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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Daniel H. Pollitt, February 22, 1991. Interview L-0064-5. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The case of Michael Paull

Pollitt describes the case of Michael Paull, a Ph.D. student in the English department at UNC, who was fired after a media maelstrom misrepresented his assignment to undergraduate students about Anthony Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress." Pollitt was the president of the UNC chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and offered counsel to Paull during the process. Though Paull was initially removed from his position as a teaching statement, he was reinstated after an investigation found he should never have been removed in the first place. In addition, Pollitt describes the role of Jesse Helms (then, a commentator for WRAL-TV), UNC Chancellor Carlysle Sitterson, and the response of the national media.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Daniel H. Pollitt, February 22, 1991. Interview L-0064-5. 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

Every other year there was some episode. A fun one, sort of, was Michael Paull.
ANN MCCOLL:
When was this? What year was this?
DANIEL POLLITT:
This was 1967. Michael Paull was a graduate student in English and he was a teaching assistant. There they have large freshmen courses and then one day a week they break into smaller groups and meet with teaching assistants who are graduate students working on something. Michael Paull was a very nice young man, married, and he'd come here from I believe Cornell and was in his second or third year being toward his Ph.D. degree. At that time we were starting the Upward Bound program where in the summer time we would recruit juniors and seniors in high schools, blacks, minorities, and bring them to the campus for five or six weeks. They'd live in the dorm and they'd see college life and they would have various courses which would sharpen their skills in English and math and whatever. Hopefully they would be interested in health matters. The med school was big on this to try to encourage people to take pre-med types of courses. Michael Paull, the graduate student, was very interested in that and he worked with the Upward Bound. It was started by the Y. It wasn't started by the University. It was started by the YMCA and got private support and then eventually the University adopted it. But Michael Paull had also one summer gone to Texas to work in their Upward Bound when they decided they should have one modeled on ours. He had been in ours, so he went down to Texas to show them how we had done it and to get it started. You didn't make a lot of money when you work for the YMCA on a volunteer project. So he was a very altruistic person and well-regarded by everyone. Now what happened was that they had…. He was from Detroit, Michigan and he had assigned a poem, "To His Coy Mistress" was the name of the poem. It was written by Andrew Marvell.
ANN MCCOLL:
That was a very old poem.
DANIEL POLLITT:
Very old poem. I was just trying to find it. I have my file here. I have a big file. Here's the story in the Sunday New York Times of October 23, 1966.
ANN MCCOLL:
So this is being reported?
DANIEL POLLITT:
Oh, boy was it reported. What happened was that Michael Paull who was this young graduate student, assigned his class to write a theme on Marvell's poem, "To His Coy Mistress" which is, you know, like twenty-five lines long or something. Well, I can't remember what it said, but there was a misinterpretation and one of the freshman coeds told her mother that she had to write a poem on "my first seduction" which was not true. At least that's what the mother reported at a dinner party to Jesse Helms who was then a radio commentator in Raleigh, now our Senator. And the mother told Jesse Helms that her daughter had told her that she had to write on "my first seduction" and the assignment was given by a young male graduate student.
ANN MCCOLL:
Nothing was said about it being about this poem?
DANIEL POLLITT:
No. So Jesse Helms called the University and asked what was going on. "Are your young male graduate students trying to seduce the freshmen coeds this way?" And they didn't know anything about it, you know, and they said they'd call back. But in any event, Jesse went on the air.
ANN MCCOLL:
During his editorials?
DANIEL POLLITT:
During his editorial and complained that the University was assigning…. That the freshmen coeds had to write about their love affairs to the young graduate students who naturally were trying to seek out what was doing around. So that was the thing. And as soon as Jesse…. And he said, "What are they doing about it?" Well, immediately Carlysle Sitterson, the Chancellor, removed Paull from his teaching assignment to a research assignment, so he was no longer a TA, a teaching assistant, he was an RA, a research assistant.
ANN MCCOLL:
Did they investigate what was going on?
DANIEL POLLITT:
No they didn't investigate. The problem was that the head of the English department was visiting. He was visiting at Texas. Maynard Adams was the acting head and he's a great fellow, but he teaches Thoreau and he lives in a world of his own. A good fellow, but in a world of his own, and he thought he was doing them a favor by giving him more time to be a research assistant than to be teaching. In any event, it happened. So here's the New York Times: "A poem arouses university storm," is the headline. Subline is, "Teacher transferred over theme on seduction." It starts off, "To his coy mistress. A poem about seduction written more than three hundred years ago by Andrew Marvell, one of the great poets of the Puritan period in England, has risen to stir a tempest on the campus of the University of North Carolina." That's the lead paragraph and it goes on to say that "An instructor has been transferred from teaching to research duties. Students are mounting protests." And that's true. They then went to investigate his students. There were twenty-two in his class and they all signed a petition asking that he be returned and many of them said that he was the best teacher that they had at Carolina and they liked him and they wanted him back. What had happened again, was that Michael Paull had read and asked the students to read their essays and one or two had exaggerated and so on, and Paull told them that that's not what he had had in mind when he had asked them to…. Their assignment was to discuss the poem in terms of what they had been learning in poetry writing; onomatopoeia, alliteration and rhyming and whatever. And that's what they were supposed to do. They weren't supposed to give their personal experiences at all, but one or two had, you know. After they did the other, they went on and added things. Then when he was transferred, the students were upset and the twenty-two students signed the petition. "We want him back." All of them. One hundred percent. And then the graduate students in the English department said they were going on a strike and they were no longer going to teach until he was reinstated. The Tarheel got involved and had editorials saying, "Put him back. What kind of a University is this?" And the President of the student body, Bob Powell, a great fellow, said that the student council was going to have an investigation. We have a lot of graduates in the press media. Brinkley and Tom Wicker and a whole bunch of them.
ANN MCCOLL:
The big names.
DANIEL POLLITT:
The big names. So they were writing editorials. The Wall Street Journal had a lead editorial on academic freedom and they all made fun of it and Life magazine had a full page reprint of the poem and sort of made fun of Southern institutions that can't stand up to having students comment on a three hundred year old poem. Again, from the New York Times, "An instructor has been transferred from teaching to research duties and students are mounting protests. Faculty members are disturbed. Chancellor Carlysle Sitterson, who recommended the transfer, has had to issue an clarifying statement and justification. And then the clouds began to gather when Michael Paull, an instructor in freshman English, assigned his class to write a theme on the subject of ‘To His Coy Mistress’, a poem that appears in many college textbooks and anthologies used in classwork. The resulting themes were read aloud and some of the students found them embarrassing. At least one regarded some of them as vulgar. The instructor also was embarrassed and asked that the themes be rewritten. One of the students apparently wrote her parents about the incident and the parents brought it to the attention of WRAL T.V., a television station in Raleigh with right wing views that has been a frequent critic of liberalism at the University. All twenty-two of Mr. Paull's students signed petitions requesting his return to teaching duties. Between two hundred and three hundred students and faculty members organized into the Committee for Free Inquiry and asked that Mr. Paull be reinstated and that a review board be set up in the English department. Some newspapers expressed concern. The Greensboro Daily News declared, ‘The spectacle of a great University reassigning its instructors at the behest of a bullying television station is hardly believable.’ The Daily Tarheel campus newspaper headed its editorial, ‘Who's afraid of Jesse Helms? The University, that's who."’ So it went. They did appoint a committee in the English department to review the whole situation. There are five members; five tenured senior members of the faculty were appointed to look into it and this was a fig leaf. You can't just put him back and acknowledge you were wrong. So you have a committee and the committee…. Another report here is nineteen pages long and there were distinguished people on the committee and they recommended that he be reinstated, that it had all been an misunderstanding. And he was reinstated.