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Gerry Lenski (1966 and 1969-72)

(Gerry prepared this reminiscence just months before his death in December 2015.)

Turbulent Times, Mid ‘60s to early ‘70s


My association with the Carolina Sociology Department began in 1963 when I moved from the University of Michigan. This was at a time when America’s involvement in the

Vietnam War was heating up and the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum. The famous Greensboro sitin had only recently occurred and Jesse Helms was just launching his career as defender of the old order.

When some of my students at Michigan learned that I was leaving to go to a southern University, one asked me in great puzzlement why I was doing such a thing. I tried to explain that North Carolina was not your typical Southern state (e.g., Gov. Sanford had boldly seconded the nomination of Jack Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention in1960) and that the Carolina sociology department, with faculty like Rupert Vance, Guy Johnson, Dan Price, and Ernie Campbell was not your average sociology department. Furthermore, the changes that were occurring fascinated me both as a sociologist and as a citizen. I doubt, however, that I persuaded him.

By the time I became acting chair for a period in 1966 and regular chair in 1969, developments had heated up considerably, both nationally and locally. Martin Luther King’s famous march on Washington occurred on August 27, 1963, and his assassination in April, 1968 at a time when the Vietnam War was taking a turn for the worse. The infamous Kent State massacre on May 4, 1970, touched off protests on campuses all across the country, including Chapel Hill. Students and many faculty demanded action. A proposal that was becoming highly popular with students at UNC called for the boycotting of final exams and shutting the University down. To deal with a situation that threatened to get out of hand, the faculty senate called a highly unusual meeting to which all faculty members in all parts of the campus (Arts and Sciences, Med School, Law School, Ed School, etc.) were invited.

Some of us who were active in the local chapter of AAUP worried about the precedent that could be set proposed an alternative. Students would be offered the option of postponing final exams until the week prior to the start of the fall semester if they felt morally compelled, as they claimed, to take some meaningful action “in solidarity with the Kent State students.” Happily, this proposal was adopted by the faculty and, to the best of my recollection, the boycott and shutdown never occurred.

Immediately following this highly dramatic meeting, the graduate students in our sociology department held a meeting of their own. This was in response to a recent action by the students in the Department of City and Regional Planning. They had hung a banner from the wall of their building that read “Impeach Nixon,” whom they regarded as a prime cause of the on-going war in Vietnam.

A number of our more politically conscious and militant grad students could not allow the students in City and Regional Planning to be at the forefront of the local anti-war movement. They proposed hanging a more dramatic and challenging banner from the walls of Alumni Building. It would read “[obscenity deleted] Nixon.”

As chair of the department, I was concerned about the ramifications such an act might have for the University and for the Department in particular. Therefore, I asked the organizers of the group if I could offer my opinion at a meeting of all the Department’s grad students on condition that I would leave after I presented my views and they could have their discussion in private.

I learned soon thereafter that they had collectively decided not to take this inflammatory action, in no small measure because of the actions of several more mature students, such as our own Lois MacGillivray and a grad student from Political Science, a recently returned radicalized veteran of infantry action in the jungles of Vietnam and student leader of the antiwar movement They had both spoken against the proposed action, and he had apparently carried the day by referring to remarks of one of our more verbose and pompous students as “infantile radicalism.”*

Not all developments in those years had such happy outcomes. For example, there was an arson attempt by persons unknown on the top floor of Alumni Building one dark night that left many of us feeling uneasy. There was also a protest march one day through Alumni Building with the protesters disrupting a class taught by Professor Simpson whose chief offense seems to have been having his class at the wrong place at the wrong time. Within the Department there was an effort by several of the more radical junior faculty to take greater control of departmental governance. This was averted at a meeting I had one evening with the untenured faculty when, in the spirit of participatory democracy, I asked to hear the views of a number of those present, such as John Reed, Peter Uhlenberg, and Dick Rockwell, who had been conspicuously silent while the advocates of change expressed their view. Once they made their views known, it quickly became clear that the advocates for radical change in departmental governance lacked a broad base of support even among the untenured members of the Department.

On a larger stage there was the highly disruptive foodworkers’ strike brought on by years of unfair labor practices by the University and, later by the franchise that was hired to run the dining facilities. A number of departmental faculty (e.g., Henry Landsberger and Tad Blalock) actively supported the workers. Tad went so far as to use the equity of his own house to provide bail for several sociology grad students who had been arrested on one occasion (an action for which he received no thanks from the students involved). Anti-war students and faculty were active on various fronts in those years, with one of the more striking examples being a trip of several busloads of AAUP and supportive students (including a goodly representation from the Sociology Department) who had arranged a formal meeting with the entire assembled North Carolina Congressional delegation (all of whom were present except Sen. Sam Ervin) to express our views on the War. At the last minute, Dan Okun, then president of the UNC chapter of the AAUP, asked yours truly to make a basic presentation on the delegation’s behalf.

While all these events and activities were going on, the normal business of the Department continued–teaching classes, conducting research, and service to the community and state. One of the more urgent administrative tasks of the era was faculty recruitment. This was especially important at this time because the University was undergoing rapid expansion. When I arrived in 1963 the student body numbered less than ten thousand, if memory serves me; it more than doubled by the time my time as chair ended. New faculty were badly needed, and this was both a golden opportunity and a risk Good appointments would benefit the Department for years to come, but weak ones would be costly well into the future. Fortunately, I believe we did a good job, recruiting a number of people who brought added strength and prominence to the Department: Tad Blalock (later President of the American Sociological Association), Amos Hawley (another future ASA President), Glen Elder (future ASA Vice President), Leonard Cottrell (Past President of ASA), Everett K. Wilson (later Vice President of the ASA), John Reed, Henry Landsberger, and Krishnan Namboodiri, among others.

These appointments laid a foundation for further successful recruitment in the years that followed. These included, among others, Peter Blau and Arne Kalleberg (two more ASA Presidents). Criag Calhoun (now director of the London School of Economics), Peter Marsden (now on the Harvard faculty), Jack Kasarda, Howard Aldrich, and Tony Oberschall. There was, however, one serious loss when Tad Blalock resigned in 1971 in protest against what he regarded as the unjustified firing of an untenured faculty member by the Chancellor.

Another significant development in the late 1960s was the appointment in successive years of two African-American sociologists as visiting professors to the faculty and also the active recruitment to the graduate program of black graduate students (an effort led by Blalock, Cramer, Jim Wiggins, and Lenski). These efforts led to the appointment of Cora Bagwell Marrett as the department’s first AfricanAmerican in a tenure track position** and to the temporary appointment of Joe Himes, our distinguished neighbor at North Carolina Central University as a Visiting Professor.*** I believe it safe to say that during these years the Sociology Department was at the forefront of the struggle to make UNC a more inclusive and racially integrated institution.

While the political controversies made headlines, they were not the whole story. Much more was going on. In all of this, it was my good fortune as Chair to have Dick Cramer as Assistant Chair and Babe Andrew as Office Manager. Neither title begins to describe their contributions to the Department. Both were invaluable repositories of information about the University and the Department, the people involved, and the ways to get things done while avoiding unnecessary problems. Babe’s network of friends scattered all over the campus was especially invaluable and used to the department’s benefit on numerous occasions.

If the activities described above were not enough to keep us busy, the announcement by the University Administration of the decision to move the Department from Alumni Building to a new Hamilton Hall added a time consuming but important new element. We could have left the design of the new facilities to the University’s planners and saved ourselves a lot of time. We believed, however, that we (i.e., the Department faculty) understood the needs better than others, so we invested considerable time in and attention to the planning process. For example, my time as chair while in Alumni Building taught me one small lesson: the chairperson needs a back door entrance as an exit to his or her office for a variety of reasons ranging from the biological to the political.

Another development in these years was the introduction of an executive committee to work with the chair in oversight of the department. Prior to the rapid expansion of the Department in the 1960s, the faculty was small enough that it could manage its affairs sitting around a small table in a kind of “participatory democracy.” As numbers increased, however, this arrangement became more unwieldy and time-consuming, so I proposed the creation of an elected Executive Committee, with all ranks of the full-time faculty. Though this proposal met with some resistance from several of the more verbose faculty, who appeared to love protracted meetings and felt deprived by the change, the majority saw the tradeoff as beneficial.

One final set of developments in these years that merits comment is the relation of the Department to various special interest groups. During the 1960s, two such groups separated from the Department to form new departments of their own: Anthropology and Recreation Administration. Guy Johnson was an exception to the usual pattern and chose to serve in both Sociology and Anthropology.

Meanwhile, the department continued its close and fruitful relationship with the Howard Odum Institute for Research in Social Science, with the appointment of John Reed as director of the Institute and Lib Fink and Angel Beza continuing as major staff members. Harvey Smith continued as head of the medical sociology unit, but it became a focus of controversy when Cecil Sheps, Vice Chancelor for Health Affairs and Prof. Smith pressured the department to devote more of its resources (i.e., faculty positions) to medical sociology and the department resisted (in no small measure because of familiarity with the bad experience of Yale’s Sociology Department which had gone that route). Relations with the Population Center, and especially with its head, Moye Fryman, were another source of problems and tension in those years. In contrast, we were probably a source of annoyance to the Law School as we tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade them to join with us in recruiting a distinguished specialist in the sociology of law who had indicated an interest in coming to Chapel Hill. Finally, again on a more positive note, the Department collaborated with the School of Social Work to create a new joint degree program, and we developed much closer and very positive relations with the Department of Political Science with whom we came to share the newly constructed Hamilton Hall and a small library and librarian.

By way of summing up, I believe the mid-to—late 1960s and early 1970 were, on the whole, good years for the Department, even if they were turbulent and stressful. The Department was seldom in the good graces of the local powers-that-be (i.e., South Building, the Law School, and the History and Chemistry departments),**** but our rising reputation on the national stage, as reflected in national rankings (I believe we went from 10th to 8th in those years, no small achievement at that level in the rankings; only the Classics Department had a higher ranking in its field at UNC) made it difficult for the powers-that-be to be as punitive as they might often have wished.***** Perhaps they had also grown a bit more adjusted to the strange customs of our tribe which they first encountered many years earlier in the sometimes outrageous behavior of Howard Odum (founder of the department). Way back in the “good old days” when almost everyone else knew his place in society, Odum’s protégé, Guy Johnson, had had the effrontery to invite an African-American scholar to be a visiting lecturer in the Department and, worse yet, to invite him to his home to share a meal.

But what can you expect from sociologists and people like that?

After three years as chairman of the department, I was happy to step down in 1972, especially since my parents now needed much greated assistance. ****** I continued teaching, writing, and working with grad students until my increasing deafness and my then wife, Jean’s serious illness forced me to give up teaching in 1986. I finally retired entirely in 1992, and Jean died in 1994.

Subsequently, I married Tad Blalock’s widow, Ann, 1996. (He had died in 1991.) After two years of trying to maintain residences simultaneously in Chapel Hill and Seattle, I sold my home in Chapel Hill and Ann and I settled in the Seattle area where three of Ann’s three children still live. (My four children were and are scattered from Michigan to South Carolina.) In recent years, Ann has written two novels, one titled “The Letters,” the other a children’s novel titled “Lost in the Alps.” I have, with Patrick Nolan, continued to revise and update “Human Societies now in its 12th edition (2015) and published “EcologicalEvolutionary Theory: Principles and Applications” (2005). The high point of my professional life in the postretirement years has been the receipt in 2002 of the American Sociological Association’s Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award.

******* ____________

*Quoting the famous German socialist, Karl Kautsky.
** Unfortunately, Cora left Carolina after a short time to take a tenured position in the Sociology Department at Western Michigan and from there to her alma mater, the Univedrsity of Wisconsin She left largely because North Carolina State’s poultry science department was unable or unwilling to find a position for her husband, a professional in that field.
*** I was told by the state university system that one branch of the university was forbidden from competing with another.
**** We did, however, remain on friendly terms with Bill Friday, President of the University system.
***** Though it is noteworthy that they took advantage of every opportunity that came their way, as illustrated by the series of events that led to Blalock’s resignation. ****** My father, age 80, had been robbed and beaten badly in broad daylight on the streets of Washington, D.C., losing sight in one eye and suffering damage to the other. With my parents requiring greatlt increased help, I brought them to Chapel Hill and gasve up my Department chairmanship.
******* I may be contacted by regular mail at 1661174th Place West, Edmonds, WA 98026 or by email at

Submitted October 17, 2015