Academic Freedom's Best Days
I'll sketch out a claim that academic freedom flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s, then consider why, then ask what may be learned from that time to help us understand and act in our time. My argument will not yield a happy ending, but maybe a bracing one.
To clarify: opposition to the Vietnam War became noisy by 1965. Many professors had been critical of U.S. policy well before that year (Hans Morgenthau's articles in The New Republic and elsewhere were especially important to me.) A student movement, led by Students for a Democratic Society for a while, had made the war its main issue. Teach-ins began shortly after the bombing of North Vietnam, in 1965, and spread rapidly from campus to campus. These usually took the form of debates, but anti-war arguments drew the crowds and interest. Most of the anti-war speakers were faculty members. Many had tenure and reputation: Morganthau, Anatol Rapoport, William Appleman Williams, Eric Wolf, Stanley Hoffman, Herbert Marcuse, Seymour Melman -- a mix of establishment scholars and rebel professors. Some were untenured faculty members or grad students. Of these, some lost jobs (Staughton Lynd), some never became college teachers (Jerry Rubin), some became famous professors (Joan Wallach Scott). Opposition to the teach-ins was fierce. For an extreme example, in a letter to The New York Times, Richard Nixon accused Eugene Genovese of “giving aid and comfort to the enemy” (i.e., of treason, punishable by death) for saying, at the Rutgers University teach-in, that he would welcome a Viet Cong victory.
Yet I don't know of any tenured professor who spoke out early and openly against the war and was fired for such activities, though many, such as Melman, were under FBI surveillance for years. Some academics in the movement did civil disobedience and began to accumulate arrest records. Many publicly supported draft resistance, and along the way committed the crime of turning in their own ancient draft cards. I did so in a demonstration on the steps of the Justice Department, and was depicted in the act on the Walter Cronkite show, but there was no consequence beyond a visit to my office the next Monday of two FBI agents. Like many others, I also broke more serious laws, for instance, by helping draft resisters and AWOLs get to Canada or Sweden. My FBI file as of 1976 shows that the agency knew nothing of such doings, and, to my chagrin, concluded from my acts of free speech that I was not dangerous.
Did anyone lose a tenured professorship for antiwar speech during this period? Not to my knowledge. Doubtless, activism against the war counted as at least an unspoken reason for refusing to tenure some junior faculty members, and to block initial job offers to others. Interestingly, of the "Boston 5" -- Benjamin Spock, Mitchell Goodman, Marcus Raskin, William Sloane Coffin, Michael Sperber -- charged with violating the Social Security Act in a kind of show trial, the only academic, Sperber, a grad student, eventually went on to a solid academic career. I mean this loose bundle of facts to show why I think academic freedom worked splendidly (better than the First Amendment) to protect speech and other kinds of protest against and resistance to a major war. Now, to broaden the claim.
Speech and action for civil rights and then for black liberation were a lot more risky, especially in the South, and especially before 1965. My impression is that academic freedom held up pretty well after that, in a formal way, though of course racial discrimination went on and goes on in all the interstices of university life, including hiring and tenure. Discrimination was powerful against feminism, too, when, around 1970, it challenged received truth and the customs of male supremacy. But feminist ideas and proposals won the protection of academic freedom through the decade. Gay and lesbian rights arrived a bit later, through a similar process. One could go on. I’m open to correction on any of this, but will settle for the proposition that the idea and practices of academic freedom protected a lot of dissent and resistance during those years.
Few of the dissenters were fired, almost none de-tenured. Many lost jobs before tenure, then found other jobs. And many young people from liberatory and antiwar movements or strongly influenced by them landed in academic positions, even after the postwar boom shut down around 1970, and applicants began to outnumber jobs in the humanities and social sciences. Already, before 1970, movement people were an active presence in professional organizations. Radical caucuses began forming: in the Modern Language Association in 1968; in the American Historical Association in 1969. Some created left, feminist, and activist scholarly organizations of their own -- the North American Congress on Latin America in 1967, the Union for Radical Political Economics in 1968, Science for the People in 1969-70.
One of these, the Mid-Atlantic Radical Historians Organization, reformed an earlier newsletter into the Radical History Review (1973). Radical Teacher had a similar prehistory in the MLA Radical Caucus (1970), and was reborn in 1975. A little before that, The Black Scholar (1969) and The Journal of Black Studies (1970) were founded. The Insurgent Sociologist began in 1971, Radical Philosophy in 1972, Signs (Journal of Women in Culture and Society) in 1975, the Lesbian and Gay Studies Newsletter in 1978. In short, over less than a decade a left, anti-racist, feminist, and queer movement culture formed itself and grew, first on the edges of the academy, and then toward, and even in, its center. We could argue whether the change was a revolution or a sell-out, but for my purposes, what needs emphasizing is that although in the process a few people were fired and more denied entry or permanence, what had been critique from outside the academy won a marginal, then a substantial, place inside it.
Centrally, the idea of academic freedom embraces advocacy of unpopular or contrarian ideas. Why not extend it to include winning legitimacy, or even dominance, for some of those ideas? This happened. In the late 60s, the Dissenting Academy, to cite the title of Theodore Roszak’s 1967 collection, took on the established paradigms of most non-scientific fields, and did so with a certain edge. Louis Kampf titled his essay on his and my discipline, "The Scandal of Literary Scholarship." Marshall Windmiller’s on the international relations establishment was "The New American Mandarins." Robert Engler’s on social science was subtitled, "The Shame of the Universities." In the follow-up dissenting academy volume on literature (The Politics of Literature, edited by Kampf and Paul Lauter), Bruce Franklin's contribution was called, "The Teaching of Literature in the Highest Academies of the Empire." (Full disclosure: it had also appeared in College English, a standard professional journal, of which I was the editor.)
I offer this slightly frivolous detour from my main argument to indicate how cheerfully embattled we were, and to stand in for a much-too-long narrative of how the rough and ready critique we brought to bear on established academic knowledge engaged, modified, and in part replaced established academic knowledge. That transformation included redrawing the boundaries of who and what is important to study: women’s voices, African-American history, popular music, movies, and so on, were brought in from the margins. It included the revival of concepts pretty well exiled from the 1950s academy, such as commodification and class. It include new bodies of theory and analysis such as social constructionism, environmental science, and cultural studies.
One more step along this argumentative path: it should count as evidence of healthy academic freedom not just that one or another dissident is able to teach a course beyond the edge of disciplinary custom and not be fired, but especially that a phalanx of dissidents should be able challenge custom, defend innovations, and establish new topics and new approaches as worth curricular standing. That happened too. Since it is today the most visible accomplishment of '60s movements in higher education, I will simply wave a hand in its direction: gender studies, queer studies, Chicano studies, disability studies, peace and conflict studies -- the list could be long. Also, college catalogs are full of courses in traditional departments on these and many other topics not to be found there in 1965. As on the question of whether acceptance in the traditional university was good or bad for oppositional and reformist movements, I offer no judgment on whether acceptance was good or bad for the traditional university. I just restate my original claim that academic freedom strongly protected dissident writing and teaching, from c. 1965 to perhaps the end of the '70s -- remarkably, because much of that writing and teaching opposed and resisted U.S. engagement in a major war, was stigmatized as unpatriotic or treasonous, supported liberation movements challenging all kinds of privilege and authority, questioned foundations of knowledge in various disciplines, and violated professional decorum in ways both gentle and rude.
Why did the university experience such an outbreak of academic freedom, after a decade and a half of repression by Cold War urgencies, and co-optation by government support? The reasons are obvious, and compelling enough to pose difficulty for anyone who thinks academic freedom did not flourish through the Vietnam War period. First, large popular movements gave heart and momentum to faculty members (and students) who opposed government policies and academic orthodoxies. I have not mentioned the student movement, but it was already a force inside the university by 1965, and often an ally there of faculty dissidents -- especially around draft resistance and anti-war issues. These students felt like "our" kids. Within the next few years, minorities increased among undergraduate, then among graduate student and faculty populations. Women earned graduate degrees and joined faculties in larger proportions than before. Many gay people had always studied and taught in universities. From the early '70s on, they announced their presence, and became a movement both in and outside of higher education. University radicals could not be dismissed as isolated cranks, or see themselves that way.
On the other side, the Right was weakly organized, except for white supremacists in the south. Goldwater, herald of the new conservative movement, lost badly in 1964, and did so in part because of his wish to escalate the war in Vietnam. Few formations were comparable to the Tea Party or the various Lynne Cheney and David Horowitz fronts clamoring for expulsion of unpatriotic university teachers. Fundamentalist groups did not noisily attack feminists and abortion rights until well after Roe v. Wade. The chief antagonists of campus activists were local administrators, many of whom had held faculty positions and faculty values. Above them were trustees, representing business values by and large, but increasingly mixed in their support of the Vietnam War, and often at least sentimentally friendly to civil rights.
The principles embodied in the American Association of University Professors' 1940 Statement were adequate protection against such bosses. More vaguely, we, our students, and our immediate bosses had a class affinity that counted for something. We were of the confident, rapidly expanding professional-managerial class, at a felt distance from patriotic blue collar workers who resented our expertise and were soon to emerge as the "silent majority," then as Reagan Democrats. Campus culture defined an "us," however divided, and academic freedom was part of that culture.
One more condition of the academy’s tolerance during this period: its prosperity. This is not a sufficient condition, plainly, for higher education grew and prospered in the '50s, too, and yet witch hunts happened. But expansion of the university system had proceeded by the late '60s to the point where tenure-track jobs were more numerous than job seekers, and second and third jobs were easy to find for people denied reappointment or tenure. A more subtle consequence of the boom, I conjecture, was an ethos friendly toward provocative ideas, which could eventually make individual or departmental reputations. Within limits, points were given for novel or unconventional inquiry. That ethos may have protected seriously egalitarian and even anti-imperialist thought, when the movements came along.
Whatever the plausibility of that last thought, boom times will not underwrite academic freedom in its next golden age, should there ever be such a thing. Instead of department chairs lining up to interview candidates, it is certain that, for a while at least, the academic job market will remain at its nadir. English and other modern language departments will award Ph.D.s this spring to about three times as many people as the 600 or so tenure-track openings. These 1,800 new aspirants will be joined in the job market by maybe 1,500 people who failed to land tenure-track jobs last year or the year before or the year before that. The situation is nearly that grim in other humanities and social science fields. Unless graduate programs in those areas drastically cut back on admissions, the relation between new entrants and new jobs, which has been out of whack since the postwar boom peaked around 1970, will remain highly unfavorable. That is to say, the university has not for a while met one basic measure of a successful profession: that it adjust the flow of new members to protect its market haven. A highly likely result will be the profession’s declining ability to defend practitioners who come under politically driven attack from outside.
To look at the situation from another angle: the AAUP annual report, released April 11, tells that 75 percent (up from 70 percent) of people now teaching in colleges and universities are off the tenure track: contingent workers on short or part-time contracts. These people have no academic freedom beyond what is granted by the indulgence of their employers. I do not mean just the right to say unpopular things, but the right to plan courses, choose texts, and have a voice in curricular decisions or academic policy. The casualization of academic labor is not likely to slow down. Outsourcing and subcontracting are deep trends in U.S. and global employment, in technical and professional areas as well as in manufacturing, sales, and the like. Funding for public universities has long been in decline; I foresee no significant reversal of that trend.
The attack on public education and services in general looks to continue, even if liberals regather to push back the assault of the Tea Party and billionaire underwriters such as the Koch brothers. The recent success of these forces in abolishing the right of faculty members to bargain collectively in Wisconsin and Ohio could be the first of many such victories, portending wide application of the 1980 Yeshiva decision to public institutions, as the language of the Ohio bill makes explicit. Finally, and to shorten a potentially endless list of privatization troubles, more than 10 percent of enrollments today are in for-profit universities, with the number increasing fast in spite of bad conduct and congressional investigations. Needless to say, proprietary institutions have no tenure, and have roughly the same commitment to academic freedom as does Burger King.
Could academic hardship bring on a renewed militancy among professors? Could worldwide hard times help us make alliances with other sectors threatened by privatization and the increasing power of the rich? Could endless war stimulate academic freedom as the Vietnam war did? Will the social disorder attending on peak oil and other natural barriers to capitalist growth crush all dissent, or perhaps bring on a resurgence of rebellion? The arrival of these crises could make a decline in academic freedom seem like a shortage of truffles. But maybe not.
Richard Ohmann is Benjamin Waite Professor of English Emeritus at Wesleyan University. This essay is adapted from a talk by the author this month at New York University's Frederic Ewen Academic Freedom Center.
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