THE BLOG

A Deadly Assault on Academic Freedom

02/28/2015 05:17 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2015

Recent events in the state of North Carolina pose a serious threat to academic freedom in our nation. America's universities are, by any measure, the best in the world. What has made that possible is our deep commitment to academic freedom. The recent decision of the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina to close the University of North Carolina Law School's Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity is a blatant and dangerous instance of political interference with academic freedom.

Although the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity has accomplished a great deal in recent years, its mission and its director, Gene Nichol, a distinguished scholar and academic administrator who has served as dean of the University of Colorado Law School and as president of College of William and Mary, have clearly alienated the Koch brother-backed legislators who now control both the state legislature and the University's Board of Governors.

In the guise of trimming the university's budget, the Board has decided to shutter three of the 240 boards, centers, and institutes that operate within the state university system. By coincidence, they decided to close the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity with the patently false explanation that the Center was unproductive. Anyone who has examined the work of the Center knows that this claim is bogus. The plain and simple fact is that both the Center and its director advocate positions that the Tea Party powers-that-be in North Carolina do not like.

This blatant intrusion of politics and political ideology into the operations of a university is hardly unprecedented in American history, but it is an evil that we as a nation have fought tirelessly to extinguish. It is a travesty to see it reemerge again today.

Although the struggle for academic freedom can be traced at least as far back as Socrates' eloquent defense of himself against the charge that he corrupted the youth of Athens, the modern history of this struggle, as it has played out in the university context, begins in the nineteenth century.

The most important moral problem in America in the first half of the 19th century was, of course, slavery. By the 1830s, the mind of the South had closed on this issue. When it became known, for example, that a professor at the University of North Carolina was sympathetic to the 1856 Republican presidential candidate, he was discharged by the board of trustees.

The situation in the North was not much better. The president of Franklin College was dismissed because he was not an abolitionist, and Judge Edward Loring was dismissed from a lectureship at the Harvard Law School because, in his capacity as a federal judge, he had enforced the fugitive slave law.

Between 1870 and 1900, there was a genuine revolution in American higher education. Critical to this revolution was the impact of Darwinism. In the 1870s, determined efforts were made exclude proponents of Darwinism whenever possible. The disputes were often quite bitter. The great debate over Darwinism represented a profound clash between conflicting cultures, intellectual styles, and academic values.

A new approach to education and to intellectual discourse grew out of the Darwinian debate. To the evolutionists, all beliefs were tentative and verifiable only through a continuous process of inquiry. The evolutionists held that every claim to truth must submit to open verification; that the process of verification must follow certain rules; and that this process is best understood by those who qualify as experts.

By the end of the nineteenth century, it was increasingly accepted that a commitment to academic freedom defined the true university. As William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, observed in 1892: "When for any reason the administration of a university attempts to dislodge a professor because of his political . . . sentiments, at that moment the institution has ceased to be a university."

This commitment to academic freedom was tested severely in the closing years of the 19th century, when businessmen who had accumulated vast industrial wealth began to support universities on an unprecedented scale. For at the same time that trusteeship in a prestigious university was increasingly becoming an important symbol of business prominence, a growing concern among scholars about the excesses of commerce and industry generated new forms of research, particularly in the social sciences, that were often sharply critical of the means by which these trustee-philanthropists had amassed their wealth.

The moguls and the scholars thus came into direct conflict. A professor was dismissed from Cornell, for example, for a pro-labor speech that annoyed a powerful benefactor, and a prominent scholar at Stanford was dismissed because he annoyed donors with his views on the silver and immigration issues.

This tension continued until the beginning of World War I, when it was dwarfed by an even larger conflict.

During the Great War, patriotic zealots persecuted and even prosecuted those who questioned the war or the draft. Universities faced the almost total collapse of the institutional safeguards that had evolved up to that point to protect academic freedom, for nothing in their prior experience had prepared them to deal with the issue of loyalty at a time of national emergency.

At the University of Nebraska, for example, three professors were discharged because they had "assumed an attitude calculated to encourage . . . a spirit of [indifference] towards [the] war." At the University of Virginia, a professor was discharged because he had made a speech predicting that the war would not make the world safe for democracy. And at Columbia, the Board of Trustees launched a general campaign of investigation to determine whether doctrines that tended to encourage a spirit of disloyalty were being taught at the university.

Similar issues arose again, with a vengeance, during the age of McCarthy. In the late 1940s and 1950s, many if not most universities excluded those accused of Communist sympathies from participation in university life. The University of Washington fired three tenured professors, the University of California dismissed thirty-one professors who refused to sign an anti-Communist oath, and Yale president Charles Seymour boasted that "there will be no witch hunts at Yale, because there will be no witches. We will not hire Communists."

What we are seeing now in North Carolina is an ugly resurgence of an attempt by political elements outside the university to censor, discipline, and punish those inside the university who take positions that annoy, offend, or disturb them. This is unconscionable. The Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina must reverse its decision now and it must acknowledge that its action, however tempting, betrayed the Board's most fundamental responsibility to protect the core values of what used to be one of our nation's greatest public universities.