Threats to academic freedom in US history
This blog accompanies the article “Friendly Public Sentiment” and the Threats to Academic Freedom by Timothy Reese Cain.
Participating in the History of Education Quarterly forum on academic freedom came with inherent difficulties: there is too much to say and there are too many examples to draw upon. I argued, for example, that collective action by faculty—both unionized and not—was and is important to promoting and protecting academic freedom. I could not, though, highlight any of the numerous local examples of such, including those in the 1903 Bassett Affair. There, the entire faculty of Trinity College threatened to resign en masse if the board dismissed John Spencer Bassett for his provocative article calling for racial understanding. He was retained. Pointing to current campus speech concerns, I made a passing reference to the University of Michigan’s speaker ban in the build-up to World War I but could have just as easily talked about the one instituted for all public colleges in the state of North Carolina in 1963, or Georgia’s attempts to replicate it a year later. And even though I argued that we need to explore both the quiet dismissals and the mundane cases that receive too little attention, I led with Henry Carter Adams’s famous difficulties and highlighted recent well-publicized controversies. I did not find the space to mention Alexander Calhoun, Frances Onderdonk, John Wilcox, or the thousands of other faculty whose dismissals have received little or no attention. Individually, each of these and numerous other events is fascinating and worthy of further historical consideration; together they can offer greater understandings of the implications and importance of academic freedom in the modern period.
In my piece, I emphasized the external pressures placed on individuals and institutions—what the American Association of University Professors termed “the tyranny of public opinion” in its landmark 1915 Declaration of Principles—because the connections were so clear and the challenges seemingly eternal. In the 130 years or so since modern ideas of academic freedom first started to coalesce, specific challenges have risen and receded, and the precise claims or beliefs that could cause difficulties have shifted—in 2018, it is doubtful that a faculty member will lose her job for advocating the gold standard—but throughout, the potential for the larger public to bound scholars and impinge on scholarship has remained. This is, in part, due to higher education’s dependence on individuals and state actors for money, but it also relates to the special place of higher education in the United States. Despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary, colleges and universities are not isolated ivory towers but are embedded in broader culture and society. They need to be in order fulfill their missions. Academic freedom is simultaneously necessitated and endangered by this embeddedness.
Of course, several modern conditions make the historic challenge of the “tyranny of public opinion” so pressing. One is the current political climate that bleeds into so many aspects of daily life. The divisive rhetoric and eagerness to attack raises the stakes on all public communication which, when combined with a healthy dose of anti-intellectualism, places heavy burdens on scholars. It also threatens their ability to speak on controversial topics, whether related to their scholarship or their rights as private citizens. The conditions of the “wired world,” which Robert O’Neil warned about a decade ago, exacerbate this challenge. The ubiquity of social media and speed of communication spreads scholars’ ideas and comments in ways previously unimaginable. There is a great deal of power in that but also a great deal of danger as even innocuous statements can go viral and take on new meanings, especially when devoid of context. Perhaps most pressingly, the return to a largely contingent faculty workforce has made academic freedom perhaps more precarious than it has been in generations. The procedural protections that were developed in the interwar period are not perfect, but a faculty denuded of tenure is inherently more vulnerable than one with the security to take intellectual risks. And its members’ abilities to teach, research, share in governance, and live both private and public lives are necessarily jeopardized, as well.
Read Timothy Reese Cain’s full article “Friendly Public Sentiment” and the Threats to Academic Freedom
Read the full History of Education Quarterly Forum here
Main Image Credit: Graduates & faculty of American University, 6/3/25. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.