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UMass professor, Oswald Tippo; Academic feedom challenge

By derivation from the Latin, a university is where confusion is "turned into unity" or students "become whole." As a college teacher and administrator since 1937, Commonwealth Professor of Botany Oswald tippo has spent a lot of time thinking about the university's unifying role -- and being "horrified" with some of the thinking by fellow academicians.

Professor Tippo's laboratory/office overlooks lawns sweeping down to a pond and up to the imposing new 28-story library at the center of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the largest public university in New England. His shelves are packed not just with science books, but with countless studies on higher education.

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Yet this experienced educator who has had full tenure for more than 35 years at the University of Illinois, Yale, New York University, the University of Colorado, and now at the University of Massachusetts, faces " termination of your employment by the University." That threat comes not from the university administration or from protesting students. It comes from the university's Faculty Staff Union.

Professor Tippo is saddened by the fact that faculty members themselves are threatening the principle of academic freedom. Because of his objection to enforced unionization, other faculty members are trying to have him fired despite tenure. He recalls that tenure was only won after hard- fought classroom and courtroom battles over Darwinian evolution, which he still teaches in his courses despite fundamentalists' demands for" equal time."

Ten years ago, as chancellor of the Amherst campus, he faced a different threat to academic freedom. It was his job to apologize to Hubert H. Humphrey when student protestors made it impossible for the Vice- President to give a scheduled nationally broadcast speech at the university in 1969.

But even when others worried about student attacks, Professor Tippo was "astounded" by faculty attitudes. At that time of rapid growth for the university, he personally interviewed applicants for more than 100 faculty openings each year. He looked for "a diversity of views." Then he found that others did not agree. He found departments refusing to grant tenure to popular and qualified teachers. Members of one department told him flatly that "you have to all have the same stand or it doesn't work."

So he is saddened but not surprised to see a shift toward more ideological positions today among teachers, particularly in the UMass economics department where "we brought in a bunch of Marxist economists." He shakes his head and says softly, "I don't understand how as a professor you can take up a particular brand of ideology."

Remembering tenure battles at other universities where he has worked, he realizes there is no way to be sure why a particular teacher fails to gain tenure -- and recalls one case of a well-qualified scholar turned down because he put listeners to sleep during an interview. He cites other cases where professors who have secured tenure while they were on one side of the political spectrum have later switched to the opposite extreme -- ruling out any attempt to achieve "balance" through setting up a quota for left-wing or right-wing hiring.

Professor Tippo feels there is a natural obstacle to the faculty as a whole taking a left turn: "I personally think that faculty are usually very conservative, since they are homeowners, they have bank accounts, and temperamentally they are drawn to the right."

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He sees a definite role for teaching Marxism and even communism, adding with a grin that, "Of course, we have to teach communism, just as we teach cancer, but we don't have to advocate such things."

Besides teaching a course in university administration, the former chancellor has developed a botany course for nonscientists. He wrote a new textbook, "Humanistic Botany," for this popular course, specifically designed to respond to student interests.

His book has a section on marijuana, digging into the interesting history of governments encouraging the cultivation of the economically important hemp plant. Professor Tippo treats marijuana seriously because students want to know about it. But he say's "I would ot advocate it. It would be awful if you did even the slightest thing to encourage marijuana use."

The book and course also reflect on the students' intense interest in poisonous plants. "The students want to know because they have visions of living out in the wilds after the atomic bomb goes off."

But Professor Tippo states emphatically that he would not cater to student or faculty interest in promoting a Marxist or any other sort of "utopia."

With a perspective gained from 42 years of university teaching and administration, this humanistic botanist concludes: "Some extremists believe the role of the university is to change society. That would be all right if you knew which way we had to go."

Professor Tippo's answer is to give students enough information and skills so that they can make up their minds for themselves, based on a balanced, "university" perspective rather than on a particular ideology.


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