The Departure of Jon Fagerson

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Presentation of historical scholarship as an argument presumes a finished product. But most time spent on historical scholarship is messy, involving rooting through Hollinger boxes, begging someone for an oral history interview, coughing through a shelf of city reports or directories, rereading notes, drafting manuscripts, sorting through critical comments, revising, and so forth. A published work does not materialize from a vacuum, and all that preceded and underlays it is legitimately part of historical work. Public presentations of history in the digital age reveal the extent of that “preargument” work… Digital history thus undresses the historical argument, showing that all our professional garments are clothing, even those not usually seen in public. — Sherman Dorn, “Is (Digital) History More than an Argument about the Past?

Every historical book worthy of the name ought to include a chapter, or if one prefers, a series of paragraphs inserted at turning points in the development, which might almost be entitled: “How can I know what I am about to say?” I am persuaded that even the lay reader would experience an actual intellectual pleasure in examining these “confessions.” The sight of an investigation, with its successes and reverses, is seldom boring. It is the ready-made article which is cold and dull. — Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft¹

Pointed Clarion artwork, February 25, 1972 - Bethel University Digital Library

Pointed Clarion artwork, February 25, 1972 – Bethel University Digital Library

On 11 February, 1972, the Clarion announced that the contracts of professors Jon Fagerson (English) and Richard Ward (History) would not be renewed. Both men had been hired during the 1966-67 academic year and, having completed their fifth year of employment at Bethel, would have been eligible for a five-year contract renewal. In explaining the decision to release the professors, President Lundquist cited the shifting of departmental teaching loads engendered by that year’s newly re-designed curriculum and the need to maintain “economic balance.” Cited as well were changing student demand, made evident through a departure of students from English and history to psychology and social work.

IMG_0006The announcement was met with quick and near-unanimous opposition from the student body. The same Clarion which bore the announcement also contained an impassioned letter calling for Fagerson’s retention; the following week’s issue printed no less than fourteen student reactions to the news. Of the sixteen letters which would eventually appear, only two expressed dissatisfaction with Fagerson’s work at Bethel, and the author of one of those freely admitted they thought the professor should be retained for the good of the school. The remainder ranged from firm support to glowing admiration.

(Ward’s non-retention provoked a far more muted response — only a handful of the letters even mention him obliquely — for a variety of reasons. While we will consider some of those below, Ward plays a far less important role in this story, not least because students at the time understood there to be reasonable justification for his release.)

Students were quick to level charges of politicking and censorious intent against the administration with varying degrees of subtlety. On 25 February, Clarion contributor Judy Harrington acknowledged that students were questioning the reasoning given by the administration. Later in the issue staff writer Al Cooper insinuated (somewhat repetitively) that the administration was being less than honest in its explanation: “Are the reasons for dismissing Fagerstrom the “real” reasons, or are there some underlying unspoken reasons?” Finally, in a letter to the editor, Thomas Steward openly voiced student suspicions:

Is it possible in a Christian liberal arts school for “politics” to pervade and rule where such a fine Christian professor is involved? Is this action a subtle way of censoring the faculty? Is the administration attempting to undermine the student’s right to a liberal arts education?

The answer, almost shouted in its degree of implication, was “yes.” For aside from his incredible popularity with students, the reason Jon Fagerson’s non-renewal concerns us here is that he was one of the Bethel College faculty’s most consistent and outspoken opponents of the Vietnam War.


Virgil Olson, College Dean ca. 1969 – Bethel University Digital Library

Fagerson obviously felt himself to be the victim of an administrative hatchet job, contributing his comments to a lengthy piece by Clarion contributor Judy Harrington. When, Fagerson claimed, he was first informed of the decision to release his contract, College Dean Virgil Olson made the comment that the English professor didn’t fit in with the “aims and goals of Bethel College.”

Was Fagerson’s anti-war advocacy the cause of his release? Or put less strongly, to what extent did Fagerson’s outspoken views contribute to Bethel’s decision to let his contract lapse?

While those questions are the ones we might wish to readily resolve, a decisive answer is certainly not forthcoming, and unfortunately, is probably impossible to attain. Are we then incapable of saying more on the subject? Certainly not. Historical judgement is not, nor has it ever been, much more than a probabilistic enterprise. Even with an abundance and variety of documentation, the historian can never assert ‘fact’ with metaphysical certainty; as the amount and quality of evidence at the historian’s disposal increases, so correspondingly does the certainty with which historical judgement can be rendered.

Carl Lundquist, 1968 - Bethel University Digital Library

Carl Lundquist, 1968 – Bethel University Digital Library

Our ability then to answer the Fagerson question with certainty is impeded by evidence — both that which has not survived and that which has. Lundquist’s justification for the release of Ward and Fagerson rested on two assertions: that the new curriculum had lightened the teaching load on the English and history departments and that fiscal tightening was necessary for the health of the school. With respect to the latter, the college’s financial statements were printed annually in the Baptist General Conference’s Annual Report (the operating budgets, however, were not), making the fiscal argument somewhat easier to assess. But in regard to the former argument, the documentation available is less than ideal. In deference to Bloch’s impetus to confession, the documents which could shed light on the validity of Lundquist’s argument — principally among them student enrollment figures broken down by department and a record of teaching loads, distributions, and course assignments among professors — have not seemingly survived.

The documents which have survived are of limited use. The Clarion newspaper is valuable for assessing student tenor — at least that tiny minority of students who took the time to write to the paper — but can shed little light on the private deliberations of the administration. The weekly Administrative Council meeting agendas are tantalizingly suggestive, but with little more than bullet-pointed topics and no extant minutes, it is impossible to know what the content of any discussion was. Of only slightly more use are Lundquist’s quarterly reports to the college Board of Regents — although again, these meetings produced no extant minutes — and his annual report to the Conference. While the latter were publicly available, the former appear to have been for private use and are thus more valuable.

Marc_BlochNor can we overlook the importance of process in creating the documentary trail historians follow. Assuming the worst — that Fagerson was released as part of an administrative purge of the most strident anti-war faculty — it’s highly unlikely that the process leading to that decision would have generated a paper trail. Both to facilitate the secrecy of the decision and to protect the school from a wrongful termination lawsuit, the personalities involved would have been hesitant to produce written records; the business would have been transacted exclusively over the telephone or through closed-door meetings.

I don’t believe that scenario is particularly plausible, but it does illustrate how certain historical incidents can run up against the limits of what we “know we can say,” even if we might wish dearly to speak more decisively on the matter.² In an effort, per Dorn, to “undress” the polished authority to which historical writing pretends — perhaps deceptively — and to “confess,” per Bloch, to the messiness of the research process, we will turn toward evaluating the evidence available and will then put forth a tentative answer to the question before us.

Jon Fagerson ca. 1968 - Bethel University Digital Library

Jon Fagerson ca. 1968 – Bethel University Digital Library

Dated by the faculty roster printed in the Conference Annual Reports, both Fagerson and Ward came to Bethel during the 1966-67 school year. Fagerson joined the faculty as the sixth member of the English department while Ward was the fourth member of the history faculty; both men were given the rank of assistant professor. Fagerson had been educated at Harvard, attaining both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees before moving to Minnesota. Ward’s education before Bethel is unknown. In a pattern fairly common at Bethel in the 1960-70s, both men pursued their doctoral degrees at the University of Minnesota while teaching full time.³ At Bethel, Fagerson taught classes as diverse as Chaucer, “Alienation,” Literary Forms, and Black Literature; it is unclear what sort of literary topic the man specialized in.⁴ In contrast, Ward’s specialty was clear: he was a classicist, concentrating particularly on Roman history.⁵

Fagerson and student ca. 1972 - Bethel University Digital Library

Fagerson and student ca. 1972 – Bethel University Digital Library

If the comments elicited from students by the news that Fagerson would be leaving are even half-indicative of how students felt about the professor during his five years at the school, Fagerson was a beloved teacher. Roger John told how “openness and humanness radiate from Mr. Fagerson and [that] it was through him that I learned to be more aware, more tolerant of people… to be human.” Likewise, Steve Scroggins wrote that “he’s human, he’s a person, and surely an educator, he’s taught me more than any other prof could do.” Part of Fagerson’s attraction for students arose from his carriage. While he appeared clean-shaven and well-suited in his 1969 faculty portrait — the epitome of the mid-century professional man —  by the following year Fagerson had discarded his razor and abandoned the carefully coiffed hair. While he still wore a suit and tie, he eschewed traditional footwear for a more countercultural option: the green suede tennis shoe. Barb Lindberg’s lesson from that sartorial choice: “He has taught me informality” (that cardinal of 1960-70s virtues).⁶

Carl Lundquist00075Fagerson’s relaxed sensibilities evidently contributed to his ability to connect with the countercultural current that existed at Bethel. Beyond plaudits for his teaching ability, the most frequent quality students admired in the man was, as Mark Anderson put it, “his ability to relate to the ‘fringe’ element at Bethel.” Odell Johnson echoed those sentiments: “Jon Fagerson is an educator, not an indoctrinator… He knows what it is to be an educator and a human being at the same time. He has been able to relate to us so-called misfits.” ‘The 1960s’ came late to Bethel, and when they came, the tide which swept openly across the campuses of most secular colleges and universities produced only an undertow — albeit a distinct and fairly influential undertow — amidst the student population at Bethel. Many of the administration and faculty remained firmly in the mid-century world of respectable conservative evangelicalism, unable or unwilling to embrace even the superficial signs of the youth revolution taking place. That would change as Bethel headed into the 1970s; consider the changing style of President Lundquist, whose 1960s dark sack suit, white shirt, and tie ensemble — already a consciously conservative choice by 1969 — gave way to brown striped polyester leisure suits, polkadot shirts, and wide paisley ties in the mid-70s. But those changes were still years in the future in 1971. At that time, Fagerson was one of the few faculty students of the most progressive stratum at Bethel could relate to. Such was voiced by Star Friesen who wrote that “John Fagerson has been able to relate and help meet the needs of some students who couldn’t go to other professors here on campus.” Even students whose tastes were more conservative than Fagerson’s recognized the importance of that supportive role; when Joel Goff wrote to the Clarion editor about Fagerson, he plainly confessed that he had “received nothing from him as a teacher.” Still, Goff was comfortable endorsing the appropriateness of Fagerson’s place at Bethel: “I have a great deal of respect for him as a person and know that he relates to and helps many students in ways that would not apply to me.”⁷

The 1969 Moratorium Statement - Personal Statement of G.W. Carlson

The 1969 Moratorium Statement (click for full version) – Personal Statement of G.W. Carlson

In contrast, Richard Ward did not attract many compliments or criticisms from students after his release. The only defense Ward received came from a number of students majoring in history whose primary concern was not Ward’s teaching excellence or personal impact but the impact on course offerings should the department’s sole ancient historian leave.⁸

The earliest record of anti-war activity from either man came at the same time: the fall of 1969. In the midst of the nationally-observed Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, Bethel’s anti-war students circulated a petition which would be printed in the Clarion. Rejecting the war as “incompatible with the moral and humanitarian ideals as expressed by Jesus Christ,” the petition was signed by one hundred and twelve students and faculty. Among them were Richard Ward and Jon Fagerson, two of the eighteen faculty signatories.

Fagerson's signature on the 1969 Moratorium Statement - Personal Collection of G.W. Carlson

Fagerson’s signature on the 1969 Moratorium Statement – Personal Collection of G.W. Carlson

Understood in isolation, it is difficult to know exactly what those signatures represented. While undoubtedly a public expression of anti-war feeling, the wording of the statement is innocuous enough that virtually any Christian who was not a dogmatic anti-communist hawk would be able to endorse. For Richard Ward, the record of anti-war activities ends with that solitary signature in the fall of 1969, making it difficult to characterize him as a vehement opponent of the war.

Richard Ward's signature on the 1969 Moratorium Statement - Personal Collection of G.W. Carlson

Richard Ward’s signature on the 1969 Moratorium Statement – Personal Collection of G.W. Carlson

But for Fagerson the Moratorium statement was only the beginning of a series of escalating antiwar incidents. In early May 1970, Fagerson participated in what he called a “theater bit” opposing the Nixon-ordered incursion into Cambodia. The “bit” was documented in the Clarion coverage of the Cambodian invasion protests at Bethel and in the 1970 yearbook. Fagerson and several students staged a “non-invasion invasion” in mockery of the Nixon administration’s defense of the Cambodian campaign. Drawing each other in wagons, Fagerson and his students marched around the campus, holding signs and carrying fake guns. The professor himself brandished a machine gun.

Photo - 1970-05-08Some time during the week of 10 October 1970, Fagerson was involved in another incident which required the dean’s intervention. When Fagerson encountered a Marine recruiter in the Bethel Coffeeshop, he confronted the man, saying he didn’t feel Christ would have his followers teaching people to murder.⁹ The exchange became heated as other joined in, requiring Olson to separate the participants. Fagerson’s letter to the editor in the next week’s Clarion gives background to his thoughts. Written “concerning the Marine Recruiter who was in the Coffeeshop last week,” the letter laid out Fagerson’s position on the war:

I still believe that the military is organized murder; that there is no way as a Christian that I can justify participation in it; that Jesus would never have dropped white-hot phosphorus on women and children from his air-conditioned cockpit.

Still, Fagerson mustered an apology (or sorts):

Well, I judged you, sir, for being part of this system which thinks that labelling a man as the enemy makes it not responsible for his murder. But I did the same thing to you. I labelled you, I saw your uniform and talked to you as if you were the military instead of a person… Because I did not see you as a person, I was guilty of the very thing I was condemning in you. I will pray for you, if you will pray for me.

Professors discuss the war with a Marine veteran during Founder's Week - Bethel University Digital Library

Professors discuss the war with a Marine veteran during Founder’s Week – Bethel University Digital Library

The next year, during the fall of 1971, Fagerson’s “Alienation” class was the location for an incident which raised issues of academic freedom and freedom of expression for professors at religious institutions. During a small group session, a minority student challenged his peers by asking whether they would befriend minorities — regardless if those people violated the school’s lifestyle standards by smoking and drinking. Fagerson expressed agreement with the student, arguing that “friendship should be extended to all people, regardless of their actions, on the basis of their humanity.” The professor’s reaction disturbed one woman enough that she contacted her pastor, who in turn contacted the dean. Olson “talked things over” with Fagerson with unclear consequences.¹⁰

Fagerson teaching, ca. 1970 - Bethel University Digital Library

Fagerson teaching, ca. 1970 – Bethel University Digital Library

According to Fagerson, on 23 November 1971, the dean called the English professor into his office and informed him about the release: “he explained to me the financial bind the college is in and that the English department had to be cut somewhere. I guess it’s generally felt that I don’t fit in with the ‘aims and goals of Bethel College’ — those are the words that were used — so I was the one to be cut.” According to Lundquist in his first public announcement of the decision, the selection of Ward and Fagerson was “made by the tenured members of the faculty in consultation with the dean. The recommendations were sent to my desk, and I confirmed them.”¹¹ But as far as Fagerson knew, “the English department merely voted to postpone the decision and I know the dean is taking all the responsibility for it.”¹² By 10 March, Lundquist’s explanation had changed. In his final public word on the matter, Lundquist wrote that “the specific decision relative to personnel was made by Dean Olson after consultation with the leaders of the departments as a part of his responsibility in the dean’s office.”¹³

Pointed cover art for the February 25, 1972 Clarion - Bethel University Digital Library

Pointed cover art for the February 25, 1972 Clarion – Bethel University Digital Library

When Lundquist first announced the decision to release Fagerson and when he responded to student outrage in the aftermath, he relied on two justifications. First, he argued that the curriculum revision which had been effected at the start of the 1971-72 academic year resulted in a diminished teaching load for the English and history departments. Second, because more students were now electing to major in psychology and social work, those departments needed to be expanded. The school’s budget could not withstand both the retention of and over-large English and history department and hire new faculty in the newer disciplines. Ward and Fagerson were thus, Lundquist argued, unfortunate casualties of structural and economic strictures.

Students were quick to attack Lundquist’s reasoning. Most common were objections regarding the school’s alleged shaky financial footing. Why, asked R. Mark Steward, could a college in the midst of a twenty million dollar building program not sustain the eight thousand dollar salaries of Fagerson and Ward? Clarion Editor Bob Miko suggested cutting the Bethel football program in a comment on the news that the University of California Santa Barbara had taken that very step: “why can’t Bethel drop football and keep Fagerson?” To Bob Pedersen, that would be a good first step:

Bethel continues to support (monetarily) an intercollegiate athletic program whose contribution to the majority of the school is, at best, entertainment — which is not the supposed function of a college. Perhaps it is time some basic policies were redefined.¹⁴

Lundquist’s justifications stood up far better than any of his students’ rebuttals. Divesting sports teams aside, contemporary student arguments generally displayed a mixture of impassioned idealism and uninformed moralism characteristic of youth.

The Snelling Avenue campus today - Author's Collection

The Snelling Avenue campus today – Author’s Collection

The documentary record plausibly supports Lundquist’s financial arguments. While detailed budgets would be critical for proving Lundquist’s assertions, the financial statements of the college and the macroeconomic situation of the country as a whole lend support to his claims readily enough. With the construction of the new Arden Hills campus entering the final critical stretch (the College would move operations north in the fall of 1972), extra funding was scarce. While the major portion of the construction expenses (both outright and through loan repayment) were met by single-purpose donations from the Conference, such giving usually has a cannibalistic effect on donations in support of operational expenses. The unfortunate phenomenon known to all people who work in development that capital campaigns for new buildings attract more publicity and interest than the everyday needs of the general fund was at work at Bethel. Furthermore, Lundquist’s private quarterly reports to the Board of Regents bear witness to the ongoing concern for the level of faculty salaries. While a graduated salary increase had taken effect between 1968 and 1970, by 1971 a full time professor was still making barely more than twelve thousand dollars per year — significantly below the average salary of accredited private schools in the Twin Cities area (unadjusted for inflation).¹⁵ Lundquist’s goal of raising faculty compensation would have strained the budget elsewhere. Two other factors lend support to the financial logic of the decision. First, the early 1970s were a period of rising interest rates in the United States. As rates rose, the cost of financing the school — both its operational lines of credit and its construction loans — would have risen. Second, student enrollment (a perennial problem at small Liberal Arts schools like Bethel) had come in under target for the 1971-72 school year, decreasing by six per cent from the prior year. The president’s September 1971 report to the Regents emphasized the conditionality of the coming year’s budget; while the new campus was being built for a larger student body than Bethel currently enrolled, Lundquist informed the Regents he was preparing alternative budgets — one for full occupancy and another for partial.¹⁶

“Doc” Dalton, History Department Chair in 1969 – Bethel University Digital Library

One area of Lundquist’s reasoning which appears problematic concerns his interest in raising the student-to-faculty ratio. While his first letter in the Clarion omitted the discussion, Lundquist devoted several sentences to explaining the goal in his second:

The student-teacher ratio that we are working toward in our long-range plan is 18:1. During the first semester we were at 16:1. With the normal second semester drop, we currently are at 15:1. This means that our student body needs to grow further before we have a net increase of teachers.¹⁷

The reports to the Board of Regents confirm that this preoccupation was not an ad hoc defense; as early as September of 1971 Lundquist had already established the target ratios. But if Ward and Fagerson were released to help depress the ratio, the explanation makes little sense in light of the new hires to the psychology and social work departments. By the end of the next year two new professors would join the faculty, one in each department. In terms of effecting a net reduction in the faculty, the Lundquist’s argument was not sound — in so far as hiring more faculty after releasing Ward and Fagerson would have had no effect on the student-to-faculty ratio.

This caveat aside, if the budgetary argument largely backed Lundquist, the justification based on the new curriculum’s effects did too. Although detailed information on course assignments and actual registration numbers would be ideal, the College catalogs provide enough information to at least plausibly substantiate Lundquist’s claim alone.

Chris Weintz, English Department Chair - Bethel University Digital Library

Chris Weintz, English Department Chair – Bethel University Digital Library

The old curriculum, last used during the 1970-71 academic year, required one hundred and twenty-three credits to graduate, fifty to sixty-four of which came from general education requirements. The general education course of study was broken into five categories: Christianity and Philosophy (12 credits), Humanities (10-24 credits — ranging so widely because the language requirement was included here; some students had attained a language proficiency in high school), Natural Science (12 credits), Social and Behavioral Science (12 credits), and General (4 credits of Physical Education). Of concern to us here are the Humanities and Social and Behavioral Science categories (Omitted are any requirements which have nothing to do with English or history — this is not an exhaustive list of requirements within each category). Within Humanities, students were required to take Literary Analysis and a sophomore Literature course; within the Social and Behavioral Science category, Western Civilization was required. Thus, under the old system every graduating student would have had to take, at minimum (assuming their major was in another subject), three courses within the English and history departments.¹⁸

The new curriculum which came into effect in 1971-72 was almost totally reorganized. Instead of a credit hour system, students were now required to complete thirty-four courses to graduate — seventeen being devoted to a major and minors (the somewhat awkward new terms were “concentrations” and “cognates” respectively) and the other half to general education requirements. The latter were significantly simplified. Students had to take freshman and senior colloquy (the former is the origin of today’s Introduction to Liberal Arts), three courses in Christianity, courses in three out of four divisional categories (Humanities, Arts and Letters, Behavioral Sciences, and Natural Science) selected from whichever three the student’s major was not in, and finally one from each of the four new “concern” categories — “Orientation,” “Communication,” “Environment,” and “Creativity.” Depending on what division a student’s major was in, required courses with English and history faculty under the new curriculum came to one or two — a net reduction of one to two from the old system.

It is at this juncture that more detailed records would be useful. The “Concern” courses were so broad in definition (this was partly why they were scrapped a few years later) that any number of courses from different departments could have qualified. It is thus difficult to know the effects of the new curriculum conclusively. However, at best the new curriculum kept English and history teaching loads at parity with the old system; at worst, loads decreased by one and a half classes per student on average.¹⁹

Was Fagerson’s anti-war advocacy the cause of his release? From the facts available to us, it is impossible to know with any certainty. It is hardly inconceivable that the entire controversy resulted from the coincidental conjunction between an embittered former employee’s speculation and an impassioned but ultimately uninformed student reaction. The plausibility of that scenario makes me unwilling to confidently accuse Lundquist and Olson of purging a dissident faculty member.

Fagerson (seated) at the May 1970 protest - Bethel University Digital Library

Fagerson (seated) at the May 1970 protest – Bethel University Digital Library

However, even if Fagerson’s anti-war position was not the sole cause of his release, it is entirely possible — likely even — that it supplemented the economic and curricular justifications the administration employed. The nature of Fagerson’s (escalating) activism would have made him difficult to ignore and the professor’s repeated run-ins with the dean would have hardly made Olson well-disposed toward the man. In the absence of damning evidence, the most likely answer to the question is this: financial pressure and a changing departmental teaching loads meant that one professor from both history and English needed to be cut — in this respect there is no firm reason to question the administration’s stated reasoning. However, it is highly likely that Fagerson’ advocacy — both for anti-war causes and the undermining of lifestyle expectations for students — made him an easy (and perhaps in Olson’s case) a relishing target for dismissal.

Of course, an attempt to read Olson or Lundquist’s mind across the span of forty-four years quickly devolves into speculation of mentalite — an approach distinctly unverifiable empirically. Still, beyond the official response to the incident, a number of unresolved questions and discrepancies suggest that perhaps the thesis is not so overwrought.

First is the issue of timing. When Lundquist informed the Board of Regents of the controversy at the 6 April 1972 meeting, he stated that the “decision grew out of the mandate of the last Board meeting to increase staff in crowded areas of the curriculum only by reducing staff in the less crowded areas…”²⁰ That last meeting took place on 30 November 1971. However, according to Fagerson — and uncontested by the administration — he was informed of the decision on 23 November 1971, a week before the meeting Lundquist said the decision derived from took place.

The location of Fagersons - Author's Collection

The location of Fagerson’s protest today – Author’s Collection

Second, and more suggestive, is the issue of departmental seniority. Both Ward and Fagerson joined the faculty in 1966-67. But by the 1971-72 academic year, Ward remained the most junior member of the history faculty while Fagerson had been replaced in that role by Ralph R. Joly. On the principle of seniority then, Joly should have been the English professor cut in 1972. In Ward’s case, his departure was doubly justified, both in terms of seniority and in terms of department focus; much to the chagrin of Bethel’s history majors, Ward was the lone professor whose focus lay outside of the modern period. With the Vietnam War and other contemporary world issues in the foreground, the department’s decision to cut Ward and focus entirely on recent history makes even more sense. Indeed, further streamlining of the history faculty soon occurred when Political Science professor G. William Carlson began teaching in both departments, allowing for a broader array of political history without the addition of a new position. But in Fagerson’s case, his selection bucked both the seniority principle and the kind of departmental focus argument which was valid in Ward’s case; while the latter was a classicist only, the listing of Fagerson’s course responsibilities suggests the professor’s versatility and flexibility within the department.

Taking the 1969 Moratorium Statement signatories as broadly suggestive of the political sympathies of Bethel faculty, Fagerson’s anti-war beliefs are not atypical. His name numbers among eighteen faculty signatures, comprising some twenty-three per cent of the full time faculty. What set Fagerson apart from his peers (including Ward) was his anti-war activism was rather more provocative in  its expression. Furthermore, the three anti-war expressions examined here present a clear pattern of escalation. While the 1969 signing of the Moratorium Statement was a fairly conventional act, by October of the next year Fagerson’s confrontational interaction with a Marine recruiter in the fall of 1970 nearly resulted in physical violence and was only defused by the intervention of the dean — the same dean ostensibly responsible for the decision to release Fagerson’s contract the next week. In April, Fagerson brandished a machine gun along Snelling Avenue, in full sight of passing pedestrians and commuters.

Fagerson (seated, right) in 1968 - Bethel University Digital Library

Fagerson (seated, right) in 1968 – Bethel University Digital Library

Fagerson’s final transgression stems from the results and implications of the incident occurring in his classroom. And while not directly related to the Vietnam War, Fagerson’s actions there clearly derived from the same core commitments as did his opposition to the war. Partially as the result of a minority recruitment program, the late 1960s saw Bethel struggle with the issue of minority students and the cultures they brought with them to the school. Most minority students on campus at that time had grown up in a radically different setting than their white, Scandinavian, middle class peers. As a result, the lifestyle expectations of the school — which to most students flowed naturally out of both parental standards and the expectations of the Conference churches in which they had been raised — were decidedly foreign. When Fagerson sided with the minority student in his class, agreeing that Christians should befriend others on the basis of shared humanity and not standards of personal conduct and lifestyle, he stepped into a debate which had troubled the administration periodically over the past few years.

But far worse than suggesting that Bethel’s lifestyle rules were not moral imperatives was the result of Fagerson’s position. The last thing Lundquist wanted in 1971 was for the troublesome trope of “liberal Bethel” to rear its head in the Conference as it had done with regularity over the preceding decades. Among the Conference’s more conservative membership, the positions of various Bethel professors, the curriculum, or educational initiatives had in turns provoked the denunciation of the school as “going liberal” or selling out the fundamentals of conservative Protestantism. Although such accusations usually faded from sight quickly, their repetition contributed to the weakening of relations between the College and Conference over the years.

Furthermore, the school’s rapid growth due to the post-war GI Bill-induced burgeoning of the collegiate population necessitated expansion of Bethel’s facilities — an expansion which the Conference was hesitant to support; because the original need for Bethel as a training ground for Swedish Baptist youth and ministers had been largely eroded by a half-century of Americanization, the BGC needed convincing of the continued utility of the school. Lundquist’s Annual Reports to the Conference demonstrate his changing role. In the late 1950s, Lundquist acted as little more than an accountant, dutifully relaying Bethel’s statistics for the previous year. But by the mid 1960s, Lundquist had swung into passionate advocacy in response to waning Conference interest. The mid 1960s Annual Reports document Lundquist’s attempts to set forth a rigorous defense of the institution and map out a unique vision for Christian higher education that would inspire Conference commitment.

Thus, just when Lundquist was engaged in the difficult work of funding the ongoing construction of the new campus — much of whose funding came from individual gifts from Conference members — the last thing he needed was for a Bethel professor to reawaken Conference suspicions of liberalism that could upend his Bethel project. When Fagerson’s classroom actions provoked a student to contact her pastor — who in turn contacted Lundquist — the English professor threatened to begin the entire cycle over again.

So while Lundquist and Olson might have even agreed with the content of Fagerson’s declaration — that Christians should relate to others on the basis of shared humanity, not obedience to rules — the implications of that statement for Bethel’s strained lifestyle standards and the relationship with the Conference were decidedly unwelcome.

Green Suede Tennis Shoes

Green Suede Tennis Shoes

As I indicated at the start, definitive answers to the causes of Fagerson’s release are likely impossible to attain. The historical record lacks the necessary documents to prove the case. Yet a convincing explanation can be drawn from what relevant evidence has survived. That evidence indicates that while the administration’s rationale for releasing an English department professor’s contract holds water, enough discrepancies exist to suggest Fagerson’s anti-war activism (and related social advocacy) played a role in his selection as that professor. The controversy over Fagerson’s departure from Bethel was neither the result of an administrative purge of dissenting faculty — far too many anti-war faculty remained for that to have been the sole motivator — or a case of a vindictive former employee stirring up trouble. The truth lies between these two extremes. As much as historians would like answer every question conclusively, sometimes its attainment is impossible.

After Bethel Fagerson nearly disappears from the historical record. A search of the University of Minnesota’s dissertation database reveals he never completed his doctorate — at least not at that school. Evidently, the professor was affiliated with Metropolitan State University for a time; besides having expressed interest through the Clarion in pursuing a lead there, Fagerson’s name appears on digital ephemera from that university’s history. Eventually, Fagerson moved on to teach English at Inver Hills Community College in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota where he remained as late as 2010.²¹ And ironically, the Social Work professor hired in 1972 to the faculty slot Fagerson vacated resigned eighteen years later after his own in-class comments elicited a similar backlash from the Conference.

While this essay is not the place to answer them, the material it covers does raise a number of interesting questions that would make for fruitful future research. The role that theological and cultural tensions between Bethel and the Baptist General Conference played in shaping the school’s governance during the tumultuous long decade of the 1960s; the ways Bethel negotiated the sometimes-conflicting demands of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and a religiously confessional institution; and the related limits of protest and ‘the 1960s’ at Bethel all deserve full and detailed coverage.

The Snelling Avenue campus today - Author's Collection

The Snelling Avenue campus today – Author’s Collection

— Fletcher Warren

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¹ Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It (New York: Vintage, 1953), 71.
² Ibid.
³ The History Center: Archives of the Baptist General Conference and Bethel University (hereafter HC), Lundquist Presidential Papers, Box 31A, President’s Bulletin, September 1957-July 1973, Bulletin, September 11, 1967; Carl Lundquist, “Contracts will not be renewed for profs Fagerson and Ward,” Clarion, February 11, 1972; Inver Hills Community College 2005 Catalog, 120.
⁴ Bob Miko, “Editor’s Note,” Clarion, February 11, 1972, 2.; Judy Harrington, “History, English Departments recommended initial firing,” Clarion, February 25, 1972, 3.
Ibid; Bethel Spire Yearbook 1969, 180.
⁶ Barb Lindberg comments in Al Cooper, “History, English Departments recommended initial firing,” Clarion, February 25, 1972, 3.
⁷ Cooper, “History, English Departments recommended initial firing,” 3.
⁸ HC, Lundquist Presidential Papers, Box 29A, Folder 1 “Advisory Administrative Council, 1971-1972,” Administrative Council Meeting Minutes, May 11, 1972, 3.
⁹ Harrington, “History, English Departments recommended initial firing,” 3-4.
¹⁰ Ibid.
¹¹ Ibid.; Lundquist, “Contracts will not be renewed for profs Fagerson and Ward,” 2.
¹² Harrington, “History, English Departments Recommended Initial Firing,” 3-4.
¹³ Carl Lundquist, “President Lundquist elaborates on the professors’ release,” Clarion, March 10, 1972, 5.
¹⁴ Bob Petersen, “Letter to the Editor,” Clarion, February 25, 1972, 6.
¹⁵ HC, Lundquist Presidential Papers, Box 39, “Reports to the President 1967-1970,” Dean’s Annual Report to the President, 1967-68, 3; HC, Lundquist Presidential Papers, Box 39, “Reports to the President 1967-1970,” Dean’s Annual Report to the President 1969-70, 6.
¹⁶ HC, Lundquist Presidential Papers, Box 30, “Quarterly Reports of the President to the Board of Regents,” Quarterly Report to the Board of Regents, September 17, 1971, 1; 6.
¹⁷ Ibid.
¹⁸ 1969 College Catalog, 35-36.
¹⁹ 1972 College Catalog – Registration, 6-9.
²⁰ HC, Lundquist Presidential Papers, Box 30, “Quarterly Reports of the President to the Board of Regents,” April 6, 1972 Board of Regents Report, 2-3.
²¹ “Review of Jon Fagerson,” RateMyProfessor, accessed 2015-01-10.

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