11/14/2012 06:22 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2013

A University Administrator Who Supported Academic Freedom

Sometimes administrators do the right thing. One who supported intellectual freedom on multiple occasions was E. Benjamin Andrews, who was honored November 3 by the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska (AFCON) at its 25th annual membership meeting.

Andrews, who headed both Brown University and the University of Nebraska, could not be present, having died in 1917. The award was accepted by Peterson Brink, assistant archivist at the University of Nebraska−Lincoln (UNL), for inclusion in a new historical exhibit.

Elisha Benjamin Andrews was born in 1844 in Hinsdale, New Hampshire. After being severely wounded in the Civil War, permanently losing his sight in one eye, he continued his education, graduating from Brown in 1870. He was subsequently ordained as a Baptist minister but returned to Brown in 1882 as professor of history and political economy.

Andrews left for Cornell in 1888, to the great disappointment of students, but the following year was chosen unanimously to become Brown's next president. His presidency is noted for a rapid growth in graduate studies and the transformation of Brown into what he called "a true University."

In 1896, Nebraska populist William Jennings Bryan won the Democratic nomination for the presidency after advocating "free silver" in a speech famously proclaiming "you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." He lost the general election to Republican William McKinley, who supported the gold standard.

Andrews had supported free silver in personal letters that were published in 1896 without his knowledge or permission. In July 1897, members of Brown's governing "Corporation" expressed their concern that his views on what had become a highly controversial political issue were so upsetting to friends of the University that they were costing gifts and legacies.

Andrews resigned immediately, but Brown faculty, students, and alumni sent petitions on his behalf, as did other college presidents. Faculty warned the Corporation that to accept the resignation "would stamp this institution, in the eyes of the country, as one in which freedom of thought and expression is not permitted when it runs counter to the views generally accepted in the community or held by those from whom the University hopes to obtain financial support."

Andrews noted that he had not "been loud, a declaimer, parading my views, ambitiously or otherwise" but insisted as a matter of academic principle that he could not surrender his freedom of speech. The Corporation asked him to withdraw his resignation, which he did.

Nevertheless, he left the following year for Chicago where, as superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, he freed the schools from external political controls. Then, in 1900, he was appointed Chancellor of the University of Nebraska, which he transformed over the next eight years from a rapidly growing college into a genuine university.

Along with Wisconsin and Cornell, Nebraska was known at the turn of the 20th century as a haven of dissent. Andrews immediately reinforced that reputation.

In November 1900, Edward A. Ross, who was to become one of the founders of modern sociology, was fired by Stanford University for addressing issues of social injustice. The powerful Mrs. Stanford especially objected to his concern with Chinese railroad labor, the source of the Stanford family fortune. Andrews promptly hired Ross at Nebraska.

Other Stanford professors resigned in protest of the firing, including former Nebraska professor George Howard, a staunch supporter of civil liberties who had been hired by Stanford to found its history department and had in turn hired Ross. Andrews invited Howard back to Nebraska.

Andrews also rehired Harry Kirke Wolfe, the founding father of philosophy, psychology, and education at the University of Nebraska, who had been fired in 1897 for speaking out about falsification of student enrollment data. Wolfe returned in 1906 to found the department of educational psychology and later resumed his former position as chair of philosophy.

Poor health dogged Andrews throughout his life and finally forced him to retire at the end of 1908. After his death in 1917, the renowned college president and free speech advocate Alexander Meiklejohn, an 1893 graduate of Brown, eulogized him:

"Dear, gallant, stalwart, splendid Bennie Andrews... Oh, what a gallant fight he made, and what a hard one!"

At both Brown and UNL there is an Andrews Hall named for E. Benjamin Andrews. At Brown it is a residence hall; at UNL it houses the Department of English. Both students and academe were served well by his respect for intellectual freedom in higher education.