Tests for Professors: Academic Freedom during the McCarthy Years"
I'd like to begin with a confession. I once signed a loyalty oath. Admittedly it was over thirty years ago when I was a graduate student, I was TA'ing for the first time. I recall I felt a few qualms, but it seemed harmless, and nobody was making a big deal of it. So I signed. A few years later, a braver and more politically aware colleague refused to sign. There was something of a flap, and the oath was finally rescinded.
The story deserves a happy ending, but instead it has an ambiguous one. For a few years later, the teacher who protested was denied tenure -- in part because of his politics. The loyalty oaths and the congressional investigations of the McCarthy era were long over, but the academy was still imposing political tests on its members. This time, however, it handled its dissidents on its own. As it has usually done.
In my talk this afternoon, I want to look at how the process of political screening functioned during what former President David Gardner has called the "nadir in the history of American academic freedom" -- the anticommunist furor of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Since the California loyalty oath controversy that we are commemorating was a crucial incident in the academy's response to that furor, I'd like to situate the California story within the broader political movement we call McCarthyism. First, I'm going to look briefly at how McCarthyism actually functioned and then I'll explore its impact on the academic community.
We all know that it is technically incorrect to call the anticommunist political repression of the early Cold War McCarthyism. The movement to which Joe McCarthy gave his name began long before he appeared in Wheeling West Virginia waving those ever changing lists of 57 or was it 81 or 203 Communists in the State Department and it continued for several more years after he self-destructed on television during the famous Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. Moreover, McCarthy, though the most flamboyant politician identified with the anticommunist crusade, was hardly its most influential practitioner. That honor belongs to J. Edgar Hoover. In fact, if we had known in the 1950s what the Freedom of Information Act has taught us since the 1970s, I think we would probably be talking about Hooverism.
Hoover and his FBI were at the bureaucratic heart of the McCarthy Era. Not only did they design and operate much of the machinery of political repression, but they also scripted its scenarios and picked its targets. They had many allies. The most important constituted what I call the anticommunist network, an informal group of men and women who, like the FBI director, had dedicated themselves to the struggle against communism.
During the course of my research into the operations of McCarthyism within the academic community and elsewhere, I kept bumping into the members of this network. Ex-Communists, FBI agents, newspaper columnists, businessmen, right-wing politicians, American Legionnaires, union officials, Catholic priests -- these people staffed the investigating committees, testified at trials and hearings, operated the blacklists, and wrote the books and articles that described the threat of domestic communism and showed how to eliminate it. They kept in close touch with each other, they shared information, they shared tips about jobs or outlets for publication. They were also amazingly self-conscious about what they were doing; at one point one of them not entirely in jest suggested that they form something called Redbaiters, Inc.
Because few Americans knew much about communism, these professional anticommunists became the nation's experts. They had been hyping the evils of communism for years -- in Hoover's case, since the Russian Revolution -- and when the rest of the nation finally became concerned about communism -- in the late 1930s and then again during the Cold War -- the network's highly exaggerated vision of the red menace got very wide circulation. Had World War II not intervened, McCarthyism might well have taken hold at the end of the thirties when the Nazi-Soviet Pact destroyed the Popular Front and it turned Communists into pariahs and allowed the anticommunists to implement their program for eradicating communism and all the individuals, organizations, and ideas associated with it. Though America's wartime alliance with the Soviet Union aborted the budding red scare, all the machinery was in place before the war began. Anticommunist laws and loyalty oaths were on the books, HUAC was in operation, and the FBI had put much of the left under surveillance. Even before the fighting came to an end, Hoover and his allies were planning to resume the crusade. The advent of the Cold War brought the Truman administration -- and then the rest of the nation -- on board.
But not right away.
Both in the academy and elsewhere, it took several years for the witch hunt to develop. From Harvard to Hollywood, the process followed the same trajectory -- from initial tolerance for dissent and hesitations about violating people's civil liberties to the conviction that Communists were so uniquely dangerous that their rights could be ignored. And from a narrow definition of the communist menace to a broader one.
In almost every instance, the process of eliminating communism from the nation's public and private institutions followed a two-stage procedure. In the first stage, the alleged subversives were identified, usually by an official body like HUAC or the FBI. In the second stage, they were punished, usually by the imposition of economic sanctions.
Certainly compared to what happened in Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia, the political repression of the McCarthy period was tame indeed. Only two people -- Julius and Ethel Rosenberg -- were killed and only a few hundred went to prison or were deported. Most of the victims simply lost their jobs. But mild as it was, McCarthyism worked. Not only did it help destroy whatever influence communism had within American society, but it silenced the rest of the left as well. For over a decade, at the height of the Cold War, meaningful dissent had been all but eliminated.
The bifurcated structure of the purge contributed to its success. It enabled the moderate and often liberal men and women who handled the second stage to participate in the process of political repression without having to admit it. By identifying McCarthyism -- which they no doubt sincerely deplored -- only with the first stage of identification, as exemplified in HUAC hearings or the bizarre antics of Senator McCarthy, they were able to distance themselves from it while at the same time imposing the second-stage economic sanctions that ensured its effectiveness.
The academic community was as deeply involved in this process as any other segment of American society. In their willingness to punish the men and women who were fingered by the anticommunist professionals during the first stage of the operation, the nation's educational leaders differed little from the movie moguls who imposed the Hollywood blacklist or the state and federal bureaucrats who fired people on the word of anonymous informers.
Academic freedom was no protection. As we shall see, it proved to be a highly malleable concept that could be manipulated to justify the exclusion of alleged Communists from the nation's campuses. To be sure, it took several years for the academic community to redefine academic freedom so that Communists and other political undesirables could be exempted from its protection. The controversy over the California loyalty oath was an important turning point in that process. It helped the nation's colleges and universities reach a consensus about the boundaries of political acceptability at a time when they felt under heavy pressure from outside politicians and others.
Communists had never been welcome on America's campuses. Even during the height of the Popular Front in the 1930s and 40s, when the Communist party embraced the New Deal and espoused a near-liberal agenda, the students and faculty members who gravitated into its orbit often got into trouble with their institutions. They tended to be the most energetic political activists on campus -- the folks who were always organizing demonstrations and handing out leaflets.
Today, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it's hard to understand why anyone, especially anyone within the academic community, would have been attracted to the Communist party. But in the 1930s and 40s, communism was the most dynamic movement on the left. And an entire generation of students and teachers joined up. Some were intellectuals who found Marxism compelling. Others were idealistic souls who viewed the party as the most effective vehicle for achieving their political goals. They were attracted by its support for the labor movement and racial equality and by its energetic opposition to fascism and war. Though many of them later deplored its rigidity and unquestioning support for Stalin's Russia, because the Communist Party gave its academic adherents more autonomy than its other members, they did not feel themselves unnecessarily constrained by its dictates. They were radicals, not robots -- and, in any event, by the time the academy fully enlisted in the anticommunist crusade, most of them had long since severed their formal connections with the party.
It took a few years for the academic community to reach the consensus that Communists did not belong on the nation's campuses. The intensifying Cold War and the Truman administration's adoption of a loyalty-security program for federal employees legitimized the process, while outside politicians supplied the motivation, especially at the more vulnerable public colleges and universities.
The first steps involved banning left-wing student groups and Communist speakers. By the middle of 1947, most schools that had previously allowed such activities were cracking down. They either imposed outright bans or else placed such onerous restrictions on allegedly communist organizations and speakers that they were forced off the campus. Few faculty members objected.
There was more opposition to firing Communist professors. Asked to formulate a policy on the matter, the AAUP's ruling council endorsed the 1947 Report of its Committee A on academic freedom that reiterated the organization's traditional stance. Professors might legitimately incur dismissal if they advocated the forcible overthrow of the American government or misused their classrooms, but as long as the Communist party was legal, "affiliation with that party in and of itself should not be regarded as a justifiable reason for exclusion from the academic profession." Though the AAUP repeatedly endorsed that statement throughout the late 1940s and fifties, other academics began to have second thoughts.
A combination of outside political pressures along with the increasing demonization of domestic communism induced the academic community to countenance the dismissal of Communist professors. The events that precipitated this violation of academic freedom occurred in Seattle, where the state legislature's Un-American Activities Committee, chaired by a card-carrying anticommunist named Albert Canwell, investigated the University of Washington in the summer of 1948. Insisting that the campus was a hotbed of subversion, Canwell subpoenaed eleven faculty members.
Like most of the other investigations of the period, the hearings featured a mélange of professional witnesses, local informers, and alleged Communists. Canwell's agenda was twofold: first, to educate the public about the evils of communism by having expert witnesses describe the party's activities and then, to identify its members. Unless a witness refused to answer its questions, the committee did not punish these alleged communists. The University of Washington did that.
Both the university's Board of Regents and its president Raymond B. Allen had promised to cooperate with Canwell. And so, a few weeks after the hearing ended, the university brought charges against six tenured professors -- three who had refused to tell Canwell if they were Communists and three who had admitted past membership but would not name names. Two of the recalcitrants, Joseph Butterworth and Herbert Phillips, then revealed that they were in the party, while the third, Ralph Gundlach, refused even to cooperate with the faculty committee that was handling the case.
Significantly, in making its argument that Communists were unfit to teach, the administration presented no evidence that the professors had deformed their scholarship or indoctrinated their students. Instead, it relied on some of the nation's top professional witnesses to explain how the Communist party -- with its demands for secrecy and obedience -- disqualified its members from academic positions.
That presentation was convincing. Though the committee voted to retain everyone but Gundlach, most of its members would have fired Butterworth and Phillips had they believed that the university's regulations allowed it. President Allen ignored that ruling and recommended that the two Communists go as well. Though he admitted that Butterworth and Phillips were competent scholars who had never abused their classrooms, he nonetheless explained that, by virtue of their party membership, they were, in his words, "incompetent, intellectually dishonest, and derelict in their duty to find and teach the truth." The Regents agreed and fired the three men in January 1949.
As the rest of the academy began to debate the ramifications of what had happened in Seattle, it was clear that the academic establishment would no longer allow Communists to teach. The intellectuals and administrators who elaborated on that policy justified it by invoking the demonized portrayal of communism that had by then become widespread. Since the party did, in fact, expect its members to follow the current line on major issues and conceal their political affiliation, the image of Communists as conspiratorial robots was plausible, even if it bore little resemblance to what academic Communists actually thought and did.
In a rather stunning display of the intellectual conformity that they were accusing the party of imposing, many leading educators ignored the perfectly acceptable research and teaching of the Communist professors on their campuses and claimed that because party members, were, by definition, unable "to speak and think independently," they could not be objective scholars and were thus, in the words of Harvard president James Bryant Conant "out of bounds as members of the teaching profession."
It was, however, one thing to make a policy statement, as almost every leading educator did, and something else to implement it. And it seems clear that the academic community, though willing to eliminate Communists, would have been quite happy to abide by a "don't ask, don't tell" scenario. Such, alas, was not to be. Outside political pressures forced the nation's educators to put their money where their mouth was -- and then escalated the inquisition by expanding the definition of politically undesirable professors from Communist party members to other kinds of dissenters. The California loyalty oath controversy illustrates how this process operated.
When the Regents adopted the anticommunist disclaimer in the spring of 1949, they did so because they wanted to show that the university was on top of the communist issue. Since the university had enacted a ban on communist teachers in 1940 and had imposed an oath to uphold the Constitution in 1942, it was clear that the new disclaimer was an essentially symbolic gesture. Loyalty oaths, though hardly efficacious, were a cheap and convenient way to crack down on political dissenters. By the mid-50s, most states had some kind of anticommunist oath or disclaimer on the books. Teachers were the most common targets, not only because of their allegedly sensitive duties, but also because education was one of the few functions that state legislatures could control.
Other states copied Washington and mounted investigations or else, like New York, passed laws requiring schools and universities to purge their faculties of reds. Though ubiquitous, most of these measures had only a minor impact on the academic community, in large part because few states devoted much in the way of resources to their enforcement.
California, as we know, was different, for the controversy over the loyalty oath dominated the nation's leading system of public higher education for nearly three years and drew nationwide attention. I'm not going to discuss the controversy here in any detail, since the other panelists will, I am sure, do that far more effectively than I can. But I do want to point out that though the struggle showed that most of California's faculty members supported the anticommunist policy the oath was designed to enforce, that struggle also revealed the limits of the Cold War political repression.
It showed that imposing sanctions on people who were not accused of communism remained beyond the pale. The non-signers, though temporarily forced off the California faculty, were not forced out of the academy. Their fate contrasts sharply with that of the three professors fired from the University of Washington who never returned to academe. In a sense these two cases defined the parameters of McCarthyism within the academic community: Communists were expelled, people who had no connection with communism could remain.
But most of the publicly identified academic victims of the McCarthy era were neither principled liberals like the California non-signers nor card-carrying members of the Communist party like Joseph Butterworth and Herbert Phillips. Instead they were former Communists who had refused to name names before a congressional investigating committee. Removing these people from their teaching positions forced the academic community once again to revise its political tests for employability.
Though a few academics had been questioned during the late 1940s, congressional investigators were more interested in Communists in government and the entertainment industry. As a result, HUAC and the other congressional investigating committees did not turn to the academy until late in 1952. By that point, they had refined their procedures and it was clear what subpoenaed witnesses could expect. If they were to avoid a prison sentence for contempt of Congress and keep their jobs as well, they would have to cooperate with the committees and name names. Because the Supreme Court would not extend the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech and association to a witness's refusal to answer questions about communism, people who did not want to become informers had to rely on the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination. No one, the Court maintained, had to give testimony that could be used in a criminal case against him or herself. Invoking the Fifth, therefore, enabled witnesses to avoid prosecution for contempt of Congress, but it looked bad. Because it was known that the party expected its members to use the Fifth, the investigators claimed that a witness's refusal to testify was, in Senator McCarthy's words, "the most positive proof obtainable that the witness is a Communist."
Many of those witnesses, however, were not Communists. They were ex-Communists who would have been quite willing to answer most of the committees' questions if they did not have to name names. But because of what came to be called the "waiver" doctrine, they would risk a contempt citation if they talked about themselves and then refused to talk about other people. The Supreme Court had ruled that once witnesses answered any questions about themselves, they had waived their privilege against self-incrimination. The committees recognized their witnesses' dilemma and sought to heighten their difficulties by asking especially embarrassing questions. Scientists, for example, were asked if they had been involved with espionage, and everyone, of course, was asked about membership in the Communist party.
But embarrassment was hardly the worst problem Fifth Amendment witnesses faced, most of them also lost their jobs. By the early fifties, most public and private employers automatically fired anybody who took the Fifth before a congressional investigating committee. College professors, however, were protected by tenure and it was clearly incompatible with traditional notions of academic freedom to dismiss them simply because they had invoked their constitutional rights.
Just as the academy had to redefine its professional qualifications to rationalize the exclusion of Communists in the late forties, so too it had to revise those qualifications yet again to encompass the exclusion of Fifth Amendment witnesses in the early fifties. And, just as the firings at the University of Washington had precipitated the earlier ban on Communists, so, too, the late 1952 dismissal of two teachers at another public institution, Rutgers University, prompted the academic establishment to devise a rationale for firing people who took the Fifth.
The two professors, a tenured mathematician named Simon Heimlich and the well-known classicist M.I. Finley, had taken the Fifth before Senator Pat McCarran's Internal Security Subcommittee. Though the faculty committee that investigated their behavior, cleared the two men, the Board of Trustees fired them anyhow, claiming that each man's refusal to answer the McCarran Committee's questions "impairs confidence in his fitness to teach" and is "incompatible with the standards required of him as a member of his profession."
Within a few months, a wide array of scholars and administrators were engaged in explaining exactly how those professional standards required people to name names. The most common formulation involved the academic profession's so-called "obligation of candor." In an official statement at the end of March 1953, the presidents of the nation's thirty-seven leading universities explained that because of the academic profession's strong commitment to free speech, professors had a special duty to speak out. "Invocation of the Fifth Amendment" the presidents declared, "places upon a professor a heavy burden of proof of his fitness to hold a teaching position and lays upon his university an obligation to reexamine his qualifications for membership in its society." Or, in other words, name names or get out.
Over the next few years, dozens of college teachers were hauled before the main congressional investigating committees. Their first hearing was in private, a session designed to find out if they would cooperate with the committee. Friendly witnesses were often released, but the unfriendlies were all grilled again in public.
Their fates varied. A few kept their jobs, most were fired. Tenure was an important protection. To my knowledge, only one junior faculty member who took the Fifth Amendment managed to keep his job and get promoted. And, even in his case, there is evidence that the university's president was planning to let him go. All the other junior people who took the Fifth were either fired outright or denied tenure.
The type of school involved was another crucial factor. Public colleges and universities were more vulnerable than private ones. In New York City, for example, a provision in the City charter required the automatic dismissal of any city employee who refused to cooperate with an official investigation. At other public institutions, conservative trustees and the threat of political intervention often resulted in situations like those at Washington, California, and Rutgers where administrators and governing boards overrode the recommendations of faculty committees.
But even private schools fired unfriendly
witnesses with tenure. The key variable here, and, in fact, the key
variable in every academic freedom case of the McCarthy era, was the
willingness of the faculty members involved to cooperate with their
university's investigation. No school
Few universities asked these people to name names, but in almost every other respect the universities' internal proceedings paralleled those of the congressional inquisitors. Academic investigators asked the same questions and operated under same assumptions about the deviousness and slavish behavior of Communists. The faculty members involved had to convince their interlocutors that they had broken with the party. Not only did they have to explain how and why they had joined the Communist party and how and why they left, but they also had to answer questions about their current political views. What did they think about socialism, the Korean War, Indochina? Would they fight for the United States if it went to war against Russia? People who refused to answer those questions, even if their behavior was otherwise exemplary, could not be cleared. They had not given sufficient proof that they had broken with the party.
They had also -- as had all the unfriendly witnesses -- embarrassed their universities. They were lacking in institutional loyalty. Though never in itself a cause for dismissal, the notion that these people had been insensitive to the larger good because of their stubborn insistence on standing on principle was widespread among administrators and the moderate faculty leaders who usually served on such committees.
Naturally, administrators were particularly concerned about the damage that unfriendly witnesses might do to their institutions' reputations. And we have evidence that many took prophylactic action to ensure that such potential troublemakers were eased off the faculty and, better yet, not hired.
They often got help in identifying these people from the anticommunist network. In California, for example, the University had a formal arrangement with the state legislature's Un-American Activities Committee that provided administrators with information about possible subversives on campus.
The FBI helped out as well. In 1951, a group of governors, led by Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, asked J. Edgar Hoover to protect them against the threat of intervention from right-wing legislators by supplying them with the information they needed to purge their own payrolls. The FBI director agreed, inaugurating what the Bureau called its "Responsibilities Program." In order to protect the FBI from exposure, local agents gave the information in person and warned the governors and other trustworthy officials who received it never to reveal its source. Though most of the program's files are heavily blacked out, we can tell that one of its main recipients was California governor Earl Warren and that, before Hoover discontinued it in 1955, the program had fingered about 800 people, many of them college teachers.
We don't know who they were or what happened to them, though I can venture some guesses. I have seen a few typewritten documents in people's private papers and official university archives that look suspiciously like the "blind memoranda" the FBI distributed. They are plain sheets of paper, containing a typewritten list of someone's alleged communist associations. When a musicologist named Norman Cazden was called in by president of the University of Illinois to be notified that his contract would not be renewed, he was shown such a document which, the president claimed, had somehow just appeared on his desk. It's not too hard to figure out where it came from.
In any event, it is very clear that an academic blacklist was in operation during the McCarthy era. Less well-known than the one within the entertainment industry, it was just as effective. Something as formal as the "Responsibilities Program" was rarely needed. A sentence in a letter of recommendation, a personal phone call -- it took very little to ensure that the college teachers who had tangled with the anticommunist crusade would be unemployable.
With only a few, very few, exceptions, every academic who lost his or her job for political reasons was unable to get another one. Sometimes these people could find positions at the historically black colleges in the South that were so desperate for Ph.D.s that they would overlook the blacklistees' political disabilities. More commonly, however, they would have to leave the country or else abandon academic life altogether. After several years of searching for a job in the United States after Rutgers fired him, M.I. Finley went to Cambridge, England, where he was eventually knighted for his scholarship. Scientists and mathematicians had the most mobility and could continue working in their fields if they were able to emigrate, but getting a passport was also rather hard. People in other fields had fewer options and often went into business or retrained themselves for other professions. Psychologists, for example, became clinicians. Eventually, the witchhunt began to wane. By the end of the 1960s most of the blacklisted academics who wanted to were able to return to academic life. Their involuntary sabbaticals had been costly to their careers. Though some people found the separation from academia rejuvenating, others lost years of productive work and could never regain their earlier momentum.
What the wider community lost with the McCarthy-era purges is harder to identify. We know that the 1950s were a quiet time on American campuses. The left-wing political clubs and Marxist study groups that had once existed at most of the top universities and major urban schools simply disappeared. Students and teachers shrank from becoming involved with any activities that might create political problems for them in the future. At times this caution could become absurd. In the mid-50s when a group of graduate students in the Physics Department at the University of Chicago circulated a petition to get a coke machine installed in the laboratory, nobody would sign.
Did that timidity extend to the work such people did? It's hard to tell. How can we measure the theses that were not written, the courses that were not taught, or the ideas that were not expressed? Naturally Marxism disappeared from the curriculum, as did most discussions of class in every discipline. Individual professors consciously moderated their discourse and avoided controversial issues. One ex-communist psychology professor worked only with rats for years until he felt safe enough to return to the real subject that interested him: the study of human intelligence. In other disciplines, the political chill may have taken other forms. The fifties were, after all, the heyday of consensus history, of "New Criticism," of structural functionalism -- all patterns of thought that, in one way or another, downplayed conflict and accepted or even celebrated the status quo.
I don't want to overexaggerate the impact of McCarthyism on American scholarship. Intellectual life is much too complex to submit to such a reductionist interpretation. Still, it is hard to imagine that the most widespread and longest lasting episode of political repression in American history did not leave some traces on the academic mind.
Could it happen again? Certainly not in the same way. The academic community has long since acknowledged how disastrous its participation in the McCarthy era inquisition had been. Like the University of California today, many schools have publicly tried to make amends. In 1972, Rutgers gave M. I. Finley a prestigious lectureship. Other schools have made similar gestures. And it is clear that few institutions today would fire a faculty member if he or she belonged to the Communist party or refused to name names before a congressional committee.
But academic freedom can be damaged in many ways. As current culture wars reveal, the demonization of unpopular groups and controversial ideas continues. Homosexuals may be the Communists of today. Evolutionary biologists may be the targets tomorrow. And when institutional courage might entail financial sacrifice, it is by no means certain that this country's educational leaders will protect their endangered faculty members.
An equally serious threat comes from the corporate sector. Some of the pressures are quite blatant. Let me give you a few examples. Last year, a nursing home chain whose unfair labor practices came under attack at a congressional investigation sued Cornell's Kate Bronfenbrenner for libel and tried to make her turn over her research notes on the company's antiunion activities. She won her case, but at a considerable personal and professional cost.
What happened to Nancy Olivieri at the University of Toronto Medical School is even more disquieting. When Olivieri discovered that a drug she had been testing had life-threatening side effects, the pharmaceutical company that had been sponsoring her research not only tried to keep her from communicating her findings, but, when she did publish them, nearly got her fired. It took the intervention of some major figures from the outside medical community to save her job.
In many respects, the Bronfenbrenner and Olivieri cases hark back to the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th when the very notion of academic freedom had yet to be defined and universities punished faculty members whose work offended the captains of industry.
Though such retrograde challenges to academic freedom will no doubt continue, I don't think the academy is reverting to the repressive practices of that earlier era. The real threat that faces the nation's universities in the 21st century is far more subtle. As business interests and business values increasingly permeate American campuses, corporate agendas are beginning to displace academic ones. I'm not going to go into any detail here, but it's clear that whatever the university's mission once was -- and it was never just the search for truth -- it has now become much more narrowly focused on servicing the economy. More and more academics are being forced to think like business men, to consider the bottom line, treat students as customers, and incorporate technology in order to remain competitive.
Yet for all the talk about "accountability," the corporate influence within academe manifests itself mainly as carrots, rather than sticks. The outcome, however, is often the same. As David Hollinger pointed out in a paper he delivered here a few months ago, the organized business community intervened quite consciously to divert the nation's intellectual discourse away from what it considered to be a dangerously radical academic profession. But it didn't press to fire lefties. Instead it established conservative think tanks and subsidized pundits to amplify the pro-business messages that emerged from those venues. It also began to fund new academic programs and professorships to give those messages greater scholarly cachet.
And while the corporate trough expanded, the public one contracted, also in keeping with the business community's larger agenda of privatization. Support for public higher education has eroded drastically. We've seen rising numbers of adjunct and part-time instructors, larger classes, higher demands for productivity. At the same time, we're experiencing a diminution of American intellectual life, which for the past two generations has been largely centered in the nation's colleges and universities. Not only has it become increasingly more difficult for serious scholars who are not in economically lucrative areas of inquiry to find adequate support for their work, but, because of bottom-line pressures within the publishing world, it has also become harder for them to disseminate it. These difficulties are enhanced by the fact that the public no longer respects the work that academics do. Whatever we may think about multiculturalism, poststructuralism, and the turn toward theory within contemporary scholarship, it is quite clear that the hostility with which the mainstream media treated the culture wars during the early 90s delegitimized much recent scholarship within the humanities -- and by extension the rest of the university as well.
As a result, the academic community faces the new millennium increasingly marginalized and on the defensive in a society so permeated by corporate values that the university's traditional mission is simply irrelevant. It doesn't pay, why bother with it? Or, as my own students tell me, "I'd like to take more history courses, but they won't help me get a job."
Tenured faculty members today still have plenty of academic freedom in the traditional sense. They can propound whatever unconventional and radical ideas they want. It's just that nobody seems to be listening.
If we are to preserve academic freedom, real academic freedom, we need to reassert the value and the relevance of what we do. We need to convince the American public -- and ourselves -- that ideas matter and that universities have a mission that transcends the marketplace. In a world where it seems that only money talks, we need to hear other voices. We need to hear voices that assert the value of social responsibility, of community, of something beyond unfettered individualism. However we define the common good -- and I leave that for another convocation -- it is clear that the academy remains one of the few places within our so-called civil society where a discussion about that common good can take place. But the space for such a discussion is shrinking fast.
In the 1950s the academic community needed to protect its individual members from pressures for political conformity, today it needs to protect its own institutional autonomy from pressures for commercialization. It didn't do a great job then, let's hope it does a better one now.
Ellen Wolf Schrecker is a professor of history at Yeshiva University, and, since 1998, editor of , the magazine of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). She has written several books on academic freedom and the McCarthy era, including (1986) and most recently, (1998). She received her B.A. from Radcliffe College and her M.A. and Ph.D. in History from Harvard University.
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The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.
Last updated 11/19/99.