Dr. Henry B. Thomas’ Lasting Lecture

Spring 2011

Two Oaths and The Future of UNF

I came to UNF at a historic moment. My colleague and friend Adam Herbert had just been named the first African American President of an SUS University other than HBCU Florida A&M University. All three UNF Presidents with whom I have served - Herbert, Hopkins and Delaney were or should have been my academic department. Indeed Hebert and Hopkins were members of my department. In that regard, I am certain that I am the only faculty member in the history of UNF who can say he was department chair to two UNF Presidents. Beyond this, it is clear that if John Delaney had been assigned an academic unit it would have been Political Science & Public Administration. It was my good fortune to be in the right place at the right time to have the ear of each of my Presidents.  I thank each of them for being true friends. Additionally, I could not have asked for better departmental colleagues. They provided support, encouragement and good temper in good times and bad. We are a much larger group today than we once were but all have been the very best of colleagues - many, many thanks to all. During my seven years as chair, Magdeline was my right hand. I thank her for putting up with me.  


Very much has changed since I arrived; indeed often, the only constant is change. The changes we have seen in just the decade are staggering. Today returning students do not recognize the university. For example, my years as department chair started in building 11 – a building that many of you never heard of. It was in the area that is now part of the green nearest to the library. We also have had so many new buildings built in the last decade. As a campus and as a university our breath, shape and scope have grown enormously. The economic and social environment in which we operate has also changed - the mapping of the human genome, the many challenges of increasing complexity to our environment, the return to boom/bust economic cyclical patterns and the cracking of the very foundations of our economic systems in the last recession. All of these changes raise complicated moral and ethical questions about our relationships to each other and to the world that we all share.

At UNF the education we provide seeks the depth and breadth of human knowledge and ranges from the classics in history and literature to the workings of modern government; from the rules of mathematics and logic to the basic laws of physics and biology; from world languages to international affairs. And this is precisely the type of education that our complex, interconnected world requires. In its depth and breadth, a liberal education fosters wisdom, respect, and humility, which grow when we begin to measure ourselves against the most accomplished of our ancestors about whom we teach and learned.

Many of these changes have implications for tolerance and civility. Universities seek to respond thoughtfully and deliberately to the world around us, to practice what we preach, or as students would say, to walk the talk we articulate. UNF enjoys a well-deserved reputation for tolerance, civility, and welcoming.  Of course from time to time, despite our best efforts for openness and civility, acts that embarrass do take place. Our city embarrassed itself in its treatment of Dr. Parvez Ahmad last year. Our President and our colleagues spoke in a single voice and in the end; The City of Jacksonville came to her senses. Of course, we must not confuse individual acts of denigration with the massive state-sponsored programs of racism and discrimination of the past. To do so would trivialize the past and marginalize its lessons. But we ignore at our peril the history, the symbolism, and the attitudes that express themselves in individual acts of intolerance in our time. This is why I am so very proud of my work on the Commission on Diversity and Inclusion.  We seek to make our community a safe and civil environment for all.  It is a core value of the University.  


We will best succeed by creating a conversation among people who are different from each other, precisely because that is how we learn and think best. In the 21st century, our students, faculty and staff increasingly will work with persons from different countries, different religions, and different intellectual frameworks. Those who are most likely to succeed will be those best able to regard the diversity of human experience not as a challenge, but as a catalyst for their most inspired work, their most creative innovations, and their most important friendships. Indeed the closest friendship I had at UNF was with Dr. Terry Bowen.  Terry could not have had an upbringing, and history of experiences more different than my own.  So I am proud of UNF’s long tradition of mutual respect and tolerance; and have sought to further it in every way I could.

In ancient Athens there were two important oaths. The first was the Ephebic Oath sworn by young men of Athens upon induction into the Ephebic College, graduation from which was required to attain the status of citizen.  The oath pledges to leave the city stronger than when you found it. The Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University has the Oath in the foyer of the school. It reads:

We will ever strive for the ideals and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many; We will unceasingly seek to quicken the sense of public duty; We will revere and obey the city’s laws; We will transmit this city not only / not less,/  but greater, better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.

The second ancient Athenian oath was the Hippocratic Oath. This oath is taken by doctors swearing to practice medicine ethically.  The oath is considered a rite of passage for practitioners of the art. For me, as interesting as the focus on ethical practices is the first phase of the oath that speaks of teachers. The oath reads:

I swear by Apollo the healer, and all the gods, all the goddesses, to keep according to my ability and my judgment, the following Oath and agreement: To consider dear to me, as my parents, him who taught me this art; to live in common with him and, if necessary, to share my goods with him; To look upon his children as my own brothers, to teach them this art.

These two oaths – the first to tax ourselves to leave the city better and the second to tax ourselves to honor the teacher and to support him and his family - stand in sharp contrast to the politics of our day.  With the current attacks on tenure and unionism, I believe that we now face the most assertive attack on intellectuals, and academics since the Sen. McCarthy in the 1950s. Then there were many anti-Communist committees, panels, and "loyalty review boards."   Between 1949 and 1954, Congress carried out a total of 109 investigations. 


At the state level, in Florida, the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee (also known as the Johns Committee) was established by the Florida Legislature to undertake a wide-ranging investigation of academics, civil rights groups, suspected communists and homosexuals. "Johns Committee" sought to discover any communist, any "godless" faculty member, any homosexuals in Florida's universities.

Formed in 1956 in the wake of the Tallahassee Bus Boycott, the Johns Committee was given the mandate to seek out people whose conduct would be "... inimical to the well being and orderly pursuit of their personal and business activities by the majority of the citizens of this state."
The Johns Committee was formed in response, and primarily to attack civil rights groups such as the NAACP. The Committee filed several amicus briefs on behalf of Alabama Attorney General John Patterson, who was attempting to force the NAACP to release their membership list to him. When the Supreme Court finally ruled against the state of Alabama, the Committee turned its attention to higher education.

From 1959 to 1964, the Johns Committee used the legislature's power of the purse / to attack universities. There were only four public universities in Florida at the time – University of Florida, Florida State University, Florida A&M University and University of South Florida. Professors and students were often pulled out of class by uniformed officers, interrogated for hours about any Communist sympathies, homosexual tendencies, and in general "Un-American" agendas they may have had.  A number of professors quit in protest, while others resigned under duress. Finally, in an impassioned speech before the Florida Senate, University of South Florida president John Allen laid out the case for academic freedom with the immortal words

A college is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas.

Today the attacks on the university are based on killing tenure and unionism. The attacks are based on the need for flexibility and efficiency in responding to market forces, a desire to cut costs, and a desire to get the state out of the education business with charter schools and I predict, coming charter universities. Why the twin attacks? Why attack both tenure and unionism. BECAUSE THEY PROVIDE THE ONLY SECURITY, THE ONLY INDEPEDENCE AND THE ONLY LEGAL PROTECTION THAT THE FACULTY HAS.  Today tenure is all but gone in K-12. A bill was introduced last week to end tenure in the community colleges and the new 4-year state colleges but I understand that that bill is now stalling out. Rep. Proctor, former President of Flagler College said that he would kill he bill, “unless he got instructions to run it.” We may regard that as good news but if I predict that if we don’t get such a bill this year we will get it next. The political agenda has not changed. 

In fall 2009 the U.S. Education Department published a report titled "Employees in Postsecondary Institutions." The proportion of college instructors who are tenured or on the tenure track dropped from 57 percent in 1975 to 31 percent in 2007.  Many of our colleagues do not realize that tenure, a defining feature of U.S. higher education throughout the 20th century, has shrunk so drastically. Some observers say that college faculties are being filled with people who may be less willing to speak their minds precisely because they are contingent, short-term, at will contractual employees. Indeed, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) says instructors need tenure to guarantee that they can say controversial things inside and outside the classroom without being fired. We need unions for the same reason.

The AAUP has for years argued for the necessity of tenure. Cary Nelson, president of the association, said that in the absent of tenure, faculty members are guarded in what they say to the president or the trustees, or to politicians. What's disappearing along with unions and tenure is the ability of professors to play a strong role in running their universities and to object if they think officials are making bad decisions. "One of the jobs of tenured faculty is to raise a lot of questions and make people uncomfortable," says Martin J. Finkelstein, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University.  The role of strong unions is similar and that is why we find the twin attacks on unionism and tenure. 


 It happened because of budget shortfalls and administrators' interest in gaining flexibility.  I believe that vanishing unions and tenure are bad for students as well as teachers. A couple of dozen studies over the last decade have shown that as the proportion of professors off the tenure track rises, the proportion of students who return to college the following year and eventually graduate declines. 

We ought not fool ourselves.  These are financial decisions.  As Frank J. Donohue, an associate professor of English at Ohio State University says, "Once a university opens the door to staffing courses with adjuncts, they save so much money it's almost unthinkable for them to stop." The other fiscal factor is the public’s unwillingness to sacrifice or to tax themselves as required by the Athenian oaths of old.  Indeed in that sense, taxation is the cost of civilization.   


I am very pleased to say that UNF is very stronger today than when I arrived.  But I worry about the future.  We must return to the oaths of old. We must be willing to sacrifice and tax ourselves to leave our cities and our universities stronger than we found them. We must be willing to sacrifice and tax ourselves to honor and support our teachers.  


If we fail these oaths of old, it shall be our undoing.