Ralph Spitzer: The Firing

Ralph Spitzer receiving a certificate from the United States Navy, 1948.

[Part 2 of 3]

During Ralph Spitzer’s time as a professor at Oregon State College, he became increasingly interested in social problems, particularly concerning the atomic bomb.  In a letter, Spitzer informed his mentor Linus Pauling that ever since early September 1945, when Dr. George Kistiakowsky spoke to a group at Wood’s Hole about the atomic bomb, he had been devoting larger portions of his time and thought to social concerns.

Spitzer realized that his efforts were limited due to his lack of knowledge about international affairs and he began to think of ways in which he could make a bigger impact in order to “preserve peace and civilization.” One outgrowth of this was a visit to Reed College that may have been partly responsible for the formation of the Portland Association of Scientists.  Spitzer also planned to apply for a fellowship abroad in which he could study economics and philosophy, as well as physical chemistry.

The 1948 presidential election was likewise beginning to play a large role in Spitzer’s life as he became an active supporter of Henry Wallace. In Spitzer’s view, “a whopping big vote for Wallace, whether he wins or not, would serve notice that our bipartisan foreign policy of preparing to win the next war was not what the American people wanted.” It was at this point that Spitzer asked Pauling to nominate him for the overseas fellowship, expressing his hope that he would be back home in time to participate in the presidential campaign.

Pauling recommended Spitzer as “nearly an ideal man for such a job, combining as he does a sound understanding of the physical sciences and a keen interest in social sciences. He is just the sort of man that we must interest in the social sciences.” In Pauling’s estimation, Spitzer’s work was “characterized by unusually good common sense and insight.”

Unfortunately for Spitzer’s ambitions, August Strand, the President of Oregon State College at the time, disagreed.

Ralph and Terry Spitzer, April 1949.

On February 8, 1949, Strand called Ralph Spitzer and his wife Terry, an undergraduate, into his office. The purpose of this summons was to inform Spitzer that his contract would not be renewed because “he had become much more interested in ‘other matters’ than he was in teaching chemistry.” Ralph Spitzer, thirty years old at the time, was told that there was no question of his ability and that he was not delinquent in his duties to the chemistry department.

Terry’s presence was necessary because Strand was also there to tell her that the Progressive Party group on campus, of which Terry was a member, would have to cancel their scheduled meeting on account of Strand’s disapproval of their guest speaker. The question had also been raised as to whether or not Terry, an outspoken activist and education student at OSC who influenced her husband’s views on progressive politics, was a greater threat to the campus than was Spitzer himself.

Within a few days, the story of Spitzer’s firing spread across campus and appeared in many regional newspapers. For its part, the OSC Appeals Committee fully supported Strand in his decision due to the fact that Spitzer was an Associate Professor and had not yet earned tenure. It was within the legal right of the President to refuse to renew Spitzer’s contract without any reasons given, just so long as political activity was not specifically identified as the cause for firing.

Spitzer promptly wrote to Pauling, detailing his experience of being called into Strand’s office. In his letter he emphasized that he was assured that there was no question of competency involved, and that he was not being delinquent in his duties to the chemistry department. Spitzer continued by encouraging Pauling to get involved, writing

I think if we can smash these attacks on academic freedom and out their democratic rights in the next few years, we can fight off fascism permanently. I am sure you are working hard on this problem and hope that it is possible for you to lend a little assistance.

Pauling responded that he was shocked to learn that Spitzer’s contract would not be renewed and added that he would do everything that he could to get to the bottom of the matter and to assist Spitzer. He also requested more information before writing to President Strand, making sure that he had the details of the incident clear. He would later write to Strand in Spitzer’s defense, specifying that he did not agree completely with Spitzer on questions relating to politics, but that he did support him in his right to hold his beliefs.

Oregon State College President August Strand, 1947.

Within days of the firing, stories were published with headlines reading, “Strand Lashes at Commie Professors” and “Dismissed Educators Just ‘Not Wanted,’ Says OSC Head.” In the first headline, “professors” refers to Spitzer and to an Assistant Professor of economics, Dr. L. R. La Vallee, who was also not given a reason for non-renewal of his contract, but was reassured that his academic work had been satisfactory.

So why did the President of Oregon State College essentially fire Ralph Spitzer and L. R. La Vallee? Initially Strand indicated that he did have reasons for the dismissal but that he would not make them public. “I don’t have to give them a statement,” Strand said, “because that is precisely what they want.”

As we will see however, a speech by Strand, editorials debating the issue and letters pouring into the President’s office prolonged the discussion, eventually revealing the motivations underlying August Strand’s actions.

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