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

4. A Young Man Goes West

My Michigan frustrations with curriculum development were interrupted by a sabbatical leave at Cal Tech.  My sabbatical had been deferred because my draft board back home in Oklahoma had informed me a year earlier that if I took the Fulbright Fellowship offered in Paris with Boris Ephrussi, it would prove that my “occupational deferment” from the draft was improper; medical advances had trumped my original 4F draft deferment, and I might be required for the Korean War.  Although I was not likely to be drafted, Jean and I had a new baby and I did not want to risk military service.  A year later that threat was much muted and I took a senior NRC Fellowship to work with Ray Owen at Cal Tech.

The choice of a junket to the west was not made entirely on scientific grounds.  Jean and I had both grown up in Oklahoma in the 1930s.  Most dust bowl Oklahomans viewed California as the Promised Land East of Eden.  When I proposed marriage to Jean Kelly, the question took the form “Would you be willing to go to California with me?”  Her response was “That seems the natural thing to do.”  When I decided instead to go to Michigan, I precipitated the first, indeed the only, major crisis in our relationship. Going to California in 1958 was a fulfillment of a deferred promise.

As we left for California, I was discouraged with the slow pace of educational change in Michigan. Not only had my course plans been thwarted, but also the professional colleagues who were sympathetic with my objectives were wandering away.  Cy Levinthal left the Physics Department for Columbia University. Clem Markert – after the nastiness with the Clardy House UnAmerican Activities Committee (and some local committees) - was denied an already delayed Associate Professorship – and tenure; he moved on from the Zoology Department at Michigan to that at Johns Hopkins and later moved to head Biology at Yale.  Allen Campbell and Harlyn Halvorson left the Medical School.  I was also becoming the recipient of job offers elsewhere, and I was beginning to look around. 

My friend Bill McKeachie in the Psychology Department at Michigan shook his head glumly when he heard I might be leaving for Illinois, “I suppose prestige isn’t everything.”  Indeed, Michigan considered itself  “the Harvard of the Midwest”, one of the earliest and most distinguished of the midwestern state universities. Perhaps Michigan’s pride of place did not resonate well with my humble academic foundation. Michigan’s programmatic inertia combined with its gray skies seemed too much for me at the time.

The situation at Illinois seemed especially attractive, perhaps in part because it was halfway to Oklahoma. The professional attraction came from the fact that the scattered departments of biology in the College of Liberal Arts at Illinois in Champaign-Urbana had just announced the establishment of a confederation within the College of Liberal Arts – The School of Life Sciences. This School combined the departments of Bacteriology, Botany, Entomology, Physiology and Zoology. I didn’t know much about Illinois, but I knew that several admired senior scientists such as Salvador Luria, Marcus Rhoades and Sol Spiegelman were there.  I was developing “escape velocity”, in the imagery of Dean Roger Heyns at Michigan.  What I didn’t discover until after I had made a commitment to go to Illinois was that both Luria and Rhoades were on sabbatical leave, and in fact, neither returned to Illinois.  Luria remained at MIT while Rhoades stayed at Indiana. Faculty mobility was scrambling and homogenizing the biology faculties across the country, and having significant effects on institutional loyalty.