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Passionate disagreements over academic freedom, anti-communism, and university governance produced important and traumatic events in the history of the University of California fifty years ago.  The issues of that time will be explored and recalled in a two-day Symposium, October 7 and 8, at the University of California, Berkeley.

 “The University Loyalty Oath: A 50th Anniversary Retrospective” will examine the prolonged dispute over the requirement, imposed in early 1950, that UC employees, including tenured faculty, sign an anti-Communist oath or lose their jobs.  

A distinguished array of participants, eye-witnesses, and experts--including five professors who were on the faculty at the time, and four retired UC Presidents--will explore the issues in a series of talks and panel discussions.

“The Symposium examines a very painful and significant era in American history” says John Douglass, director of the UC History Digital Archives which is helping to organize the event and is digitizing historical documents on the controversy.  “The battle at UC over the Loyalty Oath was one of the epicenters of the national debate over academic freedom and national security in the Cold War world. The repercussions of that debate set the stage for other controversies, including the Free Speech Movement, and now the status of academic freedom in an era of increased university-business collaborations."

In a prelude to the symposium, David Hollinger, Professor of History at Berkeley and a member of the program committee that organized the event, discussed contemporary issues facing the academy in  " Money and Academic Freedom 50 Years After the Loyalty Oath: Berkeley and its Peers Amid the Force Fields of Capital."

The Symposium’s first day, October 7, begins with talks by UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl and Ellen Schrecker, Editor of Academe magazine, who will speak on “Academic Freedom during the McCarthy Years.” 

The day concludes with a panel discussion about the Oath controversy and its implications with three former UC Presidents, Clark Kerr, David Saxon, and David Gardner.  All were intimately connected with the Oath events.  Saxon, then on the Physics faculty at UCLA, refused to sign the Oath, and was one of those dismissed.  Kerr, a Berkeley Professor, was active in the faculty’s Academic Senate trying to resolve the controversy.  And Gardner’s book, The California Oath Controversy, remains the definitive history of the period.

Friday, October 8 begins with a panel discussion that includes five faculty members who resisted the Oath, and concludes with a discussion on politics and higher education involving several experts, including David Littlejohn, former Dean of Journalism at Berkeley and Chair of the UC Berkeley Academic Senate Committee on Academic Freedom.

All Symposium events are free and open to the public, and will be held in the Booth Auditorium of the Boalt School of Law, on the UC Berkeley campus.

How did the loyalty oath dispute evolve?  Fifty years ago the world was entering the Cold War and America was preoccupied with anti-Communism.  It was a time of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, controversial “spy trials” and anti-Communist “witch hunts” and loyalty oaths.

At the University of California administrators and Regents responded to a pre-occupation of the State Legislature with anti-communism by imposing the new requirement of an anti-Communist oath for UC employees.  The requirement touched off a controversy that nearly tore the University apart, pitting many faculty and Regents against each other.   The controversy began in 1949 and climaxed in the summer of 1950 when 31 faculty “non-signers” and hundreds of other employees were dismissed by the University for refusing to sign the oath.

The loyalty oath controversy “convulsed the largest university in the nation and one of the world’s leading centers of letters and science” wrote former UC President David Gardner in his definitive history of the era, The California Oath Controversy.  “The trauma suffered by the University of California... anticipated nearly all the issues that were to arise and afflict America’s universities and colleges during that troubled time: oaths of loyalty and Communist disclaimers...penalties to be levied upon teachers for refusing to cooperate with legislative committees investigating subversion...implications for academic freedom and constitutional liberties...and challenges by boards of trustees and faculties to traditional forms of university governance.”

For many UC Regents at the time, the issue was one of University governance and authority.  For others--and for much of the public--ridding the University of suspected Communist influences was a priority.  For the faculty who refused to sign and their allies, central issues were the rights of tenure, academic freedom, and “shared governance” of the University, as well as the assumption--held by large majorities of the public, the Regents, and the faculty--that Communists were entirely unfit to teach or work in university settings.   A central issue became whether a tenured professor could remain secure in his position, or whether the Regents could suddenly dictate new conditions of employment and remove faculty from their jobs without consulting the faculty.

In addition to the Symposium, related events include an art exhibit (running from September 27 - October 20) at the Townsend Center for the Humanities featuring the paintings of Margaret Peterson, a member of the Berkeley Art Department who refused to sign the oath and left the University.  

The art exhibit will be located in the lobby of the Townsend Center, in Stephens Hall on the Berkeley Campus.

Starting the week of October 4 a display case in the lobby of Sather Tower will contain an exhibit on the Oath controversy, including photographs, quotations, artifacts, and original documents.   

Both the art and the history exhibit can be viewed for free.

The UC History Digital Archives at http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/uchistory/archives_exhibits/loyaltyoath/ also features a growing archive of documents and other materials chronicling the Oath controversy, and a complete listing of the various commemorative events.

The Symposium is organized by the University History Project / Center for Studies in Higher Education, a program devoted to chronicling, assessing, and presenting the history of the University of California.    Co-sponsors of the Symposium include the UC Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate, the Bancroft Library, the Townsend Center for the Humanities, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Office of the Chancellor - UC Berkeley.

For further information on the Symposium call the Center for Studies in Higher Education at 642-5040, or visit the website.

Copyright © 2006
The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.
Last updated 06/19/06.