Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Tribute to a Colleague

Professor J. Robert Miller
Walnut Hall, Keen Johnson Bldg.
Eastern Kentucky University
11 June 2014, 11 AM.

Jamais en vain, toujours en vin!
(Never in vain, always in wine!)

Blessed is he who has found his work;
let him ask no other blessedness.
--Thomas Carlyle

(Good morning. My name’s Richard Day…a latter-day colleague of Bob’s in the Faculty Senate.)

It would be hard to find a more colorful character among the faculty at EKU, than Dr. Robert “Bob” Miller.

There was something about meeting Bob. He had a twinkle in his eye, and was always looking for humor in any situation. And if there wasn’t any to be had, Bob was likely to create it.

I was trying to recall when I first met Bob. I suppose it could have been when I started in Faculty Senate where he anchored the group through his long, voluntary, and expert service as Parliamentarian. He wrangled the newbies and taught us how to behave as senators.

Or I suppose it could have been at a weekend departmental gathering at June Hyndman’s house. My wife Rita was chatting him up, as I recall, reminiscing about their good old days at West Georgia College in 1970. In those days Bob was on the West Georgia faculty with Newt Gingrich who taught in the history department. Bob came to Eastern the next year...and stayed.

Now, I’m not sure if God ever heard Bob preach, or if He sat silently by as Bob pastored simple country folk, but He apparently decided that it would be better for everyone if Bob became a Religion professor instead of continuing to pastor small rural churches. 

It’s hard to argue with His omniscient wisdom.

CPE Vice President Aaron Thompson remembers Dr. Miller as his professor in 1975, and later, a close colleague. He remembers Bob asking tough questions and then pressing for good answers. He was a smart ass, but he loved people and he loved to laugh. “But more than anything,” Thompson said, “this man loved justice, fairness, and serving others.” And “when he leaned forward, cocked his head to the side and readied his hands for gestures, then you knew fun was about to happen.”

Bob quickly became Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion, and in 1984, following the resignation of President J. C. Powell, he launched himself into the middle of the presidential search. Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Grady Stumbo, and Harry Snyder the Executive Director of the Council on Higher Education made it known that they just might be available -  to become the next president of EKU. The Regent’s Chair selected himself and five additional regents to form a search committee, and Bob called them out for conducting the presidential search in secret. The process changed, and Hanley Funderburk was selected.

Despite being the recipient of Bob’s barbs from time to time, President Emeritus Doug Whitlock fondly recalls the profound contribution Bob made to what Doug called The Essential Eastern. “He was certainly a scholar, a teacher who cared deeply for his students, and one who believed in rigor. I suspect that is one of the reasons he was always such a supporter of our outstanding Honors Program.” (Whitlock)

His greatest contributions to The Essential Eastern, however, came from his personal ethics. “I believe that great institutions need individuals to serve as their conscience,” Doug told me. “Bob was a big part of Eastern’s collective conscience. He worked very hard to keep the institution pointed toward its true north and like a sailor tacking sails he encouraged his colleagues and administrators to stay on course.

Eastern Kentucky University is a better place, and all of us are better individuals, for having known Bob Miller.

A group of about 15 professors (the last of whom are apparently Bruce MacLaren and Ron Messerich) ate lunch together and had created an informal professor’s aid society which also met at Maywoods, and a bar on Water Street - where they professed. 

“We saw ourselves as having a drinking, arguing society. It created an energy for that faculty that resembled the academy of the middle ages. Bob saw the academy as being every bit as crucial to what we were doing as teaching. We had to have a chance at helping ourselves.” (MacLaren) 

Few deigned to take Bob on, but they did tease him from time to time about his unfinished 856 page Novelistic Biography, Luigi‘s Goat. This 38-year writing project, ultimately copyrighted in 2013, was actually a form of therapy for the author who witnessed a surreal event in Italy and wanted to explore the effect it had on him. In it, he expresses his outlook that “Just below humanity’s postures and pretenses lie the sublime and the ridiculous in a loving conceptual embrace.”

Bruce told me, “When we first got to Richmond we were looking for a church and all of the wives wanted good child support in the church and it turned out the Methodists were the best. So the wives joined and the men went along. Well it turned out the Bob taught this class with a large group of people who were not very holy. They were mostly scientists and philosophers. But Bob was able to talk about spiritual topics that were very important and they could gather powerful ideas from that. It was quite nice.” 

During the Viet Nam War, Bruce had asked Bob to help him organize a debate on the morals of war.  They got a Colonel from ROTC to argue straight US military policy – so that he wouldn’t get into any trouble. Bruce argued pacifism, prompting Bob to dub him the Golden Bear. And Bob took the stance that we should just bomb the hell out of the Russians until they gave up. “It was funny,” MacLaren recalls, “but it was also serious.” After the debate they would debrief the excited students, and it was quite an effective example of active engagement. You know. Really good teaching.

Then Bob continued to hold debates through the Philosophy Department …that weren’t quite so raucous, such as…
  • Separation of church and state is not separation of religion and society. (1982)
  •  Moderated another Oxford-style debate on the morals of war. (1991)
  •  (1996) Debated former Governor Brereton Jones who was in favor of school prayer. Bob argued against prayer in school because institutionalizing the act would render it false and cheap. Bob championed silent prayer –reminding Jones of the scriptural account of Jesus saying that only hypocrites pray in public places; that genuine prayer is held in private.
“Bob was a very complex human being,” MacLaren said. “He was so terribly quick. He could insult you with great humor. When we debated Bob was always the quickest, most effective, and most clever.” …and he would cheat, layering logical fallacies on top of one another before his opponents could recover. “It was a free for all.” 

MacLaren also said that Bob was very generous. “He helped me. He helped my department. He helped the students. He was honorable…energetic…decent… honest…and brilliant. And he could take somebody down if he wanted to.

MacLaren was once was confronted with a form of logic he had never encountered. He took it to Bob. Bob deciphered it as a series of deductions that were essentially irrefutable. Bruce was so impressed - and Bob was the kind of person - that he began meeting in the evenings with Bruce’s department where Bob taught the faculty a course in logic. All of them improved their teaching as a result. They began writing better test questions and better understood their content.
It has only been since I began researching Bob’s tenure at Eastern that I became aware of the infamous Plantation Papers, and they opened my eyes to a whole new level of appreciation for the Bob’s genius – or at least, the lengths he would travel for a good joke.

The Plantation Papers were a highly satirical creation of Bob Miller’s fertile mind.  As Doug Whitlock tells it, they were a result of a few “stars that had aligned.” It was during the Funderburk era, in 1986, when the Council on Higher Education implemented a funding formula that was very heavily driven by credit hour production, and it was weighted in such a way, as to recognize higher and lower cost disciplines. This led to a very numbers-driven exercise that allocated resources based on a program’s credit hour production. 

Now, EKU President Hanly Funderburk was from the Deep South, where, at one time, cotton production was the big staple of the economy. So, the Vice President for Academic Affairs, John Rowlett, became Colonel Chauncey Basil Hansford Culpepper and the recipient of most of Bob’s attention in the Plantation Papers, Funderburke became President Jefferson Davis. The unfortunate moniker Simon Legree was attached to Assoc VP Russ Enzie. And Jack Culross the Dean of Undergraduate Studies was cast as Mammy. Others became bosses, overseers, and field hands.

Now in Bob’s view, Rowlett was “letting important correspondences needing immediate attention pile up on his desk. His missive about a broken lectern was the first thing from his office in weeks; some said months. Several of the Deans went ‘ballistic,’ and that’s when the first Plantation Paper was ‘discovered’.”

It was discovered emerging from an oracle known affectionately by a certain group of professors as The Holy Geode. -- There was a big round table in the Powell Building where the professors ate lunch. And Bob got it in his head that it needed a sacred symbol of some kind. So one day he brought in the Holy Geode. From time to time, mysterious scribblings and other wonders would magically appear under the Holy Geode. And that’s how the Plantation Papers were distributed…

Here’s how it all started:

As Bruce MacLaren remembers, there was a very good biology professor...who shall remain nameless...and he was lecturing in the Combs Building behind a very big, good, solid, lectern. But something sharp stuck out from it, and it caught, and tore Jack’s pants. Well, he became so angry that he threw the lectern against the wall. As it turns out, Rowlett’s daughter was in the class, and she told her father what had happened. Rowlett responded with the memo that got the ball rolling.

Rowlett’s memo stated:
This morning I visited a lecture room and found a lectern that may well date back to the days of the Normal School. My concern is not with the age of the lectern but with the condition. The top is broken loose; the molding intended to hold a professor’s notes is missing; finishing nails and splinters protrude in several places. In addition several lights in the room are not working.…If there are persistent, unresolved problems in the classrooms…please write me about them…I cannot help you in solving these problems if I do not know about them. 

The Biology department responded with a request for $30,000 worth of stuff.

Bob responded with the first Plantation Paper. (excerpt)

To:  Cotton-picking fieldhands, Eastern Kentucky Plantation

From: Colonel Chauncey B. H. Culpepper

Date: 31 December 1862

Subject: Garden tools/Smoke houses/Outhouses

This morning, through the cool mists laced with the scent of jasmine, I rode Sally out past the smoke-house beyond Mammy’s kitchen, and I happened to notice a hoe leaning against one of the outhouses serving the back row of cabins just this side of the watermelon patch. This noble instrument of honest labor may very well date back to the days when the oldest of you began your employment here. My concern is not with the age of the hoe but with the condition. The head of the hoe is dangling from the handle; the upper part of the handle - the area designed to give the fieldhand a firm and comfortable grip - is warped and dented; splinters protrude menacingly at odd angles. In addition, the outhouse against whose door the hoe was leaning does not have even so much as a quarter-moon window cut for lighting - essential for proper use of the corn cob.

Instead of following normal procedure...and asking Simon Legree to take charge…I, myself, Colonel Chauncey B. H. Culpepper, in order to give you an earnest of my concern for your welfare, will personally see to it that the broken hoe is replaced and that not just a quarter-moon is cut, but a half-moon…Since I do not use the outhouses, however, I cannot help you in solving these problems if I do not know about them.  

Each of the Plantation Papers was a direct response to an official memo. It was thrust and parry. University Administration would proffer a memo - and Colonel Culpepper would issue a fractured fairy tale version of the same thing.

When the faculty pressed for a greater role in Gen Ed reform, President Funderburk reluctantly agreed. As Bruce MacLaren recalled, “There was a smaller group from Faculty Senate that met with Rowlett, and things that you’d think would be simple to do, became difficult, because they had already made a decision about what they thought should be done. And this was what Bob responded to. But Funderburk adopted a process, used earlier by President J. C. Powell that was designed to make the faculty sorry that they had asked for involvement in the first place. It required the development of an elaborate scheme with a quick turnaround. 

Bob’s Colonel Culpepper pronounced an innovative method to be employed by the cotton pickers at the Eastern Plantation called the non-stoop-and-pluck model, which was to be outlined in the smooth dirt outside Mammy’s kitchen for all to see.

The analogies of credit hours to cotton bales were endless. Rowlett called for each college to stand on its own two feet and implement the Council on Higher Education’s funding formula – it being the only funding formula Eastern had. Deans were directed to develop plans for colleges that were overstaffed, to bring them in line.

Colonel Culpepper reasoned, (excerpt)

A close analysis of our nine different cotton patches reveals that some are doing better than others. The patch down by the river, for instance, is actually producing a bale of cotton with 5.339 fieldhands, which makes them understaffed by 1.223. On the other hand, the larger patch just beyond the gravel pit on the high side of the plantation takes 10.666 fieldhands to produce a bale of cotton, and you do not need a course in plantation management to figure out - that what we have here is a patch that is 4.104 overstaffed.

By this time the fruits of the Holy Geode were being forwarded all over campus. Associate Vice President Enzie got a copy of Bob’s paper “Building a Street on the Plantation,” and passed it out to all members of the Academic Council - including some of those whom Miller had embarrassed – and as Bob put it, “a good time was had by all.”

In September of 1986, Rowlett celebrated EKU surpassing its goals of 12,510 students in a self-congratulatory memo to Funderburk. He was so excited that he thanked the faculty and administrators for their extraordinary efforts, and with great excitement boldly predicted a 1987 enrollment in excess of 13,000.

In the capable hands of Bob Miller, students became bags of cotton. (excerpt)

I should like, with all the humility I can summon from a bosom bursting with justifiable pride, to report to you dear president of the confederacy, that the cotton production goal for our plantation this year of 12,510 bags has been achieved and surpassed. Moreover, based on Uncle Tom’s reading of a pan of chicken-entrails-in-blood left out by the barn last Saturday night during the full moon, attended by the wailing of one black cat…I am now projecting a final bag count of 12,662…exceeding the…goal. I must humbly acknowledge, that I did order the fieldhands to search for cotton in places where we had never searched before…[and] Mammy’s efforts were contagious. Her sister Beulah came running up to me one afternoon with a tiny piece of cotton between her fingers. I asked her where she got it. She said there’s always some in her little Willie’s navel.” 

On another occasion - but not on the plantation this time - a mysterious petition to the Faculty Senate emerged from the oracle, calling for a Remedial Honors Program in recognition of an underserved population of students. “EKU has done a very fine job of recruiting its share of remedial students; in fact, we must be getting some other institutions’ share, because we lead the state in this fine effort,” Bob reasoned. Arguing that a superior remedial student would be a role model for the normal remedial student, Bob slipped his proposal into the Academic Council agenda, and because it looked legitimate, it went unnoticed for some number of days, until someone actually read it. An emergency directive then went out, to pull and destroy it. All were pulled, but few were destroyed. 

Doug Whitlock credits Bob with creating “a good atmosphere within the university.  It’s difficult for most people to understand what we do. We have to be fed intellectually and we have to laugh.” And if nothing else, Bob Miller could certainly cast powerful religious and philosophical thoughts and he could write beautiful words. He was a focal point.

To Bob’s likely disappointment, Hanly Funderburk thought the Plantation Papers were a hoot. He had a lot of respect for Bob. But some of Bob’s other targets - who got hoisted on their own petards - didn’t see as much humor.

But Whitlock said, “If you read it carefully, you will see the righteousness of what he’s saying, even though it’s satirical.” 

It is unclear to what degree Bob and his beer-drinking philosophers shaped the campus atmosphere, but in 1986 Playboy Magazine named EKU one of America’s top 40 party schools.  

Bob Miller was recognized with Emeritis status in 2001, and that year, he was invited to speak to the graduates at Commencement. Bob caught some flack in the newspaper for saying, “I think the most misunderstood freedom guaranteed to us in America today is the freedom of religion. Many people in the majority religion, Christianity, find it very hard to believe whole-heartedly in their religion without condemning the religious beliefs of other people and causing them pain in the process.”

Bob urged Christians to be "more tolerant" – rhetoric one fundamentalist Christian found inflammatory, as he felt “marginalized” by the very suggestion. 

Well, that’s the bulk of my discoveries. Although, clearly, there is much more, and I hope senior faculty will share those stories. If Bob was here with us today, I’m pretty sure I know what he would tell us to do – his last political act. I know because it’s what he told Margaret to do just before he passed. Vote for Alison.

I’d like to thank Margaret, Erika and the family for the invitation to spend some time reflecting on Bob’s career with you today. It really got me thinking about the role of faculty.

Bob was teacher who cared deeply for his students.

He was also a courageous and clear voice for our collective conscience.

Any faculty member should be proud to make such a contribution.

Bob did it by speaking up, and challenging the institution to become the best version of itself.

Go thou, and do likewise.


This from the Clark Legacy Center:

Dr. James Robert Miller

May 27, 1931 - June 04, 2014

Dreyfus, KY

Dr. James Robert Miller, Jr., died on June 4, 2014 at the Compassionate Care Center, Richmond, Kentucky, surrounded by his family. He was 83.
Dr. Miller was born May 27, 1931 in Jacksonville, Florida, a son of Laurel Armstrong Miller and James Robert Miller. He graduated from Lanier High School for Boys in 1949, continued his education at Baylor University, Howard University and completed his first bachelor’s degree from Mercer University in Philosophy. He received a bachelor of Divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, an MA in Philosophy from the University of Kentucky and a PhD in Philosophy from Tulane University. He began his teaching career at Georgetown College, went on to West Georgia College and then to Eastern Kentucky University where he taught for 30 years and was chairman of the Philosophy and Religion Department. He pastored several small and rural churches for 10 years before devoting his fulltime service to teaching.
Survivors include his companion and love Margaret Moore, one sister, Martha June Miller (Doug) Brown, Broomfield, CO and one brother Donald Kay (Francis) Miller, Macon, GA. He is survived by two sons, Robert W. Miller, Old Town, FL, J. Kirk Miller, Louisville, KY, three daughters Paula Miller (John) Pratt, Bloomington, IL, Erika Miller (Kevin) Watkins, Geneva, IL, Laurel Miller (Greg) Walker, Lexington, KY and 13 grandchildren, 6 great grandchildren and 1 great great grandson. He is also survived by first wife Syble S. Miller, second wife Ginger Faulkner Shutt and third wife Constance Mueller.

Funeral Information

A memorial service will be held on June 11, at 11:00 am at Walnut Hall in the Keene Johnson Building, Eastern Kentucky University.

Donations Information

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions in memory of Dr. James Robert Miller, c/o EKU Foundation or to Hospice Care Plus, Compassionate Care Center Richmond, KY.

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