History and the people who make it: Hernan Vera

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler

This is the 29th in a series of transcript excerpts from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection at the University of Florida. 

Hernan Vera was interviewed by Diana Gonzalez-Tennant [G] in 2009.

V: I was born on February 16th, 1937 – seventy-two years ago – in Santiago, Chile. I went to several schools. By age 16 or 17 I was fluent in both Spanish and English and had a limited fluency in French. My second school was St. Georges College—Colegió San Jorge. I started there around 1946 and graduated in 1954. Then I went into Law School of Universidad de Chile, became a lawyer in 1962, got married in 1963 to Maria Inez Concha Gutierrez, my wife of today, and we had three children. I am retired, after 33 years of teaching sociology at the University of Florida.

I was getting ready to return to Chile, after getting a PhD in sociology, when a military coup on 9-11-1973 took place, and it was advisable in the view of all of our families and friends that we should stay in the US. We had come here in 1968 with a residence visa so we could work and stay without any problems.

In 1976, we became American citizens. To everyone’s surprise, the government of the military junta led by Augusto Pinochet was quite violent and brutal in repressing everyone. Pinochet engaged in what today we call genocide. He wanted to eliminate everyone who thought different from him. I am a strong believer in democracy, and justice, and freedoms, there was none of that in the government of Chile at the time. So we stayed in Gainesville. I had a couple of other offers — but Gainesville was nearest to Chile.

G: Could you elaborate on where you completed your degrees?

V: Chilean high schools are very different from high schools in the United States. We graduate having had three years of philosophy and three years of political science, you would call them here social sciences. I had five years of law school. After that, you get an academic degree, called a license in juridical and social sciences in my case. With that, you have to go to court and defend people—actually act as a public defender—for free, for six months or a year. After that, you swear, as a lawyer, before the Chilean Supreme Court.

I was employed by the Banco de Chile, at the time the biggest bank in Chile. I very naïvely decided I didn’t want to defend the rich against the poor, so I ended up in 1965-67, being director of personnel to the Grand Reform Corporation.

At the end of 1964 Eduardo Frei Montalva was elected president of Chile in what he called ‘A Revolution in Liberty.’ I was director of personnel of the Grand Reform when I was invited to teach political science at the University of Notre Dame, so I came here as a full professor. I started teaching here in the fall of 1968.

I came [to UF] as an assistant professor of sociology. Five years later, by some entanglement in the process, I was denied tenure and promotion, which I was given the next year. I became a full professor in 1995, and I retired in 2007.

I was making 4,000 dollars less than the less paid assistant professor in my department when I was promoted to full professor. There’s no doubt in my mind that it was racial, or ethnic, whatever you want to call it—discrimination. Latinos make less money in the same position than Anglos, or non-Latinos. Traditionally administrators defend themselves by saying, “Oh, it’s not discrimination, it’s just that they are worth less in terms of their productivity.”

In this particular study they controlled for all the variables that administration usually bring forth as explanations. They found that it wasn’t true that Latinos were less productive, that Latinos published in less important outlets, that Latinos published less, that they were not as good teachers, et cetera. Latinos were either entirely comparable or better than their non-Latino counterparts. The University of Florida is no exception to this national illness of racial discrimination.

I joined when the union began in 1976. I didn’t know much about unions in the United States, I considered myself more of a conservative leaning scholar, than anything else. But it was, as I saw it, an act of solidarity. It was something you did for your colleagues.

In the years that I was here, there was no other organization that fought for the rights of women, or the rights of minorities like the union did. It’s not just an idiosyncrasy of who happens to be president; the union stands for equalities, for democracy, for justice.

I was president of the union two years. Practically every week I had a memorable experience. The most memorable now is on February 16, 1985. At 7am I got a phone call from a journalist for the Gainesville Sun. She said,

“… we have information that the UF Administration has a hit-list: A list of professors that are going to be repressed, targeted to be silenced as much as possible. Do you know of any such list?” I said, “No, this is way off anything I would dream about in my worst nightmares.”

She said, “Well, there is such a list.” She read me pieces of the minutes of the Chamber of Commerce meeting that had taken place that week or the week before, in which John Shroepfer, who used to be an FBI agent and then he retired and opened a bar, told the Chamber of Commerce that he had met with Marshall Criser [8th president of UF, 1984–1989], and that Criser had committed to this list of kind of infantile things, that he would give orders to chairs, for example, to go to meetings at which professors were going to appear, saying the opposite. That ‘opposite’ was what the Chamber of Commerce wanted them to say, kind of a scientific opinion under command.

Did this happen? At least once it did. One chair did show up at a meeting—I was one of the professors who went—and he spoke against the professor. Whether this was by chance or whether it was commanded by President Criser it’s anyone’s guess. But it did happen. Another teacher, Grant Thrall [geography professor at UF], came before the Board of Regents a couple of years later to say that all that was said at that meeting had come to pass, in his case. President Criser resigned a couple of weeks after that.

We are a union of academicians, so we reacted academically. We had this national conference on academic freedom. It was reported in The New Yorker. The people who came were several causes célèbres – famous cases of academic freedom like Bartell Oman, [and] a historian from Princeton, who wrote about the support for Hitler of certain corporations. Twenty or thirty papers were delivered. It wasn’t easy to get the Gainesville Sun to report on it. I had to call the editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and get him to assign a journalist from that paper. … that paper would report it, and then the Sun would report it. For this conference the Gainesville Sun reported a week late, because I got the paper in Jacksonville to report it first.

The union did send a letter, signed by me, to President Criser, telling him: “Dear President Criser, you have told us what did not happen. Mr. Shroepfer has come out in the press and said that he embellished what he said before the Board. And you have said that you never promised to interfere with academic freedom of the professors… This letter is to ask you: What did happen?” We got a letter back within a week, saying, “Concerning your letter of such-a-date, I must decline.” So he refused to tell us what did happen at the meeting with Mr. Shroepfer and the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce.

The McCarthy Era hit this University very hard. Many people left, rather than being dragged through the mud, being accused as communists. One of my mentors, an Assistant Professor, left the University of Florida and started working in advertisement, rather than be accused of being a communist. I don’t know whether he was, I don’t care! That’s the beauty of America, you don’t need to tell anyone what you are or what you are not.

Right after that, this university went through the Johns Committee [named after Charley Johns, Florida state senator who led the committee]. After 1955, after the Brown v. Topeka decision, in which segregation was declared illegal, a group of right-wing legislators decided to investigate the connections between Fidel Castro and Martin Luther King.

A group of young lawyers teaching at the University of Florida eventually got an injunction against that investigation. That is illegal to do in the United States—you cannot investigate people’s ideas! The meaning of freedom is that you can associate with whoever you want, whenever you want, until you have any criminal intents.

They ended up in the State Supreme Court, and they won. So the legislators transformed the Johns Committee to investigate homosexuality in the state university system. The Johns Committee would turn in at different universities, would ask the Sheriff, call the following professors. The sheriff would go and knock on the door of a class and say, “Professor, come with me, the Johns Committee wants you,” which was terribly embarrassing, because it meant that you were being investigated for the possibility that you were homosexual.

When this happened for several weeks, someone told the professors, “When the Sheriff says ‘Come with me before the Johns Committee’, ask him if he has a warrant. And if he doesn’t, say ‘Go fry eggs, and when you have the warrant, come back’.”

That kind of ended investigations on campuses. We do not know if the people who left, left out of contempt for the school, or out of fear for the investigation. Some historians say that eighteen faculty left, other people say six faculty left as a result of the Johns Committee.

Eventually, the Johns Committee published a purple pamphlet, with photographs of homosexual boys—supposedly—exhibited in Fort Lauderdale’s strip. There appears to be a strip in Fort Lauderdale where are the strip joints and the homosexual clubs, etc, so they took some pictures, and those pictures are in this pamphlet. Some lawyers say that it’s the only pornographic document published by a legislature.

The year before I came, the AAUP—American Association of University Professors—had censured the University of Florida on a number of cases that involved ideological and racial discrimination. That’s a long story better read in the book, The Berkeley of the South by Marshall [Jones].

G: Did your involvement in the Union strain or help any relationships, professional or personal?

V: When I joined the union I was feeling very isolated. In part because of my heavy accent, in part because of my ethnicity, in part because of I don’t know. I did a type of sociology which they didn’t practice. So my joining the union was a fantastic breath of fresh air for me. I just loved it.

My productivity, in terms of papers published, books published, increased almost two-fold. In the first years that I was here before I joined the union I published one book, and maybe twenty, twenty-five articles. After I joined the union I ended up with ten books and a hundred articles, or thereabouts.

When there was no union at the University of Florida, administrators could hire and fire whoever they wanted. And they did. In 1973, all black teachers and all graduate students resigned from the University of Florida, in disgust of the racist practice of the university. If we don’t have a union, we don’t have any rights.

Tenure is an important right of academicians. Regardless of the subject we teach we’re always going to have some students who are going to hate us because of something we say. If that’s not the case, it means that we’re not good teachers. One of my mentors used to tell me that he liked me as a teacher because I could be trusted to split the course in half every time I spoke. One half would love me, one half hated me. When you teach something like sociology, or anthropology, or political science—that’s what you should be doing. Without tenure that is very difficult to do. Without tenure it’s very difficult to get people to do anything.

One of my students is a chair, in the university in the west coast – the tenth university that has no tenure. No one wants to do anything. They are asked to serve on committees and “No, no sorry I have to finish my papers.” People don’t participate, don’t want to belong, because they know they are going to be let go if they don’t have their papers, and their own self-enhancement going.

In my experience, unions are indispensable on academic campuses. Those who oppose unions are normally very prejudiced people, who either don’t know what unions are about, or have an ideological belief which is reactionary. Unions have been a part of American democracy since the 1930’s. That’s a long haul. There are movies, books, all kinds of things against them, and they still survive.

See http://ufdc.ufl.edu/l/AA00034811/00001/citation for the full transcript of this interview.

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