The 1969 Black Student Union Walkout

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African American students leaving the OSU campus through its west gate, February 25, 1969.

[Ed Note: We recently received a collection of photographs documenting an important moment in the history of Oregon State University – a walkout of African American students led by OSU’s Black Student Union in winter 1969. While this is largely an OSU story, Linus Pauling did play a role in the event, which we’ll explore this week and next.]

The racial tensions that escalated throughout the 1960s and that made an imprint on universities all across the United States were evident on the campus of Oregon State University as well. In a description that accompanied a photo collection recently accessioned by the OSU Libraries Special Collections and Archives Research Center, photographer Gwil Evans, who was a Journalism professor at OSU at the time, provided some background on event that served as a pivot point for race relations at Oregon State near the end of the 1960s.

In his notes, Evans explained that, on February 25, 1969, members of the OSU Black Student Union interrupted a convocation hosted by President James Jensen at OSU’s Gill Coliseum. The convocation, which was part of a series of events marking the university’s centenary, was to feature a speech by Linus Pauling, Oregon State’s most prominent alum.

The immediate cause of the interruption and subsequent protest was a demand issued by OSU’s football coach, Dee Andros, that one of his players, and African American student athlete named Fred Milton, shave his facial hair. This conflict arose in the context of a longer history of racial tensions on campus, as well as concurrent protests related to tuition hikes and the escalation of the Vietnam War.

There was also an uneasiness associated with the talk itself, both with respect to Pauling’s presence on campus as well as the way in which he was introduced to the large crowd that assembled for his lecture.  These issues dated back many years, stemming from a schism that had developed between Pauling and Oregon State in 1949, due to Pauling’s belief that Ralph Spitzer – a former graduate student of Pauling’s who was fired from his faculty position at Oregon State College – was let go due to his political beliefs.

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Ralph Spitzer.

Pauling had known Spitzer since serving as a Visiting Lecturer at Spitzer’s undergraduate alma mater, Cornell University, in 1937.  Spitzer then went on to complete his Ph.D at Caltech in 1941 under the general supervision of Pauling, and sometimes working directly for Pauling.  The two shared a strong mutual respect and often closed their letters with questions asking after wives, children, and general well-being.  Pauling ultimately helped Spitzer to secure research funding and a teaching position at Oregon State College by providing his pupil with a series of consistently glowing recommendations.

Once they had arrived in Corvallis, Spitzer and his wife Terry became increasingly interested in American social problems as well as a multitude of issues related to the atomic bomb.  This concern in matters well beyond the teaching of chemistry, coupled with Ralph and Terry’s lack of hesitation in voicing their opinions, ultimately resulted in Spitzer’s firing by OSU President August Strand in February 1949.

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Ralph and Terry Spitzer, April 1949.

A letter that Spitzer had published in Chemical and Engineering News supporting Trofim Lysenko’s evolutionary theory of vernalization and, more broadly, Soviet science, provided a useful excuse for the OSC administration to deny renewal of his contract.  Although this was, on a technical level, an acceptable action for the president to take, since Spitzer was not tenured and he was not fired for explicitly political reasons, word of the incident quickly spread across campus and the region.

One of Spitzer’s immediate responses upon being informed of his impending dismissal was to write to Pauling seeking his help.  He also asked for a trial before the American Chemical Society (ACS), which refused to become involved in the incident despite the fact that Pauling himself was president at the time.

Nonetheless, after studying the details of the situation, Pauling wrote to President Strand and informed him that, although he did not hold the same beliefs as Spitzer, he believed his former student was certainly entitled to harbor opinions of this sort, and that OSC needed to honor them as a matter of academic freedom and respect for the principles of democracy.  Speaking as an OSC alumnus, fellow chemist, educator, American, and president of the ACS, Pauling urged Strand to reconsider his decision to fire Spitzer.

Strand responded to Pauling forcefully, writing that

if by this action, Oregon State College has lost your respect and support, all I can say is that your price is too high.  We’ll have to get along without your aid.

And so it was that Pauling did not engage with his alma mater until December 1966, five years after Strand had retired from his post

Though the ice between Pauling and OSU had been broken a couple years prior, the situation remained awkward as he arrived on campus for the centenary lecture series. Of particular note, Strand’s successor as OSU President, James Jensen, elected not to introduce Pauling. Instead, Bert Christensen, who was chair of the OSU Chemistry department, was asked to fill this role. This decision was far from customary for a visitor of Pauling’s magnitude and was viewed by many as an affront.

Pauling himself made note of being surprised upon learning of this breach in normal protocol.  He was far more surprised when Christiansen’s introduction was abruptly interrupted by the president of the Black Student Union, the details of which we’ll explore next week.

Spitzer: The Aftermath

Ralph Spitzer.

[Part 3 of 3]

Following the dismissal of both Ralph Spitzer and L. R. La Vallee, one newspaper described Oregon State College as “a battle ground” for the heavily debated topic of academic freedom. The newspaper explained that in the minds of many people, any alliance with the party of Henry Wallace was synonymous with being a communist.

Meanwhile, OSC President August Strand’s vague rationale for having dismissed Spitzer and Strand continued in his address to the college’s Faculty Committee.  In this talk, dated February 23, 1949, Strand hinted through his word choice that the duo’s discharge was politically based.

Specifically, Strand said that Spitzer’s dismissal was not motivated by his Progressive Party membership, but rather because he had followed the Communist party line through his support of an untenable scientific thesis, the Lysenko theory of genetics, which de-emphasizes the role that genetics plays in heredity and, in simple terms, suggests that environmental factors are more prone to shaping individual characteristics. While Lysenko’s work was focused mainly on agriculture, the Soviet apparatus used his thinking to forward the notion that life in a socialist state might cleanse the proletariat of certain bourgeois tendencies.

In his speech Strand also touched on the question of academic freedom, while at the same time asking a question of his own: “how about freedom from party line compulsion?”

The Oregon State College Daily Barometer, February 24, 1949.

Strand’s evidence for his assault on Spitzer’s alleged Lysenkoism was a letter published by Spitzer in Chemical and Engineering News in response to an H. J. Muller editorial claiming that science was being destroyed in the Soviet Union. Strand felt that the letter demonstrated Spitzer’s support for Lysenko, in deference to what he must have known to be scientific truth.

For his part, Spitzer found it ridiculous that he was being labeled a communist just for arguing on behalf of a Soviet scientific theory. He also felt that Strand’s statement proved that his dismissal was based on political grounds and was a clear infringement of academic freedom.

In a one-page typewritten statement, Spitzer made his case:

I did not support Lysenko in my letter; in any case, it is absurd to reason that agreement with a Soviet scientific theory is evidence of adherence to a party line….I did not stir up controversy, but rather commented on an editorial on Soviet genetics. The editorial was by a chemist, in a chemical journal, and was discussed by two other chemists in the same issue.


On February 28, 1949, five days after the President’s address, Linus Pauling wrote a letter to  Strand, stating that he was “greatly disturbed” by the failure to continue the appointment of Dr.  Spitzer. Pauling wrote not only as a friend of Spitzer’s, but as a graduate of OSC, as president of the American Chemical Society (which declined to intervene in the case) and as a man involved in the educational system. Pauling also felt that it was his duty as an American citizen to take an active interest in politics and that Spitzer had a similar right and duty. Pauling concluded by urging Strand to reconsider his actions.

Pauling received a response from Strand on March 4, stating that the letter written by Spitzer in Chemical and Engineering News “showed beyond question that he was devoted to Communist party policy regardless of evident truth.” Strand continued, “How far need we go in the name of academic freedom? How stupid need we be and just how much impudence do we have to stand for to please the pundits of dialectical materialism?” Strand concluded by stating

If by this action, Oregon State College has lost your respect and support, all I can say is that your price is too high.  We’ll have to get along without your aid.

Pauling’s letter, as well as Strand’s stern response, were both published in the OSC newspaper, The Daily Barometer, and later reprinted in Chemical and Engineering News, but no direct action was taken.

Author Suzanne Clark, in her book Cold Warriors: Manliness on Trial in the Rhetoric of the West, wrote of what followed.

Spitzer defended himself vigorously, if with a degree of innocence about the growing power of those who would finally be enlisted to anticommunism. He pointed out that cases such as his own served to damage academic freedom in hundreds of invisible ways as faculty members learned to be afraid. Spitzer immediately turned to the AAUP on campus, which declared itself without jurisdiction, and asked the Appeals Committee of the OSC Faculty Council to investigate. He made four points: the head of the chemistry department was not consulted; the acting head had no complaints about his work; he had been promised a leave for a fellowship; and he had been promoted to associate professor.

But Spitzer’s attempts to save his job did not bear fruit. In a report on the Spitzer and La Vallee cases issued by the Faculty Committee on Reviews and Appeals, it was revealed that the desirability of reappointing Dr. Spitzer or of granting him a leave of absence during 1949-1950 had been questioned the previous October. Likewise, the decision not to tender reappointment was a culmination of various consultations on departmental, school, and institutional levels extending over the preceding several months, none of which officially pertained to political party affiliation. The committee concluded that President Strand acted entirely within his administrative rights and in the discharge of his official duties in the decision not to renew the appointments of the dismissed junior faculty members.

The final decision raised awareness among students at OSC, prompting editorials to be published in The Daily Barometer, urging students to get involved and understand the implications that such an action had on them. One student wrote,

It means that compliance to ‘accepted’ political thought is required of our college professors. It means that any person who disagrees with either Democratic or Republican party platforms is not a fit person to teach in this institution. It means that Dr. Einstein wouldn’t be allowed to teach our physics department since he has been active in supporting the Progressive Party. For the same reason, Dr. Linus Pauling, OSC graduate and present head of the American Chemical Society, would be considered unfit to teach here.

The conflict also led to national-level stories, including one written by John L. Childs in The Nation, titled “Communists and the Right to Teach.” Among other details, the article noted that a recent National Commission on Educational Reconstruction meeting had determined that “membership in the Communist Party is not compatible with service in the educational institutions of the United States.”

Spitzer and La Vallee both made one final return to OSC on May 26, 1949 to speak about “Your Stake in Academic Freedom.” The event was publicized on campus as “the story the Barometer didn’t print.”


The debate over academic freedom raged on well into the 1950s and ’60s, and life after OSC for Ralph and Terry Spitzer was a bit of a challenge. Spitzer applied widely for academic jobs across the country, applications which invariably were met for an explanation as to the reasons for his departure from Corvallis.  Oftentimes these institutions also consulted with Strand, who only offered negative words on Spitzer.

Unemployment and passport controversies plagued Spitzer until he was eventually hired in 1951 by the University of Kansas City as a chemistry professor.  He and Terry later moved to Canada, where Ralph obtained an M.D.  The couple eventually settled in British Columbia where Ralph enjoyed a long career in medical research.

Ralph and Terry Spitzer, ca. 1970s.

For Pauling the Spitzer incident was a bitter pill and one that did damage to his relationship with his alma mater.  In a letter written to an OSC colleague in April 1959, Pauling summed up his feelings at the time

I wish that I could accept your invitation to me to participate in the symposium that you are planning, but I have decided, a number of years ago, that I would not return to the Oregon State College so long as the last word that I had from President Strand was his statement, published in the Barometer, that Oregon State would get along without me in the future.

And so it was that Pauling made no official visit to his undergraduate campus from 1937 to December 1966, when he returned to deliver an address on “Science and the Future of Man.” Pauling’s talk was delivered some five years after the retirement of August Strand from the presidency of what was, by then, known as Oregon State University.

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.

The Story of Ralph Spitzer

Ralph Spitzer, 1948.

[Part 1 of 3]

Described by Linus Pauling as an “unusually able man,” Ralph Spitzer was a chemistry professor at Oregon State College (predecessor to Oregon State University) from 1946 – 1949. Spitzer met Pauling in 1937, when he was a senior undergraduate student at Cornell University, where Pauling was teaching at the time as a Visiting Lecturer. Pauling remembered Spitzer as being one of the few undergraduate students who showed much enthusiasm for his George Fisher Baker Lectures – which dealt principally with structural chemistry – and was impressed by the vast body of knowledge that Spitzer had accumulated at such a young age.

Spitzer was born on February 9, 1918, in New York City.  From boyhood his interests revolved around chemistry, physics and math. He entered Cornell in 1934, worked there in a qualitative analysis lab and was accepted into Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi, both widely respected academic honor societies. Spitzer graduated from Cornell in 1938 and moved on to graduate studies at Caltech, where he earned his Ph. D. in physical chemistry in 1941, studying heats of combustion and electron diffraction. As a doctoral candidate, Spitzer worked under Pauling’s immediate supervision for parts of his stay and under his general supervision for the duration.

The documentary evidence suggests that Pauling thought very highly of Spitzer, with whom he was often in contact regarding possible job and research opportunities. In one letter to the Fellowship Board in Oxford, Pauling wrote, “His work is characterized by unusually good common sense and insight.” Spitzer and Pauling also often ended their letters to one other by asking about their wives, children and overall well-being, an indication that their bond was founded on more than just science and employment prospects.

A glowing recommendation for Ralph Spitzer written by Linus Pauling, January 1946.

The correspondence between Spitzer and Pauling starts in July 1942, with a letter from Spitzer to Pauling regarding Spitzer’s unhappiness in Hampton, Virginia and his eagerness to work elsewhere.  Spitzer was especially interested to know if Pauling was aware of any availablities in California because he was not a fan of the East Coast weather. Oblivious to Spitzer’s climactic concerns, Pauling suggested that he work in a lab in Pittsburgh or look into a position at the Metallurgy Department of the University of Chicago.  Spitzer ended up accepting a job at the Oceanographic Institution in Wood’s Hole, Massachusetts.

In November 1944, Spitzer asked Pauling to sponsor his application for a National Research Fellowship, to be taken up when his war duties were over, to investigate, alongside Dr. Kenneth Pitzer at Berkley, the structure of cyclopentane by the measurement of gaseous heat capacities. Pauling was pleased to write in support of Spitzer, as he could recommend him highly as a result of their time spent together at Caltech.

Buoyed by Pauling’s recommendation, Spitzer received a letter from the National Research Council offering him a Fellowship for the year 1945-1946. He would be working at the University of California under the supervision of Professor Pitzer.

In the exchange that followed receipt of this news, Spitzer and Pauling deviated from their usual discussions of jobs and research opportunities and began addressing topics of politics and social responsibility.  In due course, Spitzer expressed his opinions on the atomic bomb in great detail, stating that the only solution, “that will not lead to a catastrophic armament race is to internationalize knowledge on atomic energy and demand, as a price for our sharing our knowledge, free access to laboratories and factories all over the world.”

In its midst, Spitzer apologized to Pauling for his political rant, noting that it was uncommon for him, but nonetheless continued, “Apparently the only one in public life who doesn’t feel that the Americans have a monopoly on brains in this matter and can come out on top in an argument race is Henry Wallace.” Spitzer concluded his letter by encouraging Pauling to get involved, pleading for younger and more vigorous men to take the lead if the matter was to be resolved anytime soon.  Pauling agreed completely about the overwhelming importance of the atomic bomb matter and opined that the only way to avoid an atomic war was through formation of a democratic world government.

Months later, the end of his fellowship in sight, Spitzer began showing interest in acquiring an academic job, telling Pauling to keep his name in mind if he happened to hear of anything. Coincidentally, Pauling soon received a letter from Oregon State College’s School of Science, asking for any ideas that he might have about individuals suitable to fill the position of Assistant Professor of Physical Chemistry.  OSC was particularly interested to know Pauling’s opinion of two specific men:  Spitzer and Cooley.

Pauling reacts to news of Spitzer's employment at Oregon State College.

Pauling wasn’t so keen on Dr. Cooley but described Ralph Spitzer as “a first-rate man.”  In due course, Spitzer was offered and accepted the job at OSC, thanking Pauling shortly thereafter for helping him to get the job. He began work in Corvallis on September 16, 1946, devoted full time to chemistry instruction, including elementary and advanced physical chemistry, as well as chemical engineering. He also taught advanced classes in chemical theory for graduate students.

Spitzer was pleased with the size of his new school, the small town and the quality of education.  In turn, Pauling was happy to have helped out a friend and was pleased to know that Ralph was enjoying his time in Oregon, alongside his wife Terry, who was an undergraduate student at the college. In the months that followed, Pauling continued to encourage Spitzer to do research at OSC, as he felt there were many great opportunities that lie ahead in his future at the school.  Little did either of them know that the situation would soon take a turn for the worse.