University of California, Berkeley. Department of Bacteriology
Courtesy of George B. Spiegelman.
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Medical Subject Headings (MeSH):
RNA-DNA Hybridization in Viruses, 1955-1965
Letter from Roger Y. Stanier to Sol Spiegelman [27 February 1950]
I should have written before now, but my stomach heaves whenever I begin to think about what our faculty has done. I'll
condense the tale as best I can. All through the past months, the issue of the Regents' policy was carefully sidestepped
by the faculty, because it has always been obvious that the faculty would split on this. Of course the radical non-signers
realized clearly that the policy was the paramount issue, and that the oath was principally if not exclusively objectionable
because it constituted an implementation of that policy, but for tactical reasons they didn't want to clarify this. We
hoped, by trying to get rid of the oath without talking about the policy to avoid just what has now happened. Unfortunately,
the Regents were also aware of the relative significance of oath and policy, and a few hours before the last senate meeting
they suddenly brought overwhelming pressures (both direct and indirect) to bear on the faculty big-shots to get a statement
of support for the anti-communist policy. Accordingly, severa1 anticommunist resolutions were unexpectedly presented in the
senate, and the most influential members of the faculty rose one after another to urge favorable action as "the only way
to prevent destruction of the university". I think if the issue had been thrashed out in debate earlier, we'd have
made a more favorable showing; but the senate that day was in no mood to debate the policy on its merits (the "sign by
Apr. 30 or be fired" ultimatum was fresh in many minds) and opponents were actually shouted down on the floor. It was
one of the ugliest exhibitions of mass hysteria that I've ever seen. As you know, the Senate has now voted 4 to 1 to
support the anticommunist policy. Regent Meylan (Hearst's attorney) hailed it as an event of national importance, and
I agree. In effect we have opened the way for similar moves in every university in this country. The matter was summed up
with aphoristic terseness (if not elegance) by a philosopher: the faculty didn't want to be crapped on by the regents,
so they decided to crap on themselves.
The issue of the oath is still unsettled, and the big-shots who put over the policy are now mobilized for a mock-battle on
it; having given away the substance they are now apparently willing to fight to the last non-signer (conspicuously absent
from their ranks) to save the shadow. However, I fully expect the regents to rescind the oath or provide the suggested alternative
(a statement of their policy on the back, or anus, of the new contract forms). Actually I would now not object to signing
the oath, since there's nothing in it to which I can't personally subscribe. I'd have held off forever if I'd
thought that we could thereby defeat the introduction of a political test into the university, but now that the faculty has
approved of a discriminatory policy, I don't really see how they can object to any method, however silly or ineffective,
of implementing it.
For days after the senate meeting I felt bruised: it had a really profound effect on me. In the past I've always been
proud to be an intellectual because although I realized that as a social group we had many obvious weaknesses - we might be
hopelessly inefficient in the ordinary affairs of life, thoroughly at variance with the superficial moral tenets of our society,
even often physical cowards - I thought that we did at least possess the capacity to see a basic issue when it arose and hit
hard in such a situation. This, to me, was the social justification of the intellectuals in a culture, namely their ability
to function as guardians of its basic values, alongside of which their actual creative contributions were secondary, since
these contributions only had significance in relation to the whole structure of the culture. It's mortifying to have
been so grossly in error, and my esprit de classe (or intellectual snobbery, if you prefer it) is thoroughly crushed.
Speaking as an expert on oaths, it seems to me that everything beyond clause 1 in your state oath is redundant, but I don't
find anything basically objectionable in it. I enclose my letter from Sproul with oath attached for you to compare. I've
marked on the oath the extent of the State Oath, which the Regents incorporated as clause 1. Please return, as I want it
for a keepsake.
About my own future I'm profoundly undecided and confused. The battle with the regents is no longer important, and I
won't leave for that alone. This year I've at last assembled nearly all the equipment we need for research, and in
the summer we are getting the needed space for it upstairs, as a result of the transfer to naval quarters of Kruegers ONR
wet dream. However, we're still as far as ever from getting a microbiology curriculum, and I've come to feel that
this can never develop in the existing department, where the situation is already tense and wil1 become explosive on Mike's
return. This means that we can't train students decently. The inadequate training wouldn't matter if we were content
to tackle easy things, but I want now to explore the hard problems, and for this must do the experiments myself if were to
get on. Unfortunately I can see less and less chance for this. I'm an inefficient worker, and academic duties, though
certainly not overwhelming by ordinary standards, take about all the time I can give to work. To do any research myself on
the hard problems, I'd need one semester completely free of teaching to waste time productively thinking about things.
In view of all this, the sensible thing to do would be to leave, but I still can't bring myself to face it. I hate the
thought of exchanging the Bay area for a mess of cornfields, and in addition I'm very fond of Mike, who would be completely
stranded if I went. In other words, if there's the faintest chance of doing anything constructive at Cal, I want to stay.
This led me a couple of weeks ago to shove in an application to the Cancer Soc for a long-term fellowship, to be spent principally
working full time here on our program. I'd have to resign from the faculty if they gave it to me, but at least I could
stay for a while with what we've got. However, my application can be disqualified on many grounds and they probably won't
approve it. The only alternative here would be drastic concessions from the administration on the future development of microbiology,
with as a minimum the establishment of a small separate department (we could do wonders with a few good people). I hesitate
to play this gambit, however, since it would entail exposing the departmental conflicts and failure would leave me without
an exit. I can get pretty powerful support from such outside people as Barker and Mrak, but of course there would be bitter
opposition from Krueger et al. Before venturing, I'd like to have one or two impressive offers from elsewhere, and of
course the Lilly award would be manna from heaven. Would you be willing to make me a good offer, with the understanding that
I'd use it as a crowbar for getting microbiology established at Cal? If both these outs failed, I think I could take
the cornfields. It's obvious that you've got the best department in the country now, and the prospect of working
with you all would make up for a great deal. Treffers wants to look me over for Yale and while I'm not interested in
what they've got there I'm planning to go east next month for a mutual inspection and could stop off on the way back
to talk to you.
The above remarks probably reflect my confusion pretty accurately. There are so many conflicting issues that I haven't
been able to straighten it out for myself, and for this reason I hate to do anything decisive, although decisive action is
obviously called for. Science has taken a complete beating since November, so there's nothing to report on that front.