An Old Story: The Corporate University

Yale University’s plan to open a campus in the city-state of Singapore next year has been greeted with impassioned protest by much of its faculty. (Dissent subscribers can read more about this in Jim Sleeper’s article on the future of the liberal arts in the Fall 2012 issue.) The administrators and trustees who planned this venture did not bother to consult the professors about either the design of the education to be offered or the limits on academic freedom for both teachers and students that will be inevitable in an authoritarian country that strictly censors films, television, print media, and the Internet, that makes it a crime to criticize the government, and that requires a police permit to meet for public protests. The projected campus is both an emblem of the profit-driven globalization that has overtaken some American universities today and a throwback to conflicts over corporate control and academic freedom a century ago.

In the early 1900s, embattled professors objected that boards of trustees, dominated by corporate executives, saw universities as no different from businesses and hence felt free to fire teachers for their political views. In 1915 the University of Pennsylvania fired the popular young professor Scott Nearing, an outspoken campaigner for social and labor reform. Nearing publicized the politically driven dismissal, newspapers debated the issue, and indignant scholars formed the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, in response. The AAUP’s founding document, its “Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” proclaimed that universities are a public trust, not simply business operations driven by profit or by the “private antipathies or resentments” of their boards of trustees.

The declaration proposed three basic principles that ought to govern universities: “freedom of inquiry and research,” “freedom of teaching,” and “freedom of extramural utterance,” meaning speech and advocacy by professors in their capacity not as scholars but as citizens. Wrapped into one bundle, the three tenets came to define American academic freedom.

Universities gradually accepted the AAUP’s founding principles, including its claim that faculty participation in decision making, especially around issues such as hiring, promotion, and curriculum, are fundamental to institutions dedicated to knowledge, free inquiry, and the quest for truth. But lofty principles are always vulnerable to political realities and, consumed by the Cold War tensions of the 1950s, the vast majority of American universities decided that academic freedom did not protect communists, suspected communists, or even ex-communists unless they cooperated with loyalty investigations by renouncing their past political errors and “naming names” of others they had known in civil rights, anti-fascist, or labor union struggles of the 1930s and ’40s.

The Supreme Court in the early 1950s joined in this national demonization of past or present communists. It rejected nearly every constitutional challenge to loyalty programs and blacklists. But Justices Hugo Black and William O. Douglas penned impassioned dissents. In a case challenging a New York anti-subversive law, for example, Douglas wrote that political tests for employment turn on “a principle repugnant to our society—guilt by association,” rather than on any proper judgment of a person’s job qualifications. Loyalty investigations are “certain to raise havoc with academic freedom,” he said. And he spelled out why: teachers would “tend to shrink from any association that stirs controversy,” and the school system would be turned “into a spying project” where “the principals become detectives; the students, the parents, the community become informers.” Ears would be “cocked for tell-tale signs of disloyalty.”

Within a few years, some of Douglas’s colleagues were waxing equally eloquent on the subject. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in a 1957 case that academic freedom is essential because of “the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth….To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation.” Ten years later, in 1967, the Supreme Court reversed its decision in the New York case, writing that academic freedom is “a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.”

As the McCarthy era waned, universities began to apologize for their abandonment of academic freedom. In New York City, teachers and professors fired decades earlier from the public education system were reinstated and given pensions. But the damage had been done. Ellen Schrecker, author of a comprehensive study of the academy in these years, pointed out that the 1950s Red Scare not only helped “destroy whatever influence communism had within American society, but it silenced the rest of the left as well. For over a decade, at the height of the Cold War, meaningful dissent had been all but eliminated.”

Today, there is widespread agreement in the world of higher education that the purges of the 1950s were a grave mistake. But history has a nasty habit of repeating itself. Contemporary threats to academic freedom come in different packages, including the funding of campus research by corporations whose primary interest is money, not truth, and the radical shrinking of tenure, without which faculty rightly fear reprisal if they speak out on controversial issues. An equal threat is the creation of overseas campuses in authoritarian states, usually without any faculty role in decision making. As the Yale protesters have pointed out, this is a model of higher education that some administrators would like to replicate at home.

All of these threats are twenty-first-century aspects of the same mindset against which professors rebelled a century ago when they founded the AAUP: an idea of the university as a business, controlled from the top, rather than as a public trust dedicated to education, knowledge, and intellectual freedom. In today’s battles over the nature of the university, we would do well to remember the words of Felix Frankfurter, one of the Supreme Court’s champions of academic freedom. Teachers, he wrote in an early McCarthy era case, are the “priests of our democracy,” whose “special task” is “to foster those habits of openmindedness and critical inquiry which alone make for responsible citizens.”


Marjorie Heins’s book, Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge, will be published in February by NYU Press. She is a member of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom.