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

16.The Death of G-D

A Committee on Development, Evolutionary Biology and Genetics (CODEBAG) took over the governance of one of the partitions of the dissolved Zoology Department and planned the future development of a unit referred to as the Provisional Department of Genetics and Development.  Ed Brown, a Drosophila geneticist, served as the head of the provisional department, pending its formal approval.  Ed was a gifted teacher of genetics and a capable administrator who kept the unit functioning smoothly.  However, Brown’s dedication to teaching and administration kept him from active involvement in research, and prevented his elevation to a full professorship in an institution that was increasingly emphasizing research, grantsmanship and national visibility. He himself may have felt at something of a disadvantage as the unit’s representative on the Executive Committee of SOLS. When the G&D department was approved, it was perhaps the most heterogeneous of the departments of SOLS.  It was also a competitor with the other departments for resources, particularly funds for recruiting new faculty members.  The internal dynamics involved particularly the evolving dialectic of evolution and development – what was soon to emerge as the Evo-Devo synthesis.

The department requested and obtained from Dean Robert Rogers permission to institute a national search for a distinguished scientist willing to take over the administrative responsibilities, to guide the search for an additional 2-3 faculty members and to establish a distinctive disciplinary profile. The position was widely advertised and attracted a number of applicants. These were scheduled for visits in the spring of 1984. The most promising candidate from my perspective was Walter Fitch, then at the University of Wisconsin.  Fitch was an expert on molecular phylogeny, having coauthored with Margoliash a classic paper on turning linear nucleic or amino acid sequences into branching trees.  Personal circumstances had apparently rendered Fitch mobile.  He clearly was at the Evo end of the Evo-Devo axis, but he represented a gap in the department’s expertise that some of us thought needed to be filled.

Unfortunately, I was not on campus in the spring of 1984.  I had been awarded a Humboldt Senior Fellowship to be a guest at Muenster, Westphalia, in Germany, where I arrived in January.  I left Urbana with the belief that any uncertainties about the future of the department were resolved.  In August, however, I learned otherwise.  I received a letter addressed to all the G&D faculty members from the newly appointed Director of SOLS, one Sam Kaplan, formerly head of the Microbiology Department. Kaplan had taken over from the retiring Joe Larsen. In the letter, Kaplan announced that the G&D Department’s national search for a head had failed. The reason for the failure was the inability of the faculty members to work together. The possibility of establishing a reputable and distinguished department on this foundation could no longer be entertained.

The G&D faculty members were informed that the department would be dissolved.  Individual staff members should separately seek employment elsewhere.  Some might find refuge in other SOLS departments if they were invited to do so, but they could not go in groups to any existing department.  Staff with no department affiliation would be assigned to the School of Life Sciences and would be supervised by the Director of SOLS.

I have little personal knowledge of what happened in SOLS in 1984.  I was off the scene for one thing, and was personally preoccupied with other matters.  My wife Jean had medical problems that led to a hysterectomy with complications.  Peritonitis was followed by major surgery and weeks of hospitalization in German hospitals. We considered ourselves lucky to be able to return to Urbana in January for an extended convalescence.

I have pieced together some understanding of the circumstances surrounding the demise of G&D, though I have little documentary support.  I was told by colleagues that Walter Fitch had indeed indicated when he came for a visit and lecture that he would be happy to accept an appointment as head of G&D and that he had favorable impressions of administrative support for the department.  Problems arose, however, as in the case of Joe Keyes earlier. When Fitch returned for a campus visit to look for housing he received a cold shoulder in the office of Dean Rogers.  I do not know which expectations about appointment perks were frustrated, but Fitch bitterly withdrew his preliminary acceptance of the headship.

I didn’t meet Walter Fitch until a couple of years later, and I have never had a discussion with him of events at the GD Corral.  I did. However, gain some insight into the factors involved.  I was invited to give one of the “Friday Night Seminars” at the Woods Hole Biological Station and was attending a cocktail hour before my lecture.  Someone pointed out to me the person of Walter Fitch, who was teaching a course in molecular phylogeny that summer.  I sought him out, introduced myself to him as David Nanney, and expressed my disappointment in his failure to come to Illinois.  He looked at me in disbelief, and said “You are not David Nanney.  I met David Nanney when I visited Urbana, and you aren’t he (or him?)”.  Suddenly cocktail hour was over and I had to go give a lecture on ciliate evolution.  I had no opportunity to see him after the lecture, and have never seen him since.

I learned in Germany to watch television and make up stories to fit the pictures and the occasional German phrases I understood.  The story I make up here is that Fitch confused me with David Stocum – the only other David in the G&D department. Dave Stocum was a student of salamander regeneration and had done some neat experiments in analyzing limb morphogenetics.  I was aware that he was uncomfortable with the choice of a molecular systematist – at the other end of the Evo-Devo axis – to be head of the G&D Department.  I suspect that Dave wasn’t very friendly to Walter Fitch when he visited, and that Fitch caught only his first name, and associated Dave with the opposition.  When Fitch came back to Urbana to confirm his appointment the atmosphere had changed, and he read the signs – like me - and came to a conclusion.  The “Dave Faction” had conspired after Fitch left to undo the appointment.  I have never had the opportunity to discuss this matter with Dave Stocum because later that year Dave accepted a position as Dean of the Medical School in Indianapolis.  Obviously I have no documentary evidence for my interpretation, but it makes sense to me.  I suspect that Sam Kaplan used Dave Stocum’s disapproval of Walter Fitch to subvert Fitch’s appointment and to damn the G&D department, making way for a more congenial department.

Subsequently SOLS announced the establishment of a new SOLS department, as a replacement for the G&D Department.  It was to be designated as the Department of Cell and Structural Biology, and was to incorporate no faculty members from the G&D Department.  Rick Horowitz was brought in to head the new unit and to begin searching for additional staff.

It should perhaps be apparent that the decision to terminate the G&D department was abrupt and unexpected and strangely unlike the usual slow pace of academic reconstruction. Indeed a couple of years later the UI academic senate had the execution of G&D called to its attention, and instigated an inquiry.  The senate’s conclusion was that the entire episode was conducted without regard to the statutes of the university and was clearly unlawful. Sam Kaplan was reprimanded, because that was the only penalty possible under the statutes, but the reprimand came too late to undo the actions.  The reprimand may have helped undercut Kaplan’s reputation.  He failed the prescribed 5-year review of his administration when it came up.  He resigned his professorship in Microbiology and assumed an administrative post with the American Society of Microbiology. (Since writing the first draft of this essay I have heard from several sources some extraordinary accounts of Kaplan’s unilateral actions and of the brave but ineffective attempts of individuals and of various academic organizations and labor unions to oppose these clearly improper exercises of authority. Nothing came of the protests, however.  As one administrator told me, “No penalties are prescribed in the University statutes”.)