Los Angeles Times Coverage of von Meier "Dismissal" in 1967
Stuck in the Grooves of Academe
BY ART SEIDENBAUM
Times Staff Writer
He is the campus cause celebre for this season, occupying a seat of controversy almost as famous as the chair recently vacated by Clark Kerr.
His name is Kurt von Meier and, in a poll taken among UCLA undergraduates right before the presidency was pulled out from under the president, Dr. von Meier was voted the second most important figure in the entire university (just below Dr. Kerr and right above Chancellor Franklin Murphy).
Acting assistant professor of art history is Von Meier's title. His fans and detractors agree that no assistant, professor of anything has ever done so much acting in the course of his Courses.
To the study of painting and sculpture Von Meier brought added attractions; underground movies, avant-garde poetry, visiting Pop painters and—most lively of all in a curriculum already emblazoned with living color—throbbing rock 'n' roll musicians.
No one shared in Von Meier's hour. Aisles were clogged with auditing football players, and graduate students who wanted to see the acting prof perform against such drop-in celebrities as Andy Warhol or Phil Spector. Art 110A, a survey of what happened between 1850 and the early 20th century, became a thick slice of what's happening right now.
Some complainers found the slice too raw for undergraduate digestion. "Some academician's" found it too far removed from the historic meat of the course. Some other older heads found "the whole business a cut below the mandate of a university."
Whether all of the above carps prompted their action or whether members of the art history department were jealous of Kurt's adroitness while frugging, Dr. von Meier (Ph.D Princeton) flunked contract renewal for next year.
The Daily Bruin, graphic expression of everyday anguish in Westwood, boiled with letters from students who thought von Meier the perfect bridge between past art and present blur. A few faculty members also huffed to Kurt's defense, suggesting that there must be room on campus for a teacher who can amplify understanding with electric guitars.
An editorial splashed into metaphor: "A whale doesn't swim well in a backyard pool," wrote Gary Rowse advocating that Von Meier be retained to lecture on integrated arts and thereby exploit his polymath talents.
One sophomore, claiming nausea caused by administration, even called for a selective boycott of the art department.
Von Meier gloomed that his academic freedom has been violated, that course content has been traditionally the discretion of the professor.
Vice Chancellor Foster Sherwood, left holding the hassle for the administration, said that von Meier's nonrenewal was a departmental decision based on six months of consideration and review. Had Dr. Sherwood ever watched acting assistant professor von Meier? He had: "I've seen him perform. He's very adept."
The vice chancellor believes he might better enjoy von Meier in the less structured setting of a schoolwithin-a-school, such as UCLA's new Experimental College , which offers noncredit courses under a student-initiated program independent of the administration.
Or, suggested Dr. Sherwood, a man of Von Meier's considerable appeal could be an asset at what he calls a "guinea pig campus," a satellite learning base for freshmen and sophomores that UCLA would like to launch in the nearby Santa Monica Mountains.
Both sides share this small area of agreement: the walls and corridors of education have to be opened on the larger world. How far, how much—and under whose auspices—is where the battle starts.
For an astonishing sample of the von Meier method, including frug, the larger world is invited to audit KCET at 9:30 p.m. Monday as Kurt holds class at home, with bare feet, in historic Venice.
Students Protest von Meier Dismissal
If the purpose of education is to stimulate the individual to think and to create, then today there is a basic problem confronting us and the University which requires individual action. The issue concerns the amount of control that a teacher has over the way he teaches and over what he teaches. It further concerns the way in which the administration may hold a teacher's contract back if they do not agree with his methods of teaching.
Having taken a course by Dr. Kurt von Meier and also having audited the same course (Art 109) for a second time, I feel that Dr. von Meier has developed a style of teaching which, although unorthodox, stimulates and excites the student intellectually. Although the student's reaction be favorable or unfavorable, he does elicit some response which encourages the student to seek new avenues of thought to answer the new questions raised in class. It is this stimulation which Dr. von Meier offers which caused enrollment in his class to jump from 70 in his first semester to 450 in his second semester. Dr. von Meier offers frequent opportunities to' meet him personally in his home —a type of contact which the big University lacks. Granted, not everyone learns from him, but he does reach a great number of students.
If the purpose of the University is to stimulate the student to think and to explore, then Dr. von Meier has achieved this purpose. His quiz sections offer the traditional facts and dates, while his classroom lectures offer new facts, dates and methods. However, because his methods of teaching differ from traditional teaching methods, the art department has decided he is not to teach at the University and that his contract will not be renewed. If the University is to be free in thought and to fulfill its purpose of stimulating new ideas then the students must react now to insure that a professor's contract is not used as an instrument to control a teacher's method and thought.
—Roy Allenstein Sr, Poll Sci
At the end of the last quarter, rumors were circulating that Dr. von Meier's contract was up for consideration by the administration. My reaction was: "I realize his ideas and teaching methods are (curse the word) radical. The academic boat is being rocked. But with the popular and intellectual support of his students past and present, and the liberality of the administration, his contract will surely be renewed."
Someone long ago had informed me that I was getting a liberal education at the multiversity. I didn't realize then (most naively) that a university can be run on the basis of politics, not educational creativity, on the basis of destruction, not construction, on the basis of closed ideas, not "free ideas," on the basis of intellectual staticism, not intellectual dynamism, on the basis of means, not ends, and on the basis of the administration, not the student.
With Dr. von Meier's discharge, I am now frankly disgusted with the "intellectual marketplace." If this is what Murphy means by "not Ivory Towers but Shining Beacons," I want no part of it. I am shocked by the cowardice of a "multi-perversity" that dares not even inform its students that a respected educator has been canned.
I am disturbed by the idea this University has that it can assume complete control over deciding who will or who will not teach, without the slightest effort to seek opinions from the student population. I am repelled by an institution that cares so much, and dares so little.
In failing to renew Dr. von Meier's contract, the University is exposing itself as politically oriented, destructive, prejudiced, static, in effect, antithetical to everything the University has the moral, ethical, and intellectual responsibility to strive for.
I realize that I am not being diplomatic. Students from Dr. von Meier's modern art course last quarter signed an excruciatingly diplomatic petition, to no avail. Letters were written with great diplomatic finesse, to no avail. It would appear that any attempt to buck the administration is to no avail. "Just some more crank students," they must have said. But I am sure Dr. von Meier would agree with me when I say that if you feel strongly enough about something, you are that way. The medium, not the content, is the message. The difficulty is that this University does not understand, is geared against strong words and feelings (or radical ideas, or unusual teaching methods), and will not listen to words of any other nature from students or teachers. The University reacts like a sea anemone to the slightest irritation, instantly enveloping its tender tentacles with its hard, tough skin.
I feel extremely fortunate to have taken Dr. von Meier's class; it was the most rewarding and enjoyable course of my "academic" career. The bulk of my other professors now appear a bit dusty. I suppose I am, above all, disappointed by the realization that future students of UCLA will be unable to make the discoveries they would have made along with Dr. von Meier. Genius is an attracting force; it is a shame that this University can't cough up enough of it to keep Dr. von Meier around. But as Lightnin' Hopkins sings, "You know there's a day coming woman, when you'll worry too, yes worry too, worry too."
—Noel Drury Sr, English, Pre-Med