An irascible prof challenged Reno’s academic community
The day after Jake Highton’s death on Aug. 7, I ran a search for his name on the Google news page. For some reason, one of the hits was for a May 31 Reno Gazette-Journal article that made no mention of him. The article was headlined “Reno City Council violated Open Meeting Law on $3.5M subsidy decision.” I couldn’t help thinking that Jake would have been reaching for his red pen. The headline stated as fact what was only an accusation by the attorney general.
It was the kind of sloppiness of which he was often critical.
What would have pleased him more was how many people—including RG-J writers—headed for their keyboards when they heard the news of his death. He was a journalist, and he taught journalists.Teacher
He arrived at the University of Nevada, Reno to teach in 1981 following a career in which he worked at a dozen newspapers, including covering sports at the Baltimore Sun and writing editorials at the Detroit News.
At UNR, he carved his own distinctive profile. As best I can tell, no one was ever neutral or middle-of-the-road about him.
Lise Mousel: “He inspires me to this day.”
Student evaluation: “I would NEVER take another one of his classes … EVER.”
Emily Fodor: “It’s a shame we can’t make a hologram or program of Jake so future students can benefit from his knowledge and razor wit.”
Student evaluation: “hightons standards are extremely high, too high, and his grading is a bit off base. the only person to get above an 80 on the midterm was a math major, so that proves how much you need to know in writing for his class.”
Student evaluation: “Avoid him if you want an easy A but take as many classes as you can if you really want to learn something.”
Student evaluation: “He is incomprehensible, has no grading system and if you do not write exactly in his style you are screwed.”
In case readers think I have cleaned up the prose of only Highton fans, I left all statements as they were posted.
Unhappiness with Highton by some students was so strong and outspoken that I wondered how he did not suffer professionally from the sheer volume of it. He was tenured, and his career is a testament to the value of tenure in beating back unworthy but influential pressures. He was, of course, aware of how he was regarded by a substantial portion of his classes, and he tried to head it off with his initial instructions to classes:
“Familiarize yourself with stylebook. It is essential that you always use correct style. I get awfully annoyed if in the third week you are still using the wrong style for time, the states and other frequent usages. (Discipline is a dirty word these days. But it is essential for reporters. You must learn—study if you must—everyday style usage.)”
“DO NOT USE SPELL CHECK IN THIS CLASS. Use dictionary.”
The notion that students would, on their honor, avoid spell check is revealing. Though he was hard on them, Highton had endless regard for them. It was one of the reasons he was so tough on students who aspired to a field that gets worse every year. It takes fortitude, and he wanted to help them be ready. His former student John Trent wrote, “Love him or hate him, the young people in his classes always knew that if they were to succeed, first with Jake, then in their chosen profession and then in life, the process would have to begin with the unpleasant but necessary and ultimately rewarding business of first demanding more, not less, of themselves.”
His grading was the source of much of the hostility toward him from students, and he may not have understood the grade pressure some students today must live with:
“Students are too concerned about grades rather than what they get out of courses. In this class, the standard is exacting. A means excellent. Few students are excellent. B means good. C means average. Getting a C is no disgrace.”
To be sure, he was not flawless. He had a way of seeing things in black and white, and of being so certain of his own rightness that it did not allow other views. He crusaded against adjectives, seeking prose so Spartan it could be misleading because it lacked nuance. He objected to clichés so vociferously that students were sometimes denied use of terms that effectively communicated meaning to their readers or viewers.
He also saw the Associated Press Stylebook as holy writ. I once told a UNR journalism class—not his—that the AP Stylebook is where good writing goes to die. It was not a view he accepted.
Nevertheless, his best students thrived under his harsh routine and valued their successes. Amy Minor: “I did get a ’perfect’ from him one day. And with Jake, whether it was good or bad, you knew you deserved it.”
He loved it when students performed better than himself.Writer
Soon after he arrived at UNR, he began working on a book about the history of Nevada newspapers. Even so dull a topic in Highton’s hands generated controversy. Although he initially expected the book publishing arm of the state higher education system, the University of Nevada Press, would take an interest in it, he learned otherwise. The UN Press received warnings that it might face legal action if it published the book. Highton turned to other publishers of Western history. One of them was Heritage West in Stockton, California, which soon received a letter from a prominent Nevada journalist who was also a campus figure:
“I understand you are considering printing or publishing a book on Nevada journalism history by Jake Highton. A manuscript on this subject by this person, Highton, submitted to the University of Nevada Press contained serious and repeated libels against me. I do not wish to suppress any book, being dedicated to the First Amendment, however be advised that if Heritage West Books prints or publishes any libel against me by this person, Highton, or anyone else immediate legal action will be taken against Heritage West Books.”
Of course, such a threat off campus was received very differently than at the UN Press, which is dependent on public funding and favor in political circles. A commercial publisher had an opportunity to face down a threat of suppressing a book, and seized on it. HW published Nevada Newspaper Days by Jake Highton in 1990 in both hard- and softcover editions. Paradoxically, the UN Press eventually accepted a chance to sell copies of the HW edition.
Highton also wrote the textbook Reporter (McGraw Hill 1978) and began writing a column for the Sparks Tribune and anywhere else he could find—even the People’s World, the communist newspaper.
His love of fine writing appeared in unusual places. Though he was an atheist, he adored the majestic King James translation of the Bible.
Highton certainly tested the limits of academic freedom. UNR is a campus where a professor was fired in 1953 for circulating a magazine article among his fellow faculty members. Highton publicly attacked his superiors, UNR President Joseph Crowley and chancellors John Lilley and Jim Rogers, and the articles did not deal gently with their targets. Sample: “Heads of … UNR schools and colleges are often inferior to other candidates who applied. Once installed, the mediocrities are protected by Crowley because they become his pals. However, the selection committees are often stacked with lackeys, spineless individuals who do the bidding of Crowley.”
Highton wrote a column about Rogers headlined “Manipulative Rogers disgrace to higher ed.”
When Lilley tried to prevent Highton’s fellow professor Howard Rosenberg from being seated in the elective post of Nevada Regent by haling him before the Nevada Ethics Commission, Highton testified before the commission on Rosenberg’s behalf.
It should be noted that while he told the students in his classes, “Getting a C is no disgrace,” still he wrote of Crowley, “It is hard to quantify a university president. He has no won-loss record. But Crowley is a C President—far from good enough.” That column was a mixed message for his students.
Highton was not just affecting these attitudes. Anger fueled his writing, and there is evidence that in private he felt even more strongly than in his public writings. There were UNR faculty members who liked both the flair and the backbone Highton brought to campus matters, and they looked out for him. At one point, one of his colleagues told him that a journalism dean had selected a replacement for Highton. Highton wrote in his diary that the dean “has already chosen my successor, before my body is even cold. What a slimy mediocrity. What an establishment figure. He’s been anxious to get rid of me for many years. Well, his latest intention makes me mad enuf to delay my retirement for several years.” And he did, staying long after the dean was gone. His anger even made him mad enough that he used enuf in place of enough.
Highton wrote 11 pieces for the Reno News & Review. Ten of them are cover stories. There were attacks on capitalism, Pope Francis, U.S. imperialism, Theodore Roosevelt, and journalism’s fealty to money and power. His articles advocated civil disobedience, atheism, the election of Donald Trump. One praised the first amendment and castigated those who should support it but fail to do so vigorously enough. One named the worst U.S. Supreme Court decisions—the court was one of his principal concerns and the topic of one of his books—and another gave an explanation of why he loved poetry, and it recommended verse to readers.Activist
There were other ways Highton likely brought complaints into the office of UNR’s president or its journalism deans.
He was a supporter and admirer of Israel, but he expected it, like his students, to live up to high standards. He bought a full page ad in Progressive Magazine for an essay that said Israel caused Palestinians “thousands of deaths, great suffering and immense anguish. … Israel has engaged in criminal onslaughts in Gaza. Israeli armed might has destroyed or damaged mosques, hospitals, schools, factories, police stations, a prison, parliament and ministries.” He received letters from around the country.
In 1995, he testified before the Nevada Assembly in favor of affirmative action for women and minorities:
“[I]t seems to me that those opposed to affirmative action are being divisive. They are not acting in the spirit of a nation that provides opportunities for so many diverse peoples. … It is an essential legal means to a just end—a remedy for past and continuing discrimination.”
Highton took on popular community figures, such as sometime UNR athletic director Chris Ault: “Ault is a divisive figure on Athletic Hill. His dictatorial ways provoke anger. Curses directed at him are, to quote Macbeth, ’not loud but deep.’”
The downtown Reno daily newspaper was a constant target: “The GJ is a ’homer.’ It boosts the home town at the expense of the truth, at the expense of its integrity, at the expense of good news papering.” He denounced its occasional forays into civic journalism and thought employees deserved to be permitted to go to town on Reno. He must have grudgingly admired it for once finding him newsworthy, in spite of his contempt (“Highton makes a career out of battles,” RGJ, May 1, 1990).
At one point an editor at UNR’s student newspaper, the Sagebrush, asked Highton’s advice on whether she should run a Holocaust-denying advertisement. Reluctant to see unpopular views denied a forum—or driven underground where they would not be scrutinized—he urged her to run the ad. “Unfortunately, she chose to listen to the counsels of [ACLU of Nevada official] Rich Siegel and [historian] Jim Hulse and did not run it,” he said.
As with Israel, he was harsh with those he admired, expecting them to live up to his standards, as when he criticized presidential pardons that were not accompanied by broader reform: “Criminal justice is not to be had under President Obama. As usual he talks big but acts small.”
Tribune reader John DeTar called him a Nazi. Reader H. Robinson called him a liberal.Mensch
Like most in his generation, Highton believed in old-fashioned courtesy. He opened doors for people. Anyone who sent him anything—from a gift to a news item—received a thank-you note. Even when he fell out with people, he handled it well. At some point, Regent Howard Rosenberg, who Highton praised more than once in print, did something to upset him, and he broke off relations. But, reluctant to hurt Rosenberg’s feelings, he never said anything to him. Years later, Rosenberg was surprised to hear from someone else that there had been a breach in his friendship with Highton.
While he was rough on his students, like many faculty members he often aided them at staying in school with scholarships and personal loans. He kept track of some students when they departed. Learning that one of them was barely surviving in New York, he sent a check. The student returned it. He wrote in his diary, “He is in debt. He does need money. He certainly needs the $500 far more than I do. I don’t believe that very many people in his financial situation would have returned the check. Surely such integrity must reap its reward some day.”
While he had strong opinions, he was capable of making distinctions. Writing a friend about Richard Nixon, he said, “God, how I hated that man. And I say that because I never hated stupid Reagan.”
Just as he liked his students to do better than he did, the reporters he watched could get friendly critiques in the mail and while usually rough, sometimes they contained praise. He read voraciously and also forwarded clippings to other reporters so they could advance the same stories.
He also welcomed critiques of his own writings and did not resent criticism. After I corrected something he wrote, he typed three lines of Walt Whitman and gave it to me: “I am the teacher of Athletes;/He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own, proves the width of my own;/He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.”
Though he seldom mentioned family, he left a wife and three daughters. On the rare occasions he spoke of them, he spoke lovingly. His granddaughter Kamryn Moloney even got a mention in one of his RN&R articles.
Toward the end of his tenure, the student government at UNR adopted a resolution praising him. Other campus politics were not so friendly. Though he was tenured, there were ways around it, and when he received an unfavorable evaluation, he regarded it as a shot across his bow. He said he was forced out because his instruction had become less relevant to the new media. He didn’t understand that—because the things he taught, like newswriting and press law, were applicable to any medium. “I’m obsolete with the digital age,” he told one interviewer. “I don’t use PowerPoints and digital to teach.” But he accepted it so he could get emeritus status and have an office on campus, staying in touch with his colleagues and keeping a campus routine. Besides, he felt higher education was not what he entered decades earlier, with its discipline and standards.
I copy-edited his last piece for the News & Review, in which he made a leftist’s case for Donald Trump (“The Trump card,” June 30, 2016), an article that infuriated many of our readers. (By election day, he had changed his mind about voting for Trump and voted instead for ‘None of these candidates.”) At one point, something about a quotation in the piece bothered me, and I looked up the original. To my surprise, the two were not the same, nor even close. Highton’s version said much the same thing, but the wording was very different. Perhaps he had written the quote from memory. Once I encountered that problem, another staffer and I closely scrutinized the rest of the article. We found repeated problems like that, including factual errors, one of which I regret I did not catch. In the end, we had to make several substantive corrections.
It was a shock that the professor who had demanded such painstaking accuracy and correctness of his students had failed to live up to his own standards.
My best guess is that Highton was unhappy because of changes in his life related to campus. He had recently stopped driving because of his age, and the lack of mobility and independence that came with the change could not have been an easy adjustment. Though he was entitled to an office on campus, he eventually gave it up to allow someone else to use the space. It put him out of touch with the colleagues, students and research facilities that had been so much a part of his life for so long.
It was upsetting to know that powerful intellect was running down. I don’t know whether he realized what was happening to him, but if he did, I know one way he would have reacted to it—by taking refuge in his beloved poetry. I know this because he actually wrote about it in one of his cover stories for the RN&R:
“The older I get, the more I like this insight from Yeats’ ’Sailing to Byzantium’: ’An old man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick.’ And speaking of intimations of mortality, I cherish those defiant lines of Dylan Thomas: ’Do not go gentle into that good night / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’”