinic were fired when they met to voice grievances. The NLRB, after lengthy hearings, ruled that the BU administration was guilty of unfair labor practices in firing seven employes and intimidating the rest.
In the spring of 1976, departmental budget cuts led to anger on all sides.
Later, it was learned that while Silber was jacking up student tuition and telling the faculty there was no money for raises, he was putting several million dollars a year into “reserves” and listing these set-aside funds as “expenses” so that the budget barely showed a surplus.
There were calls for Silber’s dismissal from ten of the fifteen deans, from faculties at various colleges in the university, from virtually every student organization, and finally from a Faculty Senate meeting. A committee of trustees, making its five-year evaluation of Silber, voted 7 to l that his contract should not be renewed. But he worked furiously at lining up trustee votes, found powerful allies on the board, and persuaded them to keep him in the presidency.
As part of the campaign for control, Silber began to put the screws to campus newspapers that criticized him. Advertising was withdrawn from the BU News (which had been a pioneering critic of the Vietnam War under the editorship of Ray Mungo), causing it to close. A new student publication called Exposure, pitilessly anti-Silber (one of its headlines referred to him as: “Mediocre Philosopher, Expert Chiseler”), had its funds—allocated from student activities fees—cut off. A new policy was adopted: Campus newspapers that wanted funding from student activities fees must submit to prior review of their copy by faculty advisers. Programs at the campus radio station, WBUR, came under scrutiny of Silber’s administrators, and one news director was fired when he refused to censor the tape of a speech by William Kunstler which contained a joke about John Silber.
It also became more and more clear that any faculty member who spoke out against Silber was in danger of being denied tenure or, if tenured, of being denied a pay raise. Again and again, departmental recommendations of raises for certain faculty who were outspoken critics of the Silber administration were overruled. Early in Silber’s administration, Professor Richard Newman, who had taught in the social sciences for nine years, resigned from the University, and told the BU News that budget cuts had eliminated almost half the faculty of his department, including “three or four of the best young teacher-scholars in the country.” Newman said, “To disagree with the President is to be put on the Enemies List.”
Students, faculty, and staff fought back. The BU Exposure raised outside money to keep publishing its stories of administration shenanigans. There was evidence that Silber was pushing law school applicants to the top of the list when financial contributions from their families were sought. “I am not ashamed to sell these indulgences,” he told a meeting of the trustees, and somehow the Exposure got hold of the transcript. It was a joke, Silber explained. And later, when the Exposure reprinted an administration memorandum in which a wealthy trustee was described as having sought and received “pre-admission” to the law school for his two small grandchildren “for the twenty-first century,” Silber said that was a joke too—lots of jokes from an administration known for its utter lack of humor.
Clerical workers on campus, underpaid and harassed, began organizing a union and won an NLRB election. Librarians formed a union and won their election. The Silber administration refused to negotiate with them, as it had with the faculty union. When the buildings-and-grounds workers, long unionized, went on strike for a week in the fall of 1978, members of the other unions, along with students, formed large picket lines and held support rallies. They were getting ready for a big labor upsurge the following spring.
In April 1979, Boston University, whose employes were now probably the most organized of any private university in the country, became the most strike-ridden in the country. The administration, having exhausted its court appeals, had to enter into negotiations with the faculty union. It came to an agreement, under the faculty threat of an April strike deadline, then reneged on the agreement at the last moment.
The faculty called a strike that same evening. The next morning, the lines were up at twenty-one buildings. By noon, hundreds of picketing faculty were joined by clerical workers and librarians insisting that the administration negotiate with them on their own demands.
The Silber administration had not expected such a reaction. The strike quickly crippled the operations of the university. Of 800 faculty in the bargaining unit, at least 700 were observing the picket lines, and of these about 350 were picketing. It was a rare, perhaps unique event in the history of American higher education—professors and secretaries walking the picket lines together in a common strike.
After nine days, the administration and faculty agreed on a contract providing substantial wage increases and a grievance procedure, but leaving most decisions on tenure and other matters still in the hands of the president and trustees. The clerical workers and librarians were still on the picket lines.
With varying degrees of anguish, most of the faculty, feeling bound by a no-sympathy-strike clause in the contract, went back to work, but about seventy refused to cross the picket lines and held their classes out of doors or off campus. In nine more days, with the clerical workers and librarians holding firm, the administration agreed to negotiate, and everyone went back to work.
However, by late summer, the bargaining between the clerical workers and the administration broke down. Faculty and students returning for the fall semester found picket lines in place. It took a week for the strike to be settled by a contract agreement.
A small number of faculty had refused to cross the clerical workers’ picket lines and either held their classes elsewhere or had colleagues take their classes. Five of us – political scientist Murray Levin, journalist Caryl Rivers, historian Fritz Ringer (president of the faculty union during the spring strike), psychologist Andrew Dibner, and I— were warned that we had violated the no-sympathy-strike provision. We replied that we had acted as individuals, according to our consciences, in expressing our support for the clerical workers. The Silber administration announced it was proceeding against us under the contract—we were all tenured professors—utilizing a provision for the suspension or dismissal of tenured professors on grounds of “gross neglect of duty or other just cause.”
The charges against the BU Five, as we came to be known, lent new urgency to the work of the Committee to Save BU, formed by faculty and students to rid the campus of the Silber machine.
Last December 18, a record number of faculty crowded into the largest auditorium on campus and listened to colleagues detail the charges against the Silber administration—mismanagement, centralization of decision-making, discrimination against women, violations of civil liberties and abusive and insulting behavior toward faculty.
Managers, whether of a government or of an institution, must learn how to gauge the capacity for rebellion so that they can head it off with the proper mix of repression and concession. The Silber administration had misjudged, when it reneged on the union contract in the spring of 1979, the faculty’s willingness and readiness to strike. It misjudged again when it went after the BU Five. The threat to fire tenured faculty for honoring their convictions—Silber was quoted in the press as saying that faculty who signed union contracts had surrendered their right of conscience—aroused immediate protest.
Salvador Luria, Nobel laureate in biology at MIT and a veteran of the anti-war movement, began circulating a petition among faculty at MIT, Harvard, and other colleges and universities in the Boston area, calling for the charge against the Five to be dropped and for Silber to be fired. Five hundred faculty in the Boston area signed the petition within two weeks. Another petition, signed by Luria, Noam Chomsky, historian John Womack of Harvard and historian of science Everett Mendelsohn of Harvard, began circulating nationwide. The signatures came pouring in.
Alumni wrote letters to the BU trustees and the Boston newspapers. On campus, student groups called for the charges to be dropped and for Silber’s removal.
The Massachusetts Community College Council, representing faculty at fifteen colleges, protested. A sociologist withdrew his request to be a visiting professor at BU, citing the administration’s action. The Massachusetts Sociological Association passed a resolution expressing its concern for “freedom of conscience.” A visiting linguistic professor and a telegram came shortly after, signed by fifteen distinguished French acamedicians, declaring their support for the BU Five.
But the slick pro-Silber profile on 60 Minutes drew letters of support from viewers around the country who saw Silber as the man who would make the dirty college kids clean up their rooms and whip the radical faculty into line. This spring, Silber still seems to have a firm grasp on his Commonwealth Avenue fiefdom. The trustees have given no overt signs of disaffection. The faculty union is entangled in a hundred grievances in the slow machinery of the contract. BU students, just handed an outrageous 16 percent tuition increase, are only beginning to organize. The threat of punishment still keeps many faculty in line. Indeed, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts has announced he is adding a new factor in determining merit raises: A faculty member’s teaching performance and publications, however stellar, may be offset, he says, by “negative merit”—actions designed to “harm the University.”
There are some signs, however, that the protests from all over the academic world are having an effect. In February, the Administration, through the intercession of a committee appointed by the official Faculty Council, agreed to drop the charges against the BU Five, and to negotiate or arbitrate the question of punishment for faculty refusal to cross picket lines.
After six members of the Committee to Save BU appeared before the trustees—in an unprecedented contact with a board always remote from the faculty—it was learned that there were expressions of disaffection among the trustees, who have been Silber’s last stronghold.
The board has welcomed Silber’s enthusiasm for the banking and utilities interests they represent, as well as his friendliness toward the military. Silber has been a spokesman for nuclear power and against the evening out of utility rates to favor the small consumer. Boston University has an overseas program in which it services the American military with courses and degrees, and Silber has shown obvious deference to the government’s military needs in ROTC and recruiting.
Nevertheless, as faculty, secretaries, librarians and buildings-and-grounds workers remain organized and determined to fight back, as students become increasingly resentful at being treated like peons in a banana republic, as protests from alumni and from the national academic community intensify, the trustees may have to reconsider. When risks become too great, the clubs of the Establishment sometimes decide to change to a form of control less crass and more conciliatory. To prevent more drastic upheaval, the board may replace Silber with its own version of a Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter.
Back in 1976, John Silber wrote on the op-ed page of the New York Times: “As Jefferson recognized, there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talent. . . . Democracy freed from a counterfeit and ultimately destructive egalitarianism provides a society in which the wisest, the best, and the most dedicated assume positions of leadership. . . . As long as intelligence is better than stupidity, knowledge than ignorance, and virtue than vice, no university can be run except on an elitist basis.”
That makes for a neat fit with the philosophy of Samuel Huntington and the Trilateral Commission as they react to the “excess of democracy” that sprang from the movements of the 1960s. The Establishment’s need to reassert control over the universities expresses itself most blatantly in the authoritarianism of John Silber at Boston University, but there is some evidence of a national trend in higher education toward the punishment of dissent and toward more direct intervention by big business in the workings of the universities. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that schools of business around the country—at Dartmouth, Duke, and Cornell, among others—now have “executives-in-residence” to match the more customary university practice of maintaining “artists-in-residence” and “writers-in-residence.” And the American Council on Education has been urging colleges to recruit more aggressively and to increase their ties to business. Management and marketing consultants are now a common presence on campuses, as are union-busting consultants and “security” advisers.
As the economic situation of the universities becomes more precarious and faculties shrink, it becomes easier to get rid of undesirables, whether political dissidents or just troublesome campus critics. If they are untenured, dismissal is a simple process. If they are tenured, some in- genuity is required. The files of the American Association of University Professors show, according to one member of the AAUP’s committee on academic freedom, “a disturbing number of mean little cases this year.” He said, “There seem to be many tenth-rate John Silbers around.”
The AAUP refers to an increasing number of “indecencies.” At Central Washington State University, a tenured professor of political science, Charles Stasny, was recently fired by the trustees for “insubordination” after he missed several classes because he attended a scholarly meeting in Israel. The administration had first approved his departure, then opposed it. At Nichols College, outside Worcester, Massachusetts, a non-tenured professor who questioned the leadership of the college president was summarily dismissed. At Philander Smith College in Little Rock, two tenured professors and one non-tenured faculty member were fired last June and told to leave the campus the same day; they had complained to student newspapers and the trustees about the lack of academic freedom on campus.
Whether at universities or at other workplaces, whether in the United States or in other countries, we seem to face the same challenge: The corporations and the military, shaken and frightened by the rebellious movements of recent decades, are trying to reassert their undisputed power. We have a responsibility not only to resist, but to build on the heritage of those movements, and to move toward the ideals of egalitarianism, community, and self-determination—whether at work, in the family, or in the schools—which have been the historic, unfulfilled promise of the word democracy.
From The Historic Unfulfilled Promise by Howard Zinn. Copyright c 2012 by The Howard Zinn Revocable Trust. Reprinted by permission of City Lights Books.