No more distractions
After decades of bugging people about civil liberties in Nevada, Richard Siegel is ready to get serious about it
In the mid-1960s, a Columbia University doctoral candidate was about to get his degree and go out into the world.
He had two job offers—one to be a Russian research analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency, the other to teach at the University of Nevada in Reno. He took the second offer, figuring he’d spend a couple of years in Nevada and then move on. After 40 years, Richard Siegel is about to retire from his political-science professorship at UNR, which will free him to spend more time supporting civil liberties.
During those four decades, Siegel has taught thousands of students and enraged almost as many Nevadans. He is the state’s best known civil libertarian and has watched Nevada evolve from having a small-town Western atmosphere to being one of the nation’s most urban states.
Before UNR, before Columbia, Siegel had what he calls the “formative educational experience of my life … an amazing experience” at the then-new Brandeis University, where he was able to work with figures like Herbert Marcuse (known as the father of the New Left), Eleanor Roosevelt and Zbigniew Brzezinski. The Brandeis years—“eye opening,” he calls them—gave him an exposure to the political landscape that he brought to Nevada.
In Nevada, he went against the grain of what was then a relatively insular and rigid society. Being a Jew in Nevada was then alone enough to make for culture shock, such as when he discovered that a university colleague had passed a list of names of alleged communists and fellow travelers (Siegel among them) to state Sen. James Slattery, and all the names on the list were Jews. This was a decade after Joe McCarthy’s death.
“It didn’t seem to me to be the most friendly environment,” Siegel says.
That didn’t deter him; neither did an attempt by Nevada Regent William Morris to deny him tenure. Siegel became known for doing things like challenging long-time institutions, such as a religious breakfast held for Sparks High School graduates. When he called the superintendent of schools to challenge the breakfast, he discovered that the superintendent had been waiting for someone to give him a complaint so he could get the school district out of the religion business. It was often that way—officials didn’t want to take the heat themselves and tapped Siegel to do their dirty work.
“And that was a story that runs through my whole life,” he says. “I mean, I’ve had sheriffs call me and say, ‘Sue me to close down my jail.’ You know. I’ve had directors of prisons say, ‘Sue me so I can serve better food.’”
His first contact with civil liberties issues had been at Brandeis, when he brought an American Civil Liberties Union speaker in to talk about church-state separation. In Nevada, Siegel’s name became synonymous with the ACLU.
Civil liberties work in Nevada was a tonic from campus politics and from the politics of the Democratic Party, both of which he found hidebound and inertial. To get something done, he believed, he had to look elsewhere than the university’s bureaucracy and the party’s old-fashioned ways. The ACLU was where he landed.
“It was very hard to get things accomplished within the university and the university system. … My gravitation to the ACLU was in part because it was so frustrating to get things accomplished in the university and in the Democratic Party. And the ACLU was kind of virgin ground. You know, we could accomplish whatever we wanted to try to accomplish. And in time we would accomplish almost everything we tried … whereas within the other two settings we were facing barriers.”
Civil-liberties work was also a relief from the alienation he experienced from the uses of power he observed.
“It began to happen with the Bay of Pigs in ’61. … I was particularly upset by the invasion of the Dominican Republic in ’65 and then by the escalation in Vietnam.”
Some figures on campus, like John Marshall and John Dodson, encouraged Siegel’s growing activism.
One barometer of the changes in the political climate in the state over the period of Siegel’s career was the Hansen family in Sparks. The family, a free-standing, right-wing machine of its own, early on targeted Siegel as an adversary.
“The Hansens … have been a part of my life, to this day, in so many ways,” Siegel laughs. “Danny was a student in my Russian Politics class.”
In 1972, during the religious-breakfast dispute, the Hansens circulated a petition against “the imported New York professor.” But as the years passed and Siegel and the Hansens warily circled each other, they sometimes found they had overlapping interests on issues like the Patriot Act—and most recently when the ACLU defended Janine Hansen from an arrest for circulating a petition on the public’s property.
Another measure of the changed climate in Nevada since Siegel’s arrival is the status of the ACLU. A Nevada chapter started out in 1966 with little power, but that changed over the years. The ACLU of Nevada eventually started winning most of its court cases and even developed some political influence. State legislators looked to the ACLU for assistance and expertise, as when Siegel advised state legislators who were redrafting the Nevada death penalty law after a U.S. Supreme Court decision. (In that case, the nation’s top court changed its own signals to state legislatures twice in two years, with the result, as Siegel put it, “We helped them write an unconstitutional law. It wasn’t our intent; it was just the way it happened. The Supreme Court turned around on us.”)
Siegel’s own influence also grew, and he formed alliances that stood him in good stead. When Morris tried to stop Siegel’s tenure, university Regent Flora Dungan came to his aid.
The list of ACLU of Nevada achievements is very long, from freedom-of-expression disputes like Hansen’s arrest to prison reform to student press issues. The prospect of Siegel now devoting even more time to civil liberties may thrill or demoralize, depending on one’s point of view.
As he prepares to end his daily contact with the campus, Siegel says it remains bureaucratic.
“When I look back at the university, I look back at the enormous energy I put into a dozen initiatives. A few moved forward; a lot more did not.”
He says there’s a general feeling on campus that structural obstacles to change are very powerful.
“It’s very frustrating for the rank-and-file faculty. It’s one of the reasons why the faculty is reluctant to give a lot of energy to helping to govern the university. You know, they have more opportunities to help govern than they take.”
Siegel was fortunate that he was in a department that encouraged public service over “publish or perish,” but that also meant that his writing suffered, something he does not regret: “When I woke up in the morning, the most important thing usually was civil liberties and civil-liberties work. … I made a sacrifice of some time. That’s one of the reasons I’m retiring now. The retirement is largely a tradeoff of time that I’m giving to teaching and reshifting that to writing. I’m in a good period of my life in terms of writing. My death penalty book is more than half finished. And I expect to finish it.”
While he didn’t rack up the publication record that some scholars do, he was still able to get in about 30 chapters, articles, books and monographs: “I was always writing. I mean, I was never not writing.”
He says that some of UNR’s most distinguished political scientists, such as Eleanore Bushnell, Don Driggs and Elmer Rusco, did their best writing after they retired.
“I don’t think that’s typical of academics, but it reflects a political-science department that was always a department that gave a deal of attention to teaching and to public service.”
Siegel estimates that over a career of teaching relatively small classes—200 to 300 students in a class—he has had perhaps 8,000 students, some of whom (like university official Robert Dickens and a host of lawyers) have gone on to distinguished careers.
Siegel says there is a single factor that prevents UNR from becoming a great institution, the narrowness of its fund-raising among private donors.
“They’re consistently raising money for buildings, and they’re rarely raising money for academic programs. And they will not build—I would say that emphatically—they will not build a great university when almost all of the fund-raising is for bricks and mortar. … You can’t have a first-rate university without private money for academic programs, no matter how many beautiful new buildings you have.”