By Tim Brady
Mulford Q. Sibley (Ph.D. ’38) was a tall, lean, middle-aged scholar with a penchant for red ties, which he wore during his popular lectures in the University of Minnesota’s political science department. The ties symbolized for him an affinity for human solidarity and his belief in socialism, a credo he hid from no one on campus or in the Highland neighborhood in St. Paul, where he lived quietly with his family.
Sibley was one of the most popular professors at Minnesota during his 34-year career at the U, from 1948 to 1982. Known for advocating leftist, pacifist, and freethinking causes, he liked to challenge young people, and each semester invited students to his office to debate him on an issue of their choosing. “One thing that I like to do in my classes,” he told an interviewer from the Ivory Tower after winning a Science, Letters, and Arts Alumni Teacher of the Year award, “is state a position vigorously and hope the students will attack it.” It was said that there was an ever-present line of students snaking down the hall outside his office door, either taking him up on this offer, or just wanting to bask in his passionate ways of thinking.
Sibley was not simply a popular professor among the liberal-minded students at Minnesota: He was fully tenured, profusely published, and nationally recognized for his scholarship. One of his many incidental duties was to serve as adviser to a student organization called the Student Peace Union (SPU). It was in this small role, tucked into the backwaters of a long and distinguished academic career, that Sibley stepped deep into the muck of controversy in the fall of 1963.
That summer, the state’s American Legion had gathered at the Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis for its annual convention. Rumors had been circulating among the members for some time that communist influence was rife on the campus of the University of Minnesota and something ought to be done about it. A Legionnaire from Watertown, Minnesota, named Kenneth MacDonald put forward a resolution calling for the convention to demand that the state legislature investigate two organizations at the U that were said to be possible communist front groups. One called itself the World Affairs Center; the other was Sibley’s Student Peace Union. A story in the Minneapolis Tribune recorded “a roar of ‘aye’ votes” when the resolution was put before the body of the convention. Duly carried, the Legion sent its request for investigations of the U to both the state legislature and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the U.S. Congress.
Neither the legislature nor Congress felt rushed by the demands of the Minnesota American Legion, and the pace of outrage slowed. But when school started in the fall, the Minnesota Daily editorialized on the possibility of “a hunt for communists” at the University. The editors wrote that while it was entirely possible that the SPU and the World Affairs Center might have a communist member or two, neither “by any stretch of the imagination can be called a communist front organization.”
Sibley entered the fray at this juncture. He was miffed by what he called “the apologetic tone of some of the defenders of SPU and the World Affairs Center.” To Professor Sibley the point was an issue of academic freedom, plain and simple. As advisor to the SPU, he didn’t know if any of its members were communists, but so what if they were? “Would this justify University or state intervention? I think not, unless we assume it’s the business of the University administration or the state government to tell students what they should and shouldn’t think.”
Sibley went further: “We need students who challenge orthodoxies,” he argued. Planting seeds of doubt and subversion in students’ minds helped create moral and intellectual progress. “Personally,” he wrote, “I would like to see on the campus one or two communist professors, a student communist club, a chapter of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, a Society for the Promotion of Free Love, a League for the Overthrow of Government by Jeffersonian Violence (LOGJV), an Anti-Automation League, and perhaps a Nudist Club. No university should be without individuals or groups like these.”
To some, the list was an obvious tweak at the narrow minds that Sibley saw behind the accusations leveled at the SPU. To others it was proof positive of subversion at the U. Here was a full professor advocating not just for communist clubs on campus, but for free love and nudism as well. Sibley’s letter was reprinted in a number of newspapers in the region, including the Minneapolis Star. Incredulous eyes opened wide across the state and predictable outrage ensued.
Milton Rosen, a neighbor of Sibley’s who was a St. Paul City Council member, not only took exception to the letter, but also followed up the American Legion by writing to the state legislature demanding that Sibley be fired. Rosen also gave a speech at a local business club in St. Paul in which he denounced Sibley and what was “going on at the University of Minnesota.” Included in his tirade was an accusation that U professors were taking coeds “into their cars,” an odd euphemism for having sexual relations. Clips of Rosen’s speech were filmed by a local television station and aired on the nightly news.
The growing strangeness of the controversy did not escape the notice of students on campus, where Sibley’s popularity, if anything, grew because of the dispute. Students mocked the concerns of the “squares” by pinning “I am a member of the Nudist Club” buttons to their bulky winter jackets. A group of scholars also invited Rosen to come to campus and publicly debate Sibley.
It turned out that Rosen, a plumber by trade, was not as talented as the professor in unclogging an intellectual dispute. The councilman argued that there were some ideas that God had deemed just plain wrong and any teacher who taught them ought to be “bounced out of the university.” Sibley emphasized his central points about how students needed to be exposed to and examine a variety of ideas, even some of which were extreme. Professors needed the freedom to present these ideas and offer instruction on how to view them. About 1,200 students attended the debate and frequently guffawed at some of Rosen’s points.
A far more sizable audience watched the debate on local television at home—yes, it was televised—and many of them were far more receptive than the U students to the councilman’s arguments. Rosen’s request of the state legislature, the petition of Minnesota State American Legion, and a substantial portion of public sentiment continued to urge the assembly to take some action. They found sympathetic ears in the state senate, where the education committee agreed to hold hearings into the University’s hiring policies come May.
More furor ensued as Lieutenant Governor Sandy Keith weighed in, reminding everyone that the University had been governed by the Board of Regents since its inception—legislators, he said, had no business questioning the hiring and firing of faculty. By this time the controversy had gained national attention, as well. In a column entitled “The Professor in Left Field,” archconservative William F. Buckley Jr. weighed in on the controversy on the campus. Buckley suggested that while Sibley’s exaggerations were intended to be “taken lightly, ho, ho, ho, by those of us sophisticated people who knew that from time to time professors will be boys,” for others, communism was no laughing matter. He added that “although Dr. Sibley apparently ran out of breath before he got to it, we should also have on campus one or two Nazis making a case for the genocidal extermination of racial minorities.”
Sibley continued to battle. He agreed to debate the head of the Wisconsin state John Birch Society on campus in early May, on the verge of the first senate committee hearing into University policies. However, University President O. Meredith Wilson and Dean of Students E.G. Williamson were eager to put a stake in the controversy. No one in the administration was interested in hearing more on an issue that could only trap it between political ideologies in a statewide forum. Williamson was able to quash the debate by keeping it off the campus, but the uproar continued.
“I would like to see on campus one or two communist professors, a student communist club, a chapter of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, a Society for the Promotion of Free Love. . . an Anti-Automation League, and perhaps a Nudist Club.”
The senate education committee opened its investigation into the University in mid-May and held hearings into June. By then, the Congressional House Un-American Activities Committee, all but forgotten in the local hubbub, decided it ought to hold hearings of its own on the “growing threat” of communism in Minnesota. It arrived in Minneapolis in late June for three days of hearings. The committee steered clear of what was happening at the U, no doubt to Wilson’s relief, and instead focused on actual Communist Party activity in the state. Party chairman Gus Hall and several other activists were called before the committee.
Meanwhile, the work of the state senate education committee wound down. On June 25, 1964, 17 members of the University of Minnesota administration, including President Wilson and Board of Regents Chair Dr. Charles Mayo, arrived at the Capitol in St. Paul to offer testimony about faculty hiring, firing, and promotion policies. Wilson quickly eased the minds of the senators and a large body of public opinion. “I would never recommend a known communist to the Board of Regents for appointment at the University of Minnesota,” he told the committee. But Wilson also offered a defense of his political science professor. Wilson said Sibley was “a man of great moral character . . . a man of great intellectual stature, uniformly admired by his colleagues.”
A spokesman for the Board of Regents said he personally considered Sibley’s letter “ill-advised” and “imprudent” but it needed to be read in context, and that no one was really advising free love and nudist clubs on campus. The hearings closed with no action taken by the legislature, perhaps because, as the lieutenant governor had pointed out early in the dispute, it was not their business to govern the faculty.
Mulford Sibley never appeared before the committee and went back to teaching his extremely popular classes at the University. He remained unapologetic about his letter and continued to maintain that the most important issue in the controversy—allowing students the freedom to consider and examine a variety of opinions—had not really been discussed.
Wilson was criticized for even appearing at the hearing. Faculty members felt that his testimony alone seemed to acknowledge the right of a legislative committee to have some say in whether a University professor could freely express an opinion.
The issue slowly began to recede from public attention except for one remarkable coda. In the spring of 1965, a full year after the height of the brouhaha, Sibley was invited to Winnipeg to give a speech sponsored by a group called the Voice of Women at the University of Manitoba. He was set to talk on the war in Vietnam, which Sibley vigorously opposed. A Canadian immigration official was waiting for Sibley when he landed. The Western Regional Director of the Immigration Department in Winnipeg had in hand a document claiming that Sibley had advocated for the establishment of campus clubs promoting communism, atheism, free love, and nudity—cause to deny him entry into Canada. The head of immigration in Vancouver, Minister John Nicholson, backed the decision, saying the No Entry stamp was proper. Sibley was put on the next plane back to Minneapolis.
Outraged telegrams and letters flew from the governor’s office in Minnesota to Winnipeg. In Washington, Senator Eugene McCarthy (M.A. ’39) asked the State Department to provide a summary of what had happened. Even Vice President Hubert Humphrey (B.A. ’39) got involved, saying his office would “take any steps necessary to investigate the incident.”
There was outrage in Canada as well. Liberal members of the House of Commons excoriated the majority Conservatives whose policies had caused Sibley to be sent home and Minister Nicholson was ordered to Ottawa to explain what had happened. Ultimately reason prevailed; Sibley was invited to return to Winnipeg for his speech to the Voice of Women.
Sibley would continue to teach at the U for nearly 20 more years, never retreating from his opinions and continuing to advise students to do the same. When he retired in 1982, a parade of University administrators, faculty, students, and alumni sat in on his final seminar wearing “Mulford” buttons to honor the distinguished professor.