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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of William De Bary by Ron Doel and Mike Sfraga on 1997 May 27,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Discusses first impressions of Maurice Ewing and his awareness of Lamont; describes in detail the dispute between Maurice Ewing and President McGill, paying particular attention to the role of Polykarp Kusch and Bruce Bassett. Describes his role as provost and the actions and discussions he initiated in order to stabilize Lamont during Ewing's departure; discusses the concerns about foundation revenue being lost. Discusses the process of replacing Ewing and ultimately choosing Manik Talwani; describes how Columbia finally overcame their financial crisis with a three year plan. Discusses Ewing's strengths and weaknesses as director of Lamont; describes how he and others secured Lamont's future despite Ewing's departure to Houston.
This is Ron Doel and this is an interview with William Theodore De Bary, and I should note that Mike Sfraga is in the room with me and doing this recording. Today is the twenty-seventh of May, 1997 and we’re making this recording at Columbia University in New York. One of the things that I was very curious about was your first impressions of Maurice Ewing. When was it that you first came into contact with him or first heard about him and Lamont?
Well, of course, I had heard a great deal about him. He was a legendary figure and, you know, everybody considered him to be a giant in the business. That was while I was still not involved with the provostship. I was active in the university as the first chairman of the executive committee of the University Senate which was set up just after the disturbances and upheavals of ‘68 and ‘69. Otherwise, most of my previous academic and professional work had been pretty much confined to the Asian field and to my involvement with the College — Columbia College faculty. So Lamont, as a research center, was rather removed from my duties and my work as a teacher in the College primarily. I developed the College program in general education in Asia. So from that point of view I had no reason to know anything about Lamont, other than that it was considered by the people that I knew to be a premier geological observatory. And that it was situated in Palisades, New York, which is not far from where I was living in Tappan, New York.
So one would know it as simply a neighborhood thing.
Had you ever visited there?
I don’t think I had actually visited there. But very early in my provost ship, the question came up in a dinner table conversation with Corliss Lamont — professor at the Law School, adjunct professor — concerning the nature sanctuary that had been provided by his family next to Lamont Observatory.
Indeed. And we should say this is after 1971, when you become provost.
It was in 1971.
Yes. The exact dating and chronology I cannot tell you, but it was very soon after I became provost. And I happened to be talking with him at a dinner, and he expressed his concern with respect to the disposition of the sanctuary. And he was hoping that somehow Columbia would take responsibility for that. At that time, it was in the hands, in the custody, of the Nature Conservancy. And I think he hoped that some more definitive settlement of that would take place. That Columbia would take responsibility for it along with the geological observatory. That made some kind of sense. So, as one of my projects, I undertook to arrange for that to happen, and for the sanctuary to be, you might say, opened up for visits especially by Columbia and Barnard people. And had to make certain legal arrangements, certain other kinds of arrangements in order to do that. You had to provide sanitary facilities and all that. So, in other words, that made me much more familiar with the area than I had been before. I had to go up and visit it several times. Then very soon — almost simultaneously I would say — I became aware of the great dispute between Maurice Ewing and the president.
And Bill [William J.] McGill?
Bill McGill. And that was something that had already been joined before I became provost. I think it was. I don’t know the extent of the involvement in this of Polykarp Kusch, who was my predecessor as provost and vice president. Bruce Bassett, have you encountered that name? Bruce Bassett was the principal assistant of Polykarp Kusch for fiscal management, and he became the vice president for fiscal affairs at the time that Kusch resigned. Now, I don’t know whether you can retrieve anywhere in the university archives, the plans that Kusch left for the reorganization of the university.
That’s a very interesting point. I haven’t seen those. What generally were the ideas that he had for reorganizing?
Well, some of them were really quite far out. I disagreed with him frankly. So I’m not a good one to testify.
Sure. In general terms, I’m just curious what it was that he was thinking.
For instance, his idea of selective excellence was hardly unusual, even at that time, and you still hear it quite frequently. Recently, Yale was operating on the same principle of selective excellence. The idea was to get rid of programs that were weak. And they included such things as the — not just the School of Library Science, which was actually among library schools, one of the very best.
But financially it was not doing that well. And the space that it occupied in the library was needed by the library itself. Well, I won’t go into those things. But there were other, much less obvious things that he sought to do. One was to abolish the School of International Affairs. [Laughter] which of course I, as soon as I became provost, put aside and, in fact, made every effort to strengthen the School of International Affairs. But as part of this overall plan, certainly there was no inclination to get rid of Lamont Observatory.
Did you have a chance to discuss Lamont’s situation with Kusch?
No. No. There were too many things on the burner, front burner, at that time. And Kusch left kind of mad at McGill I think. But, he never said anything directly. It was a tense situation; a sensitive thing. And you had the feeling you know, that there were so many wounds involved that there it was just not profitable to pursue those things.
Was there a relationship between Ewing and Kusch?
I don’t know. I don’t know. There might have been because Kusch had been around for a fair while, and as a professor of physics and so forth, he must have had contacts with Ewing. I can’t believe that he didn’t. In fact, I think some of Ewing’s faculty were people trained in physics. So there has to be some connection. In fact, I think maybe even John Ewing might have been trained as a physicist. I think Jack [John E.] Nafe, have you run into that name? Well, you know, these are just hazy recollections, twenty-six years after.
So, I suspect that Kusch knew a lot more about it than I did when I was the provost. But, see, Kusch left. He went on leave and then he didn’t want to come back to Columbia. And so he took a position in Texas, at Dallas. And, as you know, Ewing went to Houston. Rather interesting that they both repaired to Texas. But that meant that Kusch was not around. I probably would have consulted him more had he been around because I had a lot to learn. And I needed more about the background of some of these things, especially this dispute with Lamont. But about all I know is that, I think, well Bruce Bassett is still in the city. If you haven’t contacted him, you certainly ought to, find out from him, what — because it was primarily a financial dispute. Okay?
Between McGill and Ewing.
Yes. But I think it was a dispute that arose out of plans, policies that were drawn up by Kusch and Bassett, Bruce Bassett. Bruce Bassett is out of the business school.
But it had to do with indirect cost charges and the income from those, and how much of that should be retained by the Observatory, and how much of it should be available for Columbia’s use. As would be the case with most government contract arrangements, the indirect cost charges accrue to the university. But the fact is, it may have involved not only indirect cost but some direct cost charges. But these details were not known to me what I knew was that — I think it may have been even before I had agreed to be provost — there was a showdown between Ewing and McGill in McGill’s office. And McGill stood firm in the demands he was making on Ewing, and I guess Ewing made it clear that he wouldn’t stay around if McGill went ahead with that. So very soon thereafter it became clear that Ewing was, in fact, going to leave.
This is about 1972 that.
No, I would say, ‘71-’72.
Do you think it was earlier? Still ‘71?
It was very soon after I came, July 1st, ‘71. It was already brewing at that time.
Did McGill talk to you about the dispute as it was going on?
A little, but not that much. It was mainly being handled by himself and Bruce Bassett. My concern was, to try to contain the damage. At that point, I had no idea as to — I was not sufficiently in command of the financial issues so that I could usefully take a position. But I was very concerned about Ewing’s departure and the possibility that he might very well try to take with him some of his leading scientists. That seemed to be a very strong possibility. So, what I thought that I could usefully do was spend a fair amount of time with the leading faculty of the Observatory and try to reassure them that the university was very much concerned about their staying if at all possible. And apart from this financial dispute, seeing that their needs were adequately taken care of, and whatever they hoped for in the future, they knew they could get cooperation. Simply the fact that McGill and Ewing had come to a parting of the ways, wouldn’t necessarily mean the complete collapse of the Observatory.
You know, there’s a few interesting things that you’ve mentioned. As you think back, how did the kind of reimbursements, the indirect costs for Lamont, compare to the other quasi-independent research institutes that Columbia was operating at the time?
Well, I think it didn’t compare with medical school.
In what way was it different?
No, I mean, I think you’re talking about the income.
Well, I’m thinking also in terms of —
— well, see we — Actually I should mention that McGill and Bassett moved at the same time to command a larger share of the indirect cost allowances from the medical school. And again, the details at this moment are not at all clear in my mind. But the one principle that personally I favored in any of these dealings was that a certain percentage be assured to those who were bringing in the contract funds. You see? That we have some kind of agreement as to what their share was and what the university’s share was. And anything over that, they could call their own. So they would have an incentive.
And this kind of dispute was not shared with other units on the campus? I’m just curious to gauge —
— oh well, no, we had some —
— how exceptional this seemed to be.
We had some tense moments with medical school. It wasn’t exclusively a Lamont problem. It was a general problem of trying to recover from a twenty thousand — twenty million dollar deficit the university was running when I came into the provost ship and when McGill came in as president. [Andrew W.] Cordier, his predecessor, didn’t mind spending money. He was quite willing to spend money to buy peace on the campus.
And Andy Cordier had been brought in after Grayson Kirk left in the height of the crisis?
That’s right. That’s right. So Cordier got credit for bringing peace to the campus, but he left us with a tremendous deficit. And that had to be, we had to somehow recoup from that. And there was no way you could — at that time, this is ‘71, ‘70- ‘71 — you can’t reduce twenty million dollars all that quickly. But you can’t do it without taking some rather drastic steps. And there were many drastic steps. So that should be, you should be aware of that.
That’s an important point, yes.
For instance, the development office was cut back. Very, very substantially; a lot of things at major expense. Public relations cut back, very, very substantially. It was something that was going on wherever we could find ways of doing it. Always it involved some sacrifices, you know. Cordier went in big for PR. And McGill decided relatively early, well, in this situation we have to go without the PR, that’s not fundamental. We saved some money on it. So it suggests the kind of crisis atmosphere in which you would dare to touch something as sacred as Maurice Ewing and Lamont.
So that leads me to this question then, in a time when you had deficit issues, significant deficit issues, and you have a person like Maurice Ewing who can apparently go out and raise significant amounts of money — Doherty money and those things— was there a concern on your part or others part that this confrontation then would lead to Ewing’s going somewhere else and take with him —
— of course —
— those moneys that he was developing or had already developed?
Of course. Of course, of course. And part of my job would be, again, I was not primarily in the fiscal end of things, was to meet with people from Doherty Foundation and Vetlesen Foundation and try to reassure them that Columbia wasn’t, you know, pulling the rug out from under the whole program. We had a dispute with Ewing, but we very much wanted to see Lamont continue and to thrive and not lose all that had been accomplished. That was primarily my strategy.
I was just curious when you mention the Vetlesen Foundation. Were you meeting with Hank Walter, do you recall? Or was it?
I can’t remember the people with whom I met at that time. But —
— Rowe, George Rowe I believe was also involved in the Vetlesen at that time.
I don’t remember. Sorry. But, you know, it’s long after and in the meantime my mind has been filled with a lot of Chinese, Japanese and Korean names so. [Laughter] Sorry. But.
In a moment we have some correspondence from that era that I want to bring up. But please go ahead.
I’m interested in this Doherty Foundation connection only because that was still a fresh event happening at Lamont, the including of Doherty there. I’m wondering how they took this departure of Maurice Ewing. Was that a significant concern to them? Or were they?
It certainly was. It certainly was. He had very close connections with them, and I think they would have done, you know, everything they possibly could to try to dissuade McGill from what he was doing. They didn’t want to see him go.
Did they actually try to?
And Ewing didn’t hesitate to bring all that kind of thing to bear on the university. Now, I never. I don’t recall any specific threats from them. It was all implied; that they would withdraw support. And I don’t remember to the effect that they would necessarily direct it to Houston or anything like that. But, we had to take that very seriously. That’s why I spent a fair amount of time just trying to reassure them that as far as the university administration was concerned, it did not signal any sharp redirection of our policy or any lack of interest in the kind of the thing that was being done at Lamont. But we had to solve our financial problems. And this was one of the ways we had to do it. So they shouldn’t take it as meaning anything more than that; signaling any more than that. Still cared a lot about their continuing support, and we were in touch with the leading scholars and scientists at Lamont to reassure them on the same point.
It sounds like that was one of the things that you did spend a lot of time doing, reassuring the community.
Well, I, I worked hard at my job, and I spent a lot of time. I can’t say it was a major portion of my time. But certainly I worked at that. And I, as I say, I met with the leading scientists, had them to dinner, and things like that.
Who do you remember talking with particularly at Lamont?
Well, I remember especially talking with John Ewing because I felt that was rather key element. And a very sensitive one, you see? It had to be handled with some delicacy. I couldn’t assume that he would necessarily leave with his brother, but on the other hand, it had to be, you know, a delicate problem for him. So it’s just one of those things where you try to reassure him that he needn’t feel that he has to go, just because his brother is going. And I can’t remember all the names of the people that I spent time with. Frankly, as provost, I did devote a lot of time to meeting with faculty of all the schools, all the major university faculties, and attending their faculty meetings and things like that. I put a lot of time in on that.
I was curious if you remember meeting Wally [Wallace C.] Broecker when you were out?
I do. Yes, very much so. I was very much impressed with Wally Broecker, and continued to be. So I would say he’s one of the persons that certainly would have better recollections of this period, and he would have known things about it that I don’t know. But the other person — besides Broecker, Ewing, Jack Nafe — was Manik Talwani, who was not one of the premier scientists there. But he happened to be somebody in a position. He was, you might say, somebody with a certain amount of political tact and so forth, who served as a mediator and who was in touch with the faculty and helpful in persuading them not to leave.
And how did he, how did he come to play this role, Talwani?
I don’t think he — he was just one of several people that I could talk with fairly honestly and who was cooperative and who seemed to have the requisite tact and diplomatic skills so that he could talk to the rest of the faculty. There’s a limit to how much negotiation you can do with that many people, and you have to work through somebody who’s willing to take some responsibility. And he was just one of them. But that’s about as much as I can say about that.
And clearly one of the other difficult issues within the Lamont community at the time was the relationship with the department of geology. The question of hiring researchers to enhance Lamont’s research abilities versus those who could perform also within the teaching functions of the university. As I recall, Manik Talwani was concerned to keep the balance so that the teaching obligations weren’t neglected.
Yes, that’s true. But that’s about as much as one could say about that. Obviously the department was a relatively small operation in comparison —
— Comparatively —
— to Lamont. But we, but I myself, you see, was very much concerned with the educational side of it. As a matter of personal conviction, tended to give a higher priority to education than just simply to research. In other words, I was very much concerned with the relationship of research to the educational mission.
One thing I was curious about too was how Talwani gained the appointment as the acting director of Lamont after Ewing left?
Well, I know that I recommended it to the president.
And that that was because he was someone who seemed to at least have the confidence of the rest of the faculty. Now, I didn’t keep up with things after I left the provostship in ‘78. I didn’t keep up with things, and I, as I heard or understood later, Talwani was not that successful as a director. So he was replaced. But exactly what the complaints were or the grounds for his resignation, all that I really don’t know. But what I do readily testify to is that the judgment that I made was simply that he was somebody who could keep the thing together, and prevent the loss of other scientists. As to whether he could provide the kind of leadership that Ewing had ever provided, I had no reason to believe that he could.
Which of course leads to the question of what plans had been in place to try to find a replacement for Ewing as director of Lamont-Doherty? Had there been a search committee set up that you recall to screen nationally prominent scientists?
I don’t think, I don’t think there was at that time a search committee. But there was a committee of the Lamont faculty who were asked to make a recommendation, and they recommended Talwani.
Do you remember other names that might have come up, other recommendations?
No, I don’t. No. See I was not in a position myself to evaluate these things. And I had to pretty much rely on the leading figures at Lamont. They thought Talwani was the person to do it. But you see it was kind of a judgment made in a crisis, to deal with an emergency. And get through it. But with regard to long—term development prospects, I don’t know if there’s anybody thought Talwani was necessarily the person to do this.
One of the things that the Doherty Foundation people — like I think A.C. Newlin and Brown were some of the principal people.
I did meet with Newlin fairly often.
What sort of a person was he?
He was a Columbia law graduate; married to a woman, that by a curious freak of history I had known in my hometown in New Jersey.
Is that right?
Which town was that by the way?
So I had a sort of a personal connection with Mrs. Newlin. He was not a particularly engaging or charming person, but I think he was concerned on the one hand to do all he could for Ewing, but on the other hand, I think he realized that it would not be in the interests of the Foundation to have this thing proceed to a point where the whole Lamont-Doherty Observatory was dismantled on account of a messy internal struggle. I think he was aware of that.
Do you recall some of the early negotiations between the Doherty Foundation? Was it a — was Ewing the one, the point man to go out to make a personal contact with the Doherty Foundation and then try to bring that money in or was it something that Columbia consciously went after?
I think it probably was Ewing before my time. I simply don’t know. I think Bassett’s no longer at show up occasionally at alumni events. But I don’t know. That’s possible that Bassett may the university. He does but he’s in the city someplace. You ought to get ahold of him. Have you tried? You didn’t know about him?
We haven’t yet tried. One of the other things I was curious about was that there’s one memorandum that has turned up in the archives that makes clear that Newlin wanted Lamont to be run by someone of nationally prominent stature, someone like Frank Press for instance who had been at Lamont until the mid-1950s.
We tried. I think Press was asked, but at that point he didn’t want to.
I can imagine.
You can understand why. See people of that stature would not want to seem to be, have any complicity in the removal of Ewing. I know Frank Press was sounded out.
I believe Walter Monk at Scripps was also considered as a candidate?
Had you met them when they came through? At least Monk actually was visiting on the campus.
Yes. I did meet Monk. We did consult people like that. But there was no encouragement to think that they would be willing to come. Well, I mean, that was something that was thought of before we settled for Talwani. But certainly, the fact that the committee at the Observatory were aware of these same things, then the difficulty was persuading somebody like Press to come.
Keith Runcorn I believe was also another name that at least the Newlin Foundation people were interested in.
I don’t remember.
Do you recall what the reaction of perhaps the like institutions around the country might have been? Did that come up at all? The Ewing McGill feud and Ewing’s departure, did that come up in other meetings you might have had with your colleagues?
I don’t recall.
I’m trying to get a sense of the scale of Ewing’s departure and the direction.
No, I don’t think it. I don’t have any recollection of that. And it wouldn’t have been the subject of any formal discussion with anything — like I met with the Provosts’ group of the Ivy League colleges, Chicago and Stanford. There were ten provosts who met annually, in fact, semi-annually. And we discussed a lot of joint problems, but this was too special a case at Columbia.
You mentioned a moment ago the problems of bringing someone of national prominence in to replace Ewing. And one point that you mention is clearly perceptions of being seen in complicity with Ewing’s removal. What other difficulties were there that someone coming in as a potential future director of Lamont?
Well, the obvious one.
The financial issue is one.
Sure. That it’d be hard to get foundation support of the kinds that Ewing did because other foundations, you know, would be dubious. Why Columbia had let Ewing go, or forced him out, or whatever it was that initially happened. So I think that was certainly an issue that was very much on our minds.
Were there initiatives underway that overlapped Ewing’s departure, Talwani’s reign at Lamont that might have gone, you might have been able to bring in or that fell short because of Ewing’ s departure?
Not that I know of. Of course, my own whole purpose and function was to contain the damage, you know. So I thought we did pretty well.
You know those were very tough years for the university.
Yes. When did you feel that the university was turning the page on that book? On the fiscal emergency?
Oh, I think we, we had a three year plan to achieve fiscal balance. And we met it. It’s very difficult to answer a question like that because you meet it by making certain economies.
The next thing you know your successors come in and say, our predecessors neglected this and that. They didn’t invest sufficiently in a capital budget and physical maintenance of the university declined; all sorts of stuff. Publicity, PR, everything suffered. You can always find things you can blame on your predecessors that make you, yourself, less blameworthy for what problems still exist. Get the idea?
I certainly do.
That’s standard. Every new administration dumps on the previous administration. During a certain honeymoon period a new president will pay tribute to his predecessor. But when he begins to have to take responsibility for things, then he can always find something to criticize. In terms of bringing the university into budgetary balance however, we did it in three years but at some cost.
Do you think there were some in the higher administration at Columbia though, given the increasingly difficult relationship with Ewing, who thought it might be better if Ewing were no longer head of Lamont?
I wasn’t aware of it. It’s possible that there were people at Lamont who —
— I mean even within the —
Who were dissatisfied? I don’t know.
I was thinking generally in Columbia circles here. If there were some who had felt that Ewing’s leadership was such that perhaps it was time for a change in direction at Lamont?
I’m not aware of that. But perhaps the reason I’m not aware of it is that we had so many other serious problems. That it’s hard to worry about those things. There were so many more urgent matters that had to be dealt with that we weren’t just, you know, sort of keeping the ear to the ground about what some people thought about other people and that sort of thing. We were just running to keep up.
I imagine it felt like triage at certain points.
Well, anyhow, we did what we had to do. And I don’t think we did a bad job of it. But then at best, we were gonna have to suffer some losses.
What I have here is a copy of one letter that you had sent to Dean Fraenkel and Marshall Kay as well as Manik Talwani. I’m just curious if that helps bring back some memories of what I’m sure were the difficult negotiations during that time. And that was in the midst of negotiations with the Doherty Foundation in early 1972. [Pause as letter is read]
Well, so far not.
These are indeed about the very negotiations that you were talking about.
Right. I’d have to read this much more carefully than I can do now, if I were going to be able to recall more than I have.
And it’s clear as you say too that one of the more difficult issues in dealing with Newlin was that he felt that the gift had been made to Ewing as opposed to a gift to the university.
Well, he did everything he could to support Ewing. Now if you want to go on further, I’ve got to check with my secretary before she leaves. She’ll be leaving in a few minutes. And I may have to sign some things. But I can come back if you want to go on.
We may just have one or two questions if that would be all right.
Well it all depends as she’s about to leave.
We’re resuming after a rather brief pause. What I have is also a copy of the Observatory, the report from the university in 1975. And by that point you were considered to be on the administrative committee of Lamont.
How did that committee work? You were there, George Fraenkel, dean of the Graduate School, was there. Denny Hays, one of the long term members of Lamont was also on it. Jack Nafe as you mention. Walter Pitman, Lynn Sykes, Manik. How did that committee function? What were the main roles that it took on?
Gee, I have very, very little recollection of it. I don’t think it could have met very often. I don’t recall any meetings at which any crucial decisions were made.
Manik didn’t try to use that committee. Talwani didn’t use that committee then to help air philosophical views or administrative particulars that he wanted to?
No, I think he probably used it more for backing himself up and to get support for things. More or less that he — decisions he had to make — he had the support of an administrative committee. Usually administrative committees would meet once a year to receive a report from the director and respond and raise questions. But fairly routine. The reason that there was a committee, and I’m not sure that there had been one before. There may or may not have been. But my own administration, I devoted a great deal of time to seeing that all such research institutes had an administrative committee so that they weren’t simply in the hands of the director. This was also a problem with International Affairs where you have a lot of regional institutes. And one of the problems was that when Andy Cordier was dean of international affairs, this was before he was president, he made a lot of decisions about what to do over there, including academic and curricular decisions that were not certified or ratified by any faculty body. In other words, we were in a very weak position when we were accused of doing things, for instance, with relations to Vietnam, Vietnamese studies, East Asian studies. And that, you know, we were, actually it was the school administration that was deciding things, not the faculty. We were in a weak position to claim academic freedom. It was just the administration. Then, that was fair game for political pressure so people could say, you should do this. And the fair thing to do was to recognize the political claims on the university, you see. And not just have things decided by the establishment at that time. So I said, every institute has to have an administrative committee that ratifies any major curricular decisions. And it’s quite possible that this was one of those things that I thought was necessary at Lamont. Whether there had any such before, I am not at all sure. Lamont was so much Ewing’s preserve, people left things pretty much to Ewing.
You were saying that was a guess. That that's something you’d have to.
Early on in Talwani’s time as director, did he come to you? Did he use you as a sounding board or discuss issues with you?
Well, he did. Yes. But i don’t remember any particular issues right now. You know, it was mainly a matter of trying to recover some kind of stability. And I think the general attitude among people at Lamont was, yes, we’re gonna try to keep the place together and try to smooth things over and work to, so that we can carry on. And certainly you didn’t have the kinds of political problems that we had with financial affairs. So it was primarily a matter of getting things back on an even keel. Or keeping them on an even keel and limiting the damage from Ewing’s departure. But that was a certainly a traumatic time. I guess you’re aware of the fact that Ewing didn’t really survive it. He went to Houston, but he was a broken-hearted man.
Clearly not as many people went with him as he initially hoped would be the case. And he was not able to get the ships to Texas as clearly he had thought he’d be able to do. And that must have been difficult to read about those in the New York Times were reporting and the Texas papers were reporting it.
So, on the whole, I think we came out of it about as well as we could have expected. But I felt myself that it was a personal tragedy. I had great sympathy for the man. He was a giant, but he had the weaknesses of a giant.
What sort of things are you talking about?
Do you know where he’s buried?
Actually I don’t.
On a hill across from Lamont — Rockland cemetery. You ought to go there and see the inscription on his grave next to General Fremont. General Fremont, you know, the guy who conquered the northwest. It’s a rather historic spot. But just see what was there.
Have you seen? You’ve been out to the grave site?
Oh yes. In fact, I attended the funeral and graveside ceremony.
You say you recall the weaknesses of him as a great man. I’m curious what sort of things cross your mind when you say that?
Well just the, he thought that the Observatory was really the Ewing Observatory. He built it and he thought it was his, and anybody else should stay off. So he was a very strong minded, aggressive person. And I’m sure he must have thought somebody like me, you know. As provost, you see, I clearly was in a position to decide things adverse to him. The fact is the decisions had already been made. So the struggle was between him and McGill. He wasn’t gonna pay that much attention to me. But I mean that’s, he had a big ego, you know and a lot of pride, justifiable pride. Okay?
How well did you know Harriet [Ewing]?
Not that well.
But it placed you in a rather difficult position perhaps, to have Ewing on one side and McGill on the other, and have this battle between these two.
Well, I had to support McGill. You know, that was a condition of my becoming provost. I wasn’t gonna try to undo the decisions he had already made. I had to accept that. But really, as I told you, my main motive was to try to keep the place together and to reassure the faculty that they didn’t have to follow Ewing. And I felt that I succeeded in that.
Did you have faculty come to independent and speak their peace?
No. I went to them in every way that I could. Spent a lot of time at Lamont, meeting with them. And I think I was on fairly good personal terms with many of them. And I was particularly concerned to meet and talk personally with people that I thought were the most likely to leave. Would feel the greatest pull, like John Ewing. So from that standpoint I felt that I was able to serve a useful function.
Had you met with Joe Worzel or was it clear that —?
What sort of impressions did you have of those meetings with him?
Well, I don’t know. I felt he was just very much Ewing’s operations officer, executive officer. He was definitely Ewing’s man. But among other things, you mention that — I got along with him, you know, personally all right. But there was never a question that he was, he was with Ewing from beginning to end and that was not something I was going to have influence on him.
I’m curious when you had those meetings with the different faculty members you were concerned might leave. Did they also use the occasion to talk about their own research interests? Did they raise questions about what they felt most needed to be done at Lamont that you were in a position to think of it?
If so, I don’t recall.
You mention. Go ahead.
I was not in a position to advise them or make a judgment with respect to long range research or academic policy. It was all so new to me. All I could do was listen to what they had to say, and help them in whatever way was possible. But I don’t have any sense that I ever could get into that question as to what the long range future of Lamont would be. That was something that other people would have to work on.
You mention you were concerned particularly with the private foundations and the question of their support for Lamont. But still a major part of its budget was coming from the federal patrons, and ONR, and some of the other agencies. Was there a concern that their support might also diminish under a new administration? Did you have to work with people in those [cross talk]
Well, I don’t recall having any involvements with Washington. And my own sense of it was that primary responsibility there was for us to reassure the individual investigators, scientists, we would give them all the support we could. But basically we were counting on the contract holders, the grant holders to carry their own show. There wasn’t any way I could get very much involved in that. I had eighteen schools to worry about. [Laughter] I was sort of drafted, you know. In the political emergency, had never expected or prepared myself to be involved in this kind of thing. I was simply like Cincinnatus coming out of the [crosstalk], trying to get a handle on things.
That’s a good way to put it. Just end with one last question. Mike Sfraga also has another one to ask you. In those discussions in the 1970s, who seemed to be the major competitors to Lamont, when you looked out over the national landscape? Which other institutions seemed to be doing exciting work that in some ways came close to that of Lamont?
Well, I was aware of Scripps [Institution of Oceanography]. I was aware of something going on down in Miami [University of Miami]. Woods Hole [Oceanographic Institution], but that’s rather special, not really in the same category. And that’s about all. Well, of course, prospectively there’s this Houston thing that could have taken off but it didn’t.
What was the feeling at Lamont or here at Columbia about that? Was that something you paid close attention to, Ewing’s developments in Houston or didn’t quite concern you?
Well, what could we do about it? You know, we were just mainly concerned with not having a whole gang following him. We succeeded in that which is probably the most we could have expected.
It must have been quite a bit of work for you considering that you needed to talk to many of these people very quickly. Because the decisions were being made after that morning meeting or the afternoon meeting when Ewing announced to his staff that he was going down, and asked people to make a decision one way or another. I can imagine you may not have seen too much of home during that period of time.
Home was not that far away.
Not that far away. And I did have a few connections with people that lived in the area, but didn’t just work at Lamont also. Lived in our area. So, it helped a little. No, but I remember I spent a fair amount of time early on in my provostship. I was kept pretty busy.
Well I do want to thank you very much for the time you’ve given to us for this interview. And you will be getting a transcript from the oral history research office in Butler Library. Thank you very much.