Old History, But Not Forgotten
This letter to The New York Review of Books may be the longest they have ever printed. Alas, to get a full sense of its import, the reader would have to do some research about the events of the 60's, with special attention to California. My letter was noted by Lee Sherman Dreyfus, a fellow crew member on "my" LST, who sent me a note when he saw it. Lee, a shipmates on LST 919 (1945-46), later became a governor of Wisconsin. Small World.
In response to:
Trouble at San Francisco State: An Exchange from the April 11, 1968 issue
To the Editors:
There is trouble at San Francisco State College, all right, but I am not at all sure that the Windmiller-Gerassi exchange (NYR, April 11, 1968) has made clear what it is: With a certain amount of eloquence—surely with a fluency that befits the literary setting of the exchange—Messrs. Windmiller and Gerassi are giving the world a look at a rather private scene of the play that has been unfolding, in San Francisco. Although the trouble at San Francisco State has relevance for all of higher education in America, the issues posed in the exchange do not bring this out. Marshall Windmiller, as one who played an important role in Gerassi’s firing, defends himself at length; his method is historical: he gives an account of Gerassi’s hiring, his career at San Francisco State, with special attention to the eruptions of December 6 and their aftermath. Gerassi, the one who was fired, is concerned with justifying his actions; his method is polemical: he proposes to show how everyone who is not a student or gung-ho like himself belongs to the same corrupt establishment. Windmiller’s history has a flaw that Aristotle found in all of history: it does not permit one to see the general in the particular. Gerassi’s fiery polemic does not illuminate enough. As someone who was quoted by Gerassi with approval, but who is one of the “liberal, ingrained, faculty-ized academicians” of whom Gerassi so sharply disapproves, I should like to open the curtain to the larger scene, in the hope that something can be learned from the story of S.F. State.
For some time, San Francisco State College has been a lively place in which fairly solid academic work has been carried on side by side with interesting as well as scatterbrained experimentation and with routine teacher education. The attractiveness of San Francisco as a place to live, the opportunities provided by rapid institutional growth as well as the general demand for more and better public education on the college level largely go to account for the flourishing of the college from the late Fifties on. I believe the period of upswing has ended and that a decline is inevitable. I do not see how anyone can prevent it. The outburst of December 6 and its aftermath, including the Windmiller and Gerassi exchange, are symptoms of conditions and trends that are largely independent of personalities and of particular events.
Public education in California bears a heavy burden; only a small proportion of its huge educational needs are fulfilled by private institutions. Just about every year for a decade a new campus of the University of California or a new State College was created, not to mention the expansion of institutions that already existed. This costs a lot of money, but for some years—starting well before Reagan’s election made manifest to the world what California was all about—the state has shown increasing reluctance to foot the bill. (In 1965 California spent $10.79 per $1000 of personal income on institutions of higher education, whereas the twenty-five Western states exclusive of California—where there are also relatively few private institutions—spent $17.89.) The State Colleges are particularly hard hit by this: the skimpiness with which they are financed in the first place (as compared with the University of California, for example) is made worse by unbelievably inflexible methods of budgeting and by a stifling control exercised through the pre-, during and post-auditing habits of the state’s Department of Finance.
California’s unwillingness to adequately support the State Colleges is not just a product of the universal desire to keep the tax bill down. A lot of California money is agricultural money: education is not an interest of enterprises whose fortunes are made by having lettuce picked, packed and shipped as cheaply and quickly as possible. Industry in California is relatively new and not so deeply rooted; it does not have the political voice that it has, say, in the mid-Atlantic states. Then California also has more than its share of America’s anti-intellectualism with its suspicion of any education that is not obviously aimed at training people to perform “useful” tasks in society. At the same time as relative budgetary support decreased, the know-nothing streak in California widened. As increasing parsimony became, with the election of Reagan, public orgies of budget slashing, California’s anti-intellectualism found noisy and flamboyant spokesmen in an experienced actor-governor and in Max Rafferty, an articulate nineteenth-century schoolmaster, California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The administration of the State Colleges also changed. With the creation of a much touted but disastrous master plan in 1960, second-class citizenship was officially conferred upon the California State Colleges and confirmed in law. This status was implemented by the creation of a central Board of Trustees that was to rule over all the State Colleges, by means of an executive arm headed by a Chancellor. From the beginning, appointment to this board has largely been a matter of political reward, with the result that the Trustees of the eighteen or so State Colleges must, by all counts, be regarded as a remarkably undistinguished group. In their attitudes and in their ignorance they have been representative of the politically dominant class in the State of California, as they have been in their willingness to act and act swiftly upon their ignorance. As a part-time lay board they have made it their task to administer a dozen and a half colleges from afar. Under an obedient chancellor a bureaucracy was created, full of vice and assistant chancellors and of super-deans (such as a student-less dean of students) whose job it is to promulgate rules for, supervise the procedures of, exact reports from, and otherwise harass their over-worked counterparts at the various colleges. Above all, they are at the upper end of the immensely long ladder of decision.
The function of this board with its bureaucracy is other than might be expected. It has never faced the State in behalf of the colleges; it has never understood the goals of the colleges and interpreted them to the public and to the politicians who make the laws and appropriate the monies; it has done little fighting for the needs of the State Colleges as genuine institutions of higher learning. If one sees through occasional flurries of rhetoric, the central governing body of the State College System has unfailingly served as a one-way funnel through which the untutored desires of politicians are forwarded and implemented.
What these desires are must be clear enough in the light of what was said above. The politicians want the State Colleges to keep in their classrooms as many students as possible at the lowest possible cost. The State wants as many of them as can be managed trained to perform the various tasks which need to be performed in California. In as quiet and orderly a way as can be achieved and with a minimum of expenditure, the California State Colleges are to make their contribution towards the continuous increase of the gross income of the State. Rule from the center will facilitate this, because it will foster uniformity, orderliness, and efficiency.
Finally, there are the two most pervasive and complex conditions which, for the readers of the Review need the least elaboration. There is the war in Vietnam, with its draft, and racial injustice in all corners of American society, including its colleges. These two issues have converted phlegmatic students into passionate moral agents and adolescent rebelliousness into profound opposition to the establishment.
All this was far too much for poor San Francisco State. (It is still an open question whether the much more established University of California can withstand the pressures.) After all, the members of the faculty and of the student body that have given S.F. State its—I think deserved—reputation for a certain amount of freedom and creativity were never more than a significant minority of all those who go to classes there—sitting on either side of the lectern. Interference from the outside, an unwieldly bureaucracy, a scarcity of money with no options to transfer funds from one function to another leave one no room within which to operate when particular problems need to be solved.
As the pressures mounted, the faculty coped by passing more and more ringing resolutions. No one has yet paid any attention to them. An attempt by the American Federation of Teachers to lead a walkout in protest against the crudest infringements of the College’s academic autonomy fizzled ingloriously. No one has yet figured out how to face the demands—partially legitimate, I believe, and partially not—which the active students make of the College.
Under the pressures I have listed, the College’s administration, too, began to change. Like the administration of the System, it came to develop an interest of its own: the smooth working of all the wheels in the machinery. Whereas in the past, the College’s administration had for a time reflected and served the creative impulses of the faculty, it is now rapidly losing touch with what is best in the faculty and student body alike. The silent majority has not found its voice, but it has acquired spokesmen in the various administrative officers who have of late been coming into power. I do not see what can stop San Francisco State College from becoming just another branch of the California State College System.
It was on this point that Gerassi quoted me, but this point is only the next to the last of a long series that has to be made. The final observation must be about what all this has done to the individuals who have been teaching at S.F. State.
Polarization covers much of the ground. Pressures from the outside and the sense of impotence engendered by the lack of room for maneuvering pushed many of those who cared at all to one extreme side or the other. Some, like Gerassi, found themselves maintaining the view that the genuineness of feelings—mostly those of students—were the one value to which everything had to be sacrificed. The nihilism of Gerassi’s views and actions is reminiscent of its classical models in Turgenev and Dostoevsky, including its painfully suicidal qualities. Gerassi got himself fired before his first year was out; what he did at San Francisco State will not lead to improvement there.
Windmiller, liberal, knowledgeable, reflective, was pushed the other way. For him the pressures drove a painful wedge between theory and practice. At an institution less prey to political interference, Windmiller would have seen that for the sake of free colleges and universities, the distinction between professional and unprofessional conduct must be made closer to the instructor’s classroom and his profession, that Gerassi’s climbing into a window, though reprehensible, was not sufficient ground to yank him out of his classes in the middle of a semester. But, under the circumstances, no one, Windmiller included, was free to consider Gerassi’s case calmly. A full assessment of it is yet to be made.
John Summerskill, a new president at San Francisco State College, bright, perceptive, good impulses, though not equipped to be a cog in a machine, soon found himself caught in a three-way crossfire coming from outside (the politicians and the System), from the students at the College, and, with bb guns, from the faculty. It took less than two years to render him ineffectual inside and outside the College; he had no way of dealing with the problems that arose. He then did the only sensible thing. He quit.
I have been at S.F. State since 1959 and I’ve liked the College, the students, my department, the great city. But I became weary of the academic battles and the losing. The only victories we have celebrated in the last couple of years have been on occasions at which others—the System, the Legislature, the Governor—had failed, for once, to worsen our lot still more. Usually, though, they have been successful in making inroads on our dignity as an institution of higher learning and on our financial support. I have given up hope and am leaving the College and the State of California.
No more than Gerassi’s actions are Windmiller’s, Summerskill’s, and Weingartner’s likely to lead to change for the better.
Others are staying. Some—too many—go about their business as they always have. Nothing has altered for them; nothing did when, earlier, the College came to flourish; nothing does, as it threatens to wither. For others, much has changed and they go about their business grimly, hoping against hope that the course of events can be reversed. To them, I wish the very best of luck and hope that my bleak vision of the future for S.F. State is somehow wrong.
But if I am right and if for some long years San Francisco State will be just another state college, there are many colleges and systems around the country who can still learn from its fate. For some, it may not be too late.
Rudolph H. Weingartner
Department of Philosophy
San Francisco State College