Oral History Transcript — Dr. William J. McGill
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Interview with Dr. William J. McGill
William J. McGill; September 15, 1997
ABSTRACT: Born February 27, 1922 in New York, NY; discusses grandparents' English ancestry and their emigration to New York. Describes father's career as a musician and the effect of the Depression on their family. Received a scholarship to Cathedral Boys High School; graduated in 1939. Discusses his decision to go to Fordham University and financing his education; graduated in 1943. Worked for Burndy Engineering through WWII; graduate education at Harvard in 1948 in psychology. Describes the social and intellectual environment at Harvard and MIT during the postwar era of the information sciences. Describes in detail the challenges of the 1960s in his positions at Columbia and UCSD; discusses the lessons learned and policies implemented to try to correct what he perceived to be wrong about the secretive nature of university research. Describes in detail his protracted conflict with Ewing and Newlin over the Doherty endowment for Lamont; discusses the tension over independence of Lamont from Columbia. Describes the resolution of this conflict upon Ewing's departure and the lessons he learned from it. Recalls the many financial difficulties facing Columbia during his time there and the strategizing and politicking needed to overcome them.
TranscriptSession I | Session II
Doel:This is Ron Doel and this is a continuing interview with William McGill. We're making this recording on the campus of UCSD [University of California at San Diego] in LaJolla, California and today is the fifteenth of September, 1997. Off tape a moment ago we were talking about a number of things that have come to your mind since we finished the first part of the interview on Friday.
Doel:Including, and I want to make sure that we get this on tape, that the banker that you were referring to.
McGill:The name of John McCloy.
McGill:He was the lawyer I was trying to remember. He was the principal partner of Milbank, Tweed, Pierce, Hadley and McCloy, who were David Rockefeller, Chase Manhattan Bank's attorneys. But McCloy was in the government for most of his adult life, and he had a peerless career, starting I guess with the end of the Second World War and lasting until the 1970s. He saw everything. He was in the room when Truman made the decision to drop the nuclear weapon on Japan. And he had a perspective on the Cold War that I — I spent an afternoon talking to him, trying to get him to do an oral history interview for Columbia. He refused. His wife was very ill. She was dying. And he was very depressed. And he didn't want to stop talking. That is, once we got going on all that I remembered, he remembered far more. So I sat there listening to him give his recollections of the people, of General [George C.] Marshall, and Dwight Eisenhower, and Truman's decision to drop the bomb. Oh my heavens.
Doel:It sounds like it made quite an impression on you at the time.
McGill:A great impression. It made me a devoted admirer of McCloy's. With current trends in history, I don't think McCloy is as well remembered as he — You know, he isn't in the current state of General Custer, but he's not remembered as well as he one day will be.
McGill:Well, I want to tell you the names of some of the people I knew well and worked with at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and at Harvard [University]. Because you were asking me to give you a context. We mentioned Norbert Wiener, of course. But Wiener was older than most of the rest of us, and we sort of sat at his feet.
Doel:You had mentioned off tape hearing about the library problem from him.
McGill:He used to describe the library problem. Which, this was when he was interested in some of the calculations and information theory. And what he was considering was that the foreseeable future when it would be easier and cheaper to do a piece of research over again than to search for it among all the alternative options in the literature stored in the library. So that the idea would be that with a finite search time, you could calculate how long it would take you to find something on the average and that might become a very large number.
Doel:In terms of the exponential growths of research and publications.
McGill:Yes. And of course you know that when you get stopped on the highway these days, the first thing the cop does is to put your license tag into the computer and search among, what it is, twenty million entries in the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. So that I don't think Wiener anticipated that the numbers we were using to define search times were probably not those that would be important in the future. It's still true. But the number of stored items has to get a lot larger than it is now. At MIT at that time was Claude Shannon, who had invented information theory, you may remember. And there were a group of people around him, all of whom were really extraordinary. Young mathematicians. Wilbur Davenport, Bill Davenport, who became famous for the book, Davenport and [William L.] Root, on noise theory [An Introduction to the Theory of Random Signals and Noise. Ann Arbor, MI: Books on Demand UMI, 1958]. David Middleton. He of the god awful notation. Jerry [Jerome] Wiesner. I was trying to remember the name of the young mathematician who died much too young. His name was Walter Pitts. And he worked with Warren McCullough. Warren McCullough was a neurosurgeon who gave up his profession or his skills as a surgeon and became, I think somewhat less effective, but nevertheless totally devoted as one of the very first of the neuroscientists. So Pitts and McCullough used to work together. And we knew them. There was of course J.C.R. Licklider, who's now dead. Walter [A.] Rosenblith who later became provost at MIT. He directed my —
Doel:He was your dissertation.
McGill:— he directed my doctoral dissertation. Yes. Jack Ruina. He was one of the founders of Lincoln Laboratory and later went down to the Pentagon as DARPA, I think that's what they called him, the Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Doel:Research Projects Agency. Yes.
McGill:Okay. That's — Oh yes, there was also a fellow named Fred [Frederick C.] Frick, who was the son of the baseball commissioner.
Doel:Is that right?
McGill:Commissioner Fred Frick, yes. So that we used to get to go to baseball games with Freddie in ways that we were never able to produce again. That's a good sampling of the people I knew at MIT. There were more, but they show you the disciplines and also the people. Many of them became quite famous as you know. Later, Wiesner became president of MIT.
Doel:He became science advisor.
McGill:Rosenblith was provost. Yes, science advisor to John Kennedy. That's right. At Harvard, the people I knew well were S.S. [Smitty] Stevens, who was the director of the psychoacoustic laboratory, and George A. Miller. Miller had probably the best mind, the most outstanding figure in modern experimental psychology. He's in a class with B.F. Skinner. Skinner's dead, Miller's still alive but in retirement now. But I think he was somewhat better in that he was the first of us to really attempt to redefine a machine as much smarter than Skinner's formulations.
Doel:Was it something — I'm just curious if at the time you remember discussions with Skinner over his position, or was it fairly clear what his beliefs were and there wasn't any —?
McGill:Well, Skinner had, by that time, articulated his position so thoroughly that he had defined a research program. And you were either in it or out of it. We were out of it.
Doel:That was a clear perception.
McGill:Yes. We were out of it. And Miller was attempting to articulate an alternative which gradually emerged and became cognitive psychology and which has largely superseded Skinnerian behaviorism in modern American departments. In the department of social relations there was a statistician probability theorist named C. Fred Mosteller. Mosteller was the one who introduced me to Allen Wallace.
McGill:And several others. But Mosteller is in retirement now, but you see him. He's, I guess he's the dean of all the probability theorists of our time. He was working with a young guy who committed suicide some years later. A man named Robert R. Bush, a physicist from Princeton. There was Jerome Bruner. Bruner and Miller were joined by Bundy, when Bundy was graduate dean in the, what was it called, the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard. The first such unit. And that was how Miller was recruited back from MIT. There — That's a good sampling of the people I knew. All right?
Doel:I appreciate that. And I should note on tape too that you also brought in a directory from 1955 that includes —
Doel:That includes photographs of many of the people that —
McGill:Showing very young versions of George Shultz and Jerry Wiesner.
Doel:It's a wonderful image. That's one of the things that oral history doesn't convey quite as well. It's quite good to see that. One of the things that we touched on briefly in the first segment that I was very curious about was your impressions of the research that was going on when you were chancellor here out at Scripps. Who did you — Who were your main advisors on the earth sciences?
McGill:There were three. One was Bill [William A.] Nierenberg. Bill Nierenberg is so voluble, that whenever you get into a discussion with him, he ends up as your advisor. [Laughter] I learned about the theory of plate tectonics and about [W. Maurice] Ewing and his contributions, his as one of the principal experimenters, and not theoretician, but designer of instrumentation and the use of the instrumentation to acquire basic data about the mid-Atlantic ridge, I learned that from Harmon Craig and George Backus. I always thought that George was one of the finest theoreticians I ever encountered and that somehow or other he didn't get proper credit for what he contributed to the theory of plate tectonics. You know. He's very, very highly regarded now, but I thought he was outstanding. And, of course, I talked to Walter [H.] Munk. But most of Munk's work as he described it to me dealt with the mass scale measurements of temperature phenomena, things like that, and wave action. And it was Craig in particular, who in talking to me told me that Ewing was a very great scientist and a very difficult person. [Laughter] All right.
Doel:It's clearly Craig's comment that made an impression on you.
McGill:Yes. Well, I was warned by several of the physicians here about the difficulties of managing the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia. And I was warned by Craig and Nierenberg and Backus about the difficulties of managing the Lamont Geological Observatory, which had then become the Lamont-Doherty Observatory.
Doel:Just around that —
McGill:Just around that time.
Doel:— period of time. Yes.
McGill:I think the change in name was made in 1968.
Doel:Yes. And of course Harmon Craig was a close friend of Harold [C.] Urey, one of the principal scientists who were here.
McGill:Yes. Well, Urey was an old man at the time that we knew him here. Still pretty sharp. But his principal associate at that time was Jim [James] Arnold in chemistry, rather than any of the people at Scripps.
Doel:Yes, that's quite true. One of the, of course, [William] Menard was also here at the time.
Doel:Was he someone who spoke about Lamont to you? Or do you recall it being primarily those?
McGill:He may have, but I have no strong recall. When I think back of, you know, of the sitting down, having coffee, and listening to people telling me what I was in for at Columbia, the face that pops right up is Ham Craig and Nierenberg. In fact, after I got to Columbia, Nierenberg used to drop in to see me and sort of grill me about what kind of troubles I was having with Ewing. And saying, ah hah!
Doel:Interesting. So this was happening right after you got out to —
Doel:What sort of things do you recall them telling you to expect? Did they give examples?
McGill:They told me — They did not — First of all, what they did not tell me. They did not tell me anything of the technical problem that was arising at that time with Lamont, having to do with budgeting resources. But they told me that Ewing was a paranoid. And that he was extremely difficult to reason with. That he saw the central administration at Columbia as predatory, trying to destroy or undermine an institution that he had built. As with every paranoid idea, there's a grain of truth there. That is, there was at that time a very bitter conflict going on with radical students and faculty in which efforts were made to try to weed certain activities in the university out of the university community. Either through legislation in the University Senate or through pronouncements coming from radical faculty that we really could not continue to have the Triga reactor, for example, or our relation with IDA, Institute for Defense Analyses. Do you remember that?
Doel:Yes, I do.
McGill:That what these demonstrated was a moral defect in which Columbia was being ruled by maligned forces in the government. And a good part of that attack was directed at Lamont.
Doel:I was very curious about that. That it really did seem that Lamont exemplified, in the views of many on the campus, this sort of [cross talk].
McGill:Well it took — it went to the extent that we insisted, then finally Ewing agreed, on dividing Lamont so that the classified work at Lamont was put off into another corporation, whose name I no longer remember. But it was the classified part of Lamont.
Doel:It was that part which operated the Bermuda station, for instance, and the other classified —
McGill:Yes. And we — that was done at our initiative. It was certainly not something that Ewing wanted to do. He — his handling of this was what I would regard as essentially loyal. That is involved with the solving of technical problems on behalf of the Pentagon. We didn't become aware of it until much later, but Lamont was deeply involved in building the instrumentation that was set aloft in balloons in the late 1940s, early 1950s, to record evidence of Soviet nuclear weapons.
Doel:The acoustical work, the sound channel, atmospheric work. Of course, some believe that it was —
McGill:Yes. You know, out here at UCSD we had come out, out of that context, so deeply. Roger Revelle and the other senior physicists here were all deeply — and Scripps — were all deeply involved with the federal government and its initiatives in the Cold War. So that I wasn't particularly prepared for the bitterness of the attack. And it became necessary for me to harden my own stance, so that I tried to develop strict dividing lines between what I thought was a useful contribution to our morality and what was just harassment. And that got me into trouble with the radicals. That was coming in any event.
Doel:You had mentioned a moment ago the reactor on campus, the Triga reactor.
Doel:And that seems to exemplify —
McGill:It certainly does. And what that did was to tear the University wide open because a great deal of the opposition came from members of the department of philosophy, English, humanities departments which were perfectly prepared to shut down an activity in the physics department on phony environmental grounds, and would be aghast at any effort to suppress books. You see. And the inconsistency of that position never seemed to get through to them. And I deemed it my responsibility to keep rubbing that inconsistency in front of the community. In the end I lost out because Three Mile Island went up at the moment that we won the legal fight. [Laughter] And we had to pledge not to fuel the reactor. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been fueled.
Doel:Clearly, Three Mile Island gave you very little leeway, in your view, for what you could do at Columbia.
McGill:Well, but it's interesting, Ron, you know, when you really look in with care at the release of nuclear pollution at Three Mile Island, it was trivial. There was — the containment system worked, but the public relations attack that it unleashed. There was, after, in the Soviet Union, at Chernobyl a genuine nuclear accident. An unbelievable nuclear accident. That is, one that seems still to me to be inconceivable that people could be so dumb as to disable the protections in order to see what might happen. So that Chernobyl, I guess, really did in fact raise the basic question of whether or not even with containment and protections, the dangers in the outcome of a nuclear accident were so profound as to, as to raise questions about whether you ought to be doing it at all. But at the time of Three Mile Island, that was not true. And yet we shut it down because of the intense anxiety that was released by that. In any case, the whole radical community opposed the Triga reactor. They also opposed Lamont.
Doel:How much did they know about what Lamont was doing?
McGill:Very little. Very little.
Doel:And again, you're thinking of the English department folks, the philosophers who were —
McGill:— who felt that having this kind of work on a university campus somehow was a form of moral impairment. There is a naive notion that I continue to have and that was very common in my era that the University functioned best as a unified organization. But during that period, the question kept getting raised over and over again, whether it might not be wise to spin off activities so that the university became less vulnerable. What you would lose would be the interaction with those people. And in essence, as I see it, the problem that arose over Lamont was this curious circumstance in which the people at Lamont for financial reasons wanted to spin off the observatory, almost as urgently as the people in the humanities department wanted to spin them off for moral reasons. Do you see?
McGill:It's a hard thing. And our notion, the notion in the central administration, was guided by the governing principle that we had to hold the University together. That that was the kind of institution we must continue to be.
Doel:Did the trustees back you on that point?
Doel:I'm wondering if there was any dissension that you remember in terms of —
McGill:When I came to Columbia, the trustees told me of their basic unhappiness about the Doherty gift. The origin of this was that Ewing went down to call on Chauncey Newlin, who was a lawyer with White & Case, but was an official of the Doherty Foundation. And he talked to Newlin and I guess the president of the foundation, whose name was Brown. And he asked for seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars for an endowed professorship. And after a few days they asked him what he would think about seven million. And the gift was developed, I think if I've got the dates right, that Ewing's call on that foundation was April, '68, which was the month of the rioting on campus at Columbia. And the first indication that a gift would be coming was in August, '68, and was presented to Grayson Kirk just before Kirk was forced out of the presidency. And the gift when it actually came in was acknowledged by Andrew Cordier, who was the acting president. And Cordier's presidency lasted little more than a year. And I appeared in September, 1970, although I had been elected in February, 1970. And so I spent a great deal of my time that spring and summer coming back and forth to Columbia from UCSD. But what I'm trying to convey here is that during this period when I was coming back and forth, I was talking to the trustees continuously about Columbia's problems. And in the aide memoir I prepared for you, you can see that there were immense problems. There were dozens of them.
Doel:This is now going to be [cross talk].
McGill:I think I catalogued eighteen or nineteen of them for you. But among the problems that the trustees discussed with me was the Doherty gift. These were all informal discussions. There was no — you know, trustees should proceed on a formal agenda, but if they're deeply involved with the university as these trustees were, you talk about everything, and you talk about everything all the time. What they were telling me — By the way, I had never met Ewing. I had never set foot on the Lamont campus at the time that these discussions were taking place — They said that the gift had come in August, 1968, their first awareness of the gift and the conditions. And they said that they were desperate because it was a very large gift, one of the largest in the history of the University. They were desperate not to lose it. And so they made agreements that they now felt, two years later, were mistaken.
Doel:And this was because one of the conditions of the gift was the university's matching contribution, which was 2.5 million, roughly to 7 million.
McGill:Exactly. That galled the trustees that they had to give up, at a time when they were under great financial stress themselves that they had to give up general, unrestricted funds, in order to match the gift. Several of the trustees expressed to me the desire to try to get that money back. I had not an inkling of what that problem might be. But it didn't seem to me to very practical.
Doel:To try to reverse the course.
McGill:Yes. To try to get the money back. But I remember saying one day to several trustees when I was talking about this, that it struck me as odd that this kind of condition would be imposed. And if they, if they felt uncomfortable, why didn't they resist it then. That is why they didn’t tell the foundation that they couldn't accept the gift with this kind of onerous condition. And their report to me was very frank. That we wanted that gift and we were willing to do almost anything to get it.
Doel:That's very interesting. Did Ewing work to convince members of the trustees in particular to back the conditions of the gift? Do you have a sense of how —
McGill:He had a number of friends among the trustees, and he did indeed work to convince them. And I think what I'm suggesting here is that that was the source of the trustees concern. Whereas it turned out in my judgment a few months later, after I got involved in this, a year later, that that was not the main problem. The main problem was that Ewing was attempting to use the Doherty Foundation gift as a way of achieving a degree of autonomy by having, in effect, the foundation, the Doherty Foundation, dictate the budgeting of resources to Lamont. On the ground that they — that unless the budgeting conformed to their terms, that they would assert that we're in violation of the agreement we had made when we accepted the gift.
Doel:As I understand that these were relating to the amount of overhead that would actually be paid to Columbia versus what was retained at Lamont.
McGill:Yes. And it had to do with the president's authority to budget overhead income in accord with the best interests of the University as a whole. The president acting for the trustees. So that, what I'm saying is that the two and a half million or three million of converted, unrestricted funds — that was a serious problem because we didn't have that money. Columbia was right on the — that is, there were zero reserves of unrestricted funds. So it was a serious problem, but it wasn't the central problem. The central problem was that the foundation — I think at Ewing's urging, although I've never been able to establish how this all came about since nobody penetrated it at that time — that the foundation was attempting to assert how the University should budget its income. And it acted as an external protector for Ewing. And at one point threatened suit. The first threat that the foundation leveled came before I came there. There was a letter from one of the trustees, Adrian Massie, to Andy Cordier saying that Newlin had said that the university was in violation of the agreements it had made when it accepted the gift.
Doel:This is under Andy Cordier's time.
McGill:Andy Cordier's time. And that should have been a warning to them. Although we didn't see it until the later budgeting. That the problem was not just the conversion of funds. It was the use of the foundation to buttress the authority of the director in such a way that any decision with respect to his budget that didn't please the foundation could then be the basis for a suit against the University, on grounds of failure to conform to the agreement.
Doel:You say it took about — it was within a year that this larger issue became —
McGill:Well, the first problem that I had — The major problem that I had when I arrived was the budget that Andy had, Andy Cordier, had submitted in April, 1970, with a sixteen million dollar deficit in general income deficit, unrestricted fund deficit. That was intolerable. Several of the trustees pointed out to me that you could actually forecast the year that the University would have to go out into the street and borrow on the basis of continued deficits of those magnitudes. And so the trustees told me that at all odds I had to get general income budgeting under control. And in the aide memoir I tried to give some perspective on the depth of that problem. It was very serious.
Doel:Indeed, the aide memoir does that quite well, lay out a number of the major issues.
McGill:The first budget actions that I took, in concert with all of the deans, that is, we met, we talked. And I said to them we were going to have to now introduce a somewhat decentralized budgeting mechanism in which we would allocate general income by schools. And we would try to be fair to all schools, but everybody could expect about ten percent less than he got the previous year. And that I was going to depend on their ingenuity to deal with that. If we were to reduce general income budgeting, it would force them to commit restricted funds. This is a very subtle area that is most obvious in a large, private research university. You have endowments and special funds which can be spent only for purposes designated in the gift. And those funds are very carefully husbanded by the deans as opportunity monies to do what is necessary to build the schools to —
Doel:They're wonderful points of leverage.
McGill:Yes. In fact, it's very important for the continuing excellence of the school that you have these opportunity funds. And what I was doing was saying that you're not going to get as much general income in the future as you have in the past. I'm not going to tell you how to spend it, and I'm probably going to insist that you convert some of your restricted funds to the operation of your school. And as a consequence, we are going to come back to equilibrium. My argument was within five years. It turned out not to be true. Took about seven or eight years because other things happened. But that was the strategy. And it was perfectly obvious. There wasn't any other alternative. Everybody realized that. But when you deal with a large institution, with diverse units, and a weak centralized administration with vague budgeting agreements, there's a humanistic phenomenon that develops in which people — the people in charge, will come to the president and will say, "You know, what you're doing is a good thing, Bill, and we're all behind it. But, you must understand that the central administration is incompetent. They don't know what's going on in my school. And as a consequence, I can't accept," the dean is telling the president, "their judgments about serious budget matters." And each one of the deans would try to make a separate, private deal with the president for correcting this. But charges of incompetence are at the heart of the thing. It turns out that that there was some incompetence, but not nearly as much as advertised. It was much more a dispute over who would have the authority to make decisions. The dean wanted to retain complete authority to make decisions, and if he sought to preserve restricted funds, then he wanted to be able to put enough leverage or pressure on the central administration to increase his general income budget allocation. There were two very powerful units at Columbia that were very difficult to handle in this respect. That is two deans, or one dean and one director. Of course, one of them was Lamont. And the other was the College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Doel:Those are the ones that stood out —
Doel:— in your experience.
McGill:And at the time that I came, this dispute with Lamont developed, as you see, before I came, and reached its peak in the first year I was there.
Doel:Did Andy Cordier talk to you in particular about Lamont and how he was trying to handle Ewing?
McGill:He didn't tell me how he was going to handle it. He told me how to interpret the trustees' concerns. He felt that we were right to make whatever representations necessary to make — to receive the gift. And also that we could not permit Ewing to operate Lamont as though it were an independent institution, totally autonomous. But he didn't tell me how to resolve that conflict.
Doel:I was curious in a general way. Did you have a chance to talk with Grayson Kirk also about all of these issues, not merely Lamont, but —
McGill:Grayson was traumatized at the time that I got there. He was living in a house that had been provided for him by the trustees when they forced him out. It was the Delafield Estate that is referred to in the aide memoir. And he was extremely bitter over what had been done to him. And indeed it seemed to me when I got there, that he was dealt with about as cruelly as anybody in public life at that time. But we never had an easy relation. He was somewhat intimidated by me because he thought I was combative. And he did not — he did not do the obvious things that I would have welcomed at the time. That is to call me up and say let's have lunch together. And come to the house and sit down for lunch and then tell me all this lore. Andy did that. But Grayson did not do that.
Doel:Of course, as you say, Andy was only there for a little over a year, while Kirk had been —
McGill:Well, also they were two different — they were completely different people. Andy's nature — Andy was hardly somebody with a trusting nature. He was a professional diplomat. But he was at ease in this kind of exchange. And Grayson was very ill at ease always with me. And later on, it became clear to me that he just resented terribly all the people who had come in after he was forced out. He thought that they had usurped the place that was properly his, you see. And although he never said that publicly, it became clear to me that that's what the problem was. But the net result, Ron, is that we had a very distant relation. To the point at which, after about 1977, '78, he really never spoke to me again. So I never had an opportunity to grill Grayson on a number of things. There were things; there were questions that I thought were far more serious than Lamont. For example, there was that two twenty-one year terms of Rockefeller Center with no change at all in the valuation of Rockefeller Center, leading to no change in the income provided from Rockefeller Center. I had —
Doel:That was the main support for arts and sciences.
McGill:That was general income support. It was an asset worth about four hundred million dollars that was yielding 3.85 million a year. And I knew from —
Doel:You were saying a moment ago that you knew from the treasurer —
McGill:— The treasurer's reports that upset Grayson a great deal. That he felt that there was a failure of trusteeship there. And he also was told by the senior trustee when he assumed his duties when General Eisenhower left, that he would not have to raise money. And yet it was perfectly evident to him that the University's resources were dwindling. And that there was an unusual concentration of interest in real estate, rather than in invested endowment. No capital campaign. No efforts to do the things that trustees are normally expected to do. And I know that Grayson felt very uncomfortable about that. And yet we could never talk about it. And in the end, I think that there is abundant evidence that the trustees — All of this probably traces back to the fact that Nicholas Murray Butler stayed too long. That the trustees he chose somehow believed that the University's real estate holdings were so extensive that they would be sufficient to finance the University into the indefinite future. And that after World War II circumstances changed completely, and the trustees were not paying attention to it. And didn't do anything about it. They kept, for example, while real estate investment was fleeing to the suburbs, they kept their investment focus in Manhattan. They invested heavily in the Upper West Side, where rent control had been imposed by the city during the Second World War, and where everyone with investments was seeing the money essentially controlled and dwindling. And that's the significance in the aide memoir of the references to SROs, single room occupancy hotels. That's a device to evade rent control. You see you have your building declared a hotel, and you rent it out room by room. And then you are able to generate huge incomes, but you do it by running the thing into the ground, and placing welfare clients and the institutionalized mental patients, all of whom are paid for by government bodies. And that is happening to the focus of the trustee’s investments, and they were paying no attention to it. Grayson finally did decide that a capital campaign would be necessary. But we had no experience. And the initial effort that he made was a failure. And Ewing's call on the Doherty Foundation was part of that — it was the dying gasp of that original capital campaign.
Doel:That's very interesting. I hadn't realized the links.
McGill:Yes it was. There's no question about that…
Doel:Do you know what it was that brought Ewing and Newlin together — That the contact was made with that particular foundation?
McGill:There was a former dean of the School of Business named Courtney Brown who was another one of these very aggressive, but very warm and evocative types, who told me that they — that Brown and Ewing and several others, decided that the campaign staff was incompetent, that Grayson was a weak president, and they were going to go out on their own. So they drew up a list of foundation calls. And I believe that the first call on the Doherty Foundation was to have been made by Courtney Brown. But he ceded it to Ewing. So what they were doing was to divide up the universe, figuring that the president's office and the campaign staff were really not going to do anything, and they did it themselves.
Doel:Another breakdown in a very fundamental way.
McGill:Well, and when you hear people talking about Columbia of that era, they talked about the barons. The deans who essentially ran roughshod over the central administration because they viewed it as weak. I really don't see anything wrong with that. It seems to me to have been a natural consequence of the structure that was there. But Ewing was one of the barons and so was Courtney Brown and so was the dean of medicine, and dean of law. And when I came in, I determined that I would have to get those things back under my control. And so what happened was that in that first year, it became apparent to me what Ewing was really after. That he was after the complete autonomy of Lamont and the terms of an agreement that he made with the president during Eisenhower's time, that contract overhead, grant overhead generated by Lamont, would be budgeted to Lamont. Now that was an agreement by the central administration. And it was not an action taken in perpetuity by the trustees. It didn't have any legal status. And I viewed that as subject to change. He viewed it as holy writ. And I think he went out and found a foundation that would permit him to carry out that plan of isolating Lamont from the University. First, because the University really couldn't generate any resources that he could latch on to. And secondly, because he was very worried about what the central administration might do with respect to classified research that would inhibit the growth of the Lamont Observatory.
Doel:Clearly both of these had roots in earlier administrations to yours. Did you sense that he was beginning to worry about those issues under Kirk's administration? He seemed to have better relations with Kirk —
McGill:There's a letter that he wrote to Andy that shows him clearly worried about those. I was not aware of this until much later. The first letters that he wrote to me, and the first interchanges I had with him in 1971 were all his pressing very aggressively for independence, and my essentially refusing to give it to him, being first advised by Polykarp Kusch and by Ted [W. Theodore] deBary as to what our position ought to be. But deBary put it very clearly. He said that the well-off parts of Columbia are going to seek to be independent of the University and to have complete control over all resources held as restricted funds, and let the rest of the University rot. And our real problem was in the humanities departments where there was something — six to eight million dollars a year in annual deficit operation. And some way had to be found to support them. And the way which we had sought to use was to budget all sources of overhead recovery into the humanities department. It has become a familiar matter, you know, in modern parlance in hospitals when you talk about cost shifting from paying patients to non-paying patients. We were doing a similar form of cost shifting at that time from the well-off science departments that were generating large amounts of overhead into the humanities departments.
Doel:Was Lamont generating more overhead than, say, the physics department or other major units on the campus?
McGill:At that time, at that time the answer is yes. Lamont had a large fleet. It had very large federal grants and contracts involved with the operation of the ships, and so it generated a considerable amount of overhead, more than, certainly more than physics and biology at that time. The only source of overhead generation that was larger than Lamont was the College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Doel:And the Hudson Lab had already been shut by that point, hadn't it?
McGill:Pretty much. The remnants of the Hudson Lab were still around when I got there. Trying to remember the name of the director of the Hudson Lab, but he told me that the lab had become a target for radical demonstrators and that members of the engineering school were increasingly unwilling to spend time there.
Doel:Was this Jim [James] Hertzler?
McGill:No, it was Larry; I can't remember his last name. Big, heavyset guy. Very smart and also somewhat more practical that Maurice was. But I believe that shutting the Hudson Lab down was an act of weakness — I guess is the right — on the part of the trustees, trying to diminish the amount of criticism we were getting for involvement of the University in classified work.
Doel:And it was a trustee action —
McGill:A trustee action. They moved out of University space and developed offices in the mid-town area. The remnants were still around, but in effect the riots in '68 and all of the terrible pressures of the Vietnam War furnished a background in which these other judgments, having to do with structure and money, had to be made. But I keep reiterating, Ron, that my main concern was P&S [College of Physicians and Surgeons]. If Lamont succeeded in becoming functionally autonomous, that would be imitated by P&S within a year, and I would have had not one problem but a dozen problems. I could not allow this to happen, and I could not permit a foundation, independent of the University, essentially to take authority on budgeting the University's resources away from the trustees.
Doel:Were you aware that Ewing had been making efforts to make Lamont independent already in the early 1960s, the Sterling Forest?
McGill:Well, Kusch told me that he had been making such efforts. DeBary was primarily worried by the fact that these efforts were being made without any direct consultation with the geology department. The geology department did not support it. And there were a number of very good, young geologists who were very upset by the efforts to make Lamont independent of the University.
Doel:Who are you thinking of in particular?
McGill:Wally [Wallace S.] Broecker in particular. There is some correspondence between deBary and Broecker about this. I've mentioned there's another young geologist, [John] Imbrie, but I don't recall ever seeing anything there.
Doel:John Imbrie, of course, was leaving for Brown around that time.
McGill:About that time. But we had a pretty strong belief that biology, geology, those two in particular, were really only a shadow of what they once had been at Columbia. And that we had a real problem looking to the future, trying to rebuild them. And my God, we had laboratory space in Schermerhorn Hall for biology that did not have modern containment facilities so that you could not do modern work in molecular biology, and we had essentially ceded that. And how can you be an outstanding — how can you call yourself an outstanding university in 1970 and have given up on any serious work in molecular biology? I knew enough from what I had seen here to realize that that was very dangerous. So we did not want anything done that would further weaken the geology department.
Doel:How did the geology department seem to you in comparison with other geology departments at other universities?
McGill:Well, the senior people who were either at retirement age or just past retirement, Paul Kerr and Marshall Kay, were absolutely outstanding people. They had a number of young geologists who looked to us to be very good. But the key to the strengthening of the geology department was a strong relation with Lamont, and Ewing was not willing to do that. Ewing asked people who came to work at Lamont essentially to give up their association with the geology department. There was another thing. Ewing was talking about retiring during all the time we were conducting this struggle. And he had identified his successor. It was Joe [J. Lamar] Worzel. And the geologists had warned us that that would be a disaster.
Doel:Had you already met Worzel?
McGill:I had met Worzel at the time.
Doel:What were your impressions?
McGill:Well I thought — to be perfectly blunt about it, I thought he was a rather slimy individual. And not the kind of open, serious figure that I was used to in Craig and Backus and Nierenberg. What Ewing was trying to do was to pressure the provost, the executive vice president, the president into agreeing to designate Worzel as his successor. Then he would retire. And we wouldn't agree to that. So that was one of a bill of particulars. At the point that we refused to agree to Worzel instead of conducting a legitimate academic search, Ewing withdrew his resignation, his notice of retirement. The second major problem was the budget dispute that arose over the budgeting of overhead back to Lamont. The third was the trustees' discomfort over the University's restriction of something close to two and a half million dollars of unrestricted funds, and the fact that it had to be banked and managed separately in an account in the Chemical Bank, not with the University's endowment. That was at the insistence of the foundation. And the foundation wanted all decisions with respect to that account to be made by Ewing and no one else.
Doel:An extraordinary precedent.
McGill:Well, you can see what that implies. There was a fourth. And then we, I think we have the whole picture. The fourth was that there was a — Ewing wanted to build geology building at Lamont. It was eventually built, and my belief is that the NSF [National Science Foundation] put up a good part of the money.
Doel:But originally that money for that was to come from the Doherty Foundation as I recall.
McGill:Was to come from the Doherty Foundation in an additional gift. So that instead of seven and a half million or seven million, it would be eight and a half.
Doel:Was one of the purposes of that grant to try consolidating the department away from Morningside out at Lamont?
McGill:Well, that — in the paranoid environment, that became a critical issue. The geology department wanted a geology building at Lamont, but not under the terms that Ewing was going to enforce. The separatism. So that they would have been delighted to have a geology building at Lamont if Ewing or Worzel were not there to enforce the separation of Lamont from the department. And that in fact is the way it worked out. But Lamont, in any case, wanted to add additional money to the Doherty gift. And Doherty was offering that to us. And the — I went down — the dispute arose about April, 1971 over the budgeting of Lamont for the 71-72 year. And it had to do with our failure tore-budget the entire overhead generated by Lamont, and our request of them that they commit some of their restricted funds to maintain their level of operation. The Foundation wrote to us and said that this was in violation of the agreement. We then did an analysis of the points in dispute, and I took it down and met with Ewing and Brown sometime in June, 1971. And I found — I'm sorry. I said Ewing and Brown, I met Newlin and Brown.
Doel:Newlin. Right. The two foundation folks.
McGill:I found Newlin to be abrasive and — I don't know how to put it — insulting. He accused us of double dealing. I told him the problem that I was — I gave him an account that is roughly equivalent to what's in the aide memoir. And he said those things were of no interest to him. That the only interest he had was in supporting Lamont and that, indeed, if they were to permit the funds in the Chemical Bank account to be budgeted with the University's endowment, no doubt I would spend them on Black Studies. I remember that remark in particular. And so I asked him straight out. Knowing everything you know now about our circumstances, are you then retaining the position that we're in violation of the gift agreement. And he said, oh yes. And I said, well, in those circumstances I don't need to go any further. We're going to budget Lamont in conformity with your interpretation of the gift agreement because I think the integrity of the University requires that. And he said what about the 1.5 million dollars for the geology building. And I said, we're going to refuse to accept that gift. And he said, why? And I said, because the University must be managed by the president and trustees [phone ringing] — I'll just let it ring through — The University must be managed by the president and trustees. We cannot allow a foundation and an institute director, and as a consequence Ewing came to me and we then instituted a discussion that must have lasted about six months on various proposals to make Lamont independent of the University. That's when all of the discussion in depth about the geology department and the relation of geology with Lamont took place. There was a model. In the engineering school there was the Krumb will. K-R-U-M-B, I believe it's spelled. But it was the Krumb School of Mines.
Doel:Of Mines. I was just thinking about that.
McGill:Right. And that gift, that endowment, required an annual certification that the money was being spent in accord with the faculty's recommendations, or the gift would revert to, I think it was to a hospital. And I think Ewing was searching for some kind of arrangement like that. And his argument was, well if you did it in the case of the Krumb School, why can't you do it now? And we were saying that circumstances are entirely different now. We cannot permit this kind of independence or it will break out all over the entire University. And we understood completely what kind of struggle we were getting into here. That is we — our belief was that we were going to be sued by the Doherty Foundation. As it turned out, they delayed their payments on the original Doherty gift, but, in fact, paid the gift completely. I think it was, the final payment was made in 1978. But it was done. They didn't sue us. They didn't withdraw the gift.
Doel:I imagine though that, obviously, that was a considerable threat. That a law suit made public for Columbia —
McGill:Well, especially in those times and those circumstances. If a donor sues you and claims that you have misappropriated a gift, it can be a terribly bad thing. There were several of the old timers in the — on the financial side of the University, and one or two of the trustees who knew Newlin well and didn't believe that he would do it. That is they believed it was only a threat. And it turns out that it was only a threat. They did not sue us. But we expected, we were getting ready for it if it should happen. And the reason we persisted so rigorously in opposing Ewing's efforts to become independent were the impact that that would have on other parts of the University. I can't remember the precise date, but one day Ewing called me up and said he wanted to see me. And he came in and in a few moments he was in tears. And he said that he was leaving, and he was going to do his best to take as much of Lamont with him as he could.
Doel:That was 1972, in June as I recall. June 8. On your calendar there was an entry of the date of the meeting with Ewing.
McGill:Is that what it is? I thought it was a little earlier. But it was in 1972, and I would have. If forced to invent the time, I would have put it in March or April. In any case, he did — He was very emotionally overwrought. And I told him that I was really sorry that we couldn't work this out.
Doel:Did you know that that resignation was coming at that point?
McGill:No. No. We expected a law suit. We didn't expect a resignation. DeBary told me afterwards that he had had extensive phone conversations with [Manik] Talwani, with John Ewing, and several others at Lamont, and he was convinced that they were not going to go with Ewing. And he had already broached with Talwani the possibility of Talwani's becoming the director at Lamont to succeed Ewing.
Doel:Had you met Talwani at that point?
McGill:I think that the answer is no. But I met Talwani a day or two — as soon as this happened —
Doel:The news of Ewing's resignation.
McGill:The news was announced, I think, the same day or the next day by Truman Blocker, the president of —
Doel:Of University of Texas.
McGill:The Galveston branch of the University of Texas.
Doel:The biomedical branch of the —
McGill:And he spoke of the whole of Lamont going down there. And I called him up and told him it wasn't true and I would need a retraction. And finally we got a retraction from them. But there was very bad publicity the next day.
Doel:I was wondering how much you knew — there was a Walter Sullivan piece that had come out that was — Had you known Sullivan by chance?
McGill:I met Sullivan. But I didn't — No one spoke to me about that piece.
Doel:It was a surprise to you.
McGill:Yes. Well, we figured that this was the coup, you know, and we were scrambling to protect ourselves against the worst possible outcome. But we had a very, very able vice president in deBary, and he was a skillful political operator. And he knew that NSF would not permit the ships to be moved, that even John Ewing was not going to go with his brother, and that there were many people whose roots were so deeply in Lamont, that they would not leave. I think Joe Worzel went with Ewing. But that was it. And he became very embittered about that. Very angry with me. I don't know. He didn't last very long. A few years later he died. And he was brought back and buried at — I think at a cemetery right outside Lamont. It was a rainy, gloomy day. It was one of these depressing episodes, you know, in which you have the elements of a novel. I went to Lamont right after Ewing spoken, and told the people there. deBary urged me to do that. That was when I met Talwani.
Doel:Was that the first time that you visited Lamont?
McGill:That's the first time I set foot on the Lamont campus.
Doel:I want to hear what you're thinking about, but I also want to get your impression of what the place was like.
McGill:Oh, it was beautiful.
Doel:Was it what you expected?
McGill:It was much bigger than I had imagined. And much wealthier. I wondered what we were doing on the Upper West Side. [Laughter] If only the trustees had been smarter during the time that Eisenhower gave that up. That was a gift of the Lamont family. Their property.
McGill:Oh, there's one other thing in all this. During the time that we were jousting with Ewing, Corliss Lamont spoke to me. Told me that his family, in particular his mother, were very upset over the name change.
McGill:And I told them that I had seen — I told Corliss that I had seen documentation that showed that the family had not really objected. And he said that what had happened was that the trustees had approached him and his brother, and that they didn't see — If there was some way in which Columbia was going to benefit — that would make any difference at all. But when they went and told their mother, she objected. And he said that by that time nobody was willing to slow things down or accord the Lamont family any real concern. He said that they were quite upset about the name change. So I concluded that the name change was mishandled. Apparently that got into the record. It was done with proper legality, but it was done with great insensitivity to the Lamonts. But in any event, when Ewing indicated that he was leaving, I went out and spoke to the staff at Lamont and told them that I didn't really want any of this. That it simply came to be a contest of wills between a very powerful institute director and the president of the University as to who would budget the University's resources. And that we couldn't solve it. And that I would do my best to see that no problem developed with respect to Lamont. That I would honor every obligation we had to see that they remained independent and that their resources were sufficient to keep them going in the future. That the only thing that I sought to do was to build a stronger relation with the geology department. I was received politely. Not warmly, not at all. But there was no real hostility. It was perfectly evident that all these things had been said before.
Doel:Was this a meeting held at — in Lamont Hall?
Doel:In the main meeting room on the first floor. Were people like Joe Worzel and Doc Ewing present?
McGill:Ewing was not there. I can't remember whether Worzel was there. Everybody else was there. There was no — scientists, by and large, in these conflicts, reserve their angry words for private sessions. They don't really tear their dresses or yell and scream in public. And they didn't. They were very polite to me.
Doel:Who were you particularly concerned to make contact with at Lamont?
McGill:The key research staff. That is the people whose lives and papers and incomes depended on our good will. I wanted to assure them that we had no intent of liquidating Lamont or trying to draw off its resources to save the rest of the University.
Doel:I'm wondering whether there were others in addition to the people you've already mentioned, like John Ewing, who you felt were particularly important to reassure, to convince. Did you meet with Wally Broecker at that time?
McGill:We met Wally Broecker at that point. And Broecker was a young, devil-may-care guy. He thought that what we had done was just exactly right. But that was deBary's work. deBary had —
Doel:He'd spent quite a bit of time, spade work at Lamont.
McGill:I don't know if you know deBary's history. deBary is a very observant, rigorous conservative Catholic. But when he was a student at Columbia, he was a Marxist.
Doel:I didn't know that.
McGill:So he has all of the scheming qualities of a Marxist, [laughter] covered in the moral superiority of the conservative Catholic. And he is formidable. But when it came to academic scheming, political preparation, deBary was one of the best operators I have ever met. He saved my neck many times, including Lamont. We attempted after Ewing left to show that Lamont could be just as good and just as nationally effective and, if anything, better as a citizen of the University than as an independent entity. So that we were on our best behavior. And it turned out that way. That as Lamont has indeed thrived, you know -There's one important part of the story that is still coming — And by the time I retired —
Doel:I should say this is 1980.
McGill:1980 — Lamont was — The whole incident had been forgotten. Ewing was in his grave. All of that bitterness had evaporated. And I never saw Newlin again. The foundation, however, carried off its obligation to pay the Doherty gift. And Talwani dealt with the foundation and they dealt with him formally. There was no lawsuit. Everything went well. I remember that I brought the director of NSF up to Lamont.
Doel:I'm sorry. Which director was this?
McGill:This was Richard C. Atkinson.
Doel:It was Atkinson.
McGill:Now the president of the University of California.
McGill:I brought him up to Lamont to dedicate the geology building. And at that time, I remember that occasion, that was joyous. There was a lot of excitement. But the evolution of Lamont to the Bass Brothers lies beyond my knowledge. What it means is that Lamont has not suffered. It would have been better for us all if Ewing could somehow have been a little more flexible. And if he had not used this kind of raw power involving a friendly relation with a foundation — Newlin was a tough lawyer. And I suppose Newlin felt that the University could be bluffed or intimidated into giving up its rights if he threatened to sue. That would be my guess. Lawyers are very good at that, and Newlin was known to a number of the senior people at Columbia. The treasurer knew him well. Several of the trustees knew him well. And in his inner heart, he did not want to do any damage to Columbia. And since Lamont seemed to be thriving and since we were really on our good behavior after this was over, although we refused to accept any more money from the Doherty Foundation — We would not take the money for the geology building — He didn't carry through on any of the threats. So I retired and I came out here. And there was a dinner dance — I would put the year as about 1985 — put on by the chancellor at UCSD, Richard Atkinson. My wife and I came in black tie. It was an alumnus — I think it was called the chancellor's ball or something like that. So put on by the chancellor's associates.
McGill:We sat at a table and across the table was Cecil [H.] Green. He was squired there by the chancellor's executive assistant, Dottie Kefella, who mothers everybody here. She's now retired. Wonderful, wonderful lady. And I talked to him. I had written him several times.
Doel:Had you met him before this?
McGill:I had met him when I was chancellor here because he had given money to Scripps [Institution of Oceanography]. Not a lot, but he'd given money to Scripps. His main money, he didn't at that time — he used to tell me at that time that he didn't believe in giving large gifts to state run institutions, that he would reserve his giving to Scripps Clinic.
Doel:He had also given to MIT and to other private institutions.
McGill:He had given a few gifts to Ewing.
McGill:Which I knew about. Yes. No, that's key! No, he had given about fifty thousand dollars to Ewing at Lamont.
Doel:That's interesting. I wasn't aware of that.
McGill:Yes. But anyway, the evening passed. A day or two later Atkinson called me up and said my god, what did you do to Cecil Green? And I said, I don't know what you're talking about, Dick. And he said, Green called me up and said, don't you ever put that son of a bitch at my table again. I don't want to have anything to do with him. He treated Maurice Ewing in the worst possible way. And I told Dick I hadn't the faintest idea what he was talking about. That I had never had any dealings with Cecil Green. But I called up the lady who used to be the secretary of the trustees at Columbia and. asked her if she would look for anything in the files that might throw light on what I had done to Cecil Green. And what she had found were two things. One was that he made a gift of six hundred thousand dollars to the University of Texas, Galveston branch to recruit Ewing. And that he was asked by Blocker to do the recruiting. And that he did the recruiting.
Doel:Cecil was the one who made the —
McGill:Who recruited, who made the offer to Ewing to go to the University of Texas, Galveston branch. He did this while I was at Columbia. And to be perfectly direct about it, that's rather underhanded. He did not tell me what he was doing. And at first, when Dick Atkinson told me this story, I thought maybe Green was a trustee of the Doherty Foundation, you know, without — it would be possible. But we looked up the trustee board, and he had no relation with it. He had a personal admiration for Ewing, and he believed in Ewing rather than in Columbia, and he wanted to see to it that Ewing was not damaged by any of this.
Doel:Green had never given a substantial sum to Ewing while he was at Columbia.
Doel:Even the one gift that I hadn't been aware of was still sort of small.
McGill:It's fifty thousand dollars. It's not very much. Yes. And most of these data come from the trustees' files at Columbia. So there's no question that it happened. And it somehow rounds the picture out. It was an impossible situation. There was no way out of that when you're dealing with people of that caliber and with those resources, which are working adversely to the interests of the trustees in order to benefit an individual. It then simply becomes a case of determining who's going to win. If I had not done what I did in that first year, I really think there might have been serious problems about dealing with two or three other units, most particularly the College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Law School at Columbia. And, you know, that might not have been the end of the ball game. It would have given rise to every tub on its own bottom philosophy at Columbia that is not totally unheard of. But the problem of that six million dollar gap annually, which has not been solved to this day. There is still — well, Michael Sovern succeeded me. He and I interacted totally so that he knew all of this. And Sovern knew and worked very hard on a capital campaign for the arts and sciences and produced, I think, something of the order of fifty endowed chairs, you know. But it was still was not enough. Because what happened was that we patched together a solution that involved the budgeting of overhead from — some of which came from Lamont, to the humanities departments to cover their salary budgets. We worked out an agreement with New York State on what was called Bundy Funds. This was a statute that was passed by the state legislature about 1968, '69 somewhere there during this period, in which the state budgeted back to Columbia a sum of money in lieu of the cost of education of students that Columbia bore that relieved the state of the obligation in the state university. And that was producing something of the order of ten to twelve million dollars a year. It was called capitation funding. For each degree you produced, the state produced a sum of money to reduce the amount of the state's obligation to educate that person. There was also the tuition assistance plan which enabled us to enroll graduate students and undergraduates with state resources. The point is that about 1988 or ‘9 when — after the first stock market crash — the impact on state budgets — this had to do with the sudden decision on the part of the federal government not to continue revenue sharing with the states — this was one of the central tenets of President Reagan's second administration. So that the states were suddenly thrust in this situation in which they were obligated to pay substantial resources, and the monies that they were getting from the federal government which covered this had disappeared. So essentially the state cut out all of that support. The hit at Columbia was about twenty million dollars. There was also a very large increase in fringe benefit costs about that time. And there was a cutback, a cap, artificial cap put on overhead as a result of the dispute that developed between Stanford and the federal government. The net effect was that the total hit at Columbia was somewhere around twenty million dollars. And all of that landed on the arts and sciences. And so in 1990 the University was right back in the same position it was in 1970. Everything that we had put together to structure the support of the humanities at Columbia, the arts and sciences at Columbia had come apart and Michael [Sovern] had to pay the price for that. He was forced out as a result of the budget disputes that arose over this. I remember the whole twenty-five arts and sciences chairmen refused to sign the budget document, you know. Very tough.
Doel:Certainly brought back quite a few memories for you.
McGill:Yes it did. Because we believed that we had a solution that would last indefinitely. And Michael had worked very hard to fund the arts and sciences with endowed chairs. But apparently not hard enough to suit the faculty leaders at that time. And so far as I can see, President [George] Rupp has not been able to solve this problem either. It continues. It's a structural problem at Columbia that really reflects the consequences of the decisions made at the end of Nicholas Murray Butler's time to concentrate on real estate rather than building a genuine endowment.
Doel:Indeed. The Butler era casts a deep shadow at Columbia in many dimensions and this is one in particular.
McGill:Everywhere. But I've come to believe that there is a failure of trusteeship here. And it doesn't relate to current generations of trustees. [Hi William — speaking to someone] But that it's real enough. Goes back to the period right after the Second World War. [Ah thank you.] And Dwight Eisenhower's term. But that's the story as best I know it, Ron.
Doel:You know, there were a few things that you mentioned a bit earlier that I'm very curious about. As I recall, Newlin and others, but particularly Newlin, when it was clear that Ewing was not going to stay on, wanted a national search for a replacement director at Lamont. And I'm wondering what you had heard of that demand.
McGill:Well, you know, in fact, it was our demand of Ewing made only a few months earlier.
McGill:How could we on the one hand appoint Talwani and on the other hand be demanding a national search. [cross talk] Those are the practical compromises that one must make in tough situations. We did not think in those circumstances it would be possible to recruit a director. We wanted a period of stability, settle things down. We didn't think that Talwani would want to continue longer than five years. As it turns out, he did.
Doel:Yes. Of course, the latter part of his term is an important issue in Lamont's history.
McGill:Our notion was that we would try to bring Frank Press back.
Doel:Yes. He was actually asked if I recall in '72.
McGill:Yes, he was asked. I asked him.
Doel:What was his reaction?
McGill:His reaction was not now. I'd like to think about it, maybe in the future, but not now. And I told him, Frank; I'm prepared to understand that. [laughter]
Doel:Walter Munk was also invited in as I recall.
McGill:That I didn't know. He was on my list. I didn't know whether anybody had actually asked him. We did not have a formal search in which he was brought in, and, you know, and interviewed by groups of trustees. Somewhere in my mind is a vague memory of Walter coming into the office, having come to talk at Lamont, and telling me that they had spoken to him about this. But he told me that he was not going to leave UCSD.
Doel:Were there others outside of either Scripps or Lamont who were your advisors on the earth sciences, this broad community in which Lamont was centered?
McGill:Press was an advisor. I can't think of any others. By that time, Ron, I have to be honest about it; I felt that the Lamont problem had been solved. And I put it aside on the back burner because I had so many other urgent problems that had not been solved. And most of them were, I don't know, about a third of the list that I presented to you were solved by the time I left. Another third were solved by Mike Sovern, including the big Rockefeller one, and that turned out to be brilliant timing. And then the other third remain unsolved.
Doel:Actually those are pretty good odds given the nature of the problems you were facing.
McGill:Yes. When you think about the absence of structure, and the fact that there was no capital campaign. There was no long-range plan. He constructed a long-range plan by simply taking a detailed accounting of our current obligations and then tried to carry it off.
Doel:I was wondering too, given the comment that you recall that Newlin had made about unrestricted funding going into an area like Black Studies, which he clearly didn't favor, was there a concern that Talwani as an Indian, that there might be problems, a race problem with appointing him as director of Lamont? Was that a worry that you remember?
McGill:No it was never a worry. To be honest, the thought never crossed my mind. Talwani was such an elegant man that I didn't think that even the most prejudiced individual would react negatively to him. We had a number of senior black officials at Columbia at that time, but they were pretty tough babies. And Talwani was elegant, is the way to put it. I think that Newlin's remark; it really wasn't as vicious as it sounds. What it did was to reflect the transitional era in American life, when people saw institutions that they used to control slipping away and drifting into forms of compromise that they didn't think was right. And they felt — we saw this all the time with the SRO [single room occupancy] problem — they felt that we were weak. That we didn't have the guts to stand up against the City of New York and say it's wrong to put welfare families into SROs a block from the university. But if we were to have said that, we would have been cut to pieces. They just didn't understand the world they lived in. They were so remote from the real problems that —
Doel:It was a reaction to the broader politics.
McGill:Yes. We had to treat them with understanding. And if that method, they would continue to help us, that's fine. But we couldn't yield to that kind of stuff.
Doel:One thing I was curious about. If I remember if it was 1973 that you became a member of the board of directors of Texaco.
Doel:Were they interested in the sorts of the work that Lamont was doing?
McGill:Not much. Not enough to fund it. I tried to get them interested. Their primary interest was in P&S and the reason was that the chairman of Texaco at that time, Augustus C. Long, was a member of the board of Presbyterian Hospital. So that Texaco had close interactions with us over the — you know, Ron, we could have another day on the abrasive relations between Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia. The trustees were virtually at war with one another. Each party trying to stick the other with the unpaid bills. But we managed that one with a little more delicacy than this one. Maybe it was because I became more experienced, I don't know. Part of the difficulty of this dreadful episode with Ewing related to the fact that it hit me right as the first problem I had to face.
Doel:That's formative pressure.
McGill:An outright bid for power before I had a chance to even get settled in the office.
Doel:Yes. When you look back on it, were Ewing exceptional even among the entrepreneurial faculty and research directors, or was he simply a stronger version of what you were encountering elsewhere?
McGill:He was exceptional. He was extremely forceful. There was another thing about it as I came to — as I talked to him and got to know him — and that was he was one of those faculty who was old enough to have been marked by the last days of the depression. So that when he started out as a young researcher, he couldn't get laboratory space, he couldn't get money, he couldn't build equipment that he knew how to build because for many, many years there wasn't anything. And gradually he made an impact — now what was it called — it was the naval, I'm thinking naval research laboratory, but that isn't right.
Doel:The Office of Naval Research.
McGill:ONR. He made his impact on ONR. And then as he began to get resources, he found himself fighting continuously to get what he needed to do his work. And found, for a long time, until the war, that nobody would pay attention to him. So that he was not part of the University community that we're familiar with, the people who grew up on NSF and who were always well funded, you know. And, by God, I understand that. It seemed to me that what he did was extremely admirable. That he built that place with his own hands. But he did not accept the fact that there was a university and that he was part of it.
Doel:You put it well. I meant to ask you, a few moments earlier too, were you aware of on coming to Columbia, of the controversy that Ewing had with Bruce [C.] Heezen?
McGill:Yes. I was brought into that by deBary. And, I'm now searching my memory, rather than having had it refreshed by documents. But I had several very, very tough interviews with Heezen.
Doel:I was wondering what your impression was.
McGill:Well, what I told Heezen was that I was obliged to carry out the decision that Ewing had recommended. And that while I felt that it was rough on him, that there wasn't much I could do. What was my impression? My impression is that Heezen got a raw deal, but that our obligation was to carry out the decision that Ewing had recommended because he was the director of the Observatory, which was that he be separated. He also threatened to sue. And I can't remember whether he did or not. I don't think he did.
Doel:Of course, he died during the time that you were president of Columbia. It was 1977, I think, and that he had his fatal heart attack.
McGill:That's right. That's right. Actually, you know, when I reflect on it, I must have had twenty or thirty or such episodes with individuals, where I felt that the nature of the dispute was not clean and where it was hard for me to sustain a choice that had been made by a dean or by a faculty. But that I felt I had to do it because the only way I know to run a diverse institution like that is to permit the people involved the freedom of action to make their own choices. And Heezen was just one of several. Yes, I remember that very well.
Doel:Were they primarily concentrated at Lamont, or was this university wide?
McGill:No. Oh, no, no, no. In fact the only disciplinary matter of that kind that I dealt with at Lamont was Heezen. But there was a Dean of Business who was the subject of a vote of no confidence by his faculty. And they communicated this to me secretly and then rather than deal with him directly, they sent him over to me. And I had to explain to him what had happened and tell him that probably there's no legal basis, but if you put up a fight about it, it's going to damage you and it's going to damage us. Probably time for you to resign. I had a similar thing with the Dean of the School of the Arts. The School of the Arts recommended a dean and then changed their mind. And the person they had recommended was a very eminent writer, and the person they had decided they wanted after he became available was a man named Schuyler Chapin who was later the director of the Metropolitan Opera. He succeeded Rudolph Bing. But I had to do these things as a matter of my conception of the responsibilities of the job that I held. I was told, and I believe it to be true, that Grayson had no stomach for this kind of ugly business. And one of the deans said to me at one point, at the time that I was leaving, that I had made lots of mistakes, but that one of the things he admired most was that I did my own dirty work. And I tried always to offer the individual involved an opportunity to make the choice his, so that he would not be humiliated or embarrassed. And that there would not be these ugly stories such as Walter Sullivan wrote about Lamont. And by and large, I think with a few exceptions we managed — when you think about the fact that this was coming up virtually monthly — we managed most of them in such a way that nobody ever really found out. And that people later on would say to me that they resented it when I raised the question, but they thought it was handled properly.
Doel:That's interesting and it's an important —
McGill:It's very important that you be able to do that. It's one of the hardest things about being the senior executive of a place like that. You have to deal with a variety of forms of human cussedness, including some injustices. And you have to somehow underwrite an injustice as being the least dangerous outcome.
Doel:What you're saying makes me curious. As you met with fellow university presidents around the country in the early 70s, was Lamont — did it stand out the conflict as one of the more unusual cases? Were others aware of it and watching it?
McGill:It was well known. The managerial difficulties and Maurice's [Ewing] paranoia and his powerful effort to become independent were well known, well understood.
Doel:Other universities were concerned in similar ways about the relationship that the president —
McGill:Well, they were watching it to see what might happen. The analogy that I can draw for you is that, when overhead became a major source of university — of research university financing — such that a large university would have, oh five or more federal auditors in continuing residence, there was a very rapid development of pressure system in which departments that were generating large amounts of overhead would demand to have it returned to them. Essentially as their money. Rather than budgeted by the trustees. What happened then was that everybody was watching to see whether one of these would succeed. And indeed I remember while I was at UCSD as chancellor an agreement was reached in the University of Illinois to have overhead as raised by departments re-budgeted back to departments, for which you can make a case. But what that leads to is a fractionation system within the university that we saw as antithetical to the future of Columbia. See, Columbia's problem was that six to eight million dollar annual deficit in the Arts and Sciences created mainly by departments that had no access to overhead. So we wanted to do the cost shifting for the good of the University as a whole. At Illinois, the Physics department became stronger, and the Computer Science department became stronger, and the English department weakened. And everybody was watching that. And I believe everybody continues to watch that problem. Because of its impact on the larger future of universities. If you believe as I do that the community should — that the American concept of the university, which is unique — we are not a collection of institutes separately funded by the —
Doel:It's a Germanic model.
McGill:— government as is done in Europe. We are a unified entity and our future should continue to lie that way for as long as we can maintain it. Because I think it strengthens the institution.
Doel:That's a very important point. Indeed, it's a critical issue.
McGill:It's a critical issue.
Doel:Were there others at Lamont among the younger generation that you took particular notice of in the time of the crisis? I wonder for instance if you recall meeting people like Denny [Dennis E.] Bayes, Marcus Langseth, Walter [C.] Pitman [III].
McGill:I met Denny Hayes. I have to tell you that the one who made the most profound impact on me, which turned out to be very wise, was Wally [Broecker]. He was a very young guy at that time.
Doel:He was also on the geochemical side.
McGill:He's turned out to be something rather spectacular.
Doel:Would he and others at that time talk to you about their own research? Were you getting a clear idea of what other people —?
McGill:Imbrie and Broecker did talk to me about their research. They talked to deBary at length about the inner politics of geology versus Lamont, and deBary would then talk to me. And we had what I would call a central administration position. The technical problem that is outlined in that aide memoir is the question that under such enormous financial stresses, with thirteen different deans, sub units of the University, there was always the potential of the University going off in thirteen directions simultaneously. And the central administration had been so weakened by the financial stresses and by the riots in ‘68 that it would have happened naturally and easily. And our central, our group — McGill, deBary, Polykarp Kusch while he was there, Paul Carter — came to believe that we had to centralize that control. We had to get budgetary control to prevent this dissolution. And it became a very important cause for us. And I discussed that extensively with the trustees, and they were all thoroughly behind the notion. Now that problem persists today, Ron. I'm sure that you paid attention to the George Rupp's firing of Austin Quigley. I read between the lines that what happened here was that Quigley, the Dean of the College, is behaving like a Dean of the College. That is, pushing for his interests against the budget decisions of the Dean of Arts and Sciences. And the Dean of Arts and Sciences spoke to the President and the President backed him. And Quigley was fired. And all hell broke loose. And so Quigley was unfired. The identical circumstances occurred during my regime. I think maybe they were handled a little more artfully than that. But the fact is that in an institution like Columbia or Harvard or Penn, Yale, less so Dartmouth and Brown, there will always be this pressure to organize a unit of the organization as a constituent. You know the concept of the iron triangle in Washington.
McGill:Well, you have iron triangles. And those units can show the maille fist to the president if they disagree fundamentally with a decision that he's made, or if it isn't handled with art. Or if the preparations aren't made well in advance. And it can be it can be a blow. I believe that, I guess I would want us to suppress this until after it's —
Surely, this can be closed. [Portion of transcript is closed, please contact the Niels Bohr Library & Archives to access it at firstname.lastname@example.org]
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