The recent flap at the University of Minnesota over the controversial film “Troubling Waters” points up the tenuous hold that academic freedom can have on a large public institution that finds itself buffeted by political winds while it is struggling to deal with ongoing budgetary pressures.
In the case of “Troubling Waters,” campus officials were criticized for their clumsy efforts to delay the release of a university-sponsored documentary film that examined water-quality issues along the Mississippi River. Advocates for the film maintained that it was being muffled because it portrayed ethanol production and industrial agriculture in a bad light.
Responding to some complaints about the validity of the scientific claims in the film, the university’s head of public relations initially canceled the film’s debut, claiming that she was doing so to protect the university’s reputation.
More than 50 years ago, U of M officials used the same defense to justify their handling of the sensitive issue of academic freedom at time when particularly harsh political winds were blowing through the campus during the McCarthy era.
That issue involved the case of Forrest Wiggins, a philosophy instructor who was the first African-American to receive an academic appointment at the university.
Solid record, recommendations
Wiggins had arrived in Minnesota in October 1946 with impressive academic credentials. They included an MA and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin and strong recommendations from his previous teaching positions.
The Minneapolis Star lauded Wiggins’ appointment, declaring that “without fanfare the University of Minnesota has pioneered a new step in education, opening up job opportunities for Negroes.”
The paper went on to report that Wiggins had already scored a “campus success,” that he was receiving invitations to speak at the campus organizations and that he’d become a Gopher football rooter, regularly attending all the home games.
The new philosophy department faculty member quickly settled into the routine of campus life, but his outspoken views, expressed in and out of the classroom, soon started to raise eyebrows in high places throughout the state. A committed leftist, Wiggins would serve as vice president of the Minnesota Progressive Party, which backed Henry Wallace for president in 1948.
Soon Wiggins was the target of anonymous charges that he was advocating Communism in the classroom, charges that drew the attention of legislators who were also pushing for a loyalty oath for university faculty members.
Surreptitiously, University President James Morrill authorized an investigation of Wiggins’ classroom reading list, but that investigation uncovered no clear-cut evidence that the philosophy instructor was slanting his classroom approach to conform to his personal views.
But now, Wiggins was going around the state, giving what some considered to be inflammatory speeches. In 1949, he told a Duluth civic group that “business was destructive of the public good.”
Morrill had to spend the next year fending off complaints from outraged regents and legislators, who believed that Wiggins was putting the university in a bad light.
At one point, in response to growing public criticism about the outspoken philosophy instructor, Morrill had to remind the Board of Regents that he could not merely fire Wiggins because of his leftist views, because that action would generate a storm of protests from the university faculty.
A different problem in Morrill’s lap
By 1951, Morrill was already contending with a tempest over another university faculty member, Joseph Weinberg, a physicist, who was accused of passing nuclear secrets to the Russians. The Weinberg affair was having repercussions at the state Capitol, where key legislators were calling publicly on the U of M to fire the physics department professor.
Before long, Morrill had to deal with the possibility that the legislative drums would start pounding for another firing, this time in the philosophy department.
Rep. Fay Child, who had led the legislative campaign against Weinberg, was now preparing to lead a similar crusade against Wiggins. But Child backed off when Morrill indicated that he could deal with this new problem quietly and without publicity. The university could merely refuse to reappoint Wiggins to his faculty position, citing poor scholarly performance, Morrill told Child.
While Morrill was attempting to tamp down the tempest at the Legislature, George Conger, the chairman of the philosophy department, was maneuvering to get the non-tenured Wiggins a temporary reprieve. Conger wanted to delay any decision about Wiggins’ status for one more year, during which time he would be retained as an instructor on a temporary basis. But the department chair failed to win the support of his immediate superior, E.W. McDiarmid, the dean of the College of Science Literature and Arts.
Backed by Morrill, McDiarmid ordered Conger to fire Wiggins. Conger, who was about to step down as department chair, complied. On Dec. 12, 1951, Wiggins was notified that his faculty position would not be extended.
Morrill had hoped for quiet departure
Morrill had hoped that the university would be able to deal with Wiggins quietly, but that was not to be the case. During the previous week, Morrill had announced that the contracts for 38 non-tenured instructors would not be extended at the end of the school year. But Morrill did not name the 38, saying that the university’s policy was not to release their names or to give the reasons for their termination. Almost immediately, Wiggins went to the press, declaring that he was one of the 38 and that he had been fired because he was accused of being a Communist and of embarrassing the university at the Legislature.
In its Dec. 13 issue, the Minneapolis Tribune highlighted the irate instructor’s charges on the front page of its local news section. Under a headline that read “Professor Charges U Dropped Him because of Red Views,” Wiggins said that he had been fired even though his chairman, George Conger, wanted to keep him in the philosophy department.
Conger backed up Wiggins, telling the Tribune that “the whole philosophy department is unanimous in recommending retention of Dr. Wiggins.”
By now, the outspoken philosophy instructor had become a cause célèbre, on and off campus. Several advocacy organizations, including the American Association of University Professors, investigated the university’s handling of the Wiggins dismissal, but that action remained in place.
Wiggins was forced to leave the state. He relocated to South Carolina, where he resumed his teaching career at a small African-American college there.
Eventually, the furor over Wiggins subsided, but not before the cause of academic freedom on campus had been seriously compromised.