THE SUBJECT A CONTROVERSY
One of the consequences of the Subject A controversy was that the responsibility of the Subject A Committee to the Academic Senate and, in particular, of the Subject A staff to the Subject A Committee was (theoretically) recodified and (practically) strengthened. The most important change in procedure resulting from this recodification and strengthening of responsibility was that, whereas previously the Subject A staff (especially the Berkeley, and, to a lesser extent, the Los Angeles staffs) had made up the Subject A examination, now the Subject A committee meets to construct the examination, with the assistance of the Subject A supervisors. The Subject A Committee had always been responsible for the formulation of the examination; now they actually do it. One possible drewback in this arrangement is that, although the Subject A committee, consisting of members of the Academic Senate, may well be more aware of general educational policy than the Subject A staff, they are certainly not more aware of the problems peculiar to Subject A (the difficulty of accurately grading a vapid or over-generalized essay, for example, is great, since vague constructions tend to be simple constructions, and thus are poor indications of a student's writing ability). On the other hand, the Subject A Committee may be able to view the Subject A course and examination more objectively than can the Subject A staff. There has been, however, one actual drawback in the new arrangement in terms of censorship, and this drawback is the direct result of the controversy (it will be dealt with later in this paper).
** ** **
The Subject A examination consists of two major sections: the first section, on which the students are to spend one hour, is an objective test of grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary; the second section, on which the students are to spend two hours, demands that a 500-word essay be written any one of the ten to twelve topics given in each examination. No essay topics are used more than once; the student thus cannot have prepared for the essay. Essay topics are generally chosen with the thought in mind that vapid essays are hard to grade; that is, topics are chosen which will hopefully prevent stereotyped, cliched responses. How the student does on the essay section of the examination determines, in large part, whether or not the student will be required to take the Subject A course; there is, however, normally a correlation between essay and objective scores.
The Subject A examination of May, 1959, consisted of the normal objective section and an essay section giving the student a choice of twelve possible essay topics. Topic number seven read as follows;
What are the dangers to a democracy of a national police organization, like the F.B.I., which operates secretly and is unresponsive to public criticism?
Of the 2,580 applicants who took the Subject A examination in May, 1959, 82 chose to write on topic number seven. The pass-fail percentage of those who chose this topic (55-45) corresponded very closely with the overall pass-fail percentage (56-44). In addition the percentages of those who argued that the F.B.I. did pose a threat, those who argued that it did not pose a threat, and those who gave a balanced response to the topic were, among passing essays and among failing essays, nearly identical. Thus, neither the choice of this topic nor the point of view espoused in writing on it had any apparent effect on the grading of the essay. John Halverson, Supervisor of Subject A on the Berkeley Campus at the time of the controversy, whose staff had made up the essay topics for this particular Subject A examination, could call topic number seven "in general, a successful topic."
Evidently, several Glensale, California, High School seniors did not agree with Mr. Halverson, for two letters criticizing the topic appeared in the Montrose Ledger on January 28 and February 4, 1960. The second letter said, in part, "The test assumed that the F.B.I. was a danger to democracy," and the examination "was devised to weaken our resistance to orderly policing." The names of the letter-writers were withheld in both cases. It is possible that the writers of the letters had not actually taken the examination, since it was at that time the practise of the Subject A department to sell Subject A examinations, once they had been given, to state high schools, so that the high schools might be able to prepare their students for the examination. Thus the delay between May, 1959, and January, 1960 might be explained.
There was, however, no further delay. Dr. John R. Lechner, 23rd District American Legion Americanism chairman and Americanism Educational League executive director (The San Francisco Examiner of February 11, 1960, named Dr. Lechner as a "veteran Los Angeles Americanism worker"), ever alert, spotted the two letters, grasped the implications of what was being done to California's youth, and immediately wrote Governor Brown, requesting him to make a "personal and immediate" investigation. Dr. Lechner saw the essay topic as much more than a threat to "orderly policing:" Subject No. 7 is a deliberate Communist propaganda scheme to implant a universally accepted Communist Party line into the minds of our boys and girls in high school," Dr. Lechner wrote Governor Brown.
He went on to ask the Governor to determine who was responsible for "this Communist propaganda in a public document which has so profound an influence upon the minds of our youth," and Whether the topic was employed "for some ulterior motive, such as having any statement by an applicant for admission in the University of California contrary to the suggestion inherent in the question" used as grounds for rejection. Dr. Lechner reminded the Governor of "the injustice this vicious statement does to the F.B.I.," and closed his letter by demanding that "the person or persons in so responsible a position, whose influence over the minds of our youth cannot be denied, should be dismissed when identified." (Quotes from the Los Angeles Herald Express, February 4, 1960).
Two Los Angeles newspapers broke the story to/the public on the same day Dr. Lechner sent his letter to Governor Brown, February 4, 1960. Presumably, Dr. Lechner, aware of the value of publicity in the exposing of subversives, contacted the newspapers himself, for both newspaper stories contain extensive quotations from Dr. Lechner's letter (the Los Angeles Herald Express, under a banner headline, carried twenty column inches of Dr. Lechner's allegations). In all, at least nine commercial newspapers, as well as the Berkeley campus Daily Californian and the Los Angeles campus Daily Bruin, reported and editorialized on aspects of the Subject A controversy. Of the nine "news" stories (presently at hand) that appeared in the commercial press, five presented only Dr. Lechner's allegations, and did not mention any of the various defenses of the topic made by the Berkeley and Los Angeles Subject A staffs and by the Subject A Committee; both of the two editorials (presently at hand) that appeared in the commercial press (the San Francisco Examiner--with a cartoon--and the Oakland Tribune) utilized as the basis for comment only Dr. Lechner's allegations.
In addition, J. Edgar Hoover, proving himself "responsive to public criticism" (if the Subject A topic can be called public criticism), wrote his disapproval of the topic to at least four newspapers, including the Daily Californian. "The question," he wrote, "is a complete falsehood." He went on to assert that the F.B.I. is not a "national police organization," that the F.B.I. is "accountable at all times to the Attorney General and the President," and that the investigative procedures of the F.B.I. "are constantly being examined in various courts of the land." Mr. Hoover "was completely amazed to see such a statement in a university examination. The question presents the students with a complete falsehood in the guise of an alleged truth. Their minds are impregnated with ideas which have absolutely no foundation in fact. This is surely not the way to teach our young people." Mr. Hoover closed this letter (to the Oakland Tribune) by thanking the paper for its vigilance and assuring the readers that "only by setting forth the facts can the full truth become known." Mr. Hoover wrote essentially the same letter to the Daily Californian, but, presumably to "teach our young people" more effectively, he closed this letter with somewhat stronger language than that of the Tribune letter; "...to call the F.B.I. a national police is a gross distortion of fact and a slur on our constitutional form of government....Only by setting forth the truth can error be combatted."
In response to Dr. Lechner's letter and the subsequent publicity, Governor Brown Took "immediate," if not "personal," action: he asked University of California officials to investigate. The Governor did take a sort of personal action in that he communicated his personal concern over the matter to University President Kerr; and in response President Kerr, although he did not conduct the investigation personally (Vice-President Wellman seems to have been in charge), did take the ultimate responsibility for the results of the investigation, in that he presented the final report in his own name to the Assembly of the Academic Senate.
The investigation by administrative officials took the form of questioning everyone in the line of responsibility for Subject A. The Subject A Supervisor reported to the Subject A committee; the Subject A Committee reported to the Vice-Chancellor (James D. Hart); the Vice Chancellor reported to the University Vice-President; the University Vice-President reported to the University President; and the University President reported to Governor Brown (who presumably reported to Dr. Lechner). In addition, the Subject A Supervisor and the Subject A Committee met directly with representatives of the University President (ex officio group formed from the Academic Senate). Three official reports (written) were made: The Vice-Chancellor's to the Vice-President, the Subject A Committee's to the Academic Council, and, as previously mentioned, the University President's to the Academic Senate.
The initial response of the University to the charges made by Dr. Lechner, J. Edgar Hoover, and the press was disorganized and inconsistent. Numerous mis-statements, inaccurate in fact or in implication, were made by numerous people to numerous reporters. Thus defense of the topic (or lack of defense) ranged from Berkeley Supervisor Halverson's strong defense on the grounds of academic freedom and the actual effectiveness and truth of the topic, through Los Angeles Supervisor Everett Jones' weak defense on the grounds of "unfortunate wording" and the difficulty of making up three examinations each year without committing some errors, through Vice-Chancellor Hart's statistical defense (on the basis of the percentages previously cited) and recommendation that "in the future there should be tighter controls," to ...the Regents' apology.
Four days after the Vice-Chancellor's report to the University Vice-President, on February 19, 1960, the Board of Regents of the University of California publically apologized for examination topic number seven: "The Regents...deeply regret that an improper question appeared in the University's Subject A examination in May, 1959, that casts a reflection on the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Question has, of course, been withdrawn from use...and steps are being taken to prevent a recurrence of such a similar unfortunate incident." The Regents further assured the F.B.I. of "their highest respect as an essential arm of out nation's security and of the rule of law which is the keystone of our free (sic) democratic society." This statement by the Regents remained the official, public University of California answer to the charges of Dr. Lechner, J. Edgar Hoover, and the press. Soon after the Regents' statement was made, President Kerr made it known to the Subject A Department that no more copies of the examination in question were to be printed or sold to high schools and all remaining copies on hand were to be destroyed.
** ** **
The Combined Committee on Subject A, chaired by Prof. James J. Lynch, in its report to the Academic Council, March 16, 1960, spoke as follows concerning the Regents' statement: "The combined Committee on Subject A is of the opinion that the recent action of the Board of Regents...threatens to abridge the freedom of the faculty by seriously weakening its right and the right of one of its agencies to ask questions which are deemed appropriate for the purposes which they are designed to serve. Specifically, (1) to denounce this topic as "improper" was to invite the inference that the question was on a topic not admissable in a Subject A examination; (2) to declare that the topic had been withdrawn was to suggest that the Regents themselves had with drawn the topic, whereas it, along with the other eleven topics on Form 59, was simply discarded by Subject A just as for obvious reasons, all examination topics are discarded once they have been used; (3) to announce that steps would be taken to insure against the recurrence of such a topic was to suggest that academic subject matter is within the immediate area of competence of the Board of Regents and that it could direct the faculty to delete topics and questions which it, for non-academic reasons, considered unsuitable. The Committee, therefore, has not been convinced that the recent action of the Regents did not in fact weaken `the moral and philosophic right of the examining faculty of this University.' " Thus the Combined Committee on Subject A of the Academic Senate made absolutely clear to the Academic Council (and therefore to President Kerr) what the Regents' statement implied in terms of academic freedom.
Five weeks after this report was made, on May 24, 1960, President Kerr made the final report on the Subject A "incident" to the Assembly of the Academic Senate, Northern Section. This report was made with the "unanimous approval" of the Academic Council; The Academic Senate itself took no action in regard to this report. The President's statements on the controversy (as opposed to his statements on the recodification of responsibility) are here reproduced in full; the italics are not President Kerr's.
1. Several individual faculty members, and the Committee on Subject A acting as group, have expressed the belief that the Regents" statement on the incident in some way encroached upon the Academic Senate's delegated responsibility for conditions of admission and courses of instruction. This misunderstanding is easily resolved; The Regents" action neither sought to impair, nor did it in fact impair, nor, in my judgement, should it be used as a reason to impair, the delegated authority of the Academic Senate. The Regents" action was an expression of their judgment rather than an exercise of authority, explicit or otherwise.
2. A few faculty members have suggested that, aside from the question of authority, the Regents should not have expressed a judgment on this sort of academic matter. I find myself in disagreement with this argument. The Regents are directly concerned with and deeply interested in the whole range of matters affecting the University. That they have delegated certain important areas of its administration to other authorities does not foreclose their right and even their obligation to make known their views on topics falling within such areas. Academic freedom and academic responsibility must, for the furtherance of the University and its pruposes, be exercised by the Regents as well as by the faculty, the administration, and the students.
2. In regretting the use of this question, The Regents did not abrogate the responsibility they have delegated to the Academic Senate for determining conditions of admission and for courses of instruction. The Academic Council concursunanimously in this conclusion.
It would seem that the theoretical basis for President Kerr's conclusions is extremely tenuous; in practise, the President's statements have been proven entirely wrong. The Regents" action and the University's reaction to the Subject A controversy as a whole have quite definitely "impaired" the academic freedom of the Subject A department. The making up of Subject A examination questions is now seriously hindered by the realization that the Combined Subject A Committee will have to reject all truly controversial questions, out of fear of provoking another Subject A controversy, facing another administration investigation, and having to hear another Regents' apology.
-- Fred Bauer, Associate in Subject A
(Title for purposes of identification only; no statement in this report should be taken to represent an official codification of the point of view of the Subject A Department.)