The Test by Walter Adams

18 November 2005
Categories: From the armchair

coverA memoir of his nine-month tenure as president of Michigan State University in 1969, this book by Professor Walter Adams lies at a perfect crossroads of several of my interests. I’m a graduate of that pioneer land grant institution, with a deep-seated interest in MSU history. I have studied the antiestablishment movement of that era. Plus as a former member of the Spartan Marching Band, I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Adams. He was, after all, the Number One Band Fan.

Sadly, the closest I ever got to taking a class from him was hearing his commencement address when I graduated in December, 1991. This book is certainly no Econ. 444, but it is a terrific glimpse into Adams’ general disposition: it is, like him, witty and self-effacing, yet deeply insightful. It leads me to believe that, despite his being “encumbered neither by administrative expertise nor experience,” his deep and broad understanding of the university’s role in society, and his genuine love for MSU, its students and faculty, made him a more-than-able administrator. I might even go so far as to argue a point to which Adams himself would have undoubtedly taken offense: that the three greatest presidents of the university were Abbot, Hannah, and Adams.

Theophilus Capen Abbot (1826–1892) presided for twenty-two years during the very early era when the State Agricultural College was still taking its first, tentative steps. He worked hard to make sure the school maintained its focus on scientific agriculture—even when that science was more theory than praxis. He successfully defended the school against forces in the legislature and the general public that wanted the Agricultural College dissolved and reestablished as a department of the University of Michigan.

John Alfred Hannah (1902–1991) was a former chicken farmer and poultry specialist who, almost single-handedly, transformed the school from a little cow college (MSC) to a world-class megaversity (MSU). During his twenty-eight-year reign—and this is the proper term for his office, as he held virtually all the power—enrollment increased from 6,000 to nearly 40,000; the Basic College, among other forward-thinking programs, was established; a massive campus building program was undertaken; and a branch campus was formed, which later gained its independence as Oakland University.

Upon Hannah’s departure, the university faced a difficult juncture. The Board of Trustees, composed of elected officials from across the state, had been pushed to the periphery by the Hannah administration, and the board wanted to reestablish its power base where it belonged, at the top of the pyramid. They were reluctant to maintain the status quo by selecting one of Hannah’s hand-picked successors. In addition, the days of the king-makers, of the trustees choosing a new president in a cloistered setting beyond outside influence—which arguably was how Hannah, the son-in-law of the previous president, had gained the throne—had gone the way of the small-time cow college. After twenty-eight years, not only was the selection process obsolete, but no one had a clear idea of what it had been, or what it should be.

And of course, it was 1969, a time of nationwide unrest, and student protest and uprising. This was a factor that the trustees, and their choice of president, could not safely ignore.

To buy time, the trustees asked Distinguished Economics Professor Walter Adams to serve as interim president. Dr. Adams had been a member of the faculty for twenty-two years. His senior-level undergraduate economics class was widely regarded as one of the most difficult—and most rewarding—courses available at MSU. His stance on the inadvisability of “bigness” in corporations and government, combined with a consummate teacher’s ability to convey complex ideas in accessible terms, made him a frequent expert witness at Congressional budget hearings. But as an administrator, he had effectively zero experience.

Nevertheless, Adams accepted the job, with the understanding that his term would be truly interim and would not extend beyond the end of the year, by which time the selection process would be complete. A self-professed pragmatist and optimist, Adams took up the presidential mantle using, as he put it, a combination of intuition and insight. (One must add “intelligence” to this list.) His watchwords became “openness, honesty, and accessibility.”

Adams’ opening chapters of The Test describe some of the broad subgroups with which he had to deal. They were “the white radicals,” “the black militants,” “the moderate majority,” and “the outside agitators.” The first three are some of the typical factions found on nearly every university campus in the late-’60s. But Adams’ method, of directly engaging these groups in dialogue, paying attention to understand their grievances (and often finding that all they really wanted was a listening ear), was far from typical. He treated them all, even the most antagonistic agitators, as friends and colleagues.

Perhaps ironically, it was his experience as a soldier in World War II, serving with distinction to earn the Bronze Star and a battlefield commission as lieutenant, that informed Adams’ tactics in resolving confrontations peacefully. One of his colleagues, also a veteran, chastized him for walking straight into the fray of a protest against police recruiters at the Placement Bureau, saying “it’s O.K. to sacrifice a second lieutenant in a fire fight, but you never take a chance on the general falling into enemy hands.” The thing is, as a professor Adams saw himself as one of the rank-and-file faculty, in effect a second lieutenant—and that attitude allowed him to think on his feet, with flexibility, in the midst of tense and fluid situations.

The results—open dialogue and a sense that the university was receptive to change, rather than (self) destructive student protest and the inevitable hardline establishment response—make me wish that this book had been available to the governors of Ohio and Mississippi in the year that followed Adams’ tenure.

A chapter titled “The Outside Agitators” could easily lead one to think of radical infiltrators, such as SDS members from other campuses, coming to MSU to cause trouble (like those rumoured to have burned down the ROTC building at Kent State in May 1970). Not so. To Adams, the outside agitators were other members of the establishment: the press, the state legislature, the Nixon administration. Even alumni, whom one would have thought had the best interests of the school at heart, were a “potential source of divisiveness and polarization.” One by one, he shut down their negative rhetoric.

He invited press representatives to the president’s box at an MSU football game, after which they attended a cocktail mixer at the president’s manse where the other guests were members of the student government and leaders of “white radical” and “black militant” student organizations. The social setting (and free-flowing spirits) led to frank, friendly discussions that opened the lines of communication, after which “no newspaper represented at the gathering printed a student-baiting editorial” during his tenure, nor for some time afterward. Coverage of student protests and disruptions continued as before, but now the press understood the issues with greater depth and were able to editorialize without resorting to a simplistic viewpoint and divisive tone.

When a state senator, in the wake of a racial incident at one of the school’s cafeterias, introduced a bill that mainly served to fuel the polemics (and improve his own political visibility), the MSU student government wrote a rebuttal for proclamation on the senate floor. The open letter espoused both improvements in racial equality on campus and the fact that the incident had been swiftly dealt with by the students themselves in a way that satisfied all parties (in part due to Adams having prompted, once again, an open discussion between the factions). A large group of student leaders announced their intention to attend the senate session where the rebuttal would be introduced, and the Senate President-pro-tem, fearing a riot, asked Adams to attend the session. This he did, although he believed his presence was not much of a factor in the students’ behaviour. Justifying his trust in them, the students acted as model citizens as they filled the senate gallery and listened attentively to the entire session. (After it was over, the battalion of state police that had been standing by in the basement of the Capitol—in full riot gear and armed to the teeth—was quietly dismissed without incident.)

In October 1969, campus activists organized a Vietnam Moratorium Day that wound up being a peaceful, focussed protest—thanks in large part to Adams’ involvement. Despite being expressly forbidden to do so by President Nixon, Michigan Governor William G. Milliken (a Republican) attended the on-campus activities, stating clearly—without ever taking the microphone to speak—his opposition to the violent, polemical rhetoric of Vice-President Spiro Agnew and others in the Nixon government. The gathering attracted the full gamut of students (the radicals and the moderate majority), faculty, and even an octogenarian East Lansing resident who, just by being there and showing that she cared, became something of a heroine to the students during the march to the Capitol. President Adams, of course, led the way.

Taking the opportunity of a bully pulpit provided by this memoir, Adams goes on to discuss his attitude toward what a university’s goals and place should be in modern society. With the indisputable dialectic of a master economist he rails against the dilution of a university’s intellectual capital by acceptance of government grants for outside work; among other arguments he shares a particularly interesting tale of MSU contracting to conduct police training in post-colonial, pre-war Vietnam—and its involvement, not unwittingly, with the CIA. He wrote, some thirty-five years ago, that the land grant philosophy pioneered by MSU, holding at its core a mandate to provide higher education to the “industrial classes,” i.e. education for the people and not solely for the elite, was as relevant and important in 1969 as it was in 1869. And it remains a vital goal of the American land-grant university to this day.

A tangent about another legacy of Walter Adams. Beyond his prowess as economics professor, and his tenure as university president, Adams was widely known for his unwavering support of MSU sports teams. Many have told the tales of his vitriolic attacks on Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight (and their subsequent friendship). Fellow econ prof “Lash” Larrowe mentions in his introduction to The Test that Adams once so antagonized a visiting baseball coach that the coach had to be restrained by campus police so that he couldn’t charge into the stands, red-faced and fists clenched, to silence Adams.

It wasn’t so much that he was vocal, although he was, but that he knew a team’s (and a coach’s) weaknesses and would play off of them. For example, he would find the slowest, or shortest, player on a basketball team and loudly suggest to the coach to put that player in on offense. In The Test, in his typical way of being both understated and perfectly accurate, Adams uses this adjective to describe his fandom: “assiduous”—as in “marked by careful unremitting attention or persistent application.” Indeed.

His wife Pauline, professor emerita of American thought and language, recently gave a speech in which she contended that one of the most momentous changes in MSU history was when home basketball games moved from Jenison Fieldhouse to the Breslin Center, because Walt’s season tickets were moved from seats directly behind the visitors’ bench to about the tenth row. This distance, of course, made his needling much less audible and effective.

In fact, nowadays the NCAA has a rule that schools must “reserve or protect the seating or spectator areas immediately behind the visiting team bench for fans of the visiting team, whenever possible.” Rumor has it that Adams might have been a direct cause of this rule. I like to think of this as the “Walter Adams Buffer Zone.”

In conclusion, I found The Test by Walter Adams to be a very fun, interesting read. His shrewd views of the roles of the American university, and its president, are universal and still timely today, and his humour is infectious. He could be an irascible curmudgeon when teaching undergrads—or taunting opponents—but it was his genuine love for his students that drove Adams to teach, and made him such a great president. As professor, he had maybe a few hundred students each term that he considered his “children.” As president, that family numbered 40,000—and he treated each one he met, even in the briefest moment, with love, care, and individual kindness.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.