USF Archives Sought Out For Perspective on Johns Committee

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Guest post from Andrew Huse, Librarian and Curator for Florida Studies at Special Collections, USF Libraries, Tampa campus.

When Emma Pettit, Senior Reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education, heard of the Johns Committee a couple years ago, she was immediately intrigued. As Pettit would learn, Florida lawmakers created the group officially known as the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee (FLIC) in 1956 to seek out communists and/or homosexuals in the state.  It first fixed its gaze on civil rights groups, such as the NAACP, but by 1960 shifted its focus to Florida’s institutions of higher education.  With a writer’s instinct for a good story, Pettit wanted to explore the subject of FLIC, also known as the Johns Committee, after Florida state senator and former governor Charley Johns.

I mentioned it to a couple people in my newsroom,” Pettit recalled, “and they hadn’t heard of it, which was surprising to me, being the Chronicle of Higher Education.  When the rash of critical race theory bills were passed [in Florida], we started reporting more on the political influence on public universities like Boise State and the University of Florida.  It made the Johns Committee seem more relevant. (Personal Communication)

Title Page of John Egerton’s Controversity.
Egerton, John W., “John W. Egerton Papers, 1961-1965, Box 3 Folder 13 The Controversity Original Manuscript” (1961). John W. Egerton Papers. 39.

Pettit planned a case study of two university presidents during the Johns Committee investigations, including John Allen, USF’s founding leader.  In December 2021, she won the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship, allowing more time and resources for research.  Pettit was able to travel for archival research and interviews, but not nearly enough for the sweeping article she envisioned.  In March 2022, she found materials digitized from the USF University Archives and contacted Special Collections for a consultation.  As Curator of Florida Studies, I had previously selected the archival materials for digitization for just this purpose, and I discussed Pettit’s research with great interest.  To understand USF’s situation at the time, I suggested she read John Egerton’s manuscript for an unpublished book called “The Controversity.” In it, he describes his challenges with the community and press as USF’s head of Information Services, which provided an excellent orientation for someone unfamiliar with the Johns Committee’s investigation at USF.

“There was so much online, which was super helpful,” Pettit said, recalling her deep dive into the University Archives, including meeting notes, correspondence, transcripts, and speeches.  She especially appreciated Egerton’s foresight, saying, “I was grateful to John Egerton for gathering all this stuff as it was happening, as he obviously knew it would be of importance some day.”  The John Allen Papers also greatly facilitated her narrative as  “there were a lot of letters to him which gave a sense of the local community’s reaction and support of him” (Emma Pettit, personal communication).

Over the following months, Pettit kept in contact with me as new issues and inquiries arose and she explored other Special Collections materials, such as the T. Terrell Sessums Papers.  Pettit’s efforts paid off in October 2022, when the Chronicle of Higher Education published her article, which should be included in every bibliography about the Johns Committee at USF.

The wealth of digitized Special Collections materials, all recorded in the written voices of those who coped with the Johns Committee, made a deep impression on Pettit:

The references to Soviet Russia and the Cold War, obviously that feels very much of that time.  But then all the controversies over campus speakers and lecture materials feels so of the moment.  It reemphasized the perpetual story of American higher education and the Johns Committee is just an extreme example of it.

Being able to have access to those archival sources and get the lived-in feel of what they seemed to be thinking and talking about made me realize the similarities of that time that we have today.  Online people are expressing the same disagreements about who we should allow to speak on campus.  When is a radical professor too radical?  Are we allowing enough conservative thought in higher education?  It was interesting to see all of those conversations percolating at the time and we’re having the same conversations today.  Instead now it is about teaching critical race theory rather than teaching evolution.  The topics have just changed a bit. (Emma Pettit, personal communication)

Tracing the creation of Pettit’s article and the USF Libraries’ role in it demonstrates the impact of library resources and services, from digitized collections to old-fashioned conversation.  It also provides a reminder that while the USF University Archives are essentially an institutional history, they also offer rich opportunities to explore social history, student activism, and Florida’s seasonal political storms.  Stay tuned as Special Collections has plans to expand its digitized documents and curated content concerning the Johns Committee in 2023.

Read Pettit’s article:

Pettit, Emma. “THE INQUISITION: Decades Ago, Florida Lawmakers Waged a Campaign Against Immorality on Campus. Two College Presidents Responded Very Differently.” The Chronicle of higher education 69.4 (2022): 32–.


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