Early in its short history, USF came under the influence of a fervently political committee not unlike Joseph McCarthy’s of the 1950s Red Scare. On Thursday, the 50th anniversary of the organization’s end, a documentary on the Johns Committee was shown by the university in the Oval Theater. The event was followed by a panel.
The 1960s found then-Sen. Bill Young as a member of the Johns Committee, an organization dedicated to removing atheists, communists and especially homosexuals at universities across the nation – including at USF.
Young is also the namesake of the ROTC building, which has caused student organization Students for a Democratic Society to advocate for changing the building’s name.
“The thing to know is that what this committee did is try to destroy this institution at its very most vulnerable point,” said Jim Schnur, a USF alumnus, historian and USF St. Petersburg (USFSP) librarian whose master’s thesis focused on exposing the Johns Committee in detail.
“We pushed back. We pushed back against (the committee) 50 years ago — we won.”
A similar event was also held at USFSP on Nov. 4.
“I hope the takeaway for most people in attendance was, ‘Okay, this was powerful, but it’s good that we’re talking about it,’” Tom Miller, vice president of Student Affairs, said.
Miller said he was happy with the pace and nature of the discussion panel that followed the screening.
“No one was rebuked or insulted … (and) I think that’s the way good discourse takes place,” he said.
The panel consisted of two members: Schnur and USF history professor David Johnson. Miller was in attendance but was not a panelist.
At the event, Schnur said Young’s involvement in the committee was limited and does not define the senator’s entire political career. According to Miller, the building is named after Young for his past help in directing funding to the university.
“We can look at (this conversation) in two different ways. One (way) is we can say, ‘What Bill Young did in the past was wrong,’ and focus specifically on that. The other thing we can say is, ‘Yes, that’s true. (But) he’s not a perfect individual,’” Schnur said.
According to Miller, the viewing was inspired by a petition to change the name of C.W. Bill Young Hall started by Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). However, interest from Provost Ralph Wilcox ultimately resulted in the event’s creation, he said.
“The truth is, when the students from (Tampa Bay) SDS approached (Wilcox) with their issue about the name of the ROTC building, he … didn’t know anything about this. His perspective was, this generation of students and people who aren’t from Florida ought to know about this,” Miller said. “It’s what we learned about the Johns Committee upon review and consideration that motivated this program.”
After the event, Tampa Bay SDS members Danya Zituni and Jared Austin said they disagreed with this perspective.
“We’re trying to change the name, and we’ve been denied. And they’re putting this together to whitewash, essentially, everything that Bill Young did in the Johns Committee,” Austin said. (The university thinks) that, if they change the name of this building, it’s just momentum. It fuels our struggle to end all forms of complicity with oppression on campus.”
Members of Tampa Bay SDS were present in the event’s crowd. According to Zituni, the group is advocating for the university to rename C.W. Bill Young hall so that it no longer has clear relics of that homophobic period.
“We would just change the name from one that has a legacy of homophobia to one that is simply like, ‘ROTC building,’” she said. “What they repeatedly emphasized was that we need to overlook his role in the Johns Committee — in which he actively persecuted (LGBT) students and faculty across the state of Florida — and focus on the so-called good he did, as if this somehow outweighs and makes up for the concrete, material role he had in ruining the lives of faculty, students and activists.”
Zituni said a related goal for Tampa Bay SDS is to have the university cut all contracts with the U.S. military.
“This is something we’ve connected to changing the name of the building,” she said.
Earlier the same day, Tampa Bay SDS members marched against USF’s contracts and military-backed research and for changing the name of C.W. Bill Young hall.
Miller said the university is planning events in spring to continue educating the public on the dark legacy of the Johns Committee.
“We’re thinking about, perhaps, staging a debate, or having a panel discussion or something like that,” he said. “It’s not one event.”
Miller said he does not know of any movement within faculty, staff or administration to change the name of the building. He also said he encourages the activism of students on campus.
“If there’s more controversy, that’s okay … I love the idea of students pursuing civic action and social justice,” Miller said. “It’s just not always as simple as it might appear.”