Nanney Autobiographic Essays
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Tilting at Windmills - Educational Misadventures in the Big Ten (Draft 02-10-06)
David L. Nanney

2. A Michigan Initiation

As a young faculty member at the University of Michigan back in 1951 I was frustrated by the way my closest scientific associates were scattered across the campus. I had difficulty implementing a new basic curriculum that ignored the prevailing taxonomic restrictions and that focused on the levels of biological organization.  I proposed a sequence of basic courses designated as The Cell, The Organism and The Population.  My allies in reform were scattered, however. My closest genetics associate at Michigan, for example, was Erich Steiner in the Botany Department. The molecular biologist closest to my interests was Cy Levinthal in the Physics Department; the specialists in population biology and evolution were concentrated in the Museum of Zoology - a separate academic unit with limited teaching functions. The relevant experts with bacteria and viruses were in the Bacteriology Department, which was located on the Medical School Campus, along with the Departments of Biochemistry and Human Genetics.

Our attempt in Zoology at Michigan to employ a microbial geneticist to help teach modern genetics was frustrated by an exercise of territorial imperative.  When a request to institute a search for a viral geneticist was circulated, the Dean of the Medical School notified the Dean of Liberal Arts that he would not permit the appointment of a viral or bacterial geneticist in the College of Liberal Arts. And the Dean of the Medical School spoke with unchallenged authority. He generously offered to send someone from the Medical School staff to our campus to give a few lectures on biochemistry or bacteriology.  These disciplines, however, were out of bounds for employment in other departments.

Dugald E.S. Brown, the physiologist who as Zoology head was trying to develop a modern research and teaching department, was heard to mutter “A first rate Biology Department can’t develop in the same institution with a Medical School.” Curricular development, like staff broadening, was painfully slow in any case. Brown found himself with two fundamentally different faculty factions.  The “old guard” consisted primarily of people who were trained in the 20s, persisted through the Depression and the War, and were looking forward to retirement.  The “young turks” had a totally different life style and perspective on the world.  The older staff still referred to each other as “Mr. Eggleton” and “Mr. Shull”, got haircuts regularly, and served fruit juice at social events.  The younger staff members dressed differently, socialized with a different style, and used a different language – designedly offensive at times to the old guys.  Brown managed this chasm with an exasperating, but eventually successful tactic.  He set up a series of departmental committees – on undergraduate curriculum, on graduate admissions, on seminar programs, on departmental facilities, etc., and completely scrambled the personnel every year – just when the committee members had become acquainted with the problems, and with a set of their colleagues. After five years the young guys had exercised their inalienable right to “tell it how it was where I came from”, and the old guys realized that the young ones weren’t stupid – just ignorant.

Brown’s scrambling united the Zoology department into a coherent educational unit, but transforming the university was a bigger challenge. Several different departments were responsible for educational programs involving biology, and all had to approve any changes in possibly overlapping course offerings; changes had to be approved by all interested departments and colleges, and even by the University Senate, which consisted of all tenure-line faculty.  The departmental and college faculties were suspicious of curricular change, and were organized with overlapping committees of serious intent who deliberated endlessly over territorial prerogatives and educational practices.  I enjoyed the rhetorical flourishes of some of the old academic lions of the senate, who often entertained each other with florid rhetoric. I still remember, for example, one eloquent proclamation by an English professor to the effect that “if the technical colleges can not live up to the educational standards in the liberal arts, they must be cut loose to live up to their own levels of enlightenment”.  But significant changes in the biological curriculum weren’t happening.

Just a few years later, after I had left Michigan, I came to realize that the packaging of biology for undergraduate consumption was not a local problem, and that Michigan’s rigidity was far from unique. I was going to an international conference on Lake Como in Italy, when I realized that teaching undergraduates in the midst of exploding knowledge was an international challenge.  I was being driven from Milan across the mountains while being entertained by a histrionic Professor Magni – who was complaining with Latin fervor about the inertia in Italian universities.  All Italian universities taught the same biology courses. All new courses had to be approved by the national senate in Rome.  Every senator had an ancient academic advisor – an emeritus professor - who was paid a salary as consultant about course changes and degree requirements in the universities.  The Italian government had just approved a new course in biology – to be added in all Italian universities simultaneously.  The year was 1961, and the first new biology course to be added in some 25 years was Genetics.  Students in one university were suing the instructors of a biology course for departing from the approved syllabus; the instructor had discussed phenomena that had not been mentioned in the assigned texts. Italian professors were frantically seeking employment in other institutions more amenable to change. The University of Michigan was not as sluggish in response to new knowledge as the universities of Italy, but I had grown impatient with the struggle in Ann Arbor.

Curricular options were not the only source of departmental ferment in the 50s.  One day my closest associate in the Zoology department asked if I would go with him to Lansing, Michigan in a couple of days – where he would appear before the House UnAmerican activities Committee, presided over by Representative Kit Clardy.  To my developing amazement, Clem Markert described his background as a political activist.  He had grown up in Colorado where his father had lost his job when the mines closed during the depression. Clem went to college on a scholarship because he couldn’t find a job, and became engaged in attempts to restore the economy for the poor.  He had organized a communist cell on the campus of the University of Colorado, and volunteered to take time out from his education to serve, eventually as an officer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, in the Spanish Civil War. During World War II, he was a civilian worker and served as the communist party spokesman in the San Diego dock area, before being allowed to join the merchant marines as a radio operator and to serve in the Pacific theater.  After the war, he retired from politics, completed his education at Johns Hopkins and Cal Tech before taking a teaching job in Ann Arbor.  He lived with his wife and two children in the bucolic setting of a former commune called the Saline Valley Farms, and kept a low profile on campus.  His research was focused on new technology in cellular and developmental biology, particularly combining electrophoresis and cytochemistry for the characterization of isozymes.  He was a high profile biologist, but his story frightened his older colleagues and panicked Harlan Hatcher, the University President. Markert refused to discuss his career with the House investigators, but freely told his story to any interested campus groups.  In characteristic Michigan fashion, hearings on the Markert case were held in the department, in the college, and at various other administrative levels, in proceedings that crept on from month to month.

The other two faculty members charged at the same time by the Clardy committee were quickly dismissed, but Markert was kept dangling by the response from the national biological community.  A group of young zoologists wrote letters to colleagues and asked for letters of support, to be sent to President Harlan Hatcher.  A carbon copy of George Beadle’s letter came to me: “At the request of Zoology Assistant Professor David Nanney, I am writing to give my assessment of the scientific credentials of Clement L. Markert.  I am not writing as Head of Biology at Cal Tech, nor as President of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, but as a scientific coworker.”  Clem passed the multiple jeopardy of sequential committees, any of which could have terminated his employment.  But he did not pass the promotions committee in the polarized department, which should have given him tenure.