When Lawmakers Purged Immorality From Florida Universities

James E. Congleton led a careful life.

The 57-year-old English professor never smoked cigarettes. He never drank to excess. A slightly built man with glasses who wore his hair neatly combed, he had given more than 20 years of hard work to the University of Florida. His profession, along with his family, was his world. He and his wife had just celebrated their only child’s marriage at the Hotel Thomas, a swanky establishment in central Gainesville.

But on January 5, 1959, inside that same hotel, Congleton’s careful life verged on collapse.

A state committee had been scouring the area for homosexuals. At the time, homosexuality was considered not only a societal sin but a crime. The committee thought supposed deviants had found cover at the university, and it deployed bare-knuckled tactics — stakeouts, paid informants, veiled threats of publicity or prosecution — to smoke them out. Congleton had been accused a month earlier of seeking sexual contact with an undercover officer in the men’s bathroom of the local courthouse.

Panicked, with everything to lose, the professor had given the committee what it wanted. During a series of interviews, he had named names, perhaps hoping to extract mercy.

On that evening in January, Congleton was called to Room 10 of the Hotel Thomas for yet another interrogation. In the presence of a state senator, a lawyer, a university police officer, and a burly sleuth, Congleton made another appeal for understanding. He told the room he’d sought medical treatment for his “disorder.” While on a Fulbright overseas, he’d prayed “a thousand times at every shrine in Europe” that he would never return to the courthouse bathroom.

Those prayers were not answered. But now, he swore, he would fix himself. This time it would be different. He’d tell his doctors to “either cure me or kill me.”

“I would rather be dead,” the professor said, “than go through this any longer.”

Congleton is one of countless professors and students — estimates vary — who were steamrolled by the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, seven state lawmakers and their hired snoops ripped through Florida’s public universities, searching for evidence of homosexuality, as well as communism and anything else deemed subversive. They worried that professors could corrupt vulnerable students, seducing them into radical beliefs or repugnant behavior.

The University of Florida and the University of South Florida, in particular, suffered from these investigations. Faced with an antagonistic state-sanctioned body, presidents of UF and USF considered how to protect their institutions. They made different choices. One remained mostly quiet and let the inquest run its course. The other waged a public fight, which eventually helped bring the committee to its knees.

The committee’s attack and the presidents’ responses to it are a funhouse-mirror image of today’s increasingly politicized public universities. The extreme homophobia and spy craft can seem, in 2022, cartoonish. But look closer and you’ll spot features you recognize: Moral panic. Legislative intrusion onto campus. University presidents weighing their institutional missions against the risk of angering lawmakers. Deep public skepticism of what’s being taught in college classrooms.

It’s an American story, one that the committee, when it imploded, tried to stash away. Many of its records were effectively buried. Nearly three decades later, when those documents were finally pried out into the open, they were pockmarked with redactions. Protecting the committee’s victims was the goal. But with their names blacked out, it became all the more difficult to decipher and come to terms with what had happened and who was harmed. Six decades after the committee’s reign, the episode — although examined by scholars in several books — has largely escaped common knowledge.

But the past is worth excavating. The Johns Committee is not a historical blooper, perpetrated by a handful of rogue politicians. It was a legitimately appointed body that mostly stayed within the lane of public opinion. By examining the committee’s actions — those who championed them, those who were damaged by them, and those who enabled them — we arrive at questions that still resonate: Where does the state’s authority stop and the university’s begin? To a legislative inquisition, should a university president act as a wall or a door? At a public institution, what can be taught and who decides?

Ultimately, in the United States, what is a public university for?

Sixty-six years ago, a powerful Florida politician thought he had an answer.

Charley Johns liked people, and people liked Charley Johns.

The conservative Democrat was jocular and well connected, a winning combo in any Southern political system. In the course of his career, he would hold some of the state’s most powerful positions. A man with an oval face, large ears, and a sharp nose, Johns fancied himself a champion of the little guy. Which, for Johns, often meant angling for a job or a good deal on his friends’ behalf.

He was a member of the influential Pork Chop Gang, a group of like-minded Democrats from Florida’s northern counties who essentially ran state government. Generally the more pork choppers saw the world around them changing, the harder they fought to keep it the same. They did not care for intellectuals or integration. They deplored Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that made racial segregation in public schools illegal.

In that ideological milieu, Johns fit in. In 1953, after the governor died in office, Johns became acting governor and, some accounts have it, promised to fire professors who supported the actions of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

He ran in the subsequent election and lost. He returned to the senate in defeat, but he wasn’t down for long. Johns soon found traction with a proposal he’d floated before, one that would eventually make him one of the most feared men in Florida.

Charley Johns, the committee’s architect (center).

State Archives of Florida

Charley Johns, the committee’s architect (center).

Johns wanted the legislature to create an investigative body, one that — in the language of the bill he co-sponsored — would probe “all organizations whose principles or activities … would constitute violence, or a violation of the laws of the state.”

The language was vague, but its purpose was obvious: to interfere with the NAACP and block integration. Such committees became common across the South. One Florida lawmaker warned that the bill’s broad mandate would open the door to “witch hunts.” But opposition to the nascent civil-rights movement overpowered that concern.

On August 21, 1956, Johns got his wish. A state body was born, with a sweeping investigative mandate, a sizable budget, subpoena power, and little accountability to anyone.

Initially the committee, which became popularly known as the Johns Committee, stuck to its original target. It sought to undermine the NAACP by exposing the Communists who were supposedly behind it. The misconception that the civil-rights organization was linked with Communists was common among Southern politicians, says Steven F. Lawson, a professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University. In that era, “if you challenged racial inequality and white supremacy in any way, you were thought of as a radical.”

The committee’s efforts to destroy the NAACP stalled, in major part because the group fought back in public hearings and in court. But the committee found other enemies: Homosexuals on campus and in the public schools. Alleged Communist sympathizers. Provocative professors or those whose classroom texts included curse words. In its ideology, they were all ingredients in the same dangerous recipe — one that could poison American life.

Moreover, as the 1959 legislative session loomed, Johns and his colleagues — having failed to persuasively link the NAACP to Communists — needed to make a case for continuing their work another two years. Homosexuals on campus emerged as a solution. In a later report to the legislature, the committee described what it had found as “absolutely appalling.”

And the lawmakers, like many people at the time, did view homosexuality as genuinely dangerous, especially to impressionable young people. The 1950s and 1960s was the worst time to be queer in American history, says John D’Emilio, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies the history of sexuality. The persecution of gay people, not just in Florida but across the United States, was the “most aggressive and sustained” it had ever been.

In 1958, the committee’s lead investigator camped out in Gainesville for days on end with 3,000 feet of tape for his recorder. It was reported that he might be looking into professors who were advocating for racial integration. But he’d later recall that the committee was worried about two homosexual professors and their “possible influence” on students. His job was to conduct an inquiry into that influence.

“So I went down there,” he said, “and I found it was really, really strong.”

J. Wayne Reitz owed his presidency to Charley Johns. At least that’s what the politician liked to say.

A man with a tight mouth and broad forehead, Reitz grew up milking cows and slopping hogs on a family farm in Kansas. He arrived at the University of Florida to teach agricultural economics. After a stint outside the university, he became its provost of agriculture.

When Johns was acting governor, he reportedly said he would refuse to sign the paycheck of the man originally selected to be UF’s next president by the Board of Control, the body that governed state universities, unless he could “look him over.” Johns would claim years later that he met with Reitz, found he “was a good man,” and “told him he could make a good president. So I appointed him.”

But that was an exaggeration.

In Reitz’s telling, the economist tried skirting a meeting with Johns because he felt it was improper. Though the Florida governor did play a role in confirming presidential appointments, Reitz thought the control board was the proper deliberative body. And he was not gunning to be president.

But a friend hoodwinked Reitz into a clandestine meeting where, according to Reitz, Johns asked whether, if he were made president, he would be willing to fire a top university official and replace him with someone Johns favored. Reitz later described refusing, telling Johns, “I would violate all of the principles and trusts of a university if I were to do such a dastardly act.”

They parted on friendly terms, even though Reitz was convinced, he later said, that no one could afford to take the presidency with Johns as governor. By the time the control board offered Reitz the role three months later, a new governor was in office and Reitz had warmed to the idea of helming the state’s flagship university.

And so Wayne Reitz became the fifth president of the University of Florida, an institution that minted many of the state’s political elite. If he had any illusion that Johns would exist quietly in the background, it was quickly dispelled. The state senator was “not only a true power broker in the legislature,” writes Judith G. Poucher in her book State of Defiance: Challenging the Johns Committee’s Assault on Civil Liberties. He was “a meddler.”

J. Wayne Reitz, the U. of Florida’s fifth president.

University of Florida

J. Wayne Reitz, the U. of Florida’s fifth president.

Reitz later played down his relationship with Johns. He gave examples of showing backbone when Johns asked for favors and said he did not need the senator as an ally.

But letters between the men over the years suggest a cozier relationship, one in which Reitz did sometimes bend to Johns’s expressed desires.

When Johns passed along complaints about “young negro janitors” being around at “all hours” in the female dormitories, Reitz looked into it, sending to Johns a memorandum about where janitors were allowed to be and assuring the senator, “I fully appreciate the importance of the matter you have raised.”

When Johns petitioned for a man he knew — an employee at UF’s printing plant who’d been fired for driving drunk — to get his job back, Reitz gave ground, telling Johns a staffer had been instructed to “keep in mind some job” for which the man “might be qualified.”

Johns was shameless with his requests. “I want to apologize for having to worry you with such petty things as this,” he wrote in one note to Reitz, before hastening to add, “but if I were in your position I would be glad to have anyone bring anything like this to my attention.” And he was not shy about flexing his position in the legislature.

Securing money from the state was always an issue for Reitz. (A 1958 student newspaper editorial joked that an appropriate Christmas gift for the president would be a money press.) In January of 1957, Johns reminded Reitz that he’d been “one of the best friends in the Florida Legislature that your university has.” He promised to “lend an attentive ear to your problems” when the university’s budget came up for consideration.

Senator Johns “must never be allowed to enter this campus!!” a concerned student wrote.

Just a year later, Johns proclaimed his committee was homing in on Gainesville. After finding some compelling initial evidence, it would investigate the University of Florida for “red influences” among the faculty. “We don’t want any Communist professors teaching in your university,” Johns told UF’s student newspaper, The Florida Alligator. But he added, “There will be no witch-hunting.”

The news sent a ripple through campus. Students petitioned the committee to follow a “set of principles” during its inquest and remember that universities are centers for free thought. Someone mounted a flag bearing a hammer and sickle logo, with a note: “Regards to Charlie [sic] Johns.” The senator “must never be allowed to enter this campus!!” a concerned student wrote in a letter to the editor. He’s a man “who strives for political advantage by cashing over a mound of dead bodies which he amasses.”

The Hotel Thomas, in Gainesville, where Congleton was interrogated.

Matheson History Museum

The Hotel Thomas, in Gainesville, where Congleton was interrogated.

The president could have protested in his own way. Here was a state committee with an expansive mandate turning over rocks in Reitz’s backyard to see if anything was scuttling underneath. The committee subpoenaed Reitz in the summer of 1958 for faculty records, including those related to misconduct and Communist or integrationist activities. He could have publicly questioned how the committee intended to use those records. Or, as investigators entrapped employees in stings, hauled professors off campus, and interrogated them and students in hotel rooms, he could have insisted on some due-process protections.

Doing so would probably have meant confronting Johns, a powerful senator whom Reitz ultimately considered a friend to the university.

Marjorie Reitz Turnbull, one of Reitz’s daughters, told The Chronicle that her father was not a man who was easily cowed. If he yielded to the committee, it would have been because of his attitude toward homosexuality at the time rather than political pressure, Turnbull said.

Regardless, by and large, Reitz stepped aside and let the investigation roll on. He’d later talk about the Johns Committee ordeal as if he was a bit actor in this human drama — not someone who could write his own lines or yell cut.

In some sense, Reitz was right. Those in power above him essentially gave the committee free rein. In September of 1958, members of the control board agreed to direct Reitz to tell the campus police chief to “cooperate fully” with the committee’s lead investigator, according to meeting minutes.

Though Reitz lodged a complaint with Johns about that investigator’s tactics, he later praised the man as “rather thorough.”

“He never came and laid anything down until he had all the evidence.”

Remus J. Strickland was a bull-necked ex-cop with troubling methods.

The man described by Reitz as “thorough” had been forced out in 1953 from the state beverage department after virtually no time on the job because his investigations were unreliable. Before that, he was fired from the Leon County Sheriff’s Office “for the good of the department,” an official reportedly said. (In Strickland’s version, he quit that job.)

As the committee’s chief investigator, he had a healthy salary and sweeping power. Under the committee’s rules, Strickland could examine any record or document and interrogate any person in the state “or elsewhere” related to committee business.

R.J. Strickland, the Johns Committee’s chief investigator.

State Archives of Florida

Remus J. Strickland, the Johns Committee’s chief investigator.

From the summer of 1958 into early 1959, the investigation roiled Gainesville. With the help of the university police, and informants, Strickland orchestrated surveillance of a local burger joint, the Thirsty Gator Bar, the university library, at least one residence, and the men’s bathroom at the county courthouse, a known meeting place for men who sought sex with other men. There, he deployed an undercover officer to entrap people into agreeing to physical intimacy. He questioned those people as they drowned in shame.

To those in the hot seat, Mark Hawes, the committee’s attorney who took part in many interrogations, would give a spiel: Though this encounter was happening in private, that could change. The committee could subpoena witnesses to appear publicly if it so chose. He’d sometimes gesture to the state’s perjury statute and its possible prison sentence of up to 20 years. The message was clear: Tell us what we want to know or risk being exposed, prosecuted, or both. An unnamed professor would tell The Tampa Tribune that Strickland and Hawes even used physical threats in an attempt to wring an admission from him.

“If I was looking at it through the eyes and ears of a suspect, I think they would have perceived it as a very grim atmosphere. Like they’d been trapped,” John Tileston, a university police officer who aided Strickland’s investigation by posing undercover, would say years later in a short documentary, Behind Closed Doors: The Dark Legacy of the Johns Committee. “They were never offered even a glass of water.”

The committee’s attorney would give a spiel: Though this encounter was happening in private, that could change.

Strickland and his colleagues could be graphic and degrading with their questions. Once, Johns, who participated in some interrogations, blurted out: “Now, when you suck another man’s penis, do you get the same sensation out of it as when you have yours sucked?” While grilling a department chairman, Hawes emphasized how “filthy” and “foul” the courthouse bathroom was before presenting the professor with a photo of the stalls.

“Did you ever put your penis through that hole?” Hawes asked, referring to a hole in the partition of the stalls.

“Yes,” the professor answered.

“How many times?”

“Once.”

“When?”

And then, “What happened when you put your penis through that hole?”

Investigators surveilled the Alachua County Courthouse.

Matheson History Museum

Investigators surveilled the Alachua County Courthouse.

Some of their questions revealed how little committee members understood or cared to understand about homosexuality. Being gay was thought of as a sickness that could infect other people, says D’Emilio, the University of Illinois at Chicago scholar. Much of the information collected by the committee reflected the era’s stereotypes. An undergrad implicated a professor because of “the way he carries himself,” such as wearing Bermuda shorts and French berets. Though, the student allowed, the man might “just be eccentric.”

As Strickland and his snoops gathered intel around town and paid off informants for gossip, fear descended on campus. “You were afraid to even have a friend of your own sex,” a librarian would recount years later. And there was confusion, especially among the students, of precisely what the committee was after. The atmosphere in Gainesville “is harried and ugly with rumors, alarms and constant quizzing of students by the Johns Committee,” an English instructor told a friend in a letter. Later, he warned: “You must not come down here under any circumstances.”

Some people resisted the committee’s overtures for information. A 26-year-old gay Air Force veteran did not admit to his sexuality or divulge any names. When Strickland was through with him for the day, he returned to his dorm room, tore up any pieces of paper that could connect him with other gay people, and flushed them down the toilet.

But many others cooperated. To refuse felt like too great a risk, especially for those who’d been caught consenting to a sexual act and were even more vulnerable to coercion and threat. As Stacy Braukman, an independent scholar, writes in Communists and Perverts Under the Palms: The Johns Committee in Florida, 1956-1965, “The very nature of the furtive, anonymous bathroom encounter meant that the committee often ended up interrogating men who were deeply conflicted about their sexual desires.” Strickland nabbed a number of married men with children who were desperate to make this problem go away.

James Congleton was such a man. He was caught by a university police officer on December 5, 1958. A report by Strickland notes, in the detached language of an official document, that though Congleton was “very nervous and frightened in regards to being picked up, he began to cooperate in naming other people” — an assistant dean, an instructor of music, and more.

James E. Congleton, some time after he left the U. of Florida.

U. of Findlay

James E. Congleton, some time after he left the U. of Florida.

He told the officer, the report says, that if he “was brought out into the open” he would “commit suicide rather than let his family and friends learn about his homosexual life.”
Strickland did not dwell on Congleton’s mental anguish. Instead, he noted the professor’s usefulness: “It is a possibility,” Strickland wrote, “that this is one of the older homosexuals at the University of Florida at this date and he should know specific incidents in regards to other professors whom he names from time to time as being homosexuals.”

Eventually, the committee compiled a 1,900-page report of its findings. In February of 1959, it landed on Reitz’s desk. He was instructed to “make a study and take such action as was deemed necessary.”

Ultimately, Reitz and the university forced a number of faculty members out the door. Estimates vary. Reitz said publicly that 14 employees were dismissed and that “action has also been taken” regarding a few students. Professors who lived through the purge remember the number of departed employees as higher, perhaps including those who simply left because UF was no longer a safe environment. (In 1963, the committee would report that it had removed 39 deans and professors across the state for homosexual activity.)

One of those employees was Lawrence Wathen, a humanities professor who’d done graduate work at Princeton University and taught at UF for nine years. An extroverted opera lover who made no bones about being different, Wathen had been named by several people as someone who engaged in homosexual activity. He denied it to the committee, even when he was put face-to-face with a music instructor who swore they’d had a brief sexual encounter.

Seemingly cool under pressure, Wathen told the committee in another interrogation that he was a good teacher, with a good life.

“I like the University of Florida and I like Florida. I like this little house that I have been adding windows to and adding a door here and painting and fixing up, and so forth, and I have a good set-up.” He described a friendly visit just the night before from two young women, one of whom wanted to show him she was engaged to a former student of his. “I like to have my students like me. I like to have my students feel that they can respect me and yet feel that I am interested in them as human beings.”

It didn’t matter. Wathen was not spared.

Neither was Sig Diettrich, head of the geography department. Married with a grown daughter and an infant granddaughter, Diettrich had immigrated from Hungry and taught at UF for 27 years. He felt a deep sense of ownership over the department he’d built from the ground up. He was also friends with Reitz.

“Wayne was the nicest ever,” Diettrich wrote in another letter. “I felt so sorry for him that he had to do this to a friend of his.”

Diettrich “lived in hell” for eight weeks after his interrogation, waiting for the inevitable call from the university, he would tell friends in a letter. On a Monday morning in March, that call came. He was summoned to meet with the president and his dean.

After a 20-minute conversation, Diettrich’s career at Florida was over. The professor submitted his resignation. He would recall that Reitz was gentle. “Wayne was the nicest ever,” Diettrich wrote in another letter. “I felt so sorry for him that he had to do this to a friend of his.”

That day, the professor ingested 85 aspirin pills and climbed up high enough in a university building to jump. He found he could not. He survived his suicide attempt — a doctor made him vomit the contents of his stomach.

It’s clear that the president sympathized with the professors who were forced out. Years later in an interview, Reitz would acknowledge that these were “most painful experiences,” not only for the employees involved but for their families. When The Gainesville Sun got word of a resignation, he said, it put news of the departure on the front page. After that happened twice, Reitz said he “chewed out” the editor.

Reitz in interviews defended his actions. He pointed to a Florida law that he said prohibited him from keeping anyone guilty of moral turpitude employed. “We had no alternative except to counsel these people, and counsel some of them out of the University,” he said in 1987, when he acknowledged that he had once been “ignorant” about the prevalence of gay people in society. “I will be the first to admit that I thought that anyone who was a homosexual was a complete aberration.”

Still, one can look at Reitz’s reasons and decide they don’t mean much. Professors like Congleton and Diettrich who had devoted their professional lives to the institution were stripped of their jobs and their dignity. Students, according to one source, were given the option of seeking treatment or being cast out of their educational home. The 1959 yearbook is dedicated to the students who left the University of Florida never to return: While some left of their own volition, others were “taken away, leaving behind them grief and eternal questions.”

One man who saw things from Reitz’s point of view was Charley Johns.

The president had his “deepest sympathy in having to do all of the dirty work that is done at the University of Florida,” the senator wrote in a letter. For one, “it was your painful duty to call in those Professors, whom we exposed, whom you had known for years and have to fire them.”

The senator then congratulated the president for not shirking his responsibility. “I have told many people that when the ‘cards were down,’ Dr. Reitz was not lacking.”

John S. Allen did not owe his presidency to Charley Johns. He came close to owing his ouster.

In the mid-1950s, when Johns was acting governor, Allen was serving as acting president at the University of Florida. According to Reitz, when Johns dangled the UF presidency in front of him, Allen was the university official whom Johns wanted to replace.

It’s not clear if Johns disliked Allen personally or if the politician just wanted his favored candidate in the seat. Regardless, Johns’s wish never materialized. Reitz and Allen worked amicably together, with Allen as Reitz’s executive vice president, for about two years before Allen left UF for a rare opportunity: the chance to create and run a brand new state university 120 miles south of Gainesville.

Allen, a slender man with a tidy haircut and crooked front teeth, was born in Indiana and raised a Quaker. Described as someone who had the “rare facility for disciplining his thoughts and emotions,” he trained as an astronomer. (His wife, Grace, joked that when they were courting, she’d look out the window at night. “If it was cloudy I went to the library,” she said. “If it was a clear night I had a date.”) He had ample administrative experience under his belt when the control board came knocking.

John S. Allen, the U. of South Florida’s first president.

State Archives of Florida

John S. Allen, the U. of South Florida’s first president.

At the time, Florida’s higher-education institutions, along with the state’s political power, were concentrated in the north. But as the Sunshine State’s population boomed, its leaders recognized the need for a strong state university farther south. After much jockeying, a location was chosen on the outskirts of Tampa. The university would be coeducational and its dorms air-conditioned. It would reportedly be the first major state university conceived, designed, and built from scratch in the 20th century.

When John and Grace Allen arrived in Tampa, there were no faculty, no staff, no buildings, not even a name for what would become the University of South Florida. They drove on a narrow road to survey the empty acres of sand and scrub pine where USF would eventually stand. On that day, those acres looked like a vast nothingness to Grace. In her recollection, her husband gestured in the direction of campus and said, “This is it.”

“And he always claimed that I said, ‘Is that what we’re coming here for?’”

But Allen had a grand, even audacious, vision for what USF could be. He felt that a liberal-arts background was essential to every student, no matter what their major. He insisted academics take precedence over athletics. He wanted the library to be the most conspicuous building on campus, and the head librarian was among his first hires. He saw the institution, to be erected in that expanse of wilderness, as a place not tied to tradition. He told a reporter it would have “no fences, no boundaries holding us and limiting our search for knowledge or our methods of teaching knowledge.”

Talented administrators flocked to USF. They liked the idea of a university as a clean canvas, Poucher writes. No sacred cows. No alumni corrupted by their own nostalgia. No longtime functionaries ruling over fiefdoms. The new hires believed in the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, in provoking questions in students’ minds about politics, religion, and society. Those values were infused into USF’s foundation and its curriculum. Students, professors, staff members, and even community members were encouraged to read and discuss “All University” books, such as Animal Farm and The Ugly American. According to Poucher, a university catalog called Accent on Learning, which became USF’s unofficial motto, even told students who disliked intellectual challenges to “think twice” before applying.

About 130 faculty members — who, according to the university’s public information official at the time, skewed young and more credentialed than other faculties — assembled at USF for its inaugural year. They, too, believed in the righteousness of the project. As that official would observe several years later, the vision of what USF could be “was idealistic — sometimes unrealistically so.” But the dream “was so compelling that most of those who were a part of the project labored continuously and without complaint toward such a Utopia.”

Billboard on Fowler Avenue from circa 1958 that announced beginning of classes in Sept. 1960 and showed drawings of the first five buildings on campus. Only three were completed by the time classes started.

University of South Florida

A billboard in Tampa announcing plans for the U. of South Florida.

Soon enough, the spell broke. For all their pristine, provocative ideals, USF was a state institution. Which meant that far more than just the opinions of administrators and professors mattered.

The university “was conceived, founded and launched into operation by public servants — legislators and other elected officials, laymen appointed to its governing board, and educators employed by the state,” John W. Egerton, the public information official, would write in a manuscript titled The Controversity, reflecting on the tumult that preceded and quickly followed USF’s founding.

“In short,” he wrote, “it was and is a political institution.”

In the fall of 1960, USF opened its doors. These students, many of whom were the first in their families to attend college, were like people who hadn’t seen rain for years, and suddenly the drought was over, one administrator later observed. They didn’t just welcome the rain. They danced in it. “That first lecture, I discovered that the students wanted more than I was prepared to give that hour,” she said.

Still, some students — and a cohort of parents — recoiled at the type of education that USF wanted to make its calling card. The parents’ crusade against the university eventually got the Johns Committee’s attention.

A central campaigner was Jane Tarr Smith, whose son, Skipper, had transferred to USF. Smith was a dark-haired Christian housewife. She wrote forcefully and sometimes poetically about the evil she saw infecting USF’s teaching and curriculum. She assessed Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as “stupid and boring as well as immoral.” She thought John Steinbeck was no genius, Pulitzer Prize be damned. She was deeply skeptical of unfettered academic freedom and saw a young person’s mind as dangerously malleable to menacing notions such as communism and atheism.

Smith believed the soul not only of her son and of other students but of America lived and died by what was taught in the college classroom. “No matter how many defenders we find of this new teaching, the results are the same, and as the individual falls sick in mind and heart, so will the nation,” Smith wrote in a lengthy report distilling her views.

In September of 1961, she and three other parents decided to act. They met with USF administrators to share their concerns and left unsatisfied. Soon they gathered more people to their cause, including Tampa’s mayor. The group congregated at Smith’s house and, over Coca-Colas, decided that the Johns Committee was the best avenue for their complaints.

To what degree Smith’s cohort influenced the committee is unknown. USF had other enemies that were also in contact with the committee. But the lawmakers were deeply sympathetic to the group’s chief concern: that USF would set off a domino effect of amoral and antireligious behavior. It mirrored their own.

In late spring, committee investigators holed up in the Hawaiian Village Motel and began interviewing students about their professors without Allen’s knowledge. They did not limit their questions to sexuality. They searched for anything that sounded out of line, be it a curse word or an off-color joke. Cheryl Beckner, a freshman, was subjected to leading questions about what books she read, if they were “rather trashy,” if any of her professors were atheists or pushed “antireligion,” if they advocated for communism or “free love,” or used coarse language. (“Freud is kind of rough,” Beckner allowed.)

Beckner, now 79, lives in Tampa. She told The Chronicle that she grew up sheltered and was a member of the Baptist Church at the time. In her congregation, “you didn’t dance. You didn’t smoke. You didn’t drink. And I didn’t do any of those things until I got to be about 20.” It was through a church connection that Beckner found herself voluntarily at the motel in May of 1962, answering an interrogator’s questions. She remembers feeling uncomfortable as the man tried to draw her out. She got the sense he and the other investigator in the room wanted more scandalous details than she was able to give.

Beckner tried to be honest. When asked if she knew any homosexual professors or students, she named four people — something that appalls her now. Her teenage self, she said, was incredibly naive. But Beckner’s world expanded in large part because of USF. She ultimately adored her education.

When word of the investigation reached Allen, the president made a pivotal decision. He requested that the questioning happen on campus. “We have nothing to hide,” he reportedly said.

“You are innocent until proved guilty in my eyes, and I trust all who have the best interests of the university and the state at heart will feel likewise.”

He and members of the American Association of University Professors chapter insisted on conditions for the inquiry to proceed, including that witnesses have access to legal counsel, and that information not be released to the public without agreement from the faculty and from USF. At an assembly, Allen assured professors and students that they could refuse to answer unfair questions. “You are innocent until proved guilty in my eyes, and I trust all who have the best interests of the university and the state at heart will feel likewise.”

For two weeks, the committee held hearings on USF’s campus in a conference room, searching for more evidence of moral decay at the state institution. They wanted information about alleged homosexual faculty members. But they also questioned students, professors, and administrators over the very nature of what a university should be. If a book and how it was taught caused a student to cast aside his religious beliefs, they asked, was it a proper text for a state-funded institution? (No, was the implied correct answer.) Wouldn’t provoking antireligious thoughts be a violation of the separation of church and state? If one professor deemed a text worthy but many other people disagreed, why should the professor’s opinion take precedence?

They admonished USF for introducing texts they considered pornographic or sacrilegious, such as a short story by J.D. Salinger that Johns branded as “crap.” “You all teach this kind of stuff to our children, warping their minds,” the senator observed during one hearing. “I am 57 years old, and when I read this stuff it stimulates me. What does it do to these teenage children?”

USF officials offered careful answers to these questions. The university functions best by entrusting the professors who are considered the subject-matter experts to use their judgment on what and how to teach, rather than bending to politicians or a small gang of enraged citizens, the officials explained.

It would be “a mistake” for a lawmaker to tell a university professor how to act, said one dean. “In fact, I think we might lose our accreditation, which we are striving to get … if they thought we were letting legislators come in to tell our teachers how to teach.”

The professors and administrators emphasized that their role was to nurture exploration. It was necessary that students sometimes be uncomfortable.

In a marathon appearance before the committee, Allen defended his budding, experimental university with a whiff of exasperation. Asked if it was the “proper function” of a state university to raise “fundamental questions in young people’s minds” about the “soundness of their religious tenets,” Allen replied that that happened “all over the United States.” When a committee staffer goaded Allen to react to words such as “goddamn” and “bunch of bastards” in the Salinger story, Allen showed restraint. “I am not a literary critic,” he said in part. When he admitted to not reading every All University book, the staffer accused him of being “derelict” in his duties. To which Allen quipped, “I don’t teach all of the classes either.”

But when it came to academic freedom, Allen toed a straighter line than some of his colleagues. He told the committee he preferred the term “academic responsibility.” A professor “has a responsibility to his profession, to his institution, to see that his students explore all aspects of a problem.”

Within this framework, Allen defended a decision with which many of his peers disagreed. Earlier that year he had canceled a guest lecture by a scholar who was considered by conservatives to be a Communist sympathizer. Though many USF professors objected, the president said he wanted a topic such as communism to be broached by someone with a sense of that academic responsibility, not a person who was “going to be here one day and gone.”

When the committee delved into homosexuality, the president said that while USF would not allow a proven homosexual student or faculty member to be in close contact with other students, a mere allegation was not enough to get rid of that person. “You wouldn’t automatically say, ‘Well, because the charge is made, this person is guilty.’”

The committee was unconvinced, especially Johns. During a different hearing, the senator acknowledged that homosexuality at USF was “at a minimum.” But he offered a female administrator some “fatherly advice” anyway: “Keep it out of here, and build an institution that this state will be proud of,” adding, “You can’t take the attitude you have got.”

Allen’s six-hour hearing marked the culmination of the committee’s public investigation. Johns told a reporter that the committee had not found “too much wrong at this beautiful university.” Asked if any discipline would be meted out, Johns replied, “Probably — to what extent I cannot say.”

If USF’s top brass felt some satisfaction at having successfully set the terms for the committee’s work on their campus, it didn’t last. In late August, before USF had the chance to review it, Johns allowed The Tampa Tribune to publish a 53-page summary of the committee’s findings.

The summary painted USF as a wayward institution that had committed a litany of sins and its leaders as misguided. For one, the university took the erroneous attitude of wanting “irrefutable proof” of homosexual activity before firing a person. USF was also too lenient toward communism. Plus, the record is “pregnant with evidence” that USF “raises serious questions of the validity of orthodox religious beliefs in the minds of the students.” And most of the top officials and many professors “think this is quite a legitimate and a desirable objective of a state-supported institution.”

Now, USF was being attacked not by a small cohort of frustrated parents but by a state-sanctioned legislative entity, on the front page of a local newspaper. Allen, who was vacationing, returned to Tampa to deal with the fallout. He took the gloves off, castigating the committee in a press statement for generating “an endless flow of unfair and harmful publicity.”

Not only that, Allen said, but the committee had exceeded its mandate. It had delved into the curriculum, the religious and political beliefs of the faculty, the professional judgment of administrators, and even the private lives of its staff, in an attempt to build “the most one–sided and damaging case it could against the institution.”

But universities are by their nature complex, he argued. “When they are performing their proper functions faithfully, they accurately reflect the diversities of thought and action which characterize our society in its search for truth. Controversy is born out of the differences which make us interesting and useful human beings.”

Allen’s rebuttal won him fans in Tampa. The committee’s investigation at USF was beginning to look like a massive overreach. A supporter of Allen’s wrote to Johns that while a rotten apple is occasionally found in a barrel, it was wrong to try “to make a potential apple eater feel the whole barrel is spoiled.” A local reverend preached against the committee at his Sunday service, saying, “We are not going to preserve the Christian faith in the lives of our young people by keeping them in a spiritual kindergarten situation in which no disturbing questions are ever raised.”

Faculty members, however, would become less supportive, feeling Allen had come up short. He defended a professor accused of using profanity in the classroom. But Allen also rescinded a job offer to a controversial Cold War scholar whom the Johns Committee disliked. Allen had his rationale, but many saw the choice as an abdication of duty.

Trouble didn’t stop there. That fall, the control board, by some accounts, ordered Allen to dismiss an English department faculty member named Sheldon Grebstein who’d caught Johns’s attention. Grebstein had assigned an essay on Beat Generation authors that the senator found offensive, even though the essay itself was critical of the authors. So Allen quickly suspended Grebstein, provoking faculty protest across the state. The president eventually landed on a compromise: He reinstated the instructor but admonished him for using “poor judgment” in his assignment choice.

Grebstein, however, was fed up. He left Florida for New York to work in what he considered a more intellectually free atmosphere. He eventually became a college president, helming the State University of New York at Purchase. His was not the only departure. John W. Caldwell, a professor who was accused by the committee of wrongdoing and subsequently investigated by USF, also resigned. He reportedly told Allen in a letter that these “police state methods have made me and my colleagues almost physically ill.”

He added: “Florida’s state universities can’t hope to attain greatness … for no teacher of stature will be willing to subject himself to such irresponsible attack.”

The university suffered in additional ways, in part because it was left to fend for itself. The control board basically swallowed the Johns Committee’s concerns, crafting policies that severely restricted academic freedom on campus. An invasion by a state committee “inescapably creates a depressing effect,” the AAUP observed in a report. “In such an air no professor will feel free.” Some staff members also felt the impact. Egerton, the public information official, left his job at USF, he said, feeling like “a battle-scarred survivor of an intense and emotional conflict.” In the years after the committee’s attack, the radical university forged in the wilderness began to resemble a more traditional institution.

Allen’s actions earned him a strong reprimand from the AAUP, which concluded that the president had not responded with “proper vigor to the forces of ignorance, prejudice, and repression.” It also castigated the control board for its “failure to stand between this new institution and its critics.”

Still, unlike Reitz, Allen privately ensured some protections for his students and faculty members and publicly fought against the committee’s allegations, despite his university being so new and his having little to no support from those above him. “It took courage for Allen to act in the way he did,” write two scholars, Thomas V. O’Brien and Jennifer Paul Anderson, in a paper contrasting Allen’s actions with Reitz’s.

Allen also “held a more robust philosophy of the role of higher education in modern society,” the scholars argued. It was a philosophy that average citizens could get behind. At the time, it was far easier for people to rally to the defense of an elite institution and its liberal ideals than to support any notion of gay rights, which was by and large nonexistent.

A college is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas.

Floridians came to criticize lawmakers for not respecting the autonomy of state universities and for sticking their noses in places they didn’t belong. A Daytona Beach paper opined: “Does a teacher, particularly in a university, have the right to use recognized materials in a class; to induce students to search both sides of a question for truth, and to live a personal life? The Johns Committee, backed by a relative handful of citizens, have said no at great expense.”

Johns, in turn, complained that the press had “always been biased” against him. He wrote to an acquaintance to ask, rhetorically, “Am I and my Committee so far behind times because we still believe in God and Country or should we continue our effort to make our Universities and Colleges a better place for our children?”

It took a couple more years for the committee to implode entirely, but Johns and his colleagues were beginning to lose ground.

In April of 1963, a year after the USF investigation commenced, the committee appeared before the legislature with its findings in hopes of earning another two-year renewal.

Days later, Allen testified to refute the committee’s claims. He assured the committee that professors now understood that “we do not expect to have people with Communist front affiliations speak to classes.” But students needed to study communism “in order to understand it and to combat it,” he said, much like cancer cells are studied in a laboratory.

Still, Allen argued forcefully that “a college is not engaged in making ideas safe for students.” Rather, “it is engaged in making students safe for ideas.” For a true community of scholars to exist without a diversity of views is “inconceivable.” And a university system cannot function in a climate of “fear and distrust.”

Today’s political conflicts in higher education are not carbon copies of the Johns Committee period. For one thing, modern attitudes toward gay and queer people are such a departure from the 1950s and 1960s as to be unrecognizable. The committee’s inquiries took place before the Stonewall riots, at a time when few would have thought that someday colleges would establish LGBTQ centers and teach gay history. Even in an era when a state legislature can bar classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in primary schools, it’s difficult to imagine that such widescale persecution of university professors in particular — a vocal group that has some of the strongest employment protections in the country — could happen today.

Still, public universities remain contested spaces in which state politicians sometimes interfere to advance their own interests. University leaders still must balance concerns of a range of constituencies, ideally without sacrificing the public good in the process.

Johns had his own idea of the public good. About six years after he left public office, he was profiled by a Florida reporter. By that point, his name was synonymous with the committee, the dominating feature of his legacy. But Johns, the journalist noted, “isn’t bitter, and he has no apologies to make.”

“I don’t get any love out of hurtin’ people,” Johns said. But “if we saved one boy from being made a homosexual, it was justified.”

His committee colleagues were also unrepentant. When the body’s records were finally made public, in 1993, a former chairman told a reporter it was a fool’s errand to criticize it now. “It’s like saying Columbus mistreated the natives when he came over,” he said. “Hell, that’s hindsight.”

But it’s obvious to at least some current state lawmakers that amends are called for, that recognition by the state — even six decades on — is necessary, given the severity of the injustice. During four recent legislative sessions, a few Democrats have put forward a resolution that would formally apologize for the committee. It “caused pain and suffering among vulnerable citizens and made Florida a national symbol of intolerance,” the bill reads in part.

“I think it is time we say we are sorry,” a state representative told the Tallahassee Democrat in 2019, when the bill was first filed, “and that we were wrong.”

All four times the measure died.

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