Willis M. Tate: Champion Of The ‘Free Marketplace Of Ideas’

SMU President Willis M. Tate, shown with students in 1960, championed academic freedom.

Willis McDonald Tate was born in the year of the founding of SMU, 1911. As student, faculty member, dean and president, his life was at one with the University. His tenure as president was remarkable not only for its record length (1954-1972 and 1974-1976), but also for his vision for the University.

Willis Tate was the second SMU alumnus, after Umphrey Lee ’16, to serve as president. At his inauguration in May 1955, President Tate stated a basic tenet of his faith: That a nation remains free only as universities are free in the quest for truth. A volume could, and should, be written about his constant defense of academic freedom, or as he would call it for greater understanding by his supporting constituency, the “free marketplace of ideas.”

From the late 1950s to the mid-60s, Tate and the University withstood McCarthy-like attacks from some individuals in the region who would have banned certain books from the library, kept controversial speakers off the campus, and prevented the races from learning together. Tate was excoriated as a “Communist dupe” in The American Mercury and labeled a “pinko” by columnist Lynn Landrum in The Dallas Morning News. The Ku Klux Klan attacked him for presiding over the integration of SMU. But the most controversial, time-consuming, and celebrated test of academic freedom occurred in 1959 when some students invited John Gates, former editor of The Daily Worker [Communist newspaper], to speak on campus. Tate defended their right to invite Gates; he came and spoke.

In 1965 his faculty nominated him for the Alexander Meiklejohn Award of the American Association of University Professors “for significant action in support of academic freedom,” and he won it. Tate maintained that he was more pleased by the fact that his faculty nominated him than by the award itself.

The Master Plan occurred about halfway through his term and was a “hard-nosed, extensive” effort to “re-examine all our presuppositions.” The Master Plan retains its strategic importance because it helped to shape SMU’s present conception of itself and because it articulated an educational philosophy not in principle departed from since. It states:

“The aim of this University . . . is to educate its students as worthy human beings and as citizens, first, and as teachers, lawyers, ministers, research scientists, businessmen, engineers and so on, second. These two aims – basic and professional education, general and special . . . will not be separated. For the well – educated person is indeed a whole human being.”

The next phase of Tate’s challenge as president was the difficult ’60s, a period of genuine soul-searching for him. “Young people in that time of great stimulus and challenge, of integration and war and so on,” he said, “wanted to take charge of their own lives. SMU came through it with its values intact. We had no violence because we had good students and a tradition of shared decision-making and because we had good faculty leadership and concern. When the black students came to see me with their demands in 1969, for example, I trusted them and left them in my office to discuss things among themselves, and there was a good outcome. We agreed to work together for their goals. It all depended, finally, on trust.”

Asked about the moral-ethical importance of SMU’s relationship with the Methodist church in facing such issues, Tate agreed that the moral force of the church had always been a positive factor. The Methodists wanted a first-class academic institution, not sectarian but open to all truth-claims, including their own. They understood a free pulpit, so they could understand the need for academic freedom. And the church in those days “was out ahead of the normal citizen in Texas on social issues,” Tate said.

Another great strength of SMU, of course, has always been the nature of the people and the place together. In Tate’s words, “The strength of this University can be placed in the fact that we did attract people who were willing to put their roots down here and make this their commitment and professional life. They were willing to stay and help make this the place they wanted it to be. They were here because SMU was a calling for them.”

– Marshall Terry ’53, ’54

Excerpted from the fall 1986 SMU Mustang celebrating SMU’s 75th anniversary. Terry served in the administration of President Tate from 1957 to 1965, and as a professor of English and director of creative writing at SMU. He retired in 2007 as the E.A. Lilly Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English.

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