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Interview with James Megivern, December 13, 2001 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with James Megivern, December 13, 2001
December 13, 2001
This is the first tape in a two-tape interview of Dr. James J. Megiver, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion at UNCW. Dr. Megivern discusses his training, education and work experiences prior to coming to UNCW in 1974. He discusses his service as chair of the department from January 1975-1992. He also describes the UNCW Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which he served as president. The interview includes conversation of some of Dr. Megivern's teaching and scholarly interests.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Megivern, James Interviewer: Lack, Adina Date of Interview: 12/13/2001 Series: Voices of UNCW Length: 40 minutes

Lack: I’m here today with Dr. Jim Megivern, Professor Emeritus of Religion in the Philosophy and Religion Department at UNCW. We’re going to start our oral history interview. I’m Adina Lack, archivist, and it’s December 13, 2001, and we’re in the UNCW’s archives.

Lack: Dr. Megivern, before the tape started I was telling you that we’d like to begin with just some introductory words from you, where you grew up and how you got to Wilmington.

Megivern: Well I was born in Johnson City, New York, upstate New York. I went to the parochial schools there and got a scholarship to go to St. Joseph’s Prep in Princeton, New Jersey, so that was for high school and junior college. From there, I went to the seminary in Northhampton, Pennsylvania and did six years there and got my Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and then four years of theology, right after which I went to Switzerland for my doctorate at the University of Fribourg.

I finished that in 1962 and came back to the seminary in Northhampton where I had studied for six years and taught for two years. It was my first teaching experience.

Lack: Religion or philosophy?

Megivern: Actually I taught Hebrew and Greek, the biblical languages because they had two scripture, biblical professors who had died unexpectedly in rapid succession so even though my doctorate was in medieval historical theology, I was asked to move into the biblical. That was really the beginning, it was forty-years ago. That’s basically my chief teaching experience, the New Testament and early Christianity.

I was only there for two years when I had the opportunity to go to Rome to get a second degree, a degree in biblical studies to supplement. It was while I was there in ’65 that the strike occurred at St. John’s University in New York. It’s an involved story, but anyway I was asked if I would, upon getting my degree in Rome, come to St. John’s to chair the theology department, a very unusual situation.

It has a bearing in that it was that experience and the turmoil that was going on between faculty and administration that convinced me of the value of the AAUP, American Association of University Professors. St. John’s did not have a chapter and part of the tension between faculty and administration was that the administration was opposed to their forming a chapter. It seems to me that, in light of my four years there, that had there been a chapter, much of the tension could have been resolved. The AAUP, in my mind, is really a mediation body. It allows faculty and administrators to speak openly and to adopt principle approaches to dealing with difficulties, dealing with conflict.

So when I came here in 1974, it was one of the first things I did. I asked if there was one and I was referred to Dr. Richard Deas and he said we have one, it’s not been very active, “Would you like to be president?”

Lack: Is he music?

Megivern: Yes, so that’s how my involvement there started. But after the four years with St. John’s, I went into a poverty program in the South Bronx for four years doing administration in a paraprofessional program with the inner city school board, getting paraprofessionals trained. They were largely black and Puerto Rican housewives, who were in the classrooms, brought into the classrooms to try to assure a bridge between the ethnic groups that were involved.

Largely the teachers were Irish, Italian, and Jewish, and the students were from the South Bronx black and Puerto Rican so these were black and Puerto Rican housewives who came in as paraprofessionals, but there was no future in it for them. It worked very well when you had a secure teacher who knew how to use, to work with the paraprofessionals.

The program I directed was funded by HEW to try to get some of these paraprofessionals into Bronx Community College and on their way toward their associate’s degree. In the four years that I was with that, of the 40 original people that we selected, when I left 25 of them either had their associate degrees or were close to it.

Lack: Did you expect it would have those kind of success rates?

Megivern: It was an unusual success rate for those programs, but HEW, at the time, was phasing out. They had the theory that any program that was worth its salt after three years of funding by the government ought to be able to pick up its own support from the community, from whatever. Of course 1973 was the year that the city almost went bankrupt. So it wasn’t a good time. The program was being terminated in 1974.

It just so happened that I got a call in January of ’74, from Jim McGowan whom I had had as a student in his last year, which was my first year of teaching in Northhampton. We had run into one another at the philosophy convention in Boston two years previously. So he knew I was considering going back into education, to university education full-time and was looking for the opportunity. Things had developed here that he had been asked after he was hired by Dr. Hall with the intention of his becoming the new chairman of the department because Dr. Hall was turning 65.

The administration, that is Dr. Wagoner and Dr. Cahill, whom already had appointed Dan Plyler as an assistant to Dr. Cahill in the academic sphere, both of them Cahill and Plyler were scientists so they wanted somebody in the humanities to work with Dr. Cahill and an associate with Dr. Plyler. So looking around, the selection that they made was Jim McGowan and Dr. Hall, of course, was furious. He said I hired this guy to take my place, not to give him to you. The outcome was that Dr. Wagoner assured Dr. Hall that he would be given another position in the department even though Jim was still teaching part-time.

So it was then that Jim called me and told me about it and described the work. It was a combination of administration and teaching as the department chair and suggested that I might interview for it. So I applied and was on the short list. In April, I came down Easter weekend because I was teaching other programs in New York while I was directing the program in the South Bronx and doing part-time teaching in the Bronx in the Queensboro Community College and in Fordham University at Lincoln Center.

So I had to find a time when I wouldn’t have to miss class and that was why I came in Easter week.

Lack: Is that while you were working with the HEW?

Megivern: Yes, I was still there. I knew it was terminating. The funding was going to run out in August of ’74.

Lack: It sounds like it was a rewarding program, quite different from what you would do later on.

Megivern: But the administrative part of it, academic administration was parallel and sufficient certainly for the kinds of qualifications that the job description had. It was really because Dr. Hall and I really hit it off tremendously well.

Lack: Had you known him before?

Megivern: No, I came down to be interviewed by him. He was really a remarkable man. He’s kind of a renaissance man. When he was approached by Dr. Randall to start, when Wilmington College went to four years in ’63, a philosophy department as part of the four-year college, and Dr. Hall was one of the few people around in town that had his doctorate. When Dr. Randall approached him, he accepted.

It was Dr. Randall, interestingly enough, who told him that he didn't want just philosophy, he wanted it to be a philosophy and religion department. Dr. Hall, I think, had some misgivings about that. Most of the time that he was teaching he did more in philosophy than he did in religion. He did the History of Western Thought in what were then 201 and 202. Our curriculum has all changed since then.

But that’s how it happened. That the department was begun as a joint Philosophy and Religion Department and the first one hired, as you know, was Dr. Shinn and then the second one hired was Dr. McGowan. So, as of 1971-72, the three-person department had to cover the waterfront both in philosophy and religion. Then a fourth person was hired, a man from Johns Hopkins, but he didn't have his degree and unfortunately never succeeded in getting it. That was the situation when I came in 1974.

The understanding was that Dr. Hall would leave the chair after my first year, but then, when things were going so well, he decided to step out at the end of the first semester. So I became chairman of the department in January of ’75.

Lack: And you had interviewed in April, right?

Megivern: April of ’74.

Lack: And then started here in the fall?

Megivern: Yes, I started in August, moved down in August. That’s the only semester, was the fall semester of ’74, was the only time that I was teaching before I became chair. We were over in Kenan Hall on the ground floor sharing offices. I shared mine with Dr. Hall. Dr. McGowan, who was then moving into the administration anyway, he and Dr. Shinn had an office, a cubbyhole. The other one was occupied by the Art Department.

It was an unusual setup to say the least. For that first semester, I had my office in the relatively new Bear Hall because there was space there and there wasn’t any further space in Kenan, so it’s interesting that I started in Bear Hall and finished up in Bear Hall. Meantime, of course, two wings had been built.

Lack: Did Dr. Hall then continue to teach?

Megivern: Yes, he continued to teach part-time until his 80th birthday, which we celebrated. It was declared the Frank Hall Day. We had banners over at the new S&B Building, to which we had subsequently moved, when that opened. It was his birthday in February, I think February 26, 1988. He retired, at that point, completely and shortly after that went to the nursing home, Dixon Davis, and he died in June of 1991. In fact, his funeral was on my 60th birthday.

He was a very important figure and Adelaide, his wife, was very special. Their three boys all became very good friends, and we’re still in touch. He had played a very significant role in bringing Dr. McGowan and that was in turn the connection of how I happened to hear about it.

Lack: So you’re grateful, hopefully, you’re grateful.

Megivern: Oh, indeed.

Lack: So that’s the story of how you arrived here. When you came here, you’ve described a little bit what it was like in terms of your office. What did you observe when you first came down on and got interviewed? Were you kind of nervous about coming to the South? What were your feelings about the idea of moving here?

Megivern: Well, I did have some concerns because I had been following, to some degree, in the press the incidents of the Wilmington 10 and that, of course, was in ’71. That was the year that Dr. McGowan came. But the trial went on and then the conviction. They were, well, it’s, as you know, a very sorry story as far as the legal aspects of it.

That there were some guilty people involved I think is beyond question, but how on earth these 10 particular individuals other than Ben Chavess were identified as constituting the troublemakers that were responsible for burning the grocery store, I’m sure that there were at least two that were not involved that were swept into it by this Assistant District Attorney who was, I think, looking to make something of the attorney, that the District Attorney wouldn’t press charges because he knew that this star witness that they would have to use was a pathological liar, who was already in prison and had everything to gain by fixing the charges and pointing the finger.

That’s I guess the only thing I knew about Wilmington before I heard from Jim McGowan. So there was some concern there. Nonetheless, the initial experience was tremendously positive especially because of my being on campus and in that department. If you can just imagine coming into a situation where your colleagues are B. Frank Hall, Jerry Shinn, Jim McGowan, Bob Duckett.

So it was tremendously harmonious. The departmental meetings were more like coffee clutches, I guess you’d say. It was informal and friendly relations and all.

Lack: The department started out as a Department of Philosophy and Religion and to this day it still is. So, are you considered a professor of Philosophy and Religion?

Megivern: Yes. That’s the way it’s always been identified. That’s what the department was chartered to give a degree in, Philosophy and Religion. That still is the situation. You can concentrate in one or the other and that would be indicated on your diploma, but you have to take a minimum of courses in both of them. If you come to do Philosophy, expect also to do the required, the basic study courses included in Religion and vice versa.

I don’t know of any problems that that has created. As the place has grown, naturally we are able to hire people whose concentrations were clearly more in one than in the other and tried to keep a kind of balance, which has been the case that we have today. Something like either six or seven in each area.

I was chairman for seventeen-and-a-half years, and then Walter Conser was chairman for the next six, and Joe Wilson is finishing his first three-year term. So there has been no problem as far as the conjunction of the two disciplines even though we’re well aware that the potential for conflict is there and has taken place on other campuses depending on the kind of philosophers that are hired especially. If you’re into the logical positive linguistic analysis as the basic and some would say, the only kind of philosophy, that has led to the split. I think you would see Charlotte as a case where they split into separate departments.

On the other hand, a place like East Carolina, ECU doesn’t have Religion Programs. They had somebody in earlier years who taught some biblical courses, but I think it was under western thought or Philosophy, one of the two. They didn't have a department or share a department in Religious Studies. I think that’s the case also at Appalachian. Appalachian has Religious Studies, but they separated them from the Philosophy Department.

So, I guess you’d say, you’d have to recognize what was happening in the disciplines, themselves, nationwide. I made it a practice when I became chair to attend the national conventions of both, the American Philosophical Association and the American Academy of Religion. I was present, I think, it probably would have been around ’79 or ’89, where they had what was called the “Palace Revolt” in the American Philosophical Association because the positivists had more or less full control of the programming so that if you were a continental philosopher or phenomenology or other options, you wouldn’t get on the program of the APA.

At least that was the complaint. I certainly was not involved enough to know for sure how widespread it was, but they had a very dramatic showdown at the national convention that was in Washington Hilton at the time. I’m pretty sure it was in ’79. The result was that the APA bylaw broadened itself to guarantee that those that had legitimate philosophical degrees in various areas would have equally free access to the programs, which is an important aspect for people in their academic careers.

If you’re going to be featured on a program, a national program especially, there has to be cooperation. You have to know how to and be able to be scheduled _____ and that’s why it’s always interesting for people to see who the officers become in these academic organizations. Any other professional organizations, I think, have very much the same dynamic.

Lack: That’s interesting. You have to have that perspective of management or cooperation and not be so locked into your role. You can certainly have your academic standards. I guess there has to be an attempt at pluralism even if you find a problem with pluralism.

Megivern: Well there were chairmen both at Chapel Hill and at Pembroke in the late 70’s who were interested in professionalizing, or further professionalizing the discipline. They coordinated, the fellow at Pembroke was especially responsible, his name was Gustafson, he died a few years ago, but they started having gatherings of the chairmen of the Religious Studies in the sixteen campus system, those that were there and interested. So there were some very useful, entertaining…

Lack: You would attend those?

Megivern: Yes, I can remember at UNC-Greensboro one meeting especially where we had really a fine exchange of information about…this was a time when curriculum change was taking place, and we had the opportunity to hear from various campuses what was going on, what the curriculum committees were doing and what directions they were taking, not with the idea that everybody had to be the same, but knowing that some articulation does have its place.

If you’re going to take your first two years at Wilmington and then go to Chapel Hill or to Greensboro, it would be good if your interest is in Religious Studies or Philosophy, for that matter, to know how or whether the programs are conjoined or whether you’ll have to have a lot of your credits not accepted because of differences in the program. But that was something that very much depended on those two people. The fellow at Chapel Hill is still there, he started an institute later, his name is Ruel Tyson, so Dr. Tyson and Dr. Gustafson were the, I guess you’d say, the glue. They were the ones that contacted the others.

Lack: Kept it going.

Megivern: Identified the place and so forth. Unfortunately especially after Tyson left the chair, it kind of died out. I have always, since I came as a result of that kind of experience, had the impression that there was value to be gained on the state-level by having the people in the state institutions or state campuses know one another and know what was going on and that it was beneficial or could be beneficial for one another to support one another. That was really, again, what led to my further involvement with the AAUP.

We, under Dr. Friday, we were able to make the arrangement where you agreed to meet with the state conference, the officers of the state conference, and representatives from other campuses that wanted to come every semester. When President Spangler came in, he continued that. It was, I think, very useful. I don’t think it’s continued under President Broad, but I think a lot of things had changed by then.

One of the things that had changed here of course was the coming of Dr. Leutze and I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the AAUP’s role when the other candidate…

Lack: I’d like to get your perspective on that because I have talked to some people who don’t remember all the … they’ve actually said Dr. Jim Megivern, I don’t remember as much of the details as he probably will. But I did get Dr. Dodson’s perspective. That was really fascinating. What was the story behind that just for the potential viewer that didn't watch Dr. Dodson’s tape? What was the background?

Megivern: Again I would also be hazy on details these twelve-years since. I wrote it up in one of the last issues that I edited of the AAUP’s newsletter and I think that would still be where I would go to recall what I had perceived, at any rate. There really were some…there were rumors involved and it was difficult to know what rumors had substance and which ones didn't. There always has been at least one conspiratorial view that President Spangler wanted Dr. Leutze to get the job from the start, but there’s no way in the world you’re going to find out whether that’s so other than by asking them, I’d have to say.

Lack: I guess the issue originally was that there was a committee and there was faculty representation with two faculty members?

Megivern: Right, Jack Levy and Carol Fink.

Lack: She is no longer here. I think she went on to Ohio State. And if I understand it correctly, they had broken down the pool down to about three people and somehow because Jack and Carol were the only faculty members, they were outvoted, but they selected three people and Dr. Leutze wasn’t one of them. And they really felt Dr. Leutze should be included and that, furthermore, one other particular person probably shouldn’t be included. Is that correct?

Megivern: You should have asked me to do my homework. Wasn’t there a third person, a faculty person on the committee? I think part of what subsequently happened, what outraged one of the faculty was that somebody on the Board of Trustees on that committee made some remark about the bias of the faculty members, the insinuation of their being Jewish. It seems to me it was the third member, who was Mormon.

Lack: It was the Board of Trustees that seemed to have an unusually weighted decision, weighted toward them about the chancellor of university, which was a little flip-flop from what other universities do.

Megivern: At the time here we had no senate, so there was no other mechanism for faculty to get together to share their concerns. So it was the AAUP that called the meetings. I can remember we had a couple of them, one was in the cafeteria and one was in a classroom, S&B Building on Sunday night. I think Jack Levy came to that one after having been at one of the committee meetings.

At any rate, the rumor circulated that this encyclopedia salesman was the frontrunner or was going to be the choice and there were some real questions about his academic credentials. That’s really what stirred the forces of the faculty. I guess I’ve never seen them that much involved in any particular activity.

Lack: Do you think that was also because of the size? Can you imagine something like that unifying the faculty right now because we’re so big?

Megivern: It’s a far different situation, a far different kind of institution. I don’t know. I’ve been on the periphery now for at least four or five years. With the way that it has grown and the compartmentalization, I guess you’d say, I don’t know. On the other hand, I personally think that Dr. Leutze has done marvelous for this place. All you have to do is step out of the library and look north, no east, to remember the parking lot that was there and the expanse. Some of those things certainly have been marvelous.

Lack: There was a parking lot on the east side of the library when that was the back of the library. Then this issue that the AAUP got involved in, was it a member of the Board of Trustees that was on the committee who made some kind of comment…

Megivern: It was reported in the Star News as well.

Lack: Because it was on the record and he said, I guess when the three professors voiced their opinion, he said something…

Megivern: Yes, derogatory.

Lack: About Jewish people even though one person was Mormon. Then there was actually, you guys had a meeting, and was there a demonstration to get Dr. Leutze back in consideration, was that it?

Megivern: Well he was never out of it as such. What the demonstration was for was the Board of Trustees meeting, which was in the Madeline Suite. There are pictures there of people that, you know, Louis Nance, a widely beloved faculty member in the chemistry department, who died a couple of years ago, he is caught in that photo I think with a picket sign.

Lack: Forever remembered in that way.

Megivern: Yes, it really was an unusual event and the Board of Trustees, of course, had never had anything like this before. In fact, there was previous, I don’t know the years now, but there was no faculty representation on the Board of Trustees and there was no student representation in those early years. So it was certainly a part of the growth process and I think was healthy and we got the support of at least the publicity in the local media. I think that was all to the good.

There are times and decisions that cannot simply be made openly in a totally democratic fashion especially the personnel decisions. On the other hand, to manipulate without letting the people who will be most affected by it know what’s going on, that’s the worst part. That’s what makes the rumors fly. Things probably weren’t half as dangerous. Things weren’t as bad as they might have seemed to a lot of people and that’s part of the fallout of concealing everything, having secret meetings and not letting anybody know what’s going on.

Lack: Right, there has to be some kind of system.

Megivern: But there was a contrast, at that point, for what we had come to expect from the general administration, certainly under Dr. Friday with his openness and willingness to see anybody and talk to anybody to discuss pros and cons. People ask me how I feel about the fact that there’s no presence of the AAUP, at present. The positive side of that is there is not the kind of need that there was since you have now the systemic, you have a faculty senate and you have a faculty assembly so that UNCW has been involved in the assembly, I think, quite effectively.

Lack: That’s the UNC’s system-wide representation of professors.

Megivern: Which Dr. Friday began.

Lack: Oh, when he was here?

Megivern: No, no, in Chapel Hill.

Lack: When he was president of the system. And currently there’s the president of the…the English professor who right now has a role in the assembly, Dick Veit. What is his role now?

Megivern: He’s the chair.

Lack: I think it’s only the second time or so that UNCW has …

Megivern: First time I guess was Dr. Betty Jo Welch. The artwork downstairs that was acquired, I’m not sure, in her memory. We were across the hall from one another in Bear Hall my first semester because the two of us were the only ones that weren’t in the business school because that was what Bear Hall was at the time. They were the only offices left.

Lack: What department was she?

Megivern: Communications, I guess, at that time, it was called Speech, Drama, Communications, was all one and they broke subsequently. The have a circuitous history, I think, as far as the arts are concerned. But I think she was the first one elected to the faculty assembly from UNCW if I’m not mistaken. You can always look back in the AAUP’s newsletter.

Lack: I already made a note of that one issue that I’ll have to read and remember when students have questions about things, it’s not like the catalogue in the library where everything is catalogued. If you don't mind, I'd like to take a little break and we can start up again if you're feeling like you'd like to do that.


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