How Much Academic Freedom?

Scholar and author, who was born in Michigan in 1892, HOWARD MUMFORD JONES took his B.A. at the University of Wisconsin in 1914 and his M.A. at the University of Chicago. He has been Professor of English at Harvard since 1936, and was dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences from 1943 to 1944, and President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences from 1944 to 1951. Throughout his teaching career Mr. Jones has been an ardent proponent of civil liberties, and this is the gist of a talk he gave recently at Wellesley College.



UNIVERSITIES have been under attack for many reasons in many times. They have been attacked for religious heresy, for economic heresy, for political heresy, for moral heresy, and for philosophical heresy. Across the years they have been thought to be centers of atheism, free love, materialism, sectarianism, pedantry, and ignorance. The creative artist looks down upon the humanistic scholar, who seems to him to reduce art to learning and joy to dreary discipline. The businessman, stern, practical creature that he is, inclines to regard professors as dreamers, except on those occasions when he wants something from them, or when he discovers that they have led his son or his daughter into an independent intellectual life differing from his own. Religious persons are also frequently critical of the colleges — institutions, they think, where one loses one’s faith; places which deny the possibility of belief; centers no longer dominated by theology and no longer dedicated to the service of the Lord. Mothers are fearful about the morals of their daughters, and fathers are fearful about the companions of their sons. In short, when one considers the variety of persons who find fault with the colleges, it is wonderful that these wicked institutions survive — not only survive, but increase in numbers and importance as the decades go by.

The kinds of faultfinding I hav e enumerated are familiar; and though they do occasionally seriously interfere with the life of the college, though the makers of these complaints have now and then managed to reduce legislative appropriations or diminish the gifts of alumni or hamper the trustees or even, on occasion, get professors fired, experienced administrators know how to deal with these patterns. The threat to the good life of an academic institution by the use of, or the withholding of, funds is something the colleges and universities can, I think, manage on their own. When Mr. Frank B. Ober of Maryland wrote to President Conant of Harvard some four years ago that he would not subscribe to the Law School Fund unless Mr. Conant got rid of two members of the Harvard faculty Mr. Ober did not approve of, Mr. Grenville Clark, then a member of the Harvard Corporation, wrote a lengthy reply, from which I quote because it seems to most of us in the colleges the plain sense of the matter.

Said Mr. Clark: “I want to add a comment on your decision not to subscribe to the Law School Fund. As Mr. Conant wrote you, it has happened before that subscriptions have been withheld because of objections to the acts or opinions of professors or because of disapproval of University policy. This is natural and normal, I think; and it is certainly the right of anyone not to aid an institution with which he is as out of harmony as you now seem to be with Harvard. But it is also true, I am sure you will agree, that Harvard cannot be influenced at all to depart from her basic tradition of freedom by any fear that gifts will be withheld.

“An interesting test case on this point,” continued Mr. Clark, “came up during the first World War. It related to Professor Hugo Münsterberg, who was a German and very pro-German, and is described in Professor Yeomans’ biography of President Lowell. It appears that the press reported that a certain Harvard man had, in Professor Yeomans’ words, ‘threatened to annul a bequest to the University of $10,000,000 unless Münsterberg was immediately deprived of his professorship.’ Thereupon Professor Miinsterberg wrote [a letter] to the Harvard Corporation offering to resign if the graduate would immediately remit $5,000,000 to the Corporation. The Professor’s letter was returned and the Corporation issued, as Professor Yeomans puts it, ‘one of its rare public pronouncements,’ as follows: ‘It is now officially stated that, at the instance of the authorities, Professor Münsterberg’s resignation has been withdrawn, and that the University cannot tolerate any suggestion that it would be willing to accept money to abridge free speech, to remove a professor or to accept his resignation.”


TODAY the colleges and universities are again under attack — a severe attack, extending over years and reaching from the University of Washington and the University of California on the Pacific coast to New York University and the New York municipal colleges on the Atlantic seaboard. The substance of the attack is nothing new. It is alleged or whispered or surmised that the colleges are the breeding places of radicalism; that many, or most, or some, or one of the professors is a Communist, or a proto-Communist, or a crypto-Communist, or a fellow traveler.

Proof, when it is offered, tends to be of three sorts. The first kind appears when t he teacher confesses that he has been a member of the Communist Party — no one, I think, has so far admitted to being a member of the party now. The second is that a former Communist testifies that Professor So-and-so was, or is, a member of the party, or was, or is, sympathetic to its aims. The third is a little more difficult to state, but it arises from a series of inferences, From lists of organizations and names not commonly available to the public, it is inferred that Professor So-and-so now belongs, or has belonged, to one or more of the seven hundred organizations listed by the attorney-general of the nation as subversive — I take my figure from hearsay, and cannot be sure of the exact total except that it is too large to have meaning. Therefore Professor So-and-so is a radical.

Or else it is alleged that because Professor Soand-so by public utterance has declared, or seemed to declare, a likeness of view between his own opinions and the opinions or programs of these organizations, or of the Communist Party, he must therefore be either a secret member of the party, or tantamount to a member, or — a rather unflattering third alternative — a fool; that is, an impractical, dreamy person who doesn’t know the facts of life and is drawn into subversive or allegedly subversive organizations innocently. There has always been a lurking suspicion that teachers, queer fellows that they are, are a radical group; and this suspicion has been confirmed in the minds of some observers by the fact that now and again, among the witnesses appearing before one or another investigating committee, teachers have appeared. I may say that inasmuch as Communism seems to find its best breeding ground in areas of economic insecurity, and since on the whole teachers are economically insecure, the surprising thing to me is not that there are a few teachers who are Communists, but that they are so few. I think it a great tribute to the patient patriotism of a much maligned profession that this is so.

A second observation seems to be pertinent. As nearly as I can make out from the figures of the Bureau of the Census, there were in 1952 about 1,200,000 teachers in the United States, not counting teachers in schools for the blind, reform schools, stenographic schools, and other schools not a part of our formal educational system. We do not know the present size of the American Communist Party, but I have seen estimates that allot it 40,000 members, which is high, and others of 20,000, which is low. In April the FBI estimated the membership of the party at 24,796. Let us say the number is 30,000. I think it a fair guess that the Communists would be happy if they could find 500 teachers among this number. I doubt that the number is that high, but I may of course be wrong. But even if 500 teachers in the United States were members of the Communist Party, they would amount to only one twenty-four hundredth of our total teaching staff. I cannot regard this as a very frightening situation.

But perhaps the situation is frightening. Perhaps teachers are trembling on the verge of becoming the radicals legend paints them as being. How likely is this?

I have been a college professor all my life. I have taught in about twelve states of the Union. I am also a member of various national organizations of teachers and scholars, so that I am reasonably well informed about American college professors. I think I can testify that the professors are very much like the rest of the population except in two particulars: their professional training and their rather conservative social views. I think there may be a connection between these two attributes. The training of scholars and scientists, by and large, tends to make them cautious in judgment; and though I do not say there are no radicals or neurotics or visionaries among them, they are not as a group any more visionary than are other Americans — for example, businessmen, some of whom have seriously consulted fortunetellers, or invested their money in Florida real estate, or suffered mental breakdowns, or run off with the stenographer, or argued seriously that you can simultaneously increase your trade with the rest of the world and also boost tariff barriers. I do not seem to read about college professors going to jail in the proportion in which I read about politicians or gamblers or — dare I say it? — businessmen going to jail. They do not customarily falsify their income tax returns. They do not usually go on binges with wild, wild women. When they have a vacation, they do not spend it on soapboxes in Columbus Circle in New York City inciting laboring men to riot: they do not conceal bombs having time fuses in lhe local post office, despite their professional knowledge of ehemisiry; and they have not as yet taken to assassinating their opponents. They spend their free time in the Christmas recess soberly attending professional conventions almost as dull as the conventions of the national salesmen of this or that, and they commonly spend their summers teaching or writing a book.

It is true there is a vague, floating fear they have been indoctrinating somebody with something. I have not observed anv large companies of little Republicans or little Democrat’s, little Communists or little Fascists, pouring out of anybody’s classroom. Sometimes I think that what the profession needs is instruction in the technique of indoctrination — life would be simpler if teachers were more successful in getting their goods across the counter. Meanwhile I find it difficult to see that radicalism has in any dangerous way taken root in the profession.


THE other preliminary matter I wish to touch upon is this: that the invest igal ing committees do not in theory wish to interfere with something they call academic freedom. I say “in theory” because some of the investigating committees, especially those set up by some of the state legislatures, seem to regard academic freedom as a false front erected by hypocritical professors. So-and-so is a Commie, isn’t he? Away with him! The taxpayers are footing the bill, aren’t they? They gotta right to hire and fire, haven’t they? Off with his head! And I am extremely sorry to say that some boards of trustees and some college presidents have by their actions endorsed this summary proceeding.

Fortunately the present chairman of the House Un-Amerioan Activities Committee has taken an opposite view. Whether as a result of public pressure (as some allege), or because he sees that you cannot possibly secure good teaching from an intimidated profession (as it is nobler to believe), he has been careful to make it clear that his committee does not desire to investigate classroom procedures. He does not want to damage academic freedom. And other members of the committee take the same position. In examining Professor Robert Gorham Davis, Congressman Clardy expressly staled this: “. . . we will at no time attack teachers as teachers, schools as schools, churches as such, nor any of the other groups.”

It is, however, also — and regrettably—a mattor of record that other chairmen and other members of committees, senatorial, congressional, or legislative, have not been thus scrupulous about academic freedom. Appearance before one of these committees is not a court procedure—the witness, as one of the members of Congressman Velde’s committee said, is not on trial — and the consequence has been in the past, at any rate, that the committee has done pretty much what it pleased. The tone and nature of its procedures inevitably vary from wit ness to witness and from session to session.

It was not so long ago that some notes were literally snatched out of the hands of a very distinguished scientist while he was testifying before such a committee. It is probably also true that legislative committees of investigation, of which we have had examples in Washington, California, Illinois, and other stales, have not always shown the courtesy and intelligence of Congressman Velde and his associates. Some witnesses, it is true — including, I regret to say, teachers — have proved recalcitrant and roused the ire of the committee; and some committee members — including, I regret to say. Senators of the United States — have been rather unscrupulous, not only in their examination of witnesses, but also in subsequent statements to the press.

In most eases the friendly witness before an investigating committee seems not to have endangered his professional career. But the witness who, for whatever reason, refuses to answer any and every question put to him by some member of an investigating body is in a very different situation. If he attempts to draw around himself the protection of the Fifth Amendment, which says, among other things, that no one “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself,”three things happen. In the first place he puls himself, so to speak, into the midst of a criminal proceeding, whether he intended to or not, by the very fact that he has claimed the protection of the amendment, a protection that mostly concerns the Federal courts. It is also to be noted that appeal to this amendment has not always protected the witness.

In the second place, despite the legal maxim that guilt is by no means to be inferred from appealing to the amendment, popular opinion does infer guilt, so that the witness sustains serious damage in the community.

And in the third place, and most important matter of all, many boards of trustees and many college presidents have now taken the view that the professor’s plain duty is to answer the questions of the committee and that failure to do so is grounds for dismissal from the teaching post. They have, in other words, substituted their official consciences for the private conscience of the witness.

Now it is likely that there are eases wherein witnesses have taken refuge in the Fifth Amendment for hypocritical reasons, just as criminals have taken refuge in it for hypocritical reasons. But I am sure that other teachers called before investigating committees have suffered agonies of conscience in the effort to determine what is right and what is wrong — that is, ethically right or wrong. Some have taken the line that, since they are no longer members of the Communist Party, they are justified not only in confessing their own past acts, but also in implicating others. Some have taken the line that although they were quite willing to answer questions concerning themselves, they had no moral right to implicate others, especially in view of the powerful emotions the charge of Communism evokes today. And some, after studying the history of these committees, the history of court cases growing out of testimony before such committees, and the confused state of legal opinion concerning the rights and duties of witnesses, have decided that the only safe thing for them to do, both with respect to themselves and with respect to their obligation to other persons, was to refuse to answer any question, or at the least any leading question, put to them by the committee. Such persons have usually been guided by the advice of counsel; and it should be said to the credit of the present congressional committee that its members have encouraged witnesses to consult counsel before answering important questions.

Unfortunately, the advice of counsel, however respectfully treated by the investigating committee, has had little effect upon trustees and presidents who have incontinently discharged professors or suspended them, despite the fact that they were following legal advice. Presidents and trustees who have done this have in fact said by their actions that they were wiser than counsel before the committee. This seems to me both a shocking and an arbitrary act. It means that the witness does not have even the protection extended him by the committee which has encouraged him to seek counsel and to follow it. Let me say flatly that I see no justification in law and none in ethics for such procedure.

Indeed, it is here, and not in the mere response of witnesses to the committee questions, that the true threat to academic freedom lies. This is, in fact, more than a threat to academic freedom. It goes deeper. I am alarmed by the common acceptance of a situation in which responsible and intelligent administrators not only place the morality of the state above the rights of private conscience, but go beyond the state in depriving witnesses both of their immediate jobs and of any prospect of future jobs in the profession for which they have been trained. Without prejudice to any witness who has appeared before any committee — and these witnesses may, indeed, have been speaking as much from conscience as those who refused to answer particular questions — the situation thus developed by administrators inevitably puts a premium upon the informer and penalizes him who does not believe it right to endanger the fortunes of other persons in the profession.

If the state were in any real danger because of the infiltration by Communists into the teaching profession, there might be some pragmatic reason for insisting upon this rigid duty to the state. We are, fortunately, in no such dilemma. It is not pretended by the congressional committee, for example, that there is any real danger to American education. The committee members, or some of them, have expressly said the committee does not propose to investigate teachers as teachers. They have said that they do not intend to investigate schools as schools.

So far as my reading goes, no testimony yet elicited before any investigating committee has indicated that any attempt has been made to indoctrinate any body of pupils or students in the classroom. The investigations are understandably confined to discovering who the members of the Communist Party are and what they do, or have done, as parly members. If there is any clear and present danger to education as such from the Communist Party, no investigator has made it clear that the danger is clear and present.

In saying this I do not deny that the American Communist Party would gladly seize the government if it could, but the immediate question does not concern this large issue; the immediate question is the relation of these investigations to academic freedom in the United States.


ACADEMIC freedom, it is agreed, is a precious possession. It is so precious a possession that the congressional committee wishes to protect it; so precious that the American Association of University Professors wishes to protect it; so precious that even presidents and boards of trustees deny they are violating it —and yet professors gel fired or are suspended, even though they follow sound legal advice when they appear before the committee.

What is really alleged by administrators is not that the offending instructor is romantically a conspirator against the peace and dignity of the United States; what is usually now said is that, by virtue of being a member of the Communist Party, the offending instructor has a closed mind and is therefore no longer fit to teach.

This is very attractive doctrine. It carries considerable weight and immensely simplifies the administrative problem. It gives the administrator a great moral advantage, and takes every advantage, both moral and intellectual, away from the man who is fired. He has no possible retort, If you are classified as belonging to a category of citizens whose minds are closed, it is clear that you do not belong in the academic community, where minds are supposed to be open. But I strongly infer from my own experience and observation, after a lifetime of teaching, that the first criterion of an open mind is not to make absolute statements about men.

The one sure fact in the general uproar is that very few persons are going to admit to being Communists. What, then, is the administrator to do, if he is to avoid closed minds? There is, of course, the loyalty oath; but if anything is clear from experience with loyalty oaths, it is that they do not automatically produce loyalty. Or is the administrator to refer every teaching appointment to the FBI? I imagine the FBI would be the first to complain. Or shall he hire some private detective agency paid out of college funds donated by the alumni

Moreover, it is not merely ihe known Communist (if you can discover him) who is to be denied appointment because he has a closed mind; it is the potential Communist who is not going to he hired — that is, anybody upon whom somebody else can, as we say, hang something. Even the conservative New York Times, in the articles on education which appear in its Sunday issues, recently noted how the intellectual life of our campuses has declined in vigor with the growth of investigations into education, government, science, and what not. Students, especially as they near the time they must go into the army or into employment, find it is a whole lot wiser not to express dangerous thoughts. Fear of being suspected of leanings towards the left has closed the mind and shut the lips of youth in our time. As a young friend of mine was told the other day by an older student: “Don’t join anything— then they can’t get you into trouble ten years from now.”

The simple principle that you can, a priori and arbitrarily, distinguish a whole class of persons whose minds are permanently closed on all subjects, and set them apart from other persons, whose minds are not closed, seems to me so mischievous a principle, so laden with eventual disaster, that I vigorously dissent from it. Here, as in other areas, circumstances alter cases; here, as in any other crucial problem of academic life, the individual case must be studied; here, as in all matters of appointment and promotion, we must take into account the totality of components in the personal problem —professional training, teaching skill, personality, promise. It is this coming back to the individual and study ing him in his professional context that has made the American college or university a great institution as compared with what it was when, for example, economic or theological orthodoxy was made the primary test for teaching in the universities.

How quickly we forget! As late as 1897 President Andrews of Brown was forced to resign because he had a closed mind on the gold standard. It is true, he was later reinstated, whereas Dr. Weinberg of the University of Minnesota, acquitted of perjury by a trial jury in March, has been informed that he will not be reinstated because he refused to coöperate with Federal authorities! What good is acquittal in such cases if the academic world refuses to recognize the implication of law?

What is academic freedom? Whatever it is. we shall not nourish it, we shall not protect it. by laying down the rule that such and such persons are unemployable by reason of their past associations or their present interests. We shall neither nourish it nor protect it by exalting the morality of the state above the morality of the individual conscience. We shall not nourish it, we shall not protect it, by assuming that all members of a party we hate are wicked and evil persons. We shall not nourish it, we shall not protect it, by abandoning, even in this day of the cold war, the traditional wise doctrine of toleration for persons whose views vve detest and whose practices are almost invariably wrong. Annoying as Communists are, baffling to the democratic process as their tactics have proved, right though it be to trace out and bring to publicity their devious ways, I for one rest defiantly upon the great paragraph of Mr. Justice Holmes in his dissenting opinion of 1918, when five Russian-born Communists were sentenced to imprisonment for distributing leaflets in New York City — leaflets which a majority of the Supreme Court found to be incentives to bring about a change of government by force and violence. Justices Brandeis and Holmes could not agree that there was any clear and present danger in this act, and Mr. Justice Holmes wrote these memorable words: —

“When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best tesl of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. . . . I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.”

I am not persuaded by anything I have read or know that the presence of a few Communists among the teaching profession in this country constitutes an emergency; I cannot agree that the refusal to incriminate one’s self before an investigating committee is per se proper ground for wrecking the professional life of a teacher, however foolish I may think he is; and I only regret that I cannot put my faith into more impressive words. Unless some unforeseen turn of events should alter the present posture of affairs, I believe that long-run wisdom in the United Slates is to leave reason free to combat error.