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The rise and fall of a J-School at UVA

University of Virginia Library

Seeking to fill a gap in the curriculum, UVA’s Class of 1908 pledged $3,600 to fund a professorship in an emerging academic field: journalism. Though they emphasized that they placed no conditions on their gift, class representatives told the Board of Visitors they had just the man for the job—one of their own, a 32-year-old Missourian named Leon Rutledge Whipple (Grad 1908).

A former newspaper reporter, Whipple had taught the University’s first journalism course in 1907 while pursuing a graduate degree in English. Funding for that course dried up in 1909, but interest in the topic remained high.

“Courses in journalism have long been a felt need in the work of the University,” class representatives wrote in their proposal in spring 1915. “This is proven by the yearly agitation in the student body in favor of such courses, and by the fact that men have been lost to the University who would have entered, had there been such courses offered.”

President Edwin A. Alderman University of Virginia Library

President Edwin A. Alderman agreed. The 19th century notion that newspapering was a trade that could be learned only by getting ink on one’s fingers had given way to the belief that it could be a profession. The University of Missouri established a J-school in 1908. Columbia University followed in 1912.

With his practical experience and academic credentials, Whipple seemed the perfect choice to get things started at UVA. He had not strayed far, working as an editorial writer at The Washington Times and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He jumped at the chance to return to Grounds, where he had been president of his graduate class, editor-in-chief of the literary magazine, assistant editor-in-chief of College Topics, and a member of the Raven and O.W.L. societies.

The complete man of letters, Whipple even penned a poem, an ode to honor, love and loss titled “Song of My Lord’s Forthfaring,” featured prominently in the 1908 Corks & Curls.

Whipple did not return to Virginia to write lachrymose lyric poetry, however. A product of the progressive era, he was an idealist, a descendent of two signers of the Declaration of Independence, a fervent civil libertarian and advocate of free speech who “hoped to be a dynamic force at the staid institution,” historian Alan B. Bromberg  (Grad ’68, ’77) wrote in an article on Whipple published in 1980 in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.

In Virginia, above all places, Whipple clearly believed he had found the ideal community in which to pursue, as Jefferson had written, “truth wherever it may lead.”

“[B]y a whole philosophy I am bound to seek the active, the new, the kinetic in social life and education,” Whipple wrote to President Alderman. “It is a moving, changing world and the true university will be one that so defines life to its students that they will not be stifled or bound in a static mental slumber while the pageant of existence dances by the door.”

But Whipple misread the room. A UVA career that began promisingly ended abruptly, and Virginia’s school of journalism was abandoned just as it was getting started.

Whipple’s pacifism made front-page news after his speech at Sweet Briar.  [Click here to see larger image.]

Whipple’s downfall began in November 1917, when he agreed to speak to the Current Events Club of Sweet Briar Institute. Not a tough crowd, one would think. The topic Whipple chose, “The Meaning of Pacifism,” was thin ice, however. The United States had entered the Great War that spring. Intense nationalism and anti-German sentiment were sweeping the nation.

Academics had been fired for anti-war views. Whether because of naivete or an exaggerated sense of the protection offered by Jefferson’s fortress of free thought, Whipple evinced no worry.

Whipple’s speech began, “I am a pacifist for the plain, logical reason that war does not work.” He kept his remarks mostly on a 30,000-foot level, saying the pursuit of peace was the “highest humanity” and that the United States had missed an opportunity to set a moral example. He neither directly criticized the government nor called for resistance, although criticism of U.S. policy was implicit. He said nothing pro-German, though he praised the “courage and vision” displayed by Bolshevik Russia in staying out of the war.

For good measure, he added that in lieu of buying war bonds, he had donated to the campaign of a socialist, pacifist candidate for mayor of New York City.

The women of Sweet Briar listened politely. Among them: President Emilie McVea, who in 1921 would become the first woman on the University of Virginia Board of Visitors. McVea thought Whipple was “misguided” but respected his willingness to speak on an unpopular topic. It might have ended there, but in the 1917 equivalent of an email blast, Whipple—unbeknownst to McVea—had sent advance copies of his remarks to six leading newspapers in the state.

“I hope you will find room for at least some of this as these principles cannot be too often enunciated,” Whipple wrote.

Enunciating them once was more than enough for the state’s editorialists. Newspapers from Norfolk to Roanoke denounced Whipple as disloyal, unpatriotic, subversive, a provider of aid and comfort to the enemy. His former employer, the Times-Dispatch, called for his prosecution. So did a current one, The Daily Progress, where he moonlighted as an editorial writer to supplement his meager adjunct professor’s salary.

Alderman denounced Whipple’s speech as unpatriotic. The president was a strong supporter of the war effort. Sons of Virginia were serving on the front lines. Sixty-four would die. 

Alderman was also feeling the heat of public opinion rising against Whipple. Resolutions from alumni chapters arrived from all over. Politicians piled on, including Gov. Henry Carter Stuart and U.S. Sen. Thomas Martin (Col 1869), the Senate majority leader. Congressman Henry D. Flood (Law 1886) just went ahead and said it: Whipple’s speech constituted treason.

The faculty, for whom the ideal of academic freedom was presumably sacrosanct, quickly abandoned Whipple. Two days after his speech, they voted 55-0 to repudiate him. The press kept up its drumbeat. Whipple tried to defend himself from the high ground of principle, invoking Jefferson and the sacred right to speak one’s conscience. But it was not a debate many were in the mood to have.

“This is no time for academic discussion of the right of free speech,” the Times-Dispatch declared.

Still, Whipple had his defenders. Fourteen students signed a letter to Alderman declaring that Whipple had never injected his personal views into his teaching. Several wrote letters to the editor. Among them was Reuben Maury (Col 1921), who would win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1941.

An everyday Virginian, one Harry W. Hardy of Warm Springs, penned an economical and eloquent defense of Whipple, declaring in a letter to the Times-Dispatch and Daily Progress: “While we are fighting for Liberty in Europe, let us not be guilty of fighting against Liberty at home.”

It was a losing battle. Whipple’s fate was sealed when faculty discovered he had offered to teach a class, “The Ideals of a Pacifist,” to the University’s extension institute. (He also proposed teaching “Poems of Childhood,” but it had no mitigating effect.) A faculty resolution paved the way for Alderman and the Board to do what they felt had to be done.

A special meeting of the BOV was called for Nov. 27, just a week after Whipple’s speech. Visitors J.K.M. Norton and R.T. Irvine sent their regrets but left no doubt as to where they stood. Mere dismissal would not “meet (sic) out the proper punishment to such a wretch” as Whipple, wrote Norton.

Wrote Irvine: “Jefferson’s University is not fit soil for seeds of treason.”

The meeting was a formality. Reading the minutes, one can almost hear the harrumphing. Alderman opened by saying Whipple had been an energetic and capable teacher and that he had always felt kindly toward him. Then he lowered the boom.

“The sacred right of freedom of speech so closely bound up with our University spirit has been freely accorded to Professor Whipple as to all members of the teaching staff, but manifestly there is a limit, in law and reason, to this right, and Professor Whipple has plainly abused and distorted that right,” Alderman said. His recommendation was that Whipple’s appointment be rescinded and the chair of journalism vacated.

Whipple submitted a lengthy written defense in which he again invoked Jefferson and denied that speaking his truth dimmed “the glory of the University.”  Richard H. Wilson, a professor of languages, was the lone faculty member to stand for him. 

The Board went on record affirming its commitment to freedom of academic thought “in theory and practice” but just as unanimously decided that Whipple had to go.

Whipple, fourth from the left, was editor-in-chief of a literary magazine at UVA. After his banishment, he became a journalism professor at NYU. Corks & Curls

Whipple landed on his feet. He joined the faculty of New York University as a journalism lecturer in 1919. Promoted to full professor in 1930, he retired in 1946. He wrote two books on civil liberties and died in 1964.

Virginia’s School of Journalism was suspended, never to return. A second heyday of instruction commenced in 1976, after the Watergate scandal renewed interest in reporting. C. Brian Kelly, an assistant professor of English, began teaching a news writing class in 1980, joining a robust roster of adjuncts that already included former Time magazine senior editor Champ Clark.

UVA’s Department of Media Studies, which looks at media from a cultural, critical and historical perspective, was launched in 2000. It offers some practical training, including courses on sports journalism and sports media production.

Kelly still teaches news writing, the only journalism course now offered through the English Department. He fills both sections, but unlike years gone by, no longer has a waiting list.

“It’s always been a peripheral course,” he said. “I sort of joke that I’ve been fired five times over the years for budget reasons. Each time they found money to hire me back before summer was over.”

Ed Miller is associate editor of Virginia Magazine.