Dr. Robert McClellan was a professor of history from 1966 until his retirement in 1994. Dr. McClellan was a dedicated member of the faculty and an Episcopal priest with a strong commitment to social activism. He personified his generation’s antipathy toward authority and its resistance to injustice. McClellan brought this philosophy and a strident personality to the classroom in ways that challenged and provoked his students and colleagues.
In 1967, President Edgar Harden summarily dismissed McClellan because of his public challenge of the University's expansion plans. Hoping to expand the university northward beyond Wright Street, the administration devised a plan that required the relocation of numerous homes and families in the area. The neighborhood was largely working class and poor, and McClellan interpreted Harden’s expansion plan as an elitist abuse of power and unfair to the residents of the area. As a class exercise, he involved his students in a campaign to educate the residents of their rights and encourage them to resist the University. McClellan’s actions enraged Harden, who interpreted it as a usurpation of his presidential authority.
McClellan’s colleagues and students responded to his termination with indignation and rebellion. For his part, McClellan fought back and enlisted the legal support of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Education Association. Faculty and students organized rallies and marches supporting McClellan and attacking the administration and the Board of Control. Their activities culminated in the fall semester of 1968 with “McClellan Week,” a 16-point program that included a boycott of classes, marches through town, a mock funeral, the burning of effigies, and numerous sit-ins throughout campus. Interpreting McClellan’s dismissal as an affront to academic freedom and a violation of the university’s termination policies and regulations, the faculty joined students in class boycotts and marches; they passed resolutions of condemnation, and the Faculty Senate resigned en masse.
Despite the protest, the Board of Control refused to rescind McClellan’s termination. In response, 137 members of the faculty, in addition to the Associated Students of Northern Michigan University, filed a lawsuit against the administration for violation of McClellan’s civil and academic liberties. Incoming President John X. Jamrich settled out-of-court and reinstated McClellan, but the action came too late to heal the open wound now festering between the faculty and administration.
The McClellan Controversy was the spark that pushed the faculty toward unionization. Dr. McClellan led this effort initially as a proponent of the National Education Association and later as a leader of the American Association of University Professors. For the later, he served as the first chief negotiator for the union's first contract.