Charles Muscatine dies at 89; UC Berkeley Chaucer expert fought Red Scare loyalty oath

Charles Muscatine, a world-renowned Chaucer scholar and a longtime advocate for higher education reform who was fired as a young assistant professor of English at UC Berkeley when he refused to sign a loyalty oath during the Red Scare of the 1950s, has died. He was 89.

Muscatine died of an infection March 12 at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, said his daughter, Lissa Muscatine.

“Chuck Muscatine was a vital figure in the political leadership of the Berkeley faculty all the way from the loyalty oath controversy through the Free Speech Movement,” said David A. Hollinger, a professor of history at UC Berkeley.

“He also was a leader in the reform and enrichment of undergraduate education at Berkeley,” Hollinger said. “He was the chief author of the [1966] ‘Muscatine Report,’ which set the frame for thinking about undergraduate education at Berkeley for the last several decades.”

A Yale-educated World War II Navy veteran who participated in the D-day landing on Omaha Beach, Muscatine joined the English department at UC Berkeley in 1948.

A year later, the University of California Board of Regents began requiring all university employees to sign an oath in which they affirmed loyalty to the state Constitution while also denying membership or belief in organizations that advocated the overthrow of the U.S. government.

Muscatine was among 31 professors, including distinguished scholars and future UC President David S. Saxon at UCLA, who were fired in the summer of 1950 after refusing to sign the loyalty oath.

None of the non-signers, according to the University of California History Digital Archives, had been charged with “professional unfitness or personal disloyalty.”

“I felt that in the first place it was a violation of the oath to the U.S. Constitution that I had already taken,” Muscatine said in a recorded interview on the Tracked in America website. “And secondly, it was a violation of academic freedom, which is the idea that in a free society scholars and teachers are allowed to express and believe anything that they feel to be true.

“As a young assistant professor, I had been insisting to the kids that you stick to your guns, and you tell it the way you see it, and you think for yourself, and you express things for yourself. And I felt that I couldn’t really justify teaching students if I weren’t behaving the same way. So I simply couldn’t sign the oath.”

In that Cold War climate, “which was so poisonous,” he said, “there was always a problem that if you got a reputation for being, quote, a Communist sympathizer, un-quote, which none of us was, you couldn’t get a job anywhere. So it was a very serious situation fraught with danger for yourself and your family. . . .”

After a year of unemployment, Muscatine was hired to teach at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

In 1952, a California Supreme Court decision ordered the non-signers reinstated.

As a scholar, Muscatine’s 1957 book “Chaucer and the French Tradition: A Study in Style and Meaning” is considered a classic in Chaucer criticism. “It was significant because he really taught people to look at Chaucer’s poetry in quite a new way, and it has transformed the field of Chaucer studies,” said Micha Grudin, a former student of Muscatine’s and a professor emerita of medieval literature at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore.

“His work in scholarship and his work in education, the kind of teacher he was and the kind of person he was, was all of a piece,” Grudin said. “He was an incredible teacher.”

Despite his renown as a scholar, Muscatine continued to teach a freshman composition class during his years at Berkeley.

“He felt that critical thinking and clear writing were part of becoming a good citizen, and it was part of his job to teach it,” Grudin said.

As head of the UC Berkeley Academic Senate-appointed Committee on Educational Policy, Muscatine presided over a 1966 report that called for increased diversity and variety in educational programs available to both undergraduate and graduate students.

“Perhaps the most significant proposal in the Muscatine Report,” wrote a Times’ education writer, “calls for teaching to be weighed as heavily as scholarship in the appointment and tenure promotion of professors.”

Muscatine, who retired from UC Berkeley in 1991, continued to write and teach, most recently tutoring a retired cable car driver in reading comprehension and writing at a public library. Muscatine was 88 when his latest book, “Fixing College Education: A New Curriculum for the Twenty-First Century,” was published last summer.

Muscatine was born Nov. 28, 1920, in Brooklyn and grew up in Trenton, N.J. As an English major at Yale, he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1941 and a master’s degree in 1942. After serving as a Navy lieutenant during World War II, he returned to Yale and earned a doctorate in 1948.

Muscatine’s wife of 60 years, Doris, died in 2006.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived his son, Jeffrey; and six grandchildren.