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Author: William Peace
Title: Introduction: The University of Michigan's Department of Anthropology: Leslie White and the Politics of Departmental Expansion
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Introduction: The University of Michigan's Department of Anthropology: Leslie White and the Politics of Departmental Expansion
William Peace

vol. 16, no. 1, 2006
Issue title: Retrospectives: Works and Lives of Michigan Anthropologists
PDF: Link to full PDF [274kb ]

Introduction: The University of Michigan’s Department of Anthropology: Leslie White and the Politics of Departmental Expansion

William Peace

A variety of sources provide a detailed chronicle of the history of anthropology prior to World War II. But the rapid development of anthropology after the war, and the sociopolitical context that made such an expansion possible, are not as well known. The discipline’s growth during this era was exponential; membership in the American Anthropological Association (AAA) multiplied 20 times between the end of 1941 and 1963 (Wolf 1964:8). The annual AAA meetings, once small and fraternal, became huge events (DeLaguna 1962). Older scholars fondly recall that before the war virtually every anthropologist in the country could fit into one ordinary room; the program was printed on a single page (Goldfrank 1977; Tax 1960). How did the discipline emerge from relative obscurity to become a field of study on nearly every college campus in the United States? What motivated major universities to create new departments and produce an astounding surplus of anthropologists?

This study focuses on Leslie A. White’s years at the University of Michigan (U of M), 1930 to 1959, to show how one university expanded its anthropology department, making it one of the foremost in the country. White was at that time the most recognized and influential member of the department. These years reflect White’s most productive ones as a scholar and, more generally, the establishment of anthropology as a profession within the social sciences on college campuses across the country.

There is an “unwritten’” history of anthropology in which its personalities and politics are both hidden. Some work has begun to fill this gap, and mine can be considered an extension of that in Volume 9 of the History of Anthropology series, Excluded Ancestors, Inventible Traditions (Handler 1999), and Regna Darnell’s Invisible Genealogies (2001). Despite a growing interest in studies that explore given individuals’ roles in theory building, historians of anthropology have barely begun the anthropological history of anthropology. According to Sydel Silverman, “We have only seen the beginnings of analytical treatments of the social networks within which anthropologists have worked, of the histories of significant institutions, or of the larger contexts that have shaped anthropological practice and ideas. Nor have we gone very far toward answering the vexing question of the extent to which the personal and the professional are linked in the lives of and works of our leading figures” (Silverman 2004:x–xi). Here I want to describe the work and life of Leslie White in the context of his connections to the broader network of scholars and scholarship within which he functioned.

False starts: prejudice and the establishment of anthropology at Michigan

A few words about the department in the 1920s are required because they have a direct bearing on the establishment of the department and the hiring of Leslie White. [1] A steady stream of part-time instructors at U of M had offered a series of anthropology courses since the department’s founding in 1873. But the Museum of Anthropology was not officially created until June, 1922 (Carl Guthe to Griffin, January 22, 1932). Like other mid-western universities, Michigan made a concerted effort to establish an independent anthropology department in the mid to late 1920s. To this end, Michigan tried to hire a well-known scholar who would attract students to the department. Archival files from various faculty members, academic deans, and the President of the University, Clarence Cook Little, demonstrate that the “star” Michigan wanted was Edward Sapir. In 1923 he was invited to Ann Arbor to give three lectures (Charles Cooley to Marion L. Burton, October 13, 1923). Sapir made a distinct impression and it seemed probable he would be hired. However, the evidence also strongly suggests that Sapir was not hired because he was Jewish. [2]

After Michigan failed to hire Sapir, the university continued employing a series of part-time instructors, among them Colonel Thomas Callan Hodson. According to James Griffin, Hodson was a gifted teacher who not only generated strong student interest but provided the impetus to once again try to establish an official department of anthropology. Carl Guthe, a Harvard trained archaeologist hired in 1922 as the Associate Director of the Museum of Anthropology, spearheaded this effort. According to Guthe, after the failed attempt to hire Sapir, “it was finally decided to begin modestly by appointing an instructor in the subject and to develop the work gradually, with the active cooperation of the officials of the recently established Museum of Anthropology” (Guthe 1951:440). In May 1927, Carl Guthe, and Deans Alfred H. Lloyd and John F. Effinger formed an advisory committee that sought to determine the best way to create a program for the formal instruction of anthropology. Between the spring of 1927 and 1928 the university decided to establish an official department. Surviving archival files, though incomplete, demonstrate that anthropology as a field of study was not well understood by the administration. Guthe repeatedly defined anthropology for university administrators as the study of man, and emphasized the four field approach. The advisory committee that Guthe headed was firmly committed to not only offering classes in anthropology but training professional anthropologists at U of M. Funds were made available for the 1928–29 academic year for a “specialized curriculum for Anthropology.” This program was open only to advanced students. Although designed specifically for juniors and seniors, Guthe envisioned that the program would eventually offer an M.A. and Ph.D.

Under the auspices of the advisory committee, arrangements were made for the inauguration of anthropology courses during the 1928–29 school year. Guthe was appointed Lecturer in Anthropology and paid $500 a term. Hiring someone to share the duties proved more difficult. Emerson F. Greenman, who had just received his doctorate, was hired but resigned before he began teaching. W. Vernon Kinietz was then brought in as “part-time curator in the Museum of Anthropology” in the summer of 1928 but he too resigned before the fall semester began. According to the proceedings of the Board of Regents, Kinietz’s salary was then turned over to Julian Steward who was appointed “part-time instructor in anthropology in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and part-time curator in the Museum of Anthropology.” Steward arrived in Ann Arbor in October 1928 with a salary of $2,500. [3]

During the 1929–30 academic year, ten one-semester courses were given in anthropology. Six of these hours were for the beginning courses covering both semesters (Guthe to Effinger March 19, 1930). The Department of Anthropology was formed so late in 1928 that no announcement was placed in the course catalog. Not surprisingly, enrollments were lower than desired—a fact that worried Guthe. As for Steward, his teaching load appeared manageable at first but when enrollments increased more than he anticipated he was overwhelmed with work. Steward and Guthe worked closely together between 1928 and 1929, an arrangement Steward disliked. According to Kerns (2003), Steward did not understand why his name was not listed in the course catalog and was disappointed the university had no equipment for classes (Kerns 2003:104). He also apparently felt insecure about his teaching ability.

Despite the fact Steward was in an enviable position professionally, letters he exchanged with Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie demonstrate he resented Guthe’s opinions and suggestions about how classes should be taught. Steward wrote to Lowie that Guthe annoyed him: “Guthe is both giving and supervising the course. All I do is appear before the class and do the dirty work” (Steward to Lowie, October 11, 1928). Kroeber tried to explain to Steward why Guthe’s name appeared in the catalog and also praised Guthe, characterizing him as “kindly and fair” (Kroeber to Steward, October 11, 1928). Based on a careful reading of Steward’s letters, he seemed to resent Guthe’s superior academic position (Kerns 2003:118). [4] Why Guthe bothered Steward so much is hard to understand. Guthe went out of his way to praise Steward. For instance, as chair of the Advisory Committee, Guthe wrote a long report to Effinger:

The popularity of these courses in anthropology, which we feel is based upon the subject and not upon the grades given, is due in large measure to Dr. Steward’s able handling of the work. During the past winter a definite and sympathetic interest in our work has been expressed by staff members of the departments of Anatomy, Geography, Geology, History, Semitics, Sociology, and Zoology. In view of these facts we feel that the work in anthropology should be under the direction of a staff member of professorial rank, with at least one assistant. [Guthe to Effinger March 19, 1930]

There is no question that Guthe wanted Steward to remain at Michigan. However, Steward felt overworked and underpaid. He was teaching full-time and serving as part-time Assistant Curator in the Museum of Anthropology where he helped to catalogue the museum collection. Steward felt isolated in Ann Arbor and missed California and Berkeley. Although personally unhappy, from a professional viewpoint it would seem he was in an ideal situation. He was working in an anthropology department at a major university that expressed a serious commitment to building a larger program of study. He had the support of Kroeber and Lowie and was not far from Detroit and Chicago. In short, Steward’s professional future looked promising. Many of his peers were unemployed, and he was insulated from the stock market crash and the depths of the Great Depression. At the end of Steward’s first year at Michigan, he was promoted and received a salary increase to $2,700. He supplemented this income by teaching an extension course at a Detroit high school. [5]

Virginia Kerns has detailed that more personal reasons led him to give up his position. Steward was engaged to be married and missed his fiancée. He sought the advice of Kroeber and Lowie and each man strongly advised him not to leave Ann Arbor. Kroeber emphasized the ideal setting and support Michigan offered while Lowie warned that, while he might be happier elsewhere, leaving Michigan was a big risk—one he might come to regret. Guthe also advised Steward not to leave and tried to entice him into staying by seeking another raise for him. But by January 1930 Steward had had enough, and accepted a position at the University of Utah where his fiancée worked. He left Michigan at the end of the spring semester—a decision he would indeed deeply regret. [6]

Expansion of anthropology at the University of Michigan and the hiring of Leslie A. White

In Fred Eggan’s “One Hundred Years of Ethnology and Sociology,” he noted that in the history of ethnology 1930 was pivotal; it marked a “time of transition and reorientation,” and heralded the start of “the modern period” of anthropological discourse (Eggan 1968). [7] Penniman has also characterized the period between 1930 and 1935 as “The Critical Period” because professional anthropology was rapidly forming in departments across the country (Penniman 1952:242–344). Although anthropology was already well established at universities like the University of Chicago, the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard University, Yale University, and Columbia University, few other centers of academic anthropological training were available (Ebihara 1984). Prior to 1930 there were only 33 degree-offering programs in the United States. Few of these were independent; they were often affiliated with other fields such as sociology, psychology, history, and geology. Only 6 of the 33 departments—Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale—offered a Ph.D. (Ebihara 1984:106–107). The two largest departments were Yale and the University of Washington. A comprehensive list of advanced degrees in anthropology awarded between 1891 and 1930 (Bernstein 2002:560–564), and an unpublished list by James Griffin of M.A.s and Ph.D.s awarded between 1927 and 1933, illustrate just how small the field truly was.

The academic context required to form a powerful Anthropology Department and Museum of Anthropology at Michigan was ideal. Although the Depression hindered development of such a department during the 1930s, at least the justification for it could be established. Guthe, a shrewd administrator, was well aware that the social sciences in general and anthropology in particular were poised for expansion. While he doubted the university would follow his recommendations, in 1930 he wrote a proposal that made it clear anthropology at Michigan could become a dominant force in the field. Anthropology had already generated strong and growing student interest at U of M. Guthe highlighted that there were few centers of professional development, noting that the two strongest departments nearby were at Chicago and the University of Minnesota. There were also joint departments of anthropology and sociology at Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin. The department at the University of Illinois was founded in 1927, and at Ohio State University in 1929. Finally, Guthe mentioned that the University of Nebraska had recently hired William Duncan Strong, a promising scholar, and that other universities, specifically the University of Iowa, Indiana University, and the University of Missouri were about to either establish departments or hire anthropologists. Guthe knew that the U of M administration did not want to lag behind other institutions, and implied that Michigan needed to hire an anthropologist or would miss the chance to become a force in the profession.

In 1930 Michigan hired Leslie A. White to replace Julian Steward, where White would spend virtually his entire career at U of M. He was not the first, second, third, or even fourth choice for the job. Carl Guthe believed that Ralph Linton was the ideal candidate to replace Steward. He characterized Linton as “one of the strongest anthropologists of his age group, and [I] cherish the warm friendship which I have with him” (Guthe to Effinger undated letter, circa 1930). Guthe wanted Linton, an established scholar, to generate both student interest and cutting edge theory. In February of 1930 Guthe wrote a “personal and confidential letter” to Linton, then at Wisconsin, to ask if he was interested in coming to Michigan. Guthe wrote that he hoped to hire a scholar at the associate professor rank with a salary of $5,000, and implied this figure could go higher (Guthe to Linton, February 26, 1930). Linton responded that he was about to be promoted to full professor and expected a substantial increase in his salary, already at $4,750, which he supplemented with another $720 by teaching an extension course.

In a flurry of letters between Guthe, Linton, and U of M administrators, it became obvious that Linton’s salary demand could not be met. In addition, Effinger was concerned that Linton was using Guthe and Michigan to drive up his salary by pitting two universities against one another, as indeed he was. In a letter to William Duncan Strong, Linton wrote that he set a high figure of $5,600, telling Guthe “that I was well satisfied here and that it would be hard for me to move. I hope something may come of it as such offers help one with the university even if one doesn’t want to shift...The Michigan job would be a good one from several points of view. It is a live institution not too far out of civilization and with a good museum. Guthe might be wearing at times, due to too much youthful enthusiasm, but there isn’t an ounce of vice in him” (Linton to Strong, February 13, 1930).

When it became evident Linton would not move to U of M, Guthe asked him to recommend another scholar. He suggested Leslie Spier, William Duncan Strong, Charlotte Gower, and White. Guthe contacted Spier first, who replied that he had no interest in moving to Michigan. Guthe then wrote to Strong noting he was impressed with Strong’s teaching and publishing record. Strong also declined. Guthe then switched gears and worked within the U of M’s budget, thus searching for a young (i.e., cheap) replacement for Steward.According to the proceedings of the Board of Regents, White was hired in June 1930 as an assistant professor of anthropology with money deducted from the Museum of Anthropology’s budget. Even though Linton recommended White, he was surprised Michigan hired him. Linton wrote to Strong, as if by premonition: “Leslie White got the Michigan job...It will be amusing to observe White among the conservatives, for he is a Bolshevik since his Russian experience” (Linton to Strong, September 29, 1930).

In my biography of White I did not fully describe the context and background associated with Michigan’s decision to hire him. [8] While White’s name would eventually become synonymous with Michigan anthropology, he walked into an enviable situation. Guthe had spent several years laying the foundation for anthropology at Michigan, and Steward had generated significant student interest prior White’s arrival. An already gifted lecturer with a penchant for controversy, White’s first year at Michigan, 1930–1931, was duly eventful (Peace 1998). He taught with Guthe, William Gilmore, and had an assistant, B. O. Hughes. The department offered 18 semester hours of courses including the full year introductory course open only to upperclassmen and a course in research and special work each semester. During the 1931–1932 academic year, White took over the “American Indian” class Steward had taught and discontinued “Primitive Society.” White began teaching courses about cultural evolution and refined his most well-known and influential class, “The Mind of Primitive Man.”

Throughout the 1930s enrollments in anthropology increased significantly. There were 250 enrollments during the 1930–1931 academic year, and by the time the University of Michigan hired Mischa Titiev as a full time faculty member in 1936–1937 enrollments exceed 553, despite the fact anthropology was only open to junior and seniors. [9] During this six year period of growth, White was the only full-time anthropologist, for Guthe was the Director of the Museum of Anthropology. After Titiev was hired, he and White remained the only full-time anthropologists until after World War II. Though Titiev and White did not get along well, throughout the 1930s and early 1940s they learned how to work together. Much “folklore” exists, but it is hard to determine why they did not like each other. Some maintain their wives did not get along; others have suggested White may have had an anti-Semitic streak, and opposed hiring an immigrant Russian Jew. [10]

What cannot be disputed is that Titiev’s decision to work for the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, during World War II fractured whatever good will might once have existed between the two men. White was an opponent of all war, a committed socialist, and a member of the Socialist Labor Party. He believed Titiev was prostituting his anthropological skills. White was appalled that Titiev saw nothing wrong with his commitment to the OSS and was deeply troubled by Michigan’s role in the war effort. Titiev sent letters to White from Washington, DC on official OSS stationary regarding mundane academic issues. It is hard to imagine Titiev was unaware of White’s view and must have known using an OSS letterhead would anger him. Titiev was just one of 123 U of M faculty members granted extended leaves of absences in order to conduct war related research. On campus war expenditures between 1941 and the end of the war totaled $6,600,000. U of M’s major undertaking during the war was on behalf of the U.S. Navy and included the development of the V-T Proximity Fuse that used radio signals to cause bombs to explode at pre-determined distances and the “tuba” or radar jammers used on PT boats (Peckham 1994).

The war years fractured the tenuous Titiev–White relationship. White resented the fact he had to scramble to find qualified people to replace Titiev at a time when such people were very difficult to locate. White’s teaching responsibilities increased during the war despite the fact there were fewer students in the department. According to Betty Meggers, she was one of few graduate students at Michigan during the war because most men over the age of 18 had been drafted (Meggers to Peace). The department of anthropology remained small and as late as the 1945–46 academic year had an annual budget of less than $7,000.

Prior to the war, White and Titiev did their best to co-exist with as little rancor as possible. During the post–World War II era this changed and the two men were barely on speaking terms. White was further disillusioned with Titiev because the latter helped establish the East Asian Studies Program. White knew the development of area studies was going to generate student interest and faculty appointments, and receive huge sums from the government. He also believed government funding of the social sciences created inherent ethical dilemmas and posed grave dangers to independent non-biased research. White sought to secure the department’s growth independent of government support—a nearly unique position for that era’s social sciences.

White’s role and position at the University of Michigan

Although White was able to retain his position for 40 years and witness the rise of Michigan as a leading center of thought in the discipline, his academic position was never secure. He lacked political gamesmanship; he championed unpopular causes; he held radical political beliefs and acted on them. Within weeks of being hired, it was obvious that White’s views on myriad issues were at odds with the administration. On a relatively small campus in the 1930s it was possible for White to generate a powerful presence. His two most popular classes, “The Evolution of Culture” and “The Mind of Primitive Man,” regularly attracted as many as 300 students. Between 1930 and 1940 U of M was still not large, and students tended to came from conservative or upper-middle-class families (Peckham 1994; Shaw 1937). When White was hired, there were 3,800 undergraduates and a very small group of graduate students. A decade later, there were still fewer than 5,000 students (Beardsley 1976:617). According to Beardsley:

Before World War II a single lecturer of White’s intellectual caliber and personal charisma could have a proportionally great affect (with his proportionately large classes) when, expressing his views of cultural determinism, he passionately rejected free will and deism, as well as notions of biological or psychological determinism cherished by scholars in other fields. These views, in the 1930s and still later, brought trouble. White’s evolutionism might be tolerated, even though it led him to question the permanence of capitalist society...But his cultural determinism undercut still more deeply felt convictions of people outside the field of professional anthropology. Irate parents and churchmen repeatedly pressed administrators at the University of Michigan or appealed to state legislators to muzzle this iconoclast. They were driven to greater wrath by his success in persuading students that his views were tenable. [1976:618]

White had mixed feelings about Michigan. There was a great deal he did not like about Ann Arbor, yet few jobs would enable him to pursue his scholarly interests and provide any measure of intellectual freedom. By this he specifically meant the ability to independently pursue his own interests. But such freedom had negative consequences, foremost among them “the close atmosphere of the university community with all its gossip, its jealousies and rivalries, the restrictions upon a free teaching of social science” (White journal entry, September 18, 1937). White tried to maintain a low profile; but the administration rarely missed an opportunity to make his life difficult. It denied him paid and unpaid sabbaticals, refused to increase his salary, turned down research requests, however small, and denied adequate secretarial support.

Throughout the 1930s, White found himself in a position few would envy. Conservative Michigan administrators thought he was too radical, while the Socialist Labor Party believed he was not truly committed to socialism. White’s closest friend, Harry Elmer Barnes, credits White’s positions as being partially responsible for the University of Michigan’s strong commitment to academic freedom (Barnes 1960). The issue of academic freedom remained on the forefront of White’s mind throughout his career. Behind White’s bravado and dry wit, his unpopular views and the reaction they provoked took a heavy personal and professional toll. His nemesis in this regard was Edward Kraus, Dean of U of M’s College of Arts and Literature, who controlled departmental budgets. According to White’s journal entries, Kraus denied almost all his requests for secondary support for his research and blocked promotions he deserved. For example, in 1938 Kraus told White that, after careful consideration, he was being denied a promotion to the rank of full professor. White recalled that Kraus told him his promotion was denied because he did “not fraternize enough with the boys;” other professors had the “feeling” White did not like them, and he was too “stand-offish” (White journal entry, January 19, 1939). White could not fathom that such factors, which he regarded as superfluous, were required for academic advancement and bitterly wrote that “to get a promotion at the cost of such fraternization is too dear, it is not worth it. Next year I shall receive $4100—$100 more than I got when I came here in 1930” (White, journal entry, June 3, 1938).

In late 1943, White was finally promoted to full professor. To secure this promotion, White’s academic standing and contribution to the discipline had to be evaluated by anthropologists outside the university. This proved embarrassing for Carl Guthe, who was responsible for soliciting independent views. One reviewer after another could not fathom why White had not been promoted to full professor. Julian Steward in particular found it “unconscionable that a man of White’s caliber and influence had not been awarded this distinction years ago” (Steward to Guthe, March 19, 1943). White was finally promoted thirteen years after he was hired and received his second pay raise, the first having been $100. In May 1943 he was told his salary would be increased $350 for the promotion, with an additional $250 for “basic adjustment.” The letter’s ink was barely dry when he received the departmental budget for the 1943–44 academic year. His salary increase had already been cut $100. White “thought it a rather mean business—that as well as the denial of the chairmanship, have not contributed to my enthusiasm and loyal support of the university administration. I have not the words to express my repugnance for and contempt of certain ways of doing things which are characteristic of this, and I presume other universities” (Journal entry, June 25, 1943).

White’s bitter words must be considered within the larger framework of what was about to take place at the University of Michigan. The groundwork had already been laid to expand U of M social sciences at the end of the war. The future of anthropology and other social sciences had been under intense scrutiny by long-time President Alexander Ruthven and the Board of Regents. White’s bitterness possibly stemmed from his concern for job security and a desire to influence the expansion of the social sciences in general and anthropology in particular. In addition, Alexander Ruthven had fallen out of favor with the Board of Regents and shortly after White was appointed acting Chairman of the Anthropology Department Carl Guthe resigned. The department was adrift without Guthe in part because he had been a gifted facilitator with a penchant for finding solutions to budgetary and personnel problems. Hiring his replacement took a long time. Guthe strongly recommended that White remain acting chair of the department and that James Griffin be hired to replace Guthe as director of the museum (Guthe to Ruthven, December 7, 1943).

The inability of the administration to act in a timely manner can be tied to the rift between Ruthven and the Board of Regents. They seemed to agree on only one thing: both wanted to shake up the department. Surviving archival documents indicate that neither Ruthven nor the Board of Regents understood why there was a separation between the Anthropology Department and the Museum of Anthropology. Administrative records demonstrate a long-standing cost cutting approach to funding both units. It was cheaper to hire one man to lead both. While the Regents wanted Froelich Rainey, Ruthven and Edward Kraus supported Steward or Spier. Neither of them wanted to retain White.

In the spring of 1944 Ruthven and the Regents asked Lawrence B. Coleman to make an evaluation of all the museums on campus with special consideration given to the Museum of Anthropology and its relationship with the Department of Anthropology (Griffin to W. C. McKern, July 11, 1944). Coleman interviewed Griffin and Emerson Greenman as representatives of the museum, and White and Titiev as representatives of the department. Coleman concluded that hiring a scholar from outside U of M to chair both was not advisable. He believed the separation should remain, and chairs appointed from the existing faculty. He also advised the administration to follow Guthe’s recommendation to hire Griffin and White. This was not what either Ruthven or the Regents wanted to hear. Ruthven simply refused to appoint Guthe’s successor, thus letting a bad situation become worse. Six months after Guthe’s departure, Ruthven requested that the department provide the names of three scholars who might be “consulted” about the direction of the department and museum. White replied with the names of Steward, Spier, and Rainey—people he knew the administration wanted. No one from the museum was asked to make a similar recommendation. After Ruthven received this list Griffin wrote in a letter that a conference was called to discuss the future of anthropology. Dean Kraus, Ruthven, select members of the museum and department, and one of the three outside consultants were invited to attend. Dean Kraus thought that since there was a vacancy in the department the outside individual could fill both positions. Kraus added the proviso that no definite position was to be offered during the conference (Griffin to Bartlett, October 16, 1944).

Rainey declined his invitation; he was not interested in leaving his current position. It is unlikely he would have been hired because Ruthven, White, and Griffin were all opposed. Unknown to Ruthven, White and Griffin each wrote directly to Rainey, Spier, Strong, and Steward, casting the situation at Michigan in unfavorable light. White wrote to Spier that he disliked “writing to you behind the back so to speak of the administration” but felt he needed to know that they had “their oars in the water and were rowing in different directions in terms of their vision for the future of anthropology” (White to Spier, July 5, 1944). Like White, James Griffin wrote to Spier and Strong about the situation at Michigan. According to Griffin, he was unsure of Kraus’s intentions but suspected he favored appointing Rainey or another person from outside Michigan. Griffin wrote that he wanted to be Director of the Museum and that Guthe had recommended him. Griffin stated he had “strong campus backing plus the statements of [William] Fenton and Steward...I hardly need to add that Kraus would not be particularly pleased if he knew that I had written to you. It is sometimes difficult to tell what he has in mind from what he says” (Griffin to Strong, November 11, 1944). Strong, Steward, Spier, and Rainey all responded to White’s and Griffin’s letters. All expressed dismay and noted that they had no idea what the university planned to do.

Steward and Strong were invited by Ruthven and Kraus to visit Ann Arbor in October 1944 to provide “council and advice.” As luck would have it, White was not on campus when Steward visited—a fact that delighted Griffin, who wrote, “Thank God he’s away” (Griffin to Steward, October 20, 1931). In two letters to Steward, Griffin noted that he, White, and Titiev were adamantly opposed to having a joint head of the department and museum. Griffin suggested that if Steward indicated his interest was limited to the department and not the museum there was a good chance U of M would hire him. Griffin seemed to imply that he wanted Steward to replace White, while Steward thought Griffin wanted him on faculty as a peer or subordinate of White. Griffin was very clear on one point—he wanted to be Director of the Museum. Steward tried to reassure him that he would recommend him for the job. Steward wrote:

I can assure you that the job is something that would not interest me. I am sure that I could quite consciously back you for the Museum directorship...Frankly, between us, I might say that to work under White would not be appealing. However, I shall...come and have a look and see what it is all about. Even though I may well have no stake in the ultimate decision, perhaps I can help things along a little by giving an outsider’s point of view. Or should I say semi-outsider’s, because I naturally have a certain paternal interest in the Department particularly. [Steward to Griffin October 31, 1944]

After what must have been an awkward two days, Steward learned he was being considered for the chairmanship of a united department and museum. According to White, Steward told Kraus that he was not interested in any position at Michigan. White subsequently confronted Kraus and Ruthven, asking them if Steward was being considered. They refused to answer. White again wrote Strong about the activity behind the scenes and what may come of it:

None of us in the Museum or Department want a joint head; I am, in fact, sure none of us does. But we may not get what we want...After having been the de facto chairman of the department for so many years and now, when it appears that one of the things that I have planned for so long may be realized (a new man on the staff), I would not be happy to have someone else brought in as chairman. [White to Strong, November 3, 1944]

In a letter to Guthe, Griffin noted that tensions were high. Griffin stated that:

White saw Kraus this morning and came back pretty sore. He said that of all the candidates so far considered that he would rather have me in the Museum of Anthropology. He went over to Kraus again this afternoon to suggest that either he be made chairman or be relieved of the Chairman’s duties. White told me this morning that Titiev was bitterly opposed to my becoming Director. [Griffin to Guthe, October 1944]

The Board of Regents and President Ruthven could not reconcile their views and battled to a stalemate. What broke the deadlock was the appointment of Howard Kenniston as the new Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and the involvement of Harley H. Bartlett. Bartlett, a professor of botany at Michigan, had a long-standing interest in anthropology. He had been on the advisory committee that founded the department. In 1944 he was a member of the U of M Advisory Board on University Policies (Bartlett to Ruthven, February 1, 1944). In the fall of 1944 Bartlett met with Griffin, White, Ruthven, and the Board of Regents regarding what he called the “final solution of the anthropology problem” (Bartlett to Ruthven, October 27, 1944). Bartlett wrote he wanted to “make my conviction a matter of record” that Griffin be appointed Director of the Museum. Bartlett supported Griffin:

On the ground that filling positions by appointment of outsiders, if such appointments involve the neglect of equally or more meritorious members of the Michigan staff, is very bad policy...It would be unjust to him [Griffin] to bring in a man to hold two positions of Chairman in the Department of Anthropology of the College and Director of the Museum of Anthropology unless the man considered had clear and undoubted preeminence over the men here on the ground. [Bartlett to Ruthven, October 27, 1944]

Kenniston and Ruthven were swayed by Bartlett’s argument—especially since the Department of Botany and the Herbarium were closely aligned, much like the Department of Anthropology and Museum of Anthropology. Kenniston maintained this administrative pattern was already successful and that there were six recognized museums on campus (Griffin n.d.). Kenniston also maintained that White was well-known, had been chair for a decade, and the only logical choice. White was named Chairman of the Executive Committee and Griffin was appointed Director of the Museum—positions they would hold the remainder of their careers. [11]

Post–World War II era and the florescence of Michigan anthropology

The post–World War II era witnessed unprecedented growth in higher education. Pivotal changes occurred at Michigan and within the Department of Anthropology. According to David Hollinger, prior to the war Michigan social sciences “did not amount to much,” but by the mid–1960s claimed to have “one of the finest social science establishments in the world” (Hollinger 1989:94). This growth is a testament to the fact that Michigan was “a major site of the intellectual revolutions in American social science” (Hollinger 1989:94). The Department of Anthropology is of particular interest for a number of reasons: first, it was unique because it developed independently and was not funded by the Institute of Social Research (ISR)—a Michigan powerhouse; second, it was one of the most democratic and diverse departments; third, it effectively resisted the penchant to be dominated by any one school of thought.

Every social science department was required to submit a plan for the anticipated post-war growth. These were to consider adjustments in course offerings, staff, office space, laboratory requirements, and an estimate of how many new students would enroll. They were to be broken into five and ten year periods. According to the minutes of the Executive Committee of the Anthropology Department, White interpreted this request to imply planning for the growth of the department as well as the handling of students. He believed that the department should be enlarged and that a training program for Ph.D.s created. White argued that a close relationship with the Museum of Anthropology should be encouraged and more faculty members would be needed. He maintained anthropologists specializing in linguistics and ethnology were of particular interest, as were full-time departmental assistants.

White’s views about the department’s future were conservative. Titiev, with his experience with the OSS, had a better grasp of how things were to change. He correctly predicted the unprecedented growth of U of M and the opportunity to create a large and powerful department. Students returning from the war would be radically different from those before the war, and the GI Bill would transform every American university. Like White, Titiev thought students would be driven to obtain advanced degrees and that a Ph.D. program was essential. He justified this by noting that university professorships would open up because schools would be flooded with veterans. Students returning from the war would be interested in applied anthropology and the examination of problems contemporary society was facing. Unlike other social sciences, anthropology could take the lead in integrating them and the department should develop a series of courses devoted to area studies. New classes were needed to examine contemporary European and American cultures, as well as those traditionally studied by anthropologists.

Titeiv proved prescient. U of M was awarded $14,800 between 1939 and 1940. In contrast, after World War II, the university received $1,842,643 in a single year. By the end of the 1959–1960 academic year this rose to $23,026,967, an increase of 1,556% over the last year before the war. Between 1940 and 1977 the annual revenues for university operations increased from $12,500,000 to $424,500,000. Not surprisingly, staff numbers also grew at an astounding rate. In 1945–1946 an estimated 5,500 people were full-time employees at Michigan; in 1951–1952 there 7,363. By the time White retired in 1975, the number of full-time employees was 14,121 (see Brinkman 1981). At the end of the war the total number of faculty was 813; later there were 1,666, an increase of over 200% (Niehuss papers).

How did this expansion affect the anthropology department? Student enrollment grew at an almost incredible rate. In the fall of 1946 there were 10 students in the anthropology M.A. program, and 640 course enrollments. Ten years later there were 30 graduate students, an M.A. and Ph.D. program, and almost 1,000 course enrollments. By 1975, the year White died, there were 200 graduate students, 130 undergraduate majors, and 4,760 course enrollments. By the 1950s a vibrant Ph.D. program had been established and the department was already on the cutting edge of anthropological discourse. White’s work and reputation inspired many to study in Ann Arbor. As Robert Carneiro recalled:

Being a graduate student under Leslie White at Michigan in the early 1950s was exciting and exhilarating. We students had the feeling that we were being armed with powerful intellectual tools with which to go out and conquer the world for evolution and culturology. And in the early 1950s much of the world remained to be conquered. Most of it, in fact, was in enemy hands. At anthropology meetings it was Michigan against the field, and we would engage in prolonged and intense discussions with graduate students from other schools, especially Columbia, Chicago and Northwestern. We never doubted for a moment that our views (White’s views), then only held by a tiny minority, would ultimately triumph. [Carneiro 1980:224]

Faculty members were equally enthralled. Elman Service recalled that the rapid expansion of the department led to great intellectual stimulation:

The people to be hired were all members of one of the academic departments, but they were to be paid by these regional area studies. And just about everyone thought that they had to have a cultural anthropologist or ethnologist, for each of these regions. So that meant that in our own department we received four new anthropologists, almost all youngish, to become full voting members in our department. Talk about diversity! We had representatives of various regions in our any rate, lots of people, all of a sudden descended upon us. [Service n.d.:76]

White had a profound impact on many students. Scholars such as Robert Carniero, Lewis Binford, and Betty Meggers readily acknowledge his influence on their thought. For certain other students the relationship was more complex. Elman Service did not like to discuss White’s influence on his thought, not wanting to be too closely aligned with his former mentor. Likewise, Marshall Sahlins moved far away from his early interest in evolution and does not consistently cite White as an important figure in his intellectual development. Further complicating the degree to which White influenced his students was the simple fact that the department produced relatively few Ph.D.s that he advised. Between 1950 and 1959 only 24 people received their Ph.D. under White—roughly two per year, not all of whom were advised by White.

The department seemed to have expanded both because of White and in spite of him. According to some former faculty, there were two ways White ran the department: good and bad. All that I have spoken with agreed White was a poor administrator. He did not shirk his responsibilities, but could not hide his contempt for deans or administrative duties. His feelings were so strong that he would rather do without than submit a request. Thus, for decades the department lacked the most basic materials needed to run a professional academic office. Professors and staff members were not given due raises, were not made aware of funding opportunities, the salary structure was chaotic, there was never enough secretarial and secondary support for faculty members, and White’s budget was austere in the extreme.

Based on his experience as chair for 25 years, White believed the greater good of the department came before any scholar’s individual interest. A department could only succeed by having a definite program, purpose, and goal, enabling the faculty as a whole to have an identity. White hired people he may not have liked, realizing they were the most qualified for the job or would enhance the department and, by extension, the university. He talked to students and saved student course evaluations to get an idea of how well he had performed and learn to which classes students were drawn. It was largely through White’s efforts that Michigan’s anthropology department became one of the most democratic, diverse, and objective in the country. From undergraduate and graduate students to faculty members, with and without tenure, all had an equal voice in departmental affairs.

Both within and beyond the confines of U of M many believed the department was cast in his image. In reality, White went to great lengths to prevent the development of an in-grown “Michigan School of Anthropology.” He and many others at U of M believed that schools of thought fostered a cloistered hermitic quality inhibiting intellectual growth and new ideas. Although one can find exceptions to this, most notably the “Michigan School of Political Science” associated with Philip Converse, U of M was known for its pluralistic and comprehensive departments. Michigan, more than the famous “Chicago School of Sociology,” resisted limitation to specific lines of intellectual inquiry. White considered schools of thought akin to cults and consciously refused to support the hiring of scholars with ties to U of M. Although departmental records are incomplete, they show he rigorously enforced the following hiring rules: Michigan Ph.D. recipients were precluded from being hired unless they had studied at another leading university for a period not less than two years; no Michigan ethnology Ph.D. could be hired upon graduation; a balanced representation of faculty members from other graduate schools had to be maintained; the department was to be run by an elected Executive Committee rather than a single Chairman; any and all individuals associated with the department could attend Executive Committee or faculty meetings and were permitted to propose any ideas, file grievances, or put forth legislative initiatives.

What is the legacy White left at Michigan after an association that lasted almost 30 years? His contribution to anthropology was twofold. First, as a scholar he was responsible for the re-establishment of cultural evolution. White also proposed the idea that the study of culture was a distinct and separate area of specialization he called “culturology.” These two avenues of research resulted in his two most famous books: the 1949 Science of Culture, and the 1959 Evolution of Culture. Prior to the war White was a pioneer in anthropological theory. His championship of evolutionary theory in general and the work of Lewis Henry Morgan in particular was virtually unprecedented. Indeed, in the face of great opposition he almost single handedly revived the application of evolutionary theory to cultural problems. This effort, and his stinging critiques of Boas and Boasian anthropology, led many to characterize him as a maverick, prone to controversy and polemics. White’s insistence that anthropology was a science drew sharp criticism. Throughout the 1940s White’s work was blazoned across the leading journals in anthropology and he vigorously debated with, and in some cases mercilessly attacked other scholars such as Kroeber, Lowie, Opler, Steward, and Franz Boas.

White’s second contribution to anthropology was his central role in the establishment and expansion of the department of anthropology at U of M. As already demonstrated, the department expanded both because of White and in spite of him. His most productive years at Michigan, 1930 to 1959, coincided with profound changes at U of M and the theoretical foundation of anthropological discourse. The skeptic may argue that White was simply in the right place at the right time, that the department would have grown with or without his influence. However, unlike other Michigan social science departments such as psychology, political science, and sociology, anthropology’s growth was independent of the ISR. The department also attracted a diverse range of scholars and did not embrace any single theoretical train of thought—though many mistakenly thought a “Michigan School” or “Whitean School” of thought existed.

Regardless of what one thinks of White’s scholarship, he was without doubt a major figure in pre- and post-war anthropology. As Robert Carneiro has pointed out, White did more than revive evolutionary theory and create culturology. At the most basic level, White played an important part in establishing anthropology as a full-fledged science. That is, he had a hand in changing the field from one characterized by critical particularism to being positive, expanding, and generalizing (Carneiro 1980, 2005). White’s outlook on anthropology and his interpretation of the field as well as his abilities as a teacher drew students to him for forty-five years. White’s dedication to the field and his students was reciprocated. His former students were devoted to him and his personal papers are filled with hundreds of letters that praised him and highlighted how he changed the lives of those he taught. While the end of White’s life was sad and dominated by a decade long struggle with alcohol abuse, whenever depressed he wrote in his journal that his spirits were invariably lifted by letters from former students. These letters poignantly demonstrate White was not only a gifted scholar, but a compassionate human being.


1. For more information about the early history of anthropology at U of M see Guthe (1951) and Griffin (1975). For information about the history of the University of Michigan in general see Peckham (1994). For information about the history of the social sciences at U of M see Hollinger (1989).

2. According to Cooley, every faculty member that met Sapir was impressed and enthusiastic. Cooley believed there was “something fresh and ardent about [Sapir] that is quite appealing. He is a man of notable literary and philosophic culture, as well as scientific” (Cooley to Burton, October 13, 1923). Burton responded to Cooley three days later, writing that, “I think it is highly important for us to provide for foregoing scientific work in the field of anthropology.” Extra money was set aside for Sapir, but he was never hired. Cooley’s glowing letter about Sapir noted that he was “of Jewish origin and there is supposed to be some prejudice in this direction.” Burton also noted Sapir’s “Jewish origins” in a letter to John Effinger. In response, Effinger and later Burton wrote that there were several “questions” that needed to be resolved—the obvious illusion here was to the fact Sapir was Jewish. Burton wrote, “I assume that you will proceed to make further inquiries if you desire to do so. I also feel strongly inclined to call your attention to the fact that Professor Cooley has alluded to one aspect of this situation which it seems to me, in view of the total situation here, deserves consideration” (Burton to Effinger, October 16, 1923). Anti-Semitism in academics circa 1923 was hardly unusual. The University of Michigan was more inclusive than many other universities but hardly free of prejudice. Jewish faculty members chaired the Departments of English (Louis Strauss), Romance Languages (Mordecai Levy), and Economics (Leo Sharfman). This did not mean anti-Semitism was absent. For instance, the Michigan Law School accepted 15 million dollars from William W. Cook, a blatant anti-Semite and avowed white supremacist. According to David Hollinger, Cook’s extreme views were marginalized on campus. Hollinger notes that U of M Dean William Haber was convinced that anti-Semitism was not as prevalent as anti-communism and anti-radicalism.

3. Julian Steward’s involvement at Michigan was brief, but critically important. According to Kern, Steward’s tenure at Michigan “offered a variety of benefits, not least a stable salary and the chance to free himself of accumulated debt. He gained teaching experience and learned directly that its demands distracted him from research and writing. His professional circle also broadened during these years” (Kern 2003:122).

4. Guthe respected Steward and was disappointed when he left Michigan. Guthe tried to convince Steward not to leave and tried to match the salary he was offered at the University of Utah. Guthe seemed to be unaware how much his position as an “advisor” to Steward bothered him.

5. The extension classes that Steward taught would begin a tradition within the Department of Anthropology. Detroit was less than an hour away and many professors in anthropology taught such classes to supplement their income. When faculty salaries rose in the post–World War II era to a more manageable level, graduate students took over these courses to supplement their funding.

6. In a letter to William Duncan Strong, Steward wrote that he did indeed regret leaving Ann Arbor (Steward to Strong, January 24, 1933). When Steward and the former Dorothy Bird Nyswander agreed to divorce, the “highly moral Salt Lake City community” did not want Steward to remain on staff. Steward commented that he was “a first class idiot ever to have left Michigan. I had built up a department and things were going beautifully when I left. And now the same here. But no crying over spilt milk.”

7. Eggan was not alone in pointing out why 1930 and the early 1930s were so important to the development of anthropology as we know it today. George Stocking has written more about this era than any other historian of anthropology, particularly on how Boas and his students professionalized the discipline (Stocking 1968, 1974).

8. My biography of White was written before the James Griffin papers were available. I have also made liberal use of Carl Guthe’s papers, located by Richard Ford, which are not as yet cataloged by the Bentley Historical Library. In an essay about the early history of anthropology at Michigan, Griffin highlights the important role Carl Guthe had in forming the department. This emphasis seemed misplaced to me based on the available literature and my knowledge of White’s papers. Thus, statements by Griffin such as “Guthe continued to be the primary individual to whom various university administrators looked for advice regarding anthropology, and although it was Leslie White who carried on much of the detailed work concerning the operations of the department, major decisions were made by Carl Guthe” (1975:137) were not persuasive to me at the time. In retrospect, I believe I underestimated the role Guthe played in the formation of anthropology at Michigan.

9. Mischa Titiev was not White’s first choice for the job. It is possible that White thought Tietiv’s specialization in Southwestern ethnography was redundant given White’s own fieldwork experiences. White wanted to hire Ralph Beals, who had done fieldwork in Central America. Why Beals did not go to U of M is unknown. It should be noted that the Michigan job was a much sought after position. There were precious few job openings in the 1930s. In fact, Morris Opler, White’s first graduate student in anthropology at the University of Buffalo, held very hard feelings for decades because he felt White should have hired him (see Peace and Price n.d.).

10. The degree to which White was or was not anti-Semitic is controversial. He was accused of being anti-Semitic more than once and his close relationship with Harry Elmer Barnes is troubling (Peace 2004:243).

11. It is interesting to note here that Griffin also was in communication with Ralph Linton. Linton’s involvement is only mentioned by Griffin. In a letter from Griffin to Linton, he wrote “I should like to express to you my appreciation of your considerable assistance in strengthening anthropology at the University of Michigan. Your conversations with Dean Keniston provided the impetus necessary for him to recognize that with minor additions and slight juggling of individuals, that anthropology here could be co-ordinated into one of the outstanding departments in the country. This activity of yours will never be listed in American Men of Science or in the list of accomplishments of Ralph Linton, yet it will be one of your most significant contributions. As an individual who will benefit from this program I have added it to my debt of gratitude to you” (Griffin to Linton, March 11, 1947).

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