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Former prof fights for emeritus status
By Ian Swanson

Herald Staff Writer

Retired UND Professor John Hunter Gray is a well-respected civil rights and labor activist who marched in Mississippi with slain leader Medgar Evers.

Hunter Gray, known as John Salter when he taught at UND, is an outspoken supporter of the National Rifle Association and an American Indian who believes UND should keep its Fighting Sioux nickname.

He also is a former chair of UND's Indian Studies Department who believes that in 1988 he and one of his sons were beamed aboard an alien spacecraft, where he contends they had a friendly encounter with extraterrestrials.

Hunter Gray is, in short, a colorful character and a man of many dimensions.

What Hunter Gray is not is a UND professor emeritus.

Not nominated

The word doesn't appear after Hunter Gray's name in the school's telephone directory because faculty members in his old department never nominated Hunter Gray. And that's got him steamed.

"I really didn't care, except that it was obvious that this was a cut," Hunter Gray said.

"As time passed, I realized that the absence of emeritus in a situation where it is very common could easily be construed as a less than honorable retirement."

Hunter Gray has asked UND to designate him a professor emeritus, and his Web site, www.hunterbear.org, details his history at UND and his emeritus requests.

He has written several letters to UND officials from his home in Pocatello, Idaho, in what has become a long dispute.

"In any academic dispute, no fewer than seven trees are killed," Hunter Gray joked in a Herald telephone interview. "In this case, there may have been as many as 33."

Hands tied

UND officials say their hands are tied since emeritus status is an honor bestowed by a professor's fellow faculty members.

Administrators say it's true that most retired UND faculty receive emeritus status. But faculty members in the Indian Studies Department have declined to nominate Hunter Gray, so school officials say there's not much UND can do.

Indian Studies Chair Birgit Hans and former chair Mary Jane Schneider are the two Indian Studies Department members who served with Hunter Gray in the department.

They declined to comment for this story, other than to confirm that the department has declined to nominate Hunter Gray for emeritus status.

Yet another twist to the story is that Hans and Schneider are both white, while Hunter Gray is an American Indian. Hunter Gray does not mention race as a factor in the department's decision not to nominate him.


It's clear that there was friction within the department. Hunter Gray said grievances were filed on both sides during his last years at UND in the mid-1990s. He took early retirement in 1994.

The only public dispute took place in 1993, when Hunter Gray said in a letter to the Herald that he wouldn't use a book written by Schneider and published in 1986 titled "North Dakota Indians: An Introduction" in his classes.

Hunter Gray criticized Schneider's book for a lack of depth. Earlier, officials at the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck pulled the book from classes.

However, Hunter Gray's motives were questioned by some because he wrote a positive review of Schneider's book for a Wisconsin magazine in 1987.

In the review, he said, " 'North Dakota Indians' is an all-around excellent book (and this includes being very readable). This is not surprising, given the fact that its author, no armchair writer, is a foremost authority on the Native tribes and cultures of the Northern Plains."

In his 1993 letter, Hunter Gray said he had changed his mind after looking at the book more closely.

Other reasons

In any event, Hunter Gray said, he doesn't think his criticism of the book has much to do with the department's denial of emeritus status.

Instead, he lists several other possible reasons.

He said Hans and Schneider may be jealous of him because of the popularity of his classes. He thinks his history of social activism may be haunting him. And then there is the UFO factor.

After his experience, Hunter Gray began teaching a course at UND about UFOs and extra-terrestrial experiences. The course was one of UND's most popular, but not everyone thought it was appropriate coursework.

"It was obviously used by enemies in a hostile fashion," Hunter Gray said.

A hero to many

On paper, Hunter Gray's record at UND and elsewhere would seem to merit emeritus status, an honor given to faculty members who make significant contributions to the institution and state.

A hero to many for his contributions to the civil rights movement, Hunter Gray is an old-fashioned labor activist whose socialist activities and writings earned the attention of the FBI during the J. Edgar Hoover era.

Hunter Gray earned the nickname "the mustard man" after a bottle of the yellow condiment was poured on him by whites unhappy with a sit-in at a Mississippi diner in 1961. A photo of the incident appeared in Life magazine.

The FBI kept extensive files on Hunter Gray, who eventually got the FBI to turn over copies to him; they're now displayed on Hunter Gray's Web site. Excerpts deemed top secret by the FBI have been blacked out.

When Hunter Gray moved to Grand Forks in 1981 and began teaching at UND, his community activism didn't end.

Hunter Gray was involved in labor and a variety of social justice activities in Grand Forks and North Dakota. He even served on a committee that studied allegations of racism by the Grand Forks Police Department.

Politicians, too, took notice of Hunter Gray's past and present activities. In 1989, Gov. George Sinner presented the Martin Luther King Jr. Award to Hunter Gray for his contributions to civil rights causes.

Troubled years

Hunter Gray's last years at UND were more troubled.

Hunter Gray's background in social issues and civil rights became overshadowed by the UFO course in the 1990s. He also became known as an unabashed supporter of the National Rifle Association and of the right to bear arms.

Hunter Gray said this belief arose chiefly from his experiences during the 1960s, when minorities used arms to ward off the Ku Klux Klan. Letters to the Herald from Hunter Gray about the NRA became regular.

When Schneider became chair of the Indian Studies Department in 1993, Hunter Gray said there was an important departmental change.

Previously, he said, decisions on changes within the department were made only if there was consensus on an issue. Schneider and Hans took the position that changes would be made on the basis of departmental votes, he said.

"Immediately there was an attack on the UFO class," Hunter Gray said.

Later, his "Racism and Hate Groups in America" class was also criticized. Both classes were thought to be too large. It was said that Hunter Gray's grading policies were too liberal, and that his classes had no writing component.

Hunter Gray said that when he "fought vigorously to protect the integrity of my courses and teaching approach," grievances were filed against him by Hans and Schneider. Hunter Gray eventually filed his own grievance, saying the process of grievances had been used to chill his right to free speech.

"The atmosphere was extremely hostile," Hunter Gray said. "At virtually no point did anyone in administration support my academic freedom."

Eventually, the UFO course was offered in the Psychology Department and the racism course was offered as a College of Arts and Sciences elective.

Hunter Gray is still well-known in Grand Forks, especially among UND faculty members.

But most faculty members were reluctant to talk about Hunter Gray on the record.

History Professor Al Berger, who wrote a letter to the Herald praising Gray's accomplishments in the civil rights era after Hunter Gray retired, said he "certainly could be eccentric."

"But this was a powerful personality," he said, "a kind of distinctive personality that we could use more of at UND."

Grand Forks Herald,  04/02/2000

Letter from Ettling to Salter regarding emeritus status