Ellen Schrecker: Worse Than McCarthy

Roundup: Talking About History

When Barrows Dunham, chairman of Temple University's philosophy department, faced the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953, he knew that his job was on the line. He was determined not to cooperate with the committee or name names; so, after giving his name, address, and — reluctantly — his date and place of birth, he invoked the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination. He was more forthcoming with Temple's investigation, explaining to a special faculty-administration committee why he had joined the Communist Party and why he left it. Even so, the university dismissed him on the grounds that he had abused the Fifth Amendment and so was unfit to teach.

Unlike Dunham, the Temple professors who appeared in January before the Select Committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives were not risking their jobs. The panel's inquiry, the fruit of David Horowitz's current campaign to enact an "academic bill of rights," sought to find out whether students were facing political and religious discrimination within the commonwealth's classrooms. Though the testimony the committee received was decidedly mixed, at no point were any professors quizzed, as Dunham was, about their politics.

Whatever threat investigations like Pennsylvania's continuing hearings pose, it will not be a replay of the McCarthy era. At that time, at least 100 academics lost their jobs, and thousands more took loyalty oaths or faced other political tests. With one exception, every junior faculty member who tangled with the anticommunist furor lost his or her job. Tenure was no protection. Nor were private institutions immune. The pressure on the nation's colleges was so intense that even as progressive an institution as Reed College fired a senior professor. Moreover, because an unofficial blacklist existed and many academics kept their troubles to themselves, we will never have an exact accounting of the toll. Nor can we fully assess the intellectual fallout: books that were not written, research projects not initiated, and courses not taught.

The situation is different today. Despite the post-September 11 patriotic furor that discourages dissent, few faculty heads have rolled. The academy, it seems, has learned its lesson from the McCarthy era. Or has it?

During the late 1940s and 1950s, anticommunism focused on the off-campus political activities of individual professors. Like Dunham, most of the victims of the era's purges were Communists or former Communists who did not want to name names. Their extracurricular affiliations and behavior — in particular, their refusal to cooperate with investigating committees — caused their dismissals, not their teaching or scholarship. Surprisingly, despite the insistence that Communists were unqualified to teach, no evidence was ever produced to show that those people had skewed their research or indoctrinated their students. The notoriety of harboring a Fifth Amendment witness was enough to make colleges shed politically embarrassing professors.

Today's assault on the academy is more serious. Unlike that of the McCarthy era, it reaches directly into the classroom. In the name of establishing intellectual diversity, Horowitz and his allies want to impose outside political controls over core educational functions like personnel decisions, curricula, and teaching methods. Such an intrusion not only endangers the faculty autonomy that traditionally protects academic freedom, but it also threatens the integrity of American higher education....

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