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Lessons From Early Advocates of Academic Freedom
How the 20th century shaped one school's attitude to dissent and toleration.
This is hardly the first time in the history of American higher education that elected politicians have threatened the autonomy of academic institutions and the future of academic freedom. Nor is it the first time that opposing factions on college and university campuses have battled over the meaning of academic freedom. What makes the present moment different is the curious nature of these debates: Warring parties today are trying to advance incompatible political agendas in the name of academic freedom and democracy itself, while also distorting the meaning of these hallowed principles in similar ways by trying to silence the ideas of others.
Neither side seems to care very much about defending the rights of those with whom they disagree, which was precisely what early advocates of freedom of expression were trying to do when they founded the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1915 and drafted the Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.
Although the AAUP bowed to political pressure several years later, and would do so again during the 1950s, prominent members of the association stood firm in ways worth remembering today by those of us committed to academic freedom, in the original sense of the term. What follows is the turbulent story of a group of intellectuals from this first generation, and of the school they founded to defend academic freedom. May their courage and integrity strengthen the resolve of academic leaders in 2023 who have thankfully begun to speak out. And may they also encourage others to do the same.
The New School for Social Research was founded in New York City in 1919 by several members of the AAUP’s organizing committee. They did so as an act of protest against university presidents who had fired pacifist professors in 1917 for opposing America’s decision to enter the Great War. Much to this group’s disappointment, the AAUP’s leadership endorsed those dismissals, siding with presidents like Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia University, who had threatened his faculty and students with these words: “What had been tolerated before [is] intolerable now. What had been wrong-headedness [is] now sedition. What had been folly [is] now treason.”
When two faculty members ignored Butler’s warning, they were fired summarily, enraging advocates of academic freedom on campus. Among the most outspoken critics were two eminent historians and founding members of the AAUP, Charles A. Beard and James Harvey Robinson, both of whom responded by resigning from Columbia in protest, even though they disagreed with their pacifist colleagues.
As Beard famously wrote in his letter of resignation: “I was among the first to urge a declaration of war by the United States, and I believe that we should now press forward with all our might to a just conclusion. But thousands of my countrymen do not share this view. Their opinions cannot be changed by curses or bludgeons. Arguments to their reason and understanding are our best hope.”
Inspired by Beard and other champions of academic freedom, philanthropists stepped forward to subsidize the group’s proposal to create a new kind of educational institution, primarily for adults, where professors welcomed full-throated debates on the urgent issues of the day. And they did so defiantly, after Congress had passed the Espionage Act in 1917 and the Sedition Act in 1918, which severely restricted the rights of free speech during times of war.
When the New School opened in February 1919, conservative politicians tried to close it down immediately. State agents sat in on classes and newspapers published rumors about “Who’s Who” on the faculty, ominously suggesting that some of them might be engaged in “shadow Hun, shadow Bolshevist or other Un-American Propaganda.” The smear campaign continued into the spring semester of the next academic year, when New York State’s Joint Legislative Committee Investigating Seditious Activities officially branded the New School as a radical institution: “The New School for Social Research has been established by men who belong to the ranks of the near Bolshevik intelligentsia, some of them being too radical in their views to remain on the faculty of Columbia University.”
In spite of it all, the New School managed to survive, largely thanks to one of its founders, Alvin Johnson, an economist and journalist who took over the leadership of the institution in 1922. Within a couple of years, Johnson had turned the founders’ original idea of a school for social research into the nation’s preeminent school of continuing education. By the mid-1920s the New School had become the place to go to hear famous people lecture on politics and the arts, and on recent developments in new fields of inquiry like anthropology and psychoanalysis.
Then, when Hitler rose to power in 1933, Johnson launched a rescue campaign for European social scientists and philosophers who were desperately trying to flee Nazi repression, establishing within the New School a “university in exile.” Between 1933 and 1945, he provided life-saving visas and jobs for nearly 200 persecuted scholars, and artists as well, far more than any other American university. And he pulled this off at a time when the United States had virtually closed its borders to immigrants, when the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, and the vast majority of American universities were discriminating against Jews.
With its faculty of refugee scholars, the New School became a leader in an international struggle to defend academic freedom, but the terms of that struggle began to change. Having escaped the horrors of totalitarianism in Europe, Johnson’s exiled colleagues placed limits on what they would tolerate. In 1935, they insisted on adding a clause to the university’s by-laws prohibiting the appointment of anyone who belonged to a political party that persecuted those who did not toe the party line—no fascists or communists, making no distinction between the two.
Johnson accepted their argument, but interpreted it liberally. While he agreed to include the restrictive clause in the university’s by-laws, he persisted in welcoming prominent exiled artists with communist affiliations, including Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler and Erwin Piscator.
Even so, the New School had compromised itself and would compromise itself further after Johnson retired, causing fractious conflicts on campus and embarrassing publicity in the press. These were dark days for an institution dedicated to freedom of expression. Most dramatically, in 1953, the university placed a curtain in front of a panel in a mural painted by the Mexican revolutionary artist José Clemente Orozco, to hide portraits of Lenin and Stalin from view. Located in the New School’s cafeteria, the panel remained covered for several years.
Political divisions over academic freedom persisted into the 1960s and 1970s. By that time, the university had hired young American scholars who identified with the left and had little sympathy for the views of the few remaining exiled Europeans on the faculty, and these included Hannah Arendt and Hans Jonas. The feeling was mutual. Fiercely opposed to one another’s political and intellectual perspectives, they both “lay claim,” in the words of the young Marxists, “to the birthright of the institution.”
That battle eventually subsided during the 1980s with the arrival of a new president and dean, Jonathan Fanton and Ira Katznelson, recruited to rebuild an academic institution that had fallen on hard times. As part of the rebuilding campaign, Fanton and Katznelson renewed the legacy of the founders’ commitment to academic freedom, amidst ongoing conflicts on campus, with radical students attempting to silence visiting lecturers whose political views they opposed.
During the Fanton presidency, the university took its place once again on the national and international stage as a champion of freedom of expression. With the help of First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, the New School successfully sued the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) in the spring of 1990 for having required it, along with every other winner of a grant that year, to sign a statement solemnly swearing not to use the award—before any funds would be distributed—“to promote, disseminate, or produce materials which in the judgment of the National Endowment of the Arts…may be considered obscene.” The court settlement released every NEA grantee from having to sign the “obscenity clause,” as hundreds of angry artists and cultural institutions had been referring to it.
On the international front, between 1984 and 1989, the New School campaigned actively in defense of persecuted intellectuals in communist East and Central Europe. It also recruited to the New School several exiled dissident scholars from the region, among them the celebrated Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller.
Finally, in the 21st century, the university continues to support dissident intellectuals fleeing authoritarian regimes with several initiatives, including the creation in 2018 of the New University in Exile Consortium. Working in collaboration with Scholars at Risk and the Institute of International Education’s Scholars Rescue Fund, the Consortium consists today of over 60 academic institutions, every one of which has welcomed at least one refugee scholar to campus.
Today, however, when dissident scholars arrive on American university campuses, after fleeing persecution in their home countries, they encounter self-identified advocates of academic freedom who are actively trying to silence the voices of other self-identified advocates, who are doing the same. On one side, these champions of academic freedom have launched a campaign to close down interdisciplinary programs focused on questions of race and gender. And at the moment, they might succeed at public universities in Florida and Texas, where they have the backing of state legislatures dominated by political conservatives. On the other side, they want academic institutions to ensure safe learning environments for members of marginalized minorities. And, with the backing of a widely popular social justice movement, such an environment, they frequently argue, requires silencing the voices of people they identify as racists, sexists and enemies of the LGBTQ community.
For the sake of all of us, may neither side prevail. As Katznelson observed in 1986 in his report on freedom of expression to the New School:
Any attempt to extend free speech norms so far that they challenge standards of evidence threatens the university; any attempt to restrict speech in the name of those standards, or to have a body of standard-keepers to monitor the diversity of speech, threatens to undercut the foundations of academic freedom. Universities must learn to live with this conundrum.
Earlier advocates of academic freedom learned to live with this conundrum. Hopefully we will too, before we start censoring ourselves—as some of us have sadly begun to do—in ways similar to academics living under authoritarian regimes. American democracy and its educational institutions deserve better, all the more so today, as the future of this dangerously divided nation goes on trial.
Judith Friedlander is the author of A Light in Dark Times: The New School for Social Research and Its University in Exile, the paperback edition of which was published in May 2023. She served as dean of the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science at the New School for Social Research.
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