Number 14 Night Editor: Jim Neubacher
October 26, 1969
"We leaned backward
"I do not think, having not to punish him for
said what you have said, the article," Romance
you can spend more languages chairman,
time in our company,
Prof. Robert Niess wrote.
Prof. James O'Neill
(O'Neill is pictured at a
faculty imeeting )
LAST FEBRUARY, at the height of the language
requirement controversy, a teaching fellow in
Romance languages wrote a guest editorial for The
Daily criticizing his department.
Five months later, he resigned.
The two events are peculiarly related, but trac-
ing the connection is a delicate process with complex
and subtle revelations. Dissected, the case of this
teaching fellow raises serious questions about the
machinery which operates in each department and
affects the teachers and courses students are ex-
DAVID McMURRAY'S troubles began on Feb. 4,
1969, when The Daily printed his lengthy edi-
torial on language study at the University. In it, he
chastised his department for treating students in
elementary languages as "unsophisticated Midwest-
erners" and for acting as though it were "casting
pearls before swine."
In addition, McMurray blasted m a n y depart-
mental procedures and referred to those teachers
who backed the existing language requirement as
The editorial inccnsed several faculty members
and brought down a torrent of criticism on Mc-
Murray. The backlash came in two forms: that
which charged McMurray had erred factually and
that which attacked the propriety of a teaching
fellow daring to encourage students to make the
language requirement a public issue.
The former was propounded by more liberal
faculty members such as Profs. Jean Carduner and
William Cressey, who challenged the accuracy and
propriety of what the instructor said. The latter
was levelled by those who flatly didn't think Mc-
Murray had the prerogative to say what he did.
By far the bitterest criticism was launched by
Prof. Robert Niess, chairman of the comparative
literature department, in which McMurray was
"You should know better than to bring such
charges against the people with whom you work
and who, incidentally, give you your livelihood,"
Niess wrote to McMurray.
"I do believe in your right to say what you said
and in the way you said it," the professor added.
"but I do not think that, having said what you
have said about us, you can honestly stand to spend
more time in our company."
Niess' words proved prophetic. It would be his
comments on McMurray, five months later, which
would force the teaching fellow out of the Pilot
Program and out of the University.
DURING THE intervening five months between
the publication of McMurray's article and the
submission of his resignation, Niess kept tabs on
the graduate student.
A week after his first correspondence. Niess
addressed another letter to McMurray:
"I have the conviction, perhaps wrong, that
when people 6rite letters like yours, there is some-
thing usually awry in the background . . . I was not
in error. Your academic record is certainly the worst,
from a certain point of view, among all the gradu-
ate students in Comparative Literature ..."
What Niess had in mind was not McMurray's
grades, which never dropped below A-, but rather
the number of incompletes he took, with three
outstanding at the time, Niess asked McMurray
for an immediate explanation and ordered him to
complete all three before the end of the term or be
dropped from the department.
This McMurray did, but it was not enough.
WyHILE THE tension over the Daily article dimin-
ished. McMurray began looking into the literary
college's Pilot Program, an experimental program
that preceded the establishment of the Residential
College and provides an informal academic environ-
Through arrangements with the directors of the
program, McMurray agreed to teach a course, Pilot
122, called "Revolution: Political and Social State-
ments in Poetry and Prose."
It was planned as a course in revolutionary writ-
ings black Ameriean and Latin American for whrh
courses would require the approval of the depart-
ment chairmen of any teaching fellows involved.
McMurray's appointment in Pilot had to be ap-
proved by Prof. James C. O'Neill, chairman of Ro-
mance languages. Niess would also have a say in
The day after the curriculum committee ap-
proved the course, Carl and Helga Goldberg, the
resident directors for the Pilot Program's academic
offerings, met with O'Neill and got what thQy called
his "reluctant approval" for the course.
But Dr. Varner, the secretary to the curriculum
committee, was required to get a written statement
from O'Neill, and she sent the appropriate forms
to him a week or so later.
While McMurray taught in Romance languages,
O'Neill's department, he was a graduate student in
Niess', comparative literature. So O'Neill decided h?
should get Niess' advice on the curriculum com-
O'Neill says the note he got from Niess is "no
longer in existence" and he doesn't recall exactly
what Niess wrote. Niess says he, too, doesn't recall
the details, but he now cites these reasons for
opposing McMurray's move to Pilot:
--McMurray's large number of incompletes;
-His lack of training in the course he wanted
to teach, revolutionary thought;
--His teaching a course which was not run by or
under the control of the department whose name
Niess said it carried.
LSA curriculum committee, specifically Assistant
Dean James Shaw. It was Shaw who told Dr. Varner
to stop processing the course after he saw O'Neill's
During the summer, when O'Neill's letter was
received, the curriculum committee was no longer
holding regular sessions. Shaw, Dr. Varner, and
Dean William Hays handled matters for the com-
There was a subsidiary issue - a faculty spon-
sor is required for all teaching fellows teaching Pilot
courses. Prof. William Cressey agreed to sponsor
McMurray's course even though he would be in
Hawaii this semester. Shaw says this fact did not
help McMurray's case, but adds that O'Neill's com-
ments alone were sufficient reason for halting pro-
As Dr. Varner notes, the meaning of the letter
was very clear. "On the basis of the letter, there
was no need to talk to O'Neill," she says.
BUT THE importance of Niess in providing in-
formation to O'Neill cannot be underestimated.
O'Neill made it very clear in his letter to Varner
and Storey that the source of his comments were
Niess' own statements.
"Mr. Niess is skeptical, as am I, about Mr. Mc-
Murray's preparation and ability to teach such a
course, or to teach it objectively . . . his (McMur-
ray's) record as a graduate student, although cur-
rently clear, has been delinquent all along, and
THE MOST hardhitting challenge Niess made,
however, was to McMurray's academic record.
"He has an excellent record," Neiss explains, "but
how much' were the grades affected by his incom-
pletes? They are not equitable; they don't let students
compete on equal terms. Anyone can get an A in a
course if he has enough time."
One critic of that view is the chairman himself.
O'Neill termed Niess' statements "ridiculous."
"Incompletes are quite common in the depart-
ment," O'Neill says. He adds that "no one pays at-
tention" to the one-year time limit the department
places on finishing incompletes.
"Many people have incompletes," explains Jan
Michelena, a Residential College instructor. "They
are left alone until a person presents a problem,
such as spending too much time on teaching rather
than being a graduate student."
Niess and O'Neill agree that students who take
incompletes are taking chances because the depart-
ment frowns on graduates getting too involved in
extra -curriculur pursuits-including teaching.
Most professors confirm the belief that graduate
students are students first and teachers second. But
professors add that this does not constitute a
At least the incompletes should not have been a
problem in McMurray's case. For McMurray did pre-
cisely what his supervisors demanded - he finished
all his outstanding incompletes.
Unquestionably, McMurray proved himself a com-
ham. h .
The debate over the language
requirement was resolved last
year with the institution of a
Bachelor of General Studies de-
gree, which has no language re-
quirements at all. At the same
time, within one language de-
partment, a parallel and equally
profound struggle began - one
over requirements imposed by
the faculty bureaucracy on a
teaching fellow named Dave Mc-
Murray, The implications of this
struggle are manifold and of cru-
cial interest to the community;
the resolution of it remains far
Whatever Niess wrote, O'Neill did take it into
account. His rely to the curriculum committee did
not arrive until late July or early August, but it
sealed McMurray's, and the course's, fate,
"I think you should not assume McMurray's
involvement as of this date at all," O'Neill wrote,,
although noting he had earlier agreed "purely from
the point of view of his teaching," that McMurray's
teaching the course was acceptable.
An official response from the curriculum com-
mittee came quickly. "In view of Prof. O'Neill's
comments," Dr. Varner wrote to Bruce Storey, di-
rector of the Pilot Program, "I do not believe that
we should proceed to process Pilot 122."
Pilot 122 had been listed as a regular offering
earlier and had, in fact, been the first Pilot course
fille rhirinL, nron1A-irAonn .S h,,pnfQnmhn vaar
O'Neill did harm to both in a quiet, official, admin-
The charges Niess cited for refusing to approve
Pilot 122 were insubstantial, McMurray added.
McMurray's perceptions of what happened after
the appearance of his article are substantiated by
Prof. Yudin, who served on the Romance Languages
department executive committee last year,
Although Dr. Yudin feels the article was riddled
with factual errors, she explains it was "accurate in
the sense of capturing the feeling of the department
that could be called unhealthy." Frthermore, she
feels the entire affair "was a case of overreaction on
the part of one member of the faculty to Mc-
"It was unnecessary in its long range conse-
quences for a good teacher and graduate student,"
NEEDLFS TO SAY, Niess and O'Neill deny the
"We learned over backwards not to punish him
for The Daily article," O'Neill argues. "He was treat-
ed with extraordinary charity, generosity, and len-
iency. I've done a lot of unreasonable things, but,
in this case, I have dealt with the utmost perspica-
But O'Neill will not deny that The Daily piece
had a great deal to do w i t h McMurray's fate
"There is an absolutely indissoluble connection be-
tween The Daily letter and the department's opinion
of McMurray. It was the question of his good sense
-or lack of it-and his professional responsibility."
When the guest editorial was published, O'Neill
continues, McMurray "had written himself out of
The treatment of McMurray, the chairman adds,
could halve been worse. "He could have been fired
right away," O'Neill says. "We didn't choose to
make him a martyr."
In response to such counter charges, McMurray
has only one reply: "If the article was wronghead-
ed, inaccurate, untimely, etc., it and I should have
been attacked openly, publicly, and with logic. That
none of the parties concerned choose to do so,
I think, demonstrates that what I wrote was a
good deal more than the half-baked ramblings of
WHATCONCLUSIONS can be drawn?
McMurray was not fired-although apparently
only the threat of martyrdom saved him then.
Was McMurray justified in feeling that depart-
ment members wanted him to leave?
There is strong indication that he was.
Prof. Frances Weber suggests McMurray would
have been wiser to stay here and fight his case.
But that is a considerable demand. McMurray felt
helpless and threatened #by the powers-that-be in
Besides, McMurray did not have any support at
the time. The only warm response to his Daily
article came from a professor in the education
school. Few language faculty seemed to know or
care what happened to the teaching fellow. Neither
David Wolfe, who spent the year in Spain, nor
Frances Weber, who remained in Ann Arbor, heard
very much about the fate of McMurray.
That he was leaving, they knew. That he felt
he had been harrassed and barred from the Pilot
Program was not known. What happened to Mc-
Murray was handled solely by Niess and O'Neill and
no one else.
And this fact opens serious question about the
decision-making proces in the department.
But there ar° others-outside the department
structure - at fault. One is Assistant Dean James
Shaw. The careless bureaucratic inertia that re-
sulted in the cancelling of McMurray's course may
be common, as O'Neill suggests, but that does not
Shaw acted under th? same lack of knowledge
that the rest of the department suffered. Shaw did
not know, although it seems he should have, that
Niess conducted so careless a "check" of Mc-
Murray's credentials for teaching a course in re-
does not augur well for this kind of additional
activity." O'Neill wrote.
Niess' two major reasons for his opposition to
the Pilot course--McMurray had no proof that he
was competent to teach revolutionary thought and he
was a poor student because he had taken five in-
completes in two years-are both open to serious
"I had no indication from McMurray's academic
record that he was qualified to teach a course in
revolutionary thought." Niess explains. "Formal
preparation is normally required." And Niess con-
tends his "assessment was done objectively, off
But when asked if he had made any inquiries
to determine whether McMurrav might have some
petent student. No one, including Niess and O'Neill
have any complaints against his classwork.
And besides being an excellent student, McMur-
ray was an appreciated teacher. Neither faculty
members nor any of McMurray's former students
"I didn't want to have anything to do with Span-
ish," says Mike Lovy, '71. "With anybody else the
class would have been intolerable. I would say that
everyone in the class respected him."
"I thought he was a very competent teacher,,"
says P'of. David Wolfe. who supervises the elemen-
tary Spanish program. "I'm sorry he's not here to
teach because he was an excellent teacher."
IN LIGHT OF these comments, it is difficult to un-