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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Albert Coates's need for control at the Institute of Government

Esser and his young colleagues at the Institute of Government acted as teaching assistants and graders for Albert Coates, the Institute's founder. Coates jealously guarded the Institute's prerogatives and his role within it, trying to limit Esser's contributions. When he finally left the Institute, he did so wondering how Esser was able to win support from large grantees.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Did you know when you came that you would also be doing some teaching in the University? was that part of the deal?
GEORGE ESSER:
That was part of the deal. In some ways it worked. In some ways it didn't and I think that the test that it didn't work, in the long run, is that very few Institute people teach today in the University.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Yes. Today. But you taught?
GEORGE ESSER:
Today. But I taught. In the law school, we taught as surrogates for Albert Coats.
FRANCES WEAVER:
I see. I see.
GEORGE ESSER:
Even grading papers and all; we did the work, but they were his courses.
FRANCES WEAVER:
I see.
GEORGE ESSER:
Now later, when we began teaching in political science and other departments, planning and other departments, while he approved the assignment. I mean, whether or not we taught, he did not take part.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Yes, I see. So you were on your own then?
GEORGE ESSER:
So at that time, when I taught in planning and political science, I taught in my own name. And in law school, I was teaching parts of Mr. Coats classes.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Of Mr. Coats classes. Yeah. George, were you sought out by political science and planning? I mean, did John Parker suggest this would be a good idea? Or was it a mutual thing?
GEORGE ESSER:
Mr. Coats was funny that way. He wanted the Institute to be involved but he wanted it under conditions that the Institute controlled.
FRANCES WEAVER:
I'm not surprised. Jealous of your time.
GEORGE ESSER:
Phil was the first to get involved.
FRANCES WEAVER:
That's Phil Green?
GEORGE ESSER:
Phil Green, yeah. He was the first to get involved with Jack Parker. It was after four or five years that it became as close as it did, but I got pretty close to political science. Fred Cleveland and then Don Hamond, of course, was from political science and he was one of the few non-lawyers at the Institute at that time.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Yes. Is he a Ph.D. in political science?
GEORGE ESSER:
Yeah.
FRANCES WEAVER:
I see.
GEORGE ESSER:
Mr. Coats did not understand why we wanted to be involved in the rest of the University. I don't know why he didn't, but he didn't.
FRANCES WEAVER:
I thought that was his dream.
GEORGE ESSER:
Well, his dream was involvement by invitation with control given to the Institute.
FRANCES WEAVER:
I see.
GEORGE ESSER:
He did not like cooperation and he did not like to think that the Institute was contributing to the good reputation of somebody else.
FRANCES WEAVER:
He wanted it out of the Institute?
GEORGE ESSER:
He wanted it out of the Institute.
FRANCES WEAVER:
All stars to the Institute.
GEORGE ESSER:
Yeah. Now, I think, on reflection that the negotiation he did to get faculty status for the staff at the Institute was a real triumph, on reflection. I don't know that many people could have secured that.
FRANCES WEAVER:
No. I know Albert's techniques, however.
GEORGE ESSER:
But on the other hand, you know, it was sometimes humiliating to know what was going on. He could be paranoid, he could be protective of the Institute, he could be provincial in his attitude about the Institute. You know, he didn't believe anybody else had a good idea.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Yeah.
GEORGE ESSER:
That is in the social sciences. In terms of the arts and the humanities and literature and so forth, I think that he was a very, very good University citizen. But in terms of the social sciences, he had a feeling that love was the social science. And he could not reconcile his dreams with those of Howard Odum or Rupert Vance or people like that. And when I got involved later in the mid-fifties, with the Institute for Research and Social Science—Gordon Blackwell and Fred Cleveland and Dan Price and others—first of all, Mr. Coats wouldn't let me be an official member of the Institute.
FRANCES WEAVER:
He wouldn't?
GEORGE ESSER:
No. I had to do that informally. And secondly, he got really upset when I managed to get a hundred thousand dollars of a six hundred thousand dollar grant from the Ford Foundation set aside for the Institute.
FRANCES WEAVER:
You mean the Institute for Research and Social Science?
GEORGE ESSER:
No. I mean the Institute.
FRANCES WEAVER:
The Institute of Government. But you got it?
GEORGE ESSER:
I got it.
FRANCES WEAVER:
What jurisdiction did Mr. Coats have over this?
GEORGE ESSER:
Well, I obviously came to the Institute of Government and after we got it, we had trouble spending it, because he would say, "God damn it. We gave up a chance to get a million dollars." And he never got over the fact that I was close to the [unclear] And that he never got a real big shot at a Ford grant.
FRANCES WEAVER:
He never got a hearing?
GEORGE ESSER:
Well, he got a hearing, but he never got close in terms of a commitment. And he could not understand that. And of course, he had retired from the Institute when I finally left the Institute. But he always expressed wonder that I could get so much support from the big, large foundations. And you couldn't tell him how the Institute was perceived by other people. He didn't understand that, because he was the one who knew everything about the Institute.
FRANCES WEAVER:
That's right.
GEORGE ESSER:
On the other hand, he hired good people. Now, he would let some people go, you know, for months without actually even talking to them.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Really?
GEORGE ESSER:
And if you could operate, you know, without a lot of supervision, you could get things done.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Without his interference?
GEORGE ESSER:
Without his interference. Well, for example, one of the things that I achieved and it's still going on at the Institute, is I put together the first informal but year long training program for city managers and officials of city government. And later, it was extended to counties and it's still going on thirty-five years later.