Academic freedom then and now

From a young age, I’ve believed in American ideals of freedom and democracy, as I understood them.   But my political thinking crystallized when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1952-1956 and took part in controversies about academic freedom then.

Academic freedom, as I conceives it then and still do, is the freedom of college faculty to engage in scholarship free from outside pressure, and the freedom of students to discuss and debate issues without restriction.

I regard the defense of freedom of expression as a defining principle of liberalism.  Back then most American leftists were liberals.   Sadly this is no longer true.

A plaque on Bascom Hall, on a high hill in the center of the liberal arts part of the campus, contained an excerpt from the Board of Regents declaration of 1894, when they resisted pressure from the state legislature to fire a professor for his outspoken pro-labor opinions.

The regents’ reply was that scholarship required free inquiry and was incompatible with censorship of opinion.

The academic freedom issues on the UW campus in the early 1950s were: (1) Should a known Communist, or a member of a group on the Attorney-General’s list of subversive organizations, be automatically barred from employment on the UW faculty, and (2) Should Communists or groups on the Attorney-General’s list be eligible to participate in students activities?

In the year 1952, when I enrolled as a freshman, Joseph Stalin still ruled the Soviet Union, the Korean Conflict was still waging and Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was at the height of his influence.   McCarthy’s power was based on his charges, which later proved baseless, of Communist infiltration of government and other American institutions.   Interestingly, he represented Wisconsin, but never had anything to say about the University of Wisconsin.

Fear of Communists had a real basis.  It was not just the “intolerance of the intolerant” argument—that enemies of democracy were not entitled to democratic freedoms.

Communist parties in those days were subservient to Stalin.   In the 1930s, Communist parties all supported the idea of a Popular Front of radicals, liberals and conservatives against Hitler.   Then, after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1940, they all opposed the British “imperialist” war.

After the Soviet Union was invaded in 1941, they became anti-fascist again.   British and American Communists provided the Soviet Union with critical information about the U.S. atomic bomb.

Things are different now, but that’s how they were then.

Nevertheless, I and my friends took the extreme liberal position—the extreme libertarian position—that people should be judged on their individual actions, and not on group identity.

That wasn’t just a matter of justice.   If Communists were outlawed, or denied employment, for being Communists, then they wouldn’t identify themselves as Communists.    The only way to root them out would be to create an inquisition to determine people’s secret beliefs.   The obvious target for this inquisition would be those of us who are pro-labor, anti-racist and pro-civil liberties.

The issue of a Communist faculty member was purely theoretical.   None was ever known to apply during that period.  The issue of a Communist student organization, on the other hand, was a practical question.

There was an existing student organization, the Labor Youth League, that was on the Attorney-General’s list.   The LYL was not on the list by mistake.   LYL members really were Marxist-Leninist, although admitting that Stalin had done some bad things.

Things came to a head when the LYL invited Joseph Starobin, a journalist for the Daily Worker, to give a speech on American foreign policy.   There was strong opposition in the state legislature to letting him speak, but speak he did, and the news accounts of his speech emphasized how strongly UW students disagreed with his views.

I should note that, to the best of my recollection, mandatory student activity fees were not allocated to individual student organizations.   Instead they went to pay for activities in which all students were eligible to take part.

What I remember from those days is the exciting intellectual arguments among radicals, liberals and, now and then, conservatives—arguments that were a real education for me, who came from a small town and had not been exposed to this kind of debate.

The discussions proceeded with real civility, even though the conservatives thought the LYL should be shut down. and the LYL proposed, possibly tongue in cheek, that the For America Club be shut down for its opposition to the principles of American freedom.

There was a certain amount of civil disorder on campus, but it wasn’t political.   There were panty raids, in which fraternity members broke into sororities and stole women’s underwear.   And I recall a certain amount of property damage by riotous students expressing their joy at the Wisconsin Badgers football team being picked to play the USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl.

I do think student political activists observed a higher standard of civility in those days.   But it also is the case that there weren’t enough of us to create a serious disturbance.   That’s partly why there was interaction between conservatives and radicals.   Only a few of were interested in these topics.  My guesstimate is no more than 200 on a campus of 18,000 were political activists.   The vast majority students were devoted to their course work, football and enjoyment of the college experience.

I’m sorry to see that, on the contemporary UW Madison campus, it is students who deny academic freedom and state legislators who claim to be its defenders.   I don’t trust politicians as arbiters of academic freedom, but I’m sorry to see students become its enemies.

Student protests and academic freedom today

‘Shut Up Already!’  The New Battle Over Campus Free Speech by Bill Lueders for The Progressive.   A report on the University of Wisconsin today.

Flip-Flopping on Free Speech: the fight for the First Amendment on campuses and football fields from the sixties to today by Jill Lepore for the New Yorker.   Hat tip to Hal Bauer.

Campus Free Speech, Richard Spencer and Special Snowflakes by Eddie Glaude for Time magazine.  Hat tip to Hal Bauer.

Is Free Speech an Absolute Right, or Does Context Matter? by Adam Kirsch and Francine Post for The New York Times.  Hat tip to Hal Bauer.

Black Lives Matter Students Shut Down the ACLU’s Campus Free Speech Event Because ‘Liberalism Is White Supremacy’ by Robby Soave for Reason magazine.   A report from the College of William and Mary.

Meet the Most Embattled College President in America by Gregg Herrington for The American Conservative.   A report from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

Protesters Disrupt Speech by ‘Bell Curve’ Author at Vermont College by Katherine Q. Seeyle for The New York Times.   A report from Middlebury College.

Berkeley Riots: Inside the Campus Showdown Over Free Speech by Matt Saincone for Rolling Stone.

Snowflakes on the Right: Conservative Hecklers Shut Down Speakers at Whittier College by Robby Soave for Reason magazine.  [Added 10/19/2017]



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