The Johns Committee at USF
Johns and his gang shifted their focus to higher education by the 1960s, suddenly concluding the real danger to Florida was through Communist, atheist, and/or homosexual professors. As a brand-new urban university, the very existence of USF threatened the old order. That order was enforced by Florida’s “Pork Choppers,” rural legislators determined to curb the influence of the “Lamb Choppers,” legislators representing more progressive city folk.
USF president John Allen once said proudly, “The tradition of establishing colleges in small towns away from the evil influences of the city has been broken.” With no traditions, education at USF could be dangerously innovative. A brilliant faculty imbued with deep idealism could mean subversive teachings such as evolution, atheism, racial equality, and a broader perspective on communism and the Cold War. Finally, USF’s integrated status set a troubling precedent for the rest of the state, whose devotion to Jim Crow was weakening.
The Johns Committee began its investigation of USF in 1962, searching for communists and homosexuals. The Committee’s tactics had more in common with the Gestapo than due process. All suspects were assumed to be guilty and many faced unemployment and disgrace. The committee singled out Thomas Wenner, thought to be a homosexual who was “soft” on Communism because he assigned “pornographic” materials in class. A peeved President Allen suspended Wenner and invited the committee to conduct its investigation on campus “in the open” rather than sniping from rented rooms at the Hawaiian Village Hotel on Dale Mabry Highway. Wenner later abandoned his liberal views and joined the witch hunt, slinging accusations at his colleagues at USF.
Students writing for the Campus Edition (USF's first newspaper, published weekly inside the Tampa Times) sarcastically welcomed the committee on May 28. "What we admire most about these people is their vocabulary,” the editor chuckled. “Communist, homosexual, pornography; Communist, homosexual, pornography. There is rhythm, beat and emotional impact in that chant. It will serve as the perfect background music for any play they wish to direct on campus during the next few weeks. We do hope it won't be The Crucible. That was a clear case of righteous townspeople vs. the witches, and by the end of the play we didn't like the townspeople very well.” Students responded with a flurry of letters to the paper, which printed none of them for fear that they violated libel laws and would only make the situation worse.
Once in Tampa, the committee singled out faculty for allegedly seducing male students, scheduling speeches by “known communist sympathizers,” teaching evolution as fact, and assigning “obscene” books of “intellectual garbage” like the classic Catcher in the Rye.
While some students protested FLIC and demanded academic freedom, none were brave enough to publicly defend homosexuality at the time. Internal USF correspondence about students reveals a zero tolerance policy for any students with homosexual tendencies. Months before the FLIC investigation came to USF, Senator Johns wrote a letter to USF president John Allen which is notable for how reasonable it sounded at the time. But the reality of the FLIC investigation was nothing like the one described by Johns. Investigators chose to begin their probing secretly, and Allen never even saw the report until it was submitted to the State Board of Control and the press. Internally, USF administrators struggled to come to terms with a harsh new reality. There would be no genuine cooperation between the legislature and USF. Johns had what he wanted: An adversarial relationship, something in which he truly excelled.