Richard Ohmann: Academic Freedom's Best Days






Richard Ohmann is Benjamin Waite Professor of English Emeritus at Wesleyan University. This essay is adapted from a talk by the author this month at New York University's Frederic Ewen Academic Freedom Center.

I'll sketch out a claim that academic freedom flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s, then consider why, then ask what may be learned from that time to help us understand and act in our time. My argument will not yield a happy ending, but maybe a bracing one.

To clarify: opposition to the Vietnam War became noisy by 1965. Many professors had been critical of U.S. policy well before that year (Hans Morgenthau's articles in The New Republic and elsewhere were especially important to me.) A student movement, led by Students for a Democratic Society for a while, had made the war its main issue. Teach-ins began shortly after the bombing of North Vietnam, in 1965, and spread rapidly from campus to campus. These usually took the form of debates, but anti-war arguments drew the crowds and interest. Most of the anti-war speakers were faculty members. Many had tenure and reputation: Morganthau, Anatol Rapoport, William Appleman Williams, Eric Wolf, Stanley Hoffman, Herbert Marcuse, Seymour Melman -- a mix of establishment scholars and rebel professors. Some were untenured faculty members or grad students. Of these, some lost jobs (Staughton Lynd), some never became college teachers (Jerry Rubin), some became famous professors (Joan Wallach Scott). Opposition to the teach-ins was fierce. For an extreme example, in a letter to The New York Times, Richard Nixon accused Eugene Genovese of “giving aid and comfort to the enemy” (i.e., of treason, punishable by death) for saying, at the Rutgers University teach-in, that he would welcome a Viet Cong victory....

Did anyone lose a tenured professorship for antiwar speech during this period? Not to my knowledge. Doubtless, activism against the war counted as at least an unspoken reason for refusing to tenure some junior faculty members, and to block initial job offers to others. Interestingly, of the "Boston 5" -- Benjamin Spock, Mitchell Goodman, Marcus Raskin, William Sloane Coffin, Michael Sperber -- charged with violating the Social Security Act in a kind of show trial, the only academic, Sperber, a grad student, eventually went on to a solid academic career. I mean this loose bundle of facts to show why I think academic freedom worked splendidly (better than the First Amendment) to protect speech and other kinds of protest against and resistance to a major war. Now, to broaden the claim....

Why did the university experience such an outbreak of academic freedom, after a decade and a half of repression by Cold War urgencies, and co-optation by government support? The reasons are obvious, and compelling enough to pose difficulty for anyone who thinks academic freedom did not flourish through the Vietnam War period. First, large popular movements gave heart and momentum to faculty members (and students) who opposed government policies and academic orthodoxies. I have not mentioned the student movement, but it was already a force inside the university by 1965, and often an ally there of faculty dissidents -- especially around draft resistance and anti-war issues. These students felt like "our" kids. Within the next few years, minorities increased among undergraduate, then among graduate student and faculty populations. Women earned graduate degrees and joined faculties in larger proportions than before. Many gay people had always studied and taught in universities. From the early '70s on, they announced their presence, and became a movement both in and outside of higher education. University radicals could not be dismissed as isolated cranks, or see themselves that way.

On the other side, the Right was weakly organized, except for white supremacists in the south. Goldwater, herald of the new conservative movement, lost badly in 1964, and did so in part because of his wish to escalate the war in Vietnam. Few formations were comparable to the Tea Party or the various Lynne Cheney and David Horowitz fronts clamoring for expulsion of unpatriotic university teachers. Fundamentalist groups did not noisily attack feminists and abortion rights until well after Roe v. Wade. The chief antagonists of campus activists were local administrators, many of whom had held faculty positions and faculty values. Above them were trustees, representing business values by and large, but increasingly mixed in their support of the Vietnam War, and often at least sentimentally friendly to civil rights....

One more condition of the academy’s tolerance during this period: its prosperity. This is not a sufficient condition, plainly, for higher education grew and prospered in the '50s, too, and yet witch hunts happened. But expansion of the university system had proceeded by the late '60s to the point where tenure-track jobs were more numerous than job seekers, and second and third jobs were easy to find for people denied reappointment or tenure. A more subtle consequence of the boom, I conjecture, was an ethos friendly toward provocative ideas, which could eventually make individual or departmental reputations. Within limits, points were given for novel or unconventional inquiry. That ethos may have protected seriously egalitarian and even anti-imperialist thought, when the movements came along....



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