Thursday, February 25, 2010

Passing of a tremendous man

The New York Times - as well as local papers here in central Michigan and at the university - marks the passing of Jim Wieghart, a courageous journalist of great integrity who as a reporter, columnist, and editor for the New York Daily News covered the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.  And after he left journalism, he worked for Ted Kennedy and also with the Iran-Contra investigation, helping to write and edit its final report. 

I was fortunate enough to know Jim and collaborate with him when he chaired the Journalism Dept here (1989-1993), which was a time when I served as Chair of the university's academic senate and then as president of the Faculty Association.  He was a tremendous champion of faculty rights as well as a scathing critic of the university's administration, which was then suffering what was, in my nearly 30 years experience here, its worst period in terms of effectiveness and confidence.  The then president of the university was a nice, but clueless and incompetent man who was easily controlled by some rather unscrupulous characters who worked for him, and who pulled some stunts that had many of us seething.  Eventually,  I chaired a special meeting of the academic senate  (extraordinarily well-attended and covered by the local media; almost the second I adjourned the proceedings, a TV reporter thrust a microphone in my face to ask Bill O-Reilly kinds of provocative questions)  - during which a motion of no-confidence in the administration was brought to the floor, and was passed by a large margin.  That's how bad things were then.  During all the weeks and months during which this mess was brewing,  Jim consistently spoke out against the nonsense that was being perpetrated by the president's office.

Eventually, the president resigned.  The Board of Trustees replaced him, on an interim basis, with the then dean of the college of business.  Although this man within a few years was to bring relations between the administration and the faculty to an even lower point - the lowest point I've ever seen here - at the start he was a breath of fresh air who - in sharp contrast to his predecessor - seemed to be on the same page with the faculty leadership and "talked the talk" as far as addressing our concerns.  Jim convinced me to co-sign a public letter endorsing this man and recommending that the Board of Trustees move his status as president from interim to permanent, eschewing a formal search, if for no other reason than to get the university back on its feet and moving forward after a period when any momentum and sense of campus unity had been completely crushed.   The trustees did so.  Many of our faculty colleagues were displeased that no search took place, but I will go to my grave believing that, given the university's disastrous situation at the time, signing that letter was the right thing to do.  And Jim played a lead role in trying to steer us out of the doldrums and move us ahead.  That's the kind of man he was: a strong, dedicated, inspiring, unrelenting advocate for the academic mission of the university, and a man who chose to take action rather than let a bad situation fester.

I had very little contact with him after he left CMU, but I missed him - and I was very sad to learn of his passing.  Right now, the country could use a battalion of Jim Wiegharts.

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