McCarthyism, Higher Education, and the New
Assault on Academic Freedom
by Ellen Schrecker
October 17, 2005
When I first
heard about the Red-Star incident here, I was immediately reminded of Marx’s
comment about history repeating itself "the first time as tragedy, the
second as farce."
are a lot of similarities between McCarthyism and the events of last spring -- especially
in the political ideology and unsubstantiated charges of the Young Republicans'
campaign -- I'm not so sure the quotation fits.
To begin with,
I'm not sure that we're seeing history repeat itself -- especially with regard
to the way in which the current situation affects academic freedom. Nor would I
consider the Red-Star incident -- despite its so far seeming lack of serious
consequences -- a "farce." It did, after all, take place in the
context of a broader campaign against the academic community, though whether or
not this current assault on academic freedom will turn out to be a tragedy
remains to be seen.
In my talk this
evening I'd like to do two things. First, I'd like to supply some historical
background by looking at how academic freedom fared during the McCarthy era and
then I'd like to look at the current attack on the academic community, where
it's coming from, what it's trying to do, and how it is affecting higher
education. Hopefully, this examination -- along with the contributions of this
evening's other panelists -- will help us to understand how last spring's red
star incident fits into the broader national picture.
Let's begin by
looking at McCarthyism.
In a sense,
it's a shame that Joe McCarthy gave his name to this movement, for it was a complicated phenomenon that consisted of much more
than McCarthy's bizarre behavior.
In fact, if any
one individual should have gotten credit for it, it should probably be J. Edgar
Hoover, whose FBI provided much of the ideology as well as the machinery for
was only one of thousands of players -- for what allowed McCarthyism to
flourish during the early Cold War was the fact that it came in so many
different flavors and involved so many different groups and individuals, each
with its own agenda and special interests.
reactionaries, labor leaders, former Communists, ambitious bureaucrats and
politicians like Hoover, Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon, all had reasons for
participating in the drive to eliminate Communism and all the individuals,
ideas, and organizations associated with it from any position of influence in
Because so many
of the key players here were highly conservative, they were able to shape the
national campaign against the domestic threat of communism into a deeply
ideological struggle against all forms of left-wing dissent.
it's important to realize that the Communist threat, though grossly
exaggerated, was not without some foundation in reality.
Communist party, despite its undemocratic nature, its secrecy, and its ties to Moscow,
was the most dynamic organization on the American left during the 1930s and
As a result,
thousands of idealistic and energetic individuals were attracted to its orbit;
and, about a hundred of them did give information to the Russians during World
War II when the United
States and the Soviet Union were allies against Nazi
espionage operation was closed down by the end of 1945 and whatever threat the
Communist party posed to American security had essentially disappeared by the
time the Cold War got under way -- as even J. Edgar Hoover was forced to admit.
because it was enmeshed in partisan politics, the anticommunist crusade came to
dominate the political scene in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Republican
politicians and their conservative allies discovered that charges of communism
in government were useful weapons in their battle against the New Deal and the
Truman administration, while the Democrats and their liberal allies scrambled
to protect themselves by also hyping the Communist threat.
In 1947, for
example, the Truman administration implemented an FBI-designed Loyalty-Security
program that sought to cleanse the federal government of anybody who even
associated with Communists. Soon state and local governments as well as private
employers were adopting similar programs.
legislative investigating committees at every level were also looking for
Communists. Hollywood naturally
attracted the most attention. The House Un-American Activities Committee or
HUAC as it came to be called, held hearings on the
movie industry that set a pattern for questioning Communists and former
Communists by forcing them to name names or else risk a prison term for
contempt of Congress.
political repression in many other societies, McCarthyism was rather mild. Only
two people -- Julius and Ethel Rosenberg -- were killed, a few hundred were
jailed or deported, and some 12-15,000 lost their jobs.
sanctions were economic. They operated in accordance with a two-stage
procedure. First the alleged Communists were identified -- usually by an
official body like a congressional committee or the FBI -- and then they were
collaborating with the process, the often liberal and moderate institutions and
employers that administered that second stage gave McCarthyism the legitimacy
that made it the most widespread and long-lasting episode of political
repression in American history.
institutions of higher learning participated in this process.
By 1949, as a
result of a highly publicized investigation at the University of Washington in
Seattle and the imposition of a loyalty oath at the University of California,
the academic community had reached a consensus that card-carrying members of
the Communist party should be barred from the nation's faculties -- even though
there was no evidence that such people had ever abused their academic
But it was not
until the early 1950s that the inquisition seriously affected the nation's
campuses. At that point, the congressional investigating committees, which had
run out of more glamorous targets in the entertainment industry and State
Department, called up dozens of academics and questioned them about their past
and present political activities.
had not selected these people at random. Most were former political activists
who had gotten involved with the Communist party in the 1930s and 40s when it
seemed to be offering a solution to the depression and was leading the struggle
against fascism. They had, however, become disillusioned by the 1950s and most
had left the party and even dropped their political activities.
were sympathetic to the left and certainly did not want to cooperate with the
committees and give them the names of their former comrades.
legal reasons, the only way these witnesses could avoid becoming informers and
not go to jail for contempt of Congress was to rely on the Fifth Amendment's
protection against self-incrimination and refuse to answer all questions about
their political activities. They could not, as many wanted, talk only about
themselves and not about others.
That lack of
cooperation looked bad, especially since the committees and their allies
claimed that taking the Fifth Amendment was, in Joe McCarthy's words, "the
most positive proof obtainable that the witness is a Communist."
Accordingly employers in both the public and the private sectors routinely
fired people who took the Fifth.
situation was -- or should have been -- different for college teachers. They
had academic freedom. According to the standard formulation, the 1940 Statement
on Academic Freedom of the American Association of University Professors or
AAUP, when professors “speak or write as citizens, they should be free from
institutional censorship or discipline” and should not be dismissed without a
the stigma of having Fifth Amendment witnesses on their faculties was so
damaging that every school which employed such a witness decided to act. Most
organized some kind of faculty or administrative panel that questioned these
people about their political views and affiliations.
did not -- and this is significant -- investigate these people's teaching or
scholarship, for, at no point, were there allegations that the unfriendly
witnesses had skewed their research or misused their classrooms.
And at no point
-- and this, I think, reveals the extent of the academic community's
collaboration with McCarthyism -- at no point did any academic leaders question
the need for such an investigation. Although they knew that the men and women
under attack had done nothing but rely on their constitutional rights, both
college administrators and fellow faculty members were so caught up in the repressive
mindset of the early Cold War that they allowed themselves to administer the
economic sanctions that made the red scare so effective.
I really can't
emphasize this enough -- although the McCarthy era investigations of these
unfriendly witnesses turned up nothing that bore any relationship to their
professional fitness, the colleges and universities that employed them were so
concerned about the bad publicity that these investigations produced that they
could not or would not assert their institutional autonomy by ignoring the
investigations and leaving the unfriendly witnesses alone. In other words, they
could not or would not protect their own academic freedom and that of their
As a result,
about one hundred professors lost their jobs. Those at private schools fared
somewhat better than those at public ones. Tenure was some protection; with
only one exception, every single junior faculty member who refused to cooperate
with the committees lost his or her job.
There was an
academic blacklist as well.
For over a
decade, most of the fired professors could not find jobs within mainstream
institutions of higher learning. Some, if they could get passports (which was
not always easy for politically tainted individuals) left the country, some
went to historically black colleges in the South that were so desperate for
teachers with Ph.D.s that they were willing to overlook these people’s
political problems, and some simply left the academic profession altogether.
Even if they
didn’t lose their jobs, people who had come under suspicion had problems. Some
scientists, for example, had trouble obtaining the security clearances they
needed for their work. Others could not get the passports they needed to attend
international conferences or were barred from serving on federal research
panels. Foreign scholars were denied visas.
The rest of the
academic community suffered as well.
Studies at the
time document the existence of a chill on campus. Students became part of what
was called “the silent generation.” They shunned political activism and refused
to join any groups that might later get them in trouble. If they opposed any
aspects of the status quo, they usually did so in a cultural rather than
University of Chicago physics graduate students.
felt the chill.
here, to evaluate the impact of McCarthyism on people’s teaching and
scholarship. How, after all, can we assess the courses that weren’t offered,
the readings that weren’t assigned, the research that
was not undertaken?
themselves. Some stopped teaching controversial subjects and shifted their
research to safer fields.
East Asian scholars, for example,
were under enormous pressure. China
had just fallen to the Communists and politicians like Joseph McCarthy were
looking for scapegoats. As a result, some of the leading scholars in the field
were called before investigating committees and seriously harassed. They became
cautious in the extreme.
My former husband --
But McCarthyism affected people in
other, less sensitive, fields as well.
A French teacher I interviewed for
my book on McCarthyism in the academy told me about how he had stopped teaching
his course on the age of revolutions during the 1950s. Another man, a
psychologist who had a run-in Joseph McCarthy studied rats for years until he
felt sufficiently established to return to his work on human intelligence.
Eventually, the Red scare ended, the
blacklisted professors returned to the classroom, and many institutions offered
formal apologies if not reinstatement to the men and women they had unjustly
Presumably, the lessons of the 1950s
had been taken to heart and such violations of academic freedom would never
Or would they?
In the patriotic
fervor and constraints on civil liberties imposed by the post-9/11 war on
terrorism, the fear of a new wave of academic McCarthyism swept the nation's
immediately set up a special task force to assess the threat. Its report, released
in the fall of 2003, was moderately upbeat. The anticipated crackdown against
Muslim scholars and professors from the Middle
East had not occurred. Although there was one
potentially serious violation of academic freedom at the University
of South Florida,
there was little indication that a purge of the nation's faculties was under
academic community had learnt its lesson. Individual professors would not lose
their jobs because of their off-campus political activities as had happened during
the McCarthy era.
the guarded optimism of the AAUP's special committee
may have been premature -- as the organization is now coming to see.
threat to academic freedom today, while different from that of the McCarthy
years, may well be even more serious. This is because it is directed not
against the extracurricular political activities of individual faculty members,
but against their core academic work -- their teaching and their research.
the patriotic frenzy that followed 9/11 enabled the Bush administration to
realize many of its previously unattainable goals in the name of the war
against terrorism, so too that frenzied atmosphere made it possible for a
coterie of well-organized special interest groups, often with a connection to
right-wing Zionism, to bring their pre-existing campaign against the academic
community to the broader public.
Their charges that tenured radicals on the
nation's faculties were indoctrinating their students gained widespread
circulation and were picked up by the mainstream media, politicians, and the
was Middle East
studies that came under attack.
activists like Daniel Pipes, whose Campus Watch website targeted several
professors and institutions for their supposedly unacceptable views about Islam, Israel, and US policy in the Middle East, popularized the notion that the
late Palestinian activist and literary critic Edward Said had so dominated the
field that more traditional scholarship was being frozen out.
In order to
rectify this supposed lack of balance, Pipes and his allies proposed a measure
to impose external supervision over the nation's federally-funded area studies
centers. The House voted unanimously to pass that measure two years ago. It died
in a Senate committee, but it may well be resuscitated and incorporated into
the current version of the Higher Education Act.
year, the mysterious Boston-based Daniel project circulated video-taped
complaints about biased teaching within Columbia University's Middle East studies department. In part
administration failed to defend its own faculty and thus legitimized those
charges, they gained widespread notoriety.
the McCarthy era allegations about the so-called "loss of China" that
proved so damaging to professors in East Asian studies, today’s attack on
university faculties is not just limited to people who study the Middle East.
of bias that highly respected scholars in Middle Eastern studies have been
facing for several years are now spreading into other departments.
right-wing activist David Horowitz is spearheading that attack with his
Academic Bill of Rights, a measure that ostensibly promotes greater ideological
diversity on campus and protects both students and teachers from retribution
because of their political or religious beliefs.
consideration in Congress and over dozen state legislatures -- though
fortunately defeated here in California
-- the Academic Bill of Rights could impose external political controls over
what gets taught and who teaches it.
strategy behind this crusade is brilliant. It rests upon two justifications:
one, the undeniable evidence that faculty members tend to be more liberal than
the rest of the American population and the other, an appeal to the academy’s
progressive values and commitment to open-mindedness.
parrots the AAUP's official statements about academic
freedom to urge greater diversity in faculties, he ignores the Association's
pronouncements that stress the college teacher's professional obligation to
maintain objectivity in the classroom. This is not an obligation that is taken
lightly; and, despite Horowitz's assumption that professors infuse their
teaching with their personal political biases, little evidence of such
In fact, the
grievances that appear on the "Complaints Center" of Horowitz's Students
for Academic Freedom website often reveal more about the complainants' sense of
entitlement than they do about the politics of their teachers. And, as the
author of your own Red Star notices admitted, she had no evidence of such bias
damaging stereotype remains.
In arguing for
the appointment of more conservatives to the academy, Horowitz not only depicts
college teachers as one-sided classroom tyrants, but also dons an academically
fashionable relativism to portray the world of scholarship as a stew of anarchy
where, because of the postmodernist take-over, there can be no agreed-upon
truth and any idea is as good as any other.
situation, he insists, the academy should offer the broadest possible range of
viewpoints and "should maintain a posture of organizational neutrality
with respect to the substantive disagreements that divide researchers on
questions within, or outside, their fields of inquiry."
formulation cleverly caricatures the academic community while ignoring the
professional standards of evidence, impartiality, and relevance that enable
trained scholars to reach a consensus about what constitutes good work in their
seriously, by discounting the professional expertise of academics, it invites
all kinds of outsiders -- politicians, creationists, kooks, or whatever -- to
meddle in the nation's college classrooms.
Academic Bill of Rights language that “Curricula and reading lists…should
reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge by
providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints” mean that I will
have to have my syllabi vetted by a committee of administrators or politicians?
I teach modern American history. Will I have to include readings that I think
offer an erroneous interpretation simply because the issue I’m teaching about,
say it’s the VN War, has spawned a large and contentious literature. Will my
colleagues in the biology department have to modify their teaching about
evolution to include a unit on intelligent design even though the overwhelming
consensus within their field is that it has yet to exhibit any scientific
Because of the requirement that
departments must consider ideological and political diversity in their faculties,
does that mean that we could get into trouble if we didn’t hire enough Republicans? What
does that say about the principle of merit and of our obligation to find the
most qualified candidates for a teaching position?
And, what about students, will they
go to outside authorities of some kind complaining that I didn’t pay enough
respect to their reasoned disagreement with my historical interpretation if
they don’t get an A on their papers? How can I possibly teach and offer my
students the benefit of my professional training as a historian and years of
reading and research if they are free to dismiss what I say in class as simply
“my opinion”? Education under such
circumstances becomes meaningless.
So far, despite
some disturbing symptoms of spinelessness among trustees and administrators who
should know better, the academic community has managed to hold off the most
serious attacks on its integrity.
The University of North Carolina, for example, withstood
some serious pressure and retained the Koran as required reading for its
incoming freshman class.
campaign is far from over; and it is important to realize that Horowitz's
venture would not have gotten as far as it did had America's higher education
not already been under attack for more than twenty years.
the 1970s, conservatives, convinced that the nation's
college professors were insufficiently supportive of the business community,
mobilized themselves to wrest intellectual hegemony away from the then academic
heavily in right-wing think tanks and professors who would provide an
alternative, and business-friendly, source of expertise for the nation's
policy-makers -- and they provided large sums of money to publicize the
products of this new expertise.
By the late
1980s when the flap over political correctness emerged, this campaign was well
under way. A barrage of conservative pundits managed to convince the rest of
the nation that the universities were under the control of unintelligible
post-modernists, man-hating feminists, racist multiculturalists, cross-dressers
later, there was an attack on tenure, abetted by educational reformers and
journalists who criticized the system for harboring deadwood professors who
allegedly drew large salaries for twelve-hour weeks.
concomitant and related movement to downsize the public sector was already
eating away at the financial support for higher education.
actual dollar amounts have not declined….yet, the percentage of the
universities' budgets that state and local governments have supplied has been
dwindling for years.
got 50% of its budget from the state of California
twenty-five years ago, now gets about 34%. Federal grants which covered 73.5%
of the university's research costs in the 1960s, now cover less than 60%. Nor is Berkeley
unique: the same financial crisis has affected every other institution, public
In a vicious
cycle, the measures that academic administrators took to compensate for these
lost revenues -- like raising tuitions and seeking corporate research grants --
only worsened matters by antagonizing the general public and damaging their
classroom as well, the financial pinch took a toll. As the academy cut back on
regular faculty positions, it put ever more classes in the hands of underpaid,
overworked adjuncts who, no matter how knowledgeable and dedicated, could not
devote as much time and attention to their students as a full-time teacher.
universities became ever more dependent on tuition payments, they began to
cater to their students as customers who needed to be -- and demanded to be --
satisfied rather than, dare I say it, educated. Hence, grade inflation,
vocationally-oriented courses, and budgets that went to football stadiums and
student centers rather than libraries or full-time faculty positions.
All of these
developments further damaged the quality of the education that the nation's
colleges and universities were delivering and, at the same time, fed into the
growing public disenchantment with those institutions that Horowitz et al. so
cleverly took advantage of.
So -- to get
back to the original subject of this evening's discussion -- What does all of
this mean for Academic Freedom?
Quite a lot.
The threat that
such enterprises as the Academic Bill of Rights pose to the nation's colleges
and universities is that of an outside force dictating those aspects of
academic policy that have traditionally been the province of faculty members.
intervention, by allowing extraneous, usually political, considerations to
determine such core academic functions as curriculum development and personnel
decisions, not only destroys academic freedom, but also undermines the quality
of higher education.
There is a
reason why we make such a big fuss about academic freedom.
It is necessary
if the nation's institutions of higher learning are to carry out their primary
functions of teaching and research.
Although it is
related to – though not the same as – free speech, academic freedom is a
professional attribute that is derived from faculty members' activities as
teachers and scholars, not their status as citizens.
It consists of
the practices and procedures, like tenure and faculty governance, that make it
possible for professors to do their job effectively. Academic freedom is
essential because that work – teaching and research – must be free from
scientists cannot merely follow orders; the new knowledge they produce must
come from the unfettered interplay of their trained minds with the data they
collect. Similarly, as teachers, academics can develop their students’ powers
of rational and independent thinking only if they are themselves autonomous
within their classrooms.
This does not
mean that professors can do or say whatever they please. On the contrary, they
must conform to the rules of their profession. They must operate within the
established boundaries of their disciplines and abide by the same standards of
evidence and accountability as their fellow scholars. And, of course, they must
not misuse their classrooms by propounding irrelevant material or taking advantage
Over time, the
academy has created institutions to enforce these professional obligations –
departmental committees, faculty senates, disciplinary associations, scholarly
journals, and so on. Through peer review and the constant assessment of each
individual’s work, these institutions ensure the quality of academic
scholarship and teaching. Sloppy research will rarely get published; poorly
prepared teachers will rarely get tenure. Conflicts arise, of course, but a
general consensus about what constitutes good work within each field ordinarily
however, this system only functions if the men and women who enforce these
norms are academics themselves. Who else possesses the expertise and experience
needed to evaluate the quality of someone’s research or teaching? In almost
every instance, when academic freedom is under attack, it is because outsiders
seek to make academic judgments – a situation that seriously impairs the
quality of higher education.
situation exists today. Our already fragile institutions of higher learning are
under attack as never before.
That such an
attack should come at the same time as it is increasingly clear that a college
education is essential to survival within the 21st century's post-modern, globalizing economy is both sad and ironic.
That a school
like Santa Rosa should become so vulnerable to the mischief of a few
media-savvy undergraduates with links to national political organizations
shows, I think, how widespread the assault on higher education has become and
little the general public -- and our own students -- understand about the
nature of that education.
is hardly farcical, let us hope that it can be rectified before it becomes
and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and
officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as
citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline,
but their special position in the community imposes special obligations.
As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public
may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances.
Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate
restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make
every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.