All Powers Project logo
Verbatim transcript of President Gerberding's speech (from notes)at ceremony honoring Harry Bridges, 1/28/94

I'm here for this part of the program -- I would have been here anyway for the other part -- basically because I received a beautiful and wrenchingly sad letter from Jean Gundlach, who spoke to me in that letter about her experiences and, more particularly, the experience of her brother, Ralph Gundlach, who had been a professor [here]. I'm sure most of you know Jean. She was for many years secretary to Harry Bridges. Her brother was a member of this faculty, and he, along with two other members of the faculty, was discharged from this university and essentially had his academic career if not destroyed, then seriously warped and wounded by that highly regrettable act.

Those were terrible days. We look back on those days with shame. They were disgraceful. I was old enough -- I graduated from college in 1951 -- to understand what it meant sort of in the abstract; students weren't much threatened, though the climate within which we operated was certainly constrained, though we didn't know it, and we took brave positions against McCarthyism, but it was easy for us. It wasn't easy, and it destroyed the lives of many people who stood up to it, [for those] who had something really at stake.

McCarthyism is a term that is loosely used, and those of us who know what McCarthyism is don't like that. There were real victims of McCarthyism -- real, breathing human beings who were upended and mercilessly pursued and to hear McCarthyism invoked almost at a drop of a hat, as it was again recently by a nominee for Secretary of Defense who withdrew charging the press with McCarthyism, one wonders whether that individual understands at all what McCarthyism was and is. To be under attack by the press is not fun; I've had a few of those [experiences] myself. But it's not McCarthyism. McCarthyism runs a lot deeper than that. It has to do with allegations of an absence of patriotism. It's a term that should not be trivialized, but of course you know all this. And my task today is basically simpler.

My task is to state clearly and unequivocably that the University of Washington was wrong to dismiss Ralph Gundlach and the other two, and to have brought in to disrepute, or to have participated in the bringing in to disrepute of the other three who were involved -- there were six, three of whom were removed. This was a dark day in our history, and we must make sure that it doesn't happen again. "Make sure" may be too strong of a phrase; there's nothing that anybody can "make sure" in history. We must do what we can to ensure that it doesn't happen again.

I am not a specialist on that case; I know a little about it. But one interesting dimension of it is that there was a tenure committee that was supposed to be responsible for decisions of this gravity on this campus, and that tenure committee voted not to dismiss five of the six. It gets very complicated; we won't get into those details. But that tenure committee was overruled by the University administration. In a sense those of us who are administrators in the University -- almost all of us were once faculty members and then we lost our good judgement and became administrators -- those of us who are administrators in universities live in some considerable degree with institutional memories of that sort. The built-in concern on the part of faculties on this and all other campuses around the country is understandable if one remembers what some administrations did when put to the test.

Could it happen again? I don't think so. I think that there is sufficient understanding in the broader society and within the academy that this is not a proper way to conduct oneself in a democracy. I think also that there are independent courts to whom appeal could be made that would stand up to another wave of such madness. But of course one can't be sure, and as I said before, the price is eternal vigilance.

Universities are part of the broader society and I can tell you from first hand experience that administrations come under a lot of pressure from a lot of sources. Now the kind of pressure that I've had to put up with -- and it's a daily business -- is small change compared to what the administration of this and other universities had to deal with in the late '40s and early '50s. But nonetheless I have some vague sense of what it's like to have a legislative body harassing you, to have newspapers, to have a broader political arena that is rife with fear and a desire to intimidate. But there is a line that no self-respecting institution of higher education can allow itself to cross. And there is no question that that line was crossed here in the late 1940s.

As I say, I don't wish to be judgemental or pious about this. I don't know what I would have done had I been there -- at this age, not at the age I was then. Presidents are under some considerable pressure. But whatever the ex post facto justifications or explanations may be, the basic, simple truth is that what happened to those professors, and of course what happened in a different way but so consistently and so often and so disgracefully to Harry Bridges... what happened was an outrage. It was a disgrace. It was, in the dictionary sense not in the perverted sense, un-American.

It's remarkable how free this University is today -- how civilized. Indeed there are times when I think we're altogether too free and civilized, but I get over that sentiment within a few minutes, no matter what outrage has been perpetrated. But this is a very free and open institution. I can say that in 14-1/2 years here in this position, I have only rarely received letters or phone calls or personal representations that had any hint of suggestion that somebody wants to suppress somebody else's speech or, worse yet, deprive somebody in the University of his or her employment [on political grounds]. I have very rarely encountered that, and I have never encountered that from the political arena. Think how different that is and how lucky I am, and how grateful we should be to those who stood up and perservered in a time of trouble, and at great personal risk, and in many cases great personal cost, what that terrible era meant.

So we must keep it that way, and it's another reason -- our desire to keep it that way -- it's another reason why we are so proud at the University of Washington to have a Harry Bridges Chair in the Center for Labor Studies. In its own way it symbolizes many things, but it certainly symbolizes freedom and the determination to stand up to arbitrary authority. Thank you.

Back to Project page