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The Terms of Endowment : Offer of Whitsett Chair of History Provokes a Bitter Dispute at CSUN

July 13, 1986|MARC IGLER | Times Staff Writer

It started out as a well-intentioned gift--$500,000 to establish the first endowed chair at California State University, Northridge.

The offer came from W. P. Whitsett Foundation, named for the late William Paul Whitsett, the founder of Van Nuys and a man who valued such qualities as individualism, personal discipline, faith in God and devotion to community and family, relatives said.

"Those were the traits we wanted to perpetuate," said Eleanore Robinson, one of Whitsett's granddaughters and a member of the foundation.

But the idea of an endowed chair in Whitsett's memory has caused great disarray at CSUN, in contrast with the orderliness reputed to have guided Whitsett's life.

Department Divided

The history department, the designated recipient of the chair, has been bitterly divided over whether the university should accept it. Top administrators who happily announced the endowment four months ago now will not talk about it. Adding fuel to the fire, the controversy apparently has called into question whether the chairman of the history department should remain in his post.

Meanwhile, the foundation, which was using almost the last of its money from Whitsett's estate to fund the chair, is having second thoughts about its offer.

"This is a sensitive time for us," said Myrtle Harris, a foundation member and another of Whitsett's granddaughters. "I think everything will fall into place eventually, but the whole thing has been blown way out of proportion," she said.

A university spokeswoman, Judy Elias, said school officials are trying to reach a compromise that will satisfy the foundation and the history department. She said negotiations could be completed as early as next month.

Whatever the outcome, the dispute has been one that addresses such issues as academic freedom, campus politics, the technical side of endowment procedures and the memory of a man who played an influential role in the growth of the San Fernando Valley.

As is true of endowed positions at other colleges or universities, the salary of the professor hired to fill the Whitsett chair would be paid by the interest generated from the principal.

Such chairs, which are more common at private schools than at public colleges and universities, are highly coveted since they essentially add a staff member without cost to the school. They especially are treasured at the state universities, where budget cuts have limited academic hirings in the past several years.

Within the CSU system, there are only 12 endowed chairs at six schools.

At the root of the controversy surrounding the Whitsett chair is a stipulation in the terms of the endowment offer stating that the professor who would fill the position must "have an understanding of Mr. W. P. Whitsett's philosophy--progress, determination and self-reliance as well as a strong belief in God and country."

Harris said the foundation did not draw up the original endowment terms, which included the controversial stipulations. The foundation, she said, merely gave its approval to the university's version, which was written after the foundation agreed to fund the chair.

'Religion Valuable'

"We think religion and sense of community is valuable, and we made some suggestions," Harris said. She added that CSUN officials, because of their inexperience in negotiating with private foundations for endowments, were not "sophisticated" enough to clarify the conditions of the endowment.

Within the history department, reaction to the terms of endowment was immediate, as professors maintained that the stipulation regarding Whitsett's beliefs would lead to a violation of academic freedom. They also said they had been kept in the dark about the endowment offer for more than a year.

'A Lot of Antagonism'

"There was a lot of antagonism and bitterness," Prof. Ronald Davis said. "Not only were we not notified until it was announced, but the whole thing smacked of a kind of attempt by a donor to shape the history that would be taught by the chair. In general, an endowed chair is great, but what are you buying into with those terms?"

School officials, including Michael Meyer, history department chairman, tried to assure the faculty that the controversial clause did not mean that the position would be filled by a Whitsett clone. They said the professor in question would merely have to be familiar with the beliefs of the Valley pioneer and not necessarily espouse his philosophy.

But that did not satisfy faculty members, who formed a four-member committee March 4 to review the endowment.

On April 11, the full-time history faculty voted, 21 to 10, in favor of the committee's findings, which included rejection of the controversial clause.

History Prof. Leonard Pitt, a member of the committee, said of the clause: "Nowhere in the U.S. would you find the holder of a chair endorsing the ideology of the giver of the chair. The chair is something that should memorialize and honor the name. That's different from the holder endorsing a set of beliefs."

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