The Subversion of Edward Kollmann?
By Erik Schmidt ’05
It would be tidy to say that Edward Kollmann was dismissed from Willamette’s faculty in 1952 for an obvious breach of policy or some amoral reorganization. Or even — given the political and historical context — because his views had ruffled the wrong feathers among elected officials somewhere. But that’s not really how it worked.
Kollmann’s demise came about amid swirling and complicated change, and, even now, the questions outnumber the answers. What is clear is that the gentle man from New York, who wielded only ideas, created a legacy in just four years that resembles some of the fondest in Willamette’s history. His teaching habits — requiring that his students examine their own minds before claiming to know what was beyond them — would put him right at home in Eaton Hall today. He demonstrated the applicability of philosophical thought, and students loved him for it.
Then, suddenly, he was asked to leave.
Kollmann’s story illuminates a period of social change at Willamette, the tensions of the Cold War and the risk in transferring convictions from the haven of the classroom to the world outside. As students today wrestle with their own agency in the world, his audacity makes him more continually relevant than he might have imagined.
"Doc" Kollmann was a student’s professor. Mustachioed and warm, he arrived in 1948 fresh from doctoral work at Harvard. Earlier, he had served with the Eighth Air Force in England during World War II. With help from Willamette President G. Herbert Smith, he rented a house on Nebraska Street for $65 per month and quietly assumed his position as chair of Willamette’s small philosophy department. In the classroom, he was tough without being overbearing; he was the kind of mentor who moved pupils to action by respecting their intellects and supposing that they owed it to themselves to do the same.
“He was a great thinker to be around,” says Joe Lambert ’50, who later made his own mark in philosophy and has a classroom in Eaton Hall named after him. “He didn’t give us all the answers so much as he helped us formulate our own opinions. He held some views — on Kant, for example — that were not the prevailing ones, but he explained them very convincingly.”
Ted Loder ’52 was a senior scholar for Kollmann, which meant that he corrected some student work and interacted especially closely with the professor. “Doc Kollmann was of a modest New York background, more urban, more diverse than Salem,” Loder says. “That all played out in who he was. He was humble, and he was not out to impress everyone with how much he knew.”
He was quirky, too. Lambert recalls that he and the other students decided that Kollmann owned exactly two identical sport coats and three pairs of the same pants, which he could interchange freely each day. The “sartorial eccentricity,” as Lambert put it, might have said something about Kollmann’s priorities; it at least made him easy to pick out of the crowd on campus.
It wasn’t long before Kollmann’s habits of mind were put to work out in the open. In 1951, President Smith ushered in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at Willamette, which connected the university to the Air Force and introduced a new military presence on campus. Attendance became mandatory for all freshman and sophomore males. The drain of the World War II years, when men went to serve the country and colleges’ enrollments fluctuated because of it, might have been in Smith’s mind; having an ROTC program on campus would help ensure that men could serve but still remain enrolled, participatory and revenue-generating. It was a common move.
The objection among Willamette students at the time approached from a distinctly philosophical angle. The most vocal group was the Student Christian Social Action Committee (SCSAC), whose members felt that militarizing campus went against Willamette’s Christian heritage and values. Materials supplied by the group to The Collegian quoted prominent Methodist officials: “War makes its appeal to force and hate, Christianity to reason and love … The methods of Jesus and the methods of war belong to different worlds.”
David Poindexter ’51 was a member of the SCSAC, and he recalls the events with interest today. “President Smith never really said he instituted ROTC for the economic benefits — it was to serve the nation. This was when the Korean police action was instituted and the draft was reenergized. We got a lot of press for our objections. I maintained a good relationship with President Smith, but at times I’m sure he was ready to strangle me.”
And so the debate began, but only tenuously. There was enough support on campus for ROTC to be implemented easily. The editorial board of The Collegian, in the same edition in which news of the SCSAC objections appeared, included a fonder note. A primary benefit of the program, the editors said, was that many male students who would be future “draft bait” would be able to complete college and serve the country at the same time. The article continued: “Willamette will not lose the spirit of freedom of thought that has characterized it for over 100 years.”
Poindexter studied under Kollmann at the time of the ROTC program’s genesis, and the normally quiet philosopher was one of few professors on campus who supported the protest and its intellectual foundations publicly. “We felt that we had morality on our side,” Poindexter says.
Conflict and Correspondence
There was a tone of austerity at Willamette in 1952. Culturally, Willamette was more hesitant than many universities to embrace the activism that began to simmer in the ’50s and boiled over in the ’60s. Its Methodism was an important and moderating influence, and the institution remained a predominantly white, conservative (in disposition, if not always politically) place to be. These norms were reinforced by President Smith, an ardent man, whose guiding hand was sure and effectual throughout his long tenure.
Fiscal austerity, too, was the order of the day. As the influx of male students who had resumed study after fighting in World War II declined, the university faced new financial challenges, particularly if it was to expand its curricular options and physical footprint as campus leaders knew was necessary. Internationalization, for example, was a popular topic on many campuses in the U.S., given the expiration of American isolationism and the already-discernible realities of the Cold War era. Early study abroad programs were taking root, and people were practicing Russian here and there. But while students at Willamette took in the rhetoric of change, the reality was more complicated.
In a memoir, Don Carpenter ’51 — who was one of Willamette’s Russian-speakers and went on to do volunteer work in Croatia and complete the official English translation of the Yugoslav constitution, among many other things — included a section labeled, simply, “Doc.” He writes: “Doc’s students were excited about being in his classes. According to rumor, some were excited enough to begin reexamining the assumptions and attitudes they had brought to Willamette. If this were in fact happening, one could imagine a growing level of discomfort at high levels in the university.”
And here comes the question of why. Granting that President Smith faced real financial challenges (that isn’t a stretch), why might Kollmann have been expendable? In a 1951 letter confirming the termination decision, Smith reiterates to Kollmann the “very difficult financial problems” that require “some adjustments in staff.”
But some people thought that there was something else going on. For it is almost inconceivable that Kollmann should have been dismissed on the basis of his performance or lack of demand in a newly energized department. Several other professors were let go at the same time, but the commonality among them, according to student accounts, seems to have been that they were those most likely to speak out against the administration generally and ROTC specifically.
On Nov. 9, 1952, The Collegian reported that Willamette students had circulated a petition expressing disapproval of Kollmann’s dismissal. It read, in part:
“We, the undersigned, feel that [Kollmann’s] dismissal is in the best interest of neither the university nor the students. For the last four years, he alone has developed the philosophy department to its present peak enrollment and has broadened and enriched the intellectual develoment of student on this campus...
“It is seldom that one finds a teacher with such...ability to get his material across to the student and to engender individual thinking.
“If the university is financially unable to sustain the existing departments, we feel that it would be less harmful to the university to cut down on the larger departments ...”
There were at least 19 pages of signatures attached. Varying accounts suggest that the petition was eventually signed by 400 students or more — this when total undergraduate enrollment at Willamette was just 902.
“Kollmann’s impending dismissal vexed me,” says Stan Aschenbrenner ’52, student body president at the time and another senior scholar under Kollmann. “I went to G. Herb’s office to talk with him about the great disappointment so many of us felt about laying off a professor who meant so much. His response was that the university was in a period of fiscal difficulty, which made it necessary to retrench.”
Another student sent a telling letter to Smith. “Each person must ultimately determine his or her own life,” it said. “A professor can, however, eliminate some of the false ways of thought common to young people, and he can also serve as an example of the value of the Christian way of life.
“It was not until I attended Dr. Kollmann’s lectures … that my lack of faith was shaken. In [his] course, Dr. Kollmann eliminated my agnosticism with not one, but three arguments which I could not answer. I thereby came to realize the inescapable necessity of religion in my life.”
The writer invoked communism, too. “I can not only reject the whole of the [c]ommunist doctrine without any doubt of mind, but I know, in addition, that I can demonstrate it to be a false doctrine. These values that I have acquired from Dr. Kollmann are, I believe, among the most fundamental values which Willamette University wishes to give to its students.”
The talk of Christianity and communism could very well have been preemptive against charges of ideological impropriety. McCarthy’s reach extended to Oregon. But this sort of testimony, while possibly strategic, was also honest. Several of Kollmann’s closest pupils became ministers.
Tensions All the Time
Despite efforts against it, Kollmann left Willamette. He moved with his family back East and went on to teach for decades at Virginia’s Hampton University (then called the Hampton Institute) where he played a key role in local civil rights efforts and helped push push for the integration of city schools in the early ’60s.
A 2004 newspaper article in the Newport News Daily Press characterized Kollmann as “a campus radical who walked into segregated drugstores with his black students in hopes of getting them served … [and] met with a Hampton department store owner to try to change his mind about segregation.” The noun “radical,” by this time and in this context, carried a positive connotation.
“We had a few radicals on the faculty, always did in those days,” the article quotes Kollmann as saying. “Today you don’t see anybody like that … it’s amazing how we’ve changed. You had to live in that period to realize that there were tensions all the time.”
In 2001, Kollmann made one last visit to Willamette as an invited guest at the class of 1951’s 50th reunion celebration. He delivered a poem he wrote, “A Time to Remember,” which closes:
Now you can be a beacon
To today’s youth
As we try again to find meaning.
For again technological wonders
Have us in awe
As we tend to forget our inner selves.
For here you came to know
Yourselves as persons,
And thereby integrated
The nonhuman with the
Humanity in all of us.
The community needs you.
The challenge is still there.
Only Kollmann and his students, perhaps, knew just what lay between those final lines.
Man of His Words
The open mind sees no finality to the process of man’s thinking. Instead the open mind is a flexible mind constantly subject to change in method and content, depending upon the nature of the material to be dealt with.
If, when you ask yourself about the openness of your mind, you can find no readiness on your part to entertain the ideas of others that run counter to the mould of your own mental make-up, then you have not become the man or woman of a liberal arts education and we have failed you miserably. Then you are the containers of absolute truth and all other expressions of the human mind are in grave error.
But, if you have come to recognize the obligation of the open mind, then you do us honor. Then we have succeeded in making the dreamer and the philosopher encounter the stubbornness of facts, as well as in making the practical man of business and the applied sciences realize that men are moved by visions. Then we have succeeded in making you realize that a narrow focus upon vocational training brings about a dangerous irresponsibility, a danger that this atomic age highlights as it has never been before.
Therefore, I do not call upon you to go bravely forth into the world. Instead, I ask you to meet the world on its own terms in the way which reveals what you have become through spending four years at Willamette University. For what matters is men. As Goethe said: “Mankind? It is an abstraction. There are, always have been, and always will be, men and only men.”
Edward Kollman, ca. 2004.
He passed away in 2005.
Photo: Daily Press, Inc.
G. Herbert Smith, University President 1942–69
“This is a protest...” — Opening words of the petition expressing disapproval of Kollmann’s dismissal