Faculty image Wilbert J. McKeachie

After 63 years at the University of Michigan, I have quite a few memories.

           I was a math major with History and English minors as an undergraduate at Michigan State Normal College, but my career as a teacher was cut short by World War II with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  I had always thought that I would ask for deferment as a conscientious objector if a war came (and I would have been for any war since then), but in World War II there really seemed to be a good side and a bad side.  I talked to one of my friends who was in seminary in Evanston about what I should do, and he said,  "Well, have you thought about being a minister?  I go to the upper peninsula of Michigan every weekend to serve 9 little Methodist churches.  I can't serve 9 churches adequately.  Why don't you take a couple of my churches, and you can probably get deferred.  If you decide to enlist, you can do that.  Or if you decide to declare yourself a conscientious objector you can do that; or if you decide to become a minister, you can come to seminary."  I said, "I'm not a Methodist.  I'm a Presbyterian.”  He said, "The Bishop won't mind.”  And sure enough I was assigned to the Trout Lake and Hulburt churches.  I was to get $300 a year for preaching and playing the reed organ at the two churches and $1100 for teaching math, history, English, etc. in the 10-grade school at Trout Lake.  I went to a minister's conference and talked to the speaker who provided some wise advice: "If the Lord wants you to be a minister, you'll get deferred.  If he doesn't, you'll get drafted.”

           So when I turned 21 (draft age at that time), my draft board classified me as 1A (draftable).  I joined the Navy as a "90-day wonder" (In 90 days we were trained to be the equivalent of Naval Academy graduates) and spent the next three years as a destroyer radar officer in the Pacific.  Ironically, by the end of the war, I was the most combat-experienced destroyer radar officer in the Navy.  I think that my experience as a minister and as an officer whose captain would turn down my applications to volunteer for hazardous duty with the statement, "Anyone who likes enlisted men should be an enlisted man".  (He would probably have court-martialed me had he known that I would get fresh bread from the bakers for my radarmen when we had a 4 to 8AM watch.)

           I had married my wife Ginny the day before I enlisted, and I wrote to her that if I survived, I'd like to go to grad school in psychology after the war.  I was released from the Navy in time to enroll for the Fall term of 1945 at the University of Michigan, and I have been here ever since.  

          My experience about preaching helps explain why I taught the course "Psychology and Religion" for 40 more years even though by that time I had become a humanist.  After we arrived in Ann Arbor, we spent the next two years visiting over 42 churches.  I soon discovered that the Baptists believe that neither the Pope, nor anyone else, knows absolute truth.  Each of us has to do the best we can for ourselves.  So my belief that God is Love, a value, not a being, did not disqualify me from being the moderator for our church and serving on national boards. (My wife and I have also sung in the First Baptist choir for 60 years.  In 1947 the Baptists asked me to pitch for their softball team, which launched my 50 year career in the Ann Arbor softball leagues.)  For many years I was also member or chair of the U of M Committee on Studies in Religion.

           When I was finishing Grad School at U of M in 1948, Gerry Gurin and I talked about getting jobs.  Gerry said that he wouldn't apply for an opening at Ohio State because they didn't hire Jews.  I was shocked because some of our most eminent faculty members (e.g. Dan Katz and Jerry Blum) were Jewish.  But I soon learned about other instances of discrimination.

           My research on college teaching was the first to distinguish between male and female students.  Previous research had simply reported on students without noting that there were differences between men and women.  Later I was the first to note that women tended to do better in college teaching than men.  It was due to the fact that women tended to be more nurturing, and the most important factor in student motivation is the feeling that the teacher is concerned about me as an individual and wants me to learn.  I found that male teachers could do relatively well even though they were more impersonal, but female teachers who were impersonal were rated badly and did not do as well as other teachers.

           Yet I was surprised to learn that some departments did not have women faculty.  One of my first courses in psychology was taught by Martha Colby and we always had some women faculty members.  I recruited more when I was Chair, and it wasn't too many years later before Pat Gurin became department chair, and she was excellent.  Incidentally, I broke the nepotism rule here (although there wasn't really a printed rule).  Steve Kaplan was on our faculty and his wife, Rae, had an NSF post-doctoral fellowship which permitted her to teach one class, so I assigned a class to her and appointed her a Lecturer.  When the Dean objected, I said, "There's no problem because we're not paying her".  When her fellowship ran out, the question came up again, and I said, "She's teaching.  We obviously have to pay her.”

           The nice thing about a bureaucratic organization is that once you have a precedent you can do almost anything.  Hence, after that I was able to give Liz Bjork, Judy Reitman, and Lois Hoffman professorial appointments even though their husbands were also on the faculty.

           When I became Chair, I gave a "State of the Department" address and said that my top goal was to get us together in one building.  (At that time the department offices were in West Quad, and our faculty were scattered over 23 different locations).  Although we reached the top of the University's priority list for a new building, the year that it appeared that we would get the funds, the Medical School got them instead.  When Pat Gurin became Chair, the East Engineering Building became vacant as the Engineering School moved to North Campus.  We were to have 2/3 of the building and the Dept. of Math would have 1/3.  However, before we got moved in, the University administration said that they couldn't afford the research labs for the 4th floor.  Pat said that if we couldn't get the labs, she would resign.  We got the labs and she remained as Chair.

           Early in my career here I also learned that some departments had no African-Americans on the faculty.  My first course at UM, Experimental Psychology was taught by Ralph Gibson, who was Black.  And one of my first PhD students was Bob Davage, who was Black.  In the 1960's all the major departments wanted to hire Blacks, but we had a head start because I had had an NSF grant to run a summer program for small college faculty in the 1950's and thus had friends in many of the Black colleges.  Pat Gurin was then an assistant professor on the departmental executive committee and suggested that we send out our current Black students to recruit like a football coach would; so we soon had a significant number of Black students, many of whom became well-known faculty members.  In fact, Frank Yates, whom we kept on as a faculty member, has become the world's leading decision theorist.

Some memories about the Hatcher era: Harlan Hatcher certainly looked like a university president–tall, handsome, white hair–and this was fine for the first years he was here.  However, he was not suited for the era of student activism in the late 50's and 60's.  I remember having dinner at the President's House one evening and Harlan was very upset because a group of students had been marching up and down in front of the house that day, which he thought was very inappropriate and showed a lack of proper respect.

           As student activism increased, some of the faculty became concerned that President Hatcher would do something to make things worse.  Sheriff Harvey was eager to bring in his deputies.  He probably wouldn't have killed any students, as the police did at Kent State, but he would have liked to bang some heads.  So whenever something came up that we thought might present President Hatcher with difficulties, the Chair of Biology, the Chair of Math, and I would call and ask for an appointment to see President Hatcher.  He always responded graciously and frequently invited the three of us to have breakfast with him in the garden at the President's House.  He would listen to us and agree to respond as we recommended and we thus avoided what we thought to be the worse consequences.

         Once when I was Chair of SACUA, we learned the Student Government Council was planning to take some action that I thought would bring in the Sheriff.  I asked for a meeting with them and took with me Kenneth Boulding, a prominent economist and a Quaker.  My points didn't seem to persuade the students but finally Kenneth said,  "It takes a long time to build a great university;  it doesn't take long to tear it down.  Do you really want to risk it?" They decided not to go ahead.

           I served on the faculty committee to select President Hatcher's successor, Robben Fleming, who was much better equipped to handle student uprisings.  He had been a labor mediator before becoming a university administrator.  It frustrated the protestors that he wouldn't lose his temper even when they occupied his office.  Later, during the Black Action Movement, the students cordoned off the Administration Building as they had during the earlier protests.  One of them said to me, "It’s just like the Viet Nam War student protests.”  I said, "No. When the police came to break up your group, you smiled and went peacefully. In the earlier protests, the protesters were spitting at the police.”

           Dick Mann had been one of my teaching assistants in introductory psychology and after getting his PhD, he joined the faculty at Harvard.  When I became Department Chair I invited him to come back to run the Intro Psych course.  He was so good that the students inaugurated a "Golden Apple" award to honor him, and that award is still given annually.

           One of the things Dick proposed was that in place of the usual 4th hour of class time, students be allowed to spend 2 hours tutoring students in the schools. I had to go to the LSA Curriculum Committee (on which I had previously served) and persuade them that students would learn as much or more from this service experience as spending the hour in class since it would provide real life questions and observations that would enrich the classroom discussions.  The Committee was skeptical but agreed to let us try it, and we collected student ratings and other data to demonstrate that it was really useful. John Hagen also had students in his Developmental Psych class go out to the Maxey Boys Training School for similar service learning.  I think these were the first two uses of service learning in the U.S.   Now service learning is a big thing both nationally and internationally, and we have the Ginsburg Center.

           Some years later, the Provost called me in and told me that he would pay half of my salary for a semester if I would go and try to get the Art School to talk to one another and work together.  A new dean had been brought in and had brought in some new faculty.  The Art School faculty had passed a vote of "No confidence" in the new dean.  So I spent a term talking to each member of the faculty at the School of Art, convening faculty meetings and small group meetings to discuss the issues that had arisen.

           The only Art faculty member I knew was one who specialized in Eskimo Art.  (As some of you may remember, our Regent, Eugene Power had gone to the Hudson Bay region with the man who had gotten the Eskimos started with carving soap stone and bone so that they could make a decent living, since whaling and hunting were not sufficient.  Power arranged a national touring exhibition of Eskimo Art across the US at university art museums, starting in Ann Arbor.  He set up a non-profit corporation, Eskimo Art, Inc., in a house across from his office on First Street.  Ginny and I really liked the sculptures and began collecting them; we have quite a large collection now.)

           Returning to the story, when I went to the School of Art, I discovered that in addition to the rift between the existing faculty and new faculty there were other divisions.  Painting and Sculpture, the classic arts, looked down on weaving and pottery.  The new photography professor looked down on the existing professor because he did commercial art, taking pictures of new models for the auto companies, etc.  And all of the arts looked down on the Industrial Design department.

           I actually enjoyed my talks and meetings with the faculty.  I brought in Mark Chesler from Sociology, a specialist in conflict resolution, and by the end of the semester things settled down.  My biggest asset was that I made it clear to them that if they couldn't work together, they would be put back with Architecture. (During my early years at Michigan, there was a combined School of Art and Architecture).  Nobody in Art wanted to be joined again with Architecture.

           When I was a graduate student (1945-48), behaviorism was the reigning theory.  Beginning in the late 40's and 50's, psychologists began studies of intentions and motivations and by the 1960's, cognitive psychology became dominant.  In fact, one of my most embarrassing moments was when I gave a speech at West Virginia University about how Skinnerian behaviorism had been outmoded by cognitive psychology.  After my lecture, a faculty member came up to me and said, "I'm Fred Skinner's daughter."  (Fred and I were friends even though we always disagreed about theory.)

           After completing my second term as department chair, I decided that we needed to get our new understanding of learning and motivation to our freshmen so that they could be better learners throughout the rest of college and for the rest of their lives.   So I started a new freshman course called "Learning to Learn" and taught it until I retired. Dr. Yi Guang Lin and I did some follow-up studies that showed that students who took the course got better grades in later years than students with comparable SAT scores who hadn't taken the course.

           When I turned 70, I retired officially although my friend, Sidney Fine told me, "Bill, we don't have to retire when we turn 70.  One of my former students is going to change the Michigan laws so that mandatory retirement will be ended." (This was former State Senator Joe Schwartz, a loyal Michigan alum and great friend of Sidney.)  Nonetheless, at age 70 I went on my TIAA-CREF retirement annuity, but said that I would keep on teaching one course for free because I like teaching.  The University is always short of money and I figured I could save them some.  I kept on teaching until I had to have my hips and right shoulder replaced 3 years ago (the penalty for pitching fast-pitch softball for 50 years).

           The department has generously given me an office so I come in every day to do my e-mail and to play MURDER at noon.  MURDER is a card game invented by some of our graduate students who played bridge.  Some days they would have only 3 players; other days 5; and you need exactly 4 for bridge.  So they invented a game that can be played by any number from 3 to 7.  It was just called "the game" until Warren Norman (my successor as department chair) screamed so loud when someone trumped his ace that a grad student came running down the hall thinking someone had been mortally wounded.

           When I retired as department chair, I said that I would continue to participate in departmental activities except that I would no longer be involved in any noon departmental or university committee meetings (which had taken a lot of my noon hours).  I would now play MURDER at noon, and I have been helping maintain the tradition of the noon MURDER game ever since.

           I suspect that few faculty members have served on as many university committees as I, and at the same time I was serving on committees of the American Psychological Association.  I was on one or more committees of APA from 1950 to 2005 and served as President one year.  At age 85 I refused re-nomination feeling that it was time for a younger generation to take over.

Curriculum Vitae
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