McCarthyism, Higher Education, and the New Assault on Academic Freedom

by Ellen Schrecker

October 17, 2005

When I first heard about the Red-Star incident here, I was immediately reminded of Marx’s comment about history repeating itself "the first time as tragedy, the second as farce."

Although there are a lot of similarities between McCarthyism and the events of last spring  -- especially in the political ideology and unsubstantiated charges of the Young Republicans' campaign -- I'm not so sure the quotation fits.

To begin with, I'm not sure that we're seeing history repeat itself -- especially with regard to the way in which the current situation affects academic freedom. Nor would I consider the Red-Star incident -- despite its so far seeming lack of serious consequences -- a "farce." It did, after all, take place in the context of a broader campaign against the academic community, though whether or not this current assault on academic freedom will turn out to be a tragedy remains to be seen.


In my talk this evening I'd like to do two things. First, I'd like to supply some historical background by looking at how academic freedom fared during the McCarthy era and then I'd like to look at the current attack on the academic community, where it's coming from, what it's trying to do, and how it is affecting higher education. Hopefully, this examination -- along with the contributions of this evening's other panelists -- will help us to understand how last spring's red star incident fits into the broader national picture.

Let's begin by looking at McCarthyism.

In a sense, it's a shame that Joe McCarthy gave his name to this movement, for it was a complicated phenomenon that consisted of much more than McCarthy's bizarre behavior.

In fact, if any one individual should have gotten credit for it, it should probably be J. Edgar Hoover, whose FBI provided much of the ideology as well as the machinery for what happened.


But Hoover was only one of thousands of players -- for what allowed McCarthyism to flourish during the early Cold War was the fact that it came in so many different flavors and involved so many different groups and individuals, each with its own agenda and special interests.

Liberals, reactionaries, labor leaders, former Communists, ambitious bureaucrats and politicians like Hoover, Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon, all had reasons for participating in the drive to eliminate Communism and all the individuals, ideas, and organizations associated with it from any position of influence in American life.


Because so many of the key players here were highly conservative, they were able to shape the national campaign against the domestic threat of communism into a deeply ideological struggle against all forms of left-wing dissent.


Nonetheless, it's important to realize that the Communist threat, though grossly exaggerated, was not without some foundation in reality.

The American Communist party, despite its undemocratic nature, its secrecy, and its ties to Moscow, was the most dynamic organization on the American left during the 1930s and 40s.

As a result, thousands of idealistic and energetic individuals were attracted to its orbit; and, about a hundred of them did give information to the Russians during World War II when the United States and the Soviet Union were allies against Nazi Germany.

But that espionage operation was closed down by the end of 1945 and whatever threat the Communist party posed to American security had essentially disappeared by the time the Cold War got under way -- as even J. Edgar Hoover was forced to admit.


Even so, because it was enmeshed in partisan politics, the anticommunist crusade came to dominate the political scene in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Republican politicians and their conservative allies discovered that charges of communism in government were useful weapons in their battle against the New Deal and the Truman administration, while the Democrats and their liberal allies scrambled to protect themselves by also hyping the Communist threat.

In 1947, for example, the Truman administration implemented an FBI-designed Loyalty-Security program that sought to cleanse the federal government of anybody who even associated with Communists. Soon state and local governments as well as private employers were adopting similar programs.

Meanwhile, legislative investigating committees at every level were also looking for Communists. Hollywood naturally attracted the most attention. The House Un-American Activities Committee or HUAC as it came to be called, held hearings on the movie industry that set a pattern for questioning Communists and former Communists by forcing them to name names or else risk a prison term for contempt of Congress.


Compared to political repression in many other societies, McCarthyism was rather mild. Only two people -- Julius and Ethel Rosenberg -- were killed, a few hundred were jailed or deported, and some 12-15,000 lost their jobs.

The main sanctions were economic. They operated in accordance with a two-stage procedure. First the alleged Communists were identified -- usually by an official body like a congressional committee or the FBI -- and then they were fired.

By collaborating with the process, the often liberal and moderate institutions and employers that administered that second stage gave McCarthyism the legitimacy that made it the most widespread and long-lasting episode of political repression in American history.

The nation's institutions of higher learning participated in this process.

By 1949, as a result of a highly publicized investigation at the University of Washington in Seattle and the imposition of a loyalty oath at the University of California, the academic community had reached a consensus that card-carrying members of the Communist party should be barred from the nation's faculties -- even though there was no evidence that such people had ever abused their academic positions.

But it was not until the early 1950s that the inquisition seriously affected the nation's campuses. At that point, the congressional investigating committees, which had run out of more glamorous targets in the entertainment industry and State Department, called up dozens of academics and questioned them about their past and present political activities.


The committees had not selected these people at random. Most were former political activists who had gotten involved with the Communist party in the 1930s and 40s when it seemed to be offering a solution to the depression and was leading the struggle against fascism. They had, however, become disillusioned by the 1950s and most had left the party and even dropped their political activities.

Still, they were sympathetic to the left and certainly did not want to cooperate with the committees and give them the names of their former comrades.

For complicated legal reasons, the only way these witnesses could avoid becoming informers and not go to jail for contempt of Congress was to rely on the Fifth Amendment's protection against self-incrimination and refuse to answer all questions about their political activities. They could not, as many wanted, talk only about themselves and not about others.

That lack of cooperation looked bad, especially since the committees and their allies claimed that taking the Fifth Amendment was, in Joe McCarthy's words, "the most positive proof obtainable that the witness is a Communist." Accordingly employers in both the public and the private sectors routinely fired people who took the Fifth.

But the situation was -- or should have been -- different for college teachers. They had academic freedom. According to the standard formulation, the 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom of the American Association of University Professors or AAUP, when professors “speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline” and should not be dismissed without a hearing.


Nonetheless, the stigma of having Fifth Amendment witnesses on their faculties was so damaging that every school which employed such a witness decided to act. Most organized some kind of faculty or administrative panel that questioned these people about their political views and affiliations.

These panels did not -- and this is significant -- investigate these people's teaching or scholarship, for, at no point, were there allegations that the unfriendly witnesses had skewed their research or misused their classrooms.


And at no point -- and this, I think, reveals the extent of the academic community's collaboration with McCarthyism -- at no point did any academic leaders question the need for such an investigation. Although they knew that the men and women under attack had done nothing but rely on their constitutional rights, both college administrators and fellow faculty members were so caught up in the repressive mindset of the early Cold War that they allowed themselves to administer the economic sanctions that made the red scare so effective.


I really can't emphasize this enough -- although the McCarthy era investigations of these unfriendly witnesses turned up nothing that bore any relationship to their professional fitness, the colleges and universities that employed them were so concerned about the bad publicity that these investigations produced that they could not or would not assert their institutional autonomy by ignoring the investigations and leaving the unfriendly witnesses alone. In other words, they could not or would not protect their own academic freedom and that of their faculty members.


As a result, about one hundred professors lost their jobs. Those at private schools fared somewhat better than those at public ones. Tenure was some protection; with only one exception, every single junior faculty member who refused to cooperate with the committees lost his or her job.


There was an academic blacklist as well.

For over a decade, most of the fired professors could not find jobs within mainstream institutions of higher learning. Some, if they could get passports (which was not always easy for politically tainted individuals) left the country, some went to historically black colleges in the South that were so desperate for teachers with Ph.D.s that they were willing to overlook these people’s political problems, and some simply left the academic profession altogether.

Even if they didn’t lose their jobs, people who had come under suspicion had problems. Some scientists, for example, had trouble obtaining the security clearances they needed for their work. Others could not get the passports they needed to attend international conferences or were barred from serving on federal research panels. Foreign scholars were denied visas.


The rest of the academic community suffered as well.

Studies at the time document the existence of a chill on campus. Students became part of what was called “the silent generation.” They shunned political activism and refused to join any groups that might later get them in trouble. If they opposed any aspects of the status quo, they usually did so in a cultural rather than political form.

University of Chicago physics graduate students.

Professors also felt the chill.

It’s hard, here, to evaluate the impact of McCarthyism on people’s teaching and scholarship. How, after all, can we assess the courses that weren’t offered, the readings that weren’t assigned, the research that was not undertaken?

People censored themselves. Some stopped teaching controversial subjects and shifted their research to safer fields.


East Asian scholars, for example, were under enormous pressure. China had just fallen to the Communists and politicians like Joseph McCarthy were looking for scapegoats. As a result, some of the leading scholars in the field were called before investigating committees and seriously harassed. They became cautious in the extreme.

  My former husband --


But McCarthyism affected people in other, less sensitive, fields as well.


A French teacher I interviewed for my book on McCarthyism in the academy told me about how he had stopped teaching his course on the age of revolutions during the 1950s. Another man, a psychologist who had a run-in Joseph McCarthy studied rats for years until he felt sufficiently established to return to his work on human intelligence.


Eventually, the Red scare ended, the blacklisted professors returned to the classroom, and many institutions offered formal apologies if not reinstatement to the men and women they had unjustly dismissed.


Presumably, the lessons of the 1950s had been taken to heart and such violations of academic freedom would never recur.


Or would they?


In the patriotic fervor and constraints on civil liberties imposed by the post-9/11 war on terrorism, the fear of a new wave of academic McCarthyism swept the nation's faculties.


The AAUP immediately set up a special task force to assess the threat. Its report, released in the fall of 2003, was moderately upbeat. The anticipated crackdown against Muslim scholars and professors from the Middle East had not occurred. Although there was one potentially serious violation of academic freedom at the University of South Florida, there was little indication that a purge of the nation's faculties was under way.


The academic community had learnt its lesson. Individual professors would not lose their jobs because of their off-campus political activities as had happened during the McCarthy era.


And yet… the guarded optimism of the AAUP's special committee may have been premature -- as the organization is now coming to see.


For the threat to academic freedom today, while different from that of the McCarthy years, may well be even more serious. This is because it is directed not against the extracurricular political activities of individual faculty members, but against their core academic work -- their teaching and their research.


Just as the patriotic frenzy that followed 9/11 enabled the Bush administration to realize many of its previously unattainable goals in the name of the war against terrorism, so too that frenzied atmosphere made it possible for a coterie of well-organized special interest groups, often with a connection to right-wing Zionism, to bring their pre-existing campaign against the academic community to the broader public.


 Their charges that tenured radicals on the nation's faculties were indoctrinating their students gained widespread circulation and were picked up by the mainstream media, politicians, and the general public.

Initially, it was Middle East studies that came under attack.


Right-wing activists like Daniel Pipes, whose Campus Watch website targeted several professors and institutions for their supposedly unacceptable views about Islam, Israel, and US policy in the Middle East, popularized the notion that the late Palestinian activist and literary critic Edward Said had so dominated the field that more traditional scholarship was being frozen out.


In order to rectify this supposed lack of balance, Pipes and his allies proposed a measure to impose external supervision over the nation's federally-funded area studies centers. The House voted unanimously to pass that measure two years ago. It died in a Senate committee, but it may well be resuscitated and incorporated into the current version of the Higher Education Act.


Then, last year, the mysterious Boston-based Daniel project circulated video-taped complaints about biased teaching within Columbia University's Middle East studies department. In part because Columbia's administration failed to defend its own faculty and thus legitimized those charges, they gained widespread notoriety.


However, unlike the McCarthy era allegations about the so-called "loss of China" that proved so damaging to professors in East Asian studies, today’s attack on university faculties is not just limited to people who study the Middle East.


The accusations of bias that highly respected scholars in Middle Eastern studies have been facing for several years are now spreading into other departments.


The well-funded right-wing activist David Horowitz is spearheading that attack with his Academic Bill of Rights, a measure that ostensibly promotes greater ideological diversity on campus and protects both students and teachers from retribution because of their political or religious beliefs.

Currently under consideration in Congress and over dozen state legislatures -- though fortunately defeated here in California -- the Academic Bill of Rights could impose external political controls over what gets taught and who teaches it.


The rhetorical strategy behind this crusade is brilliant. It rests upon two justifications: one, the undeniable evidence that faculty members tend to be more liberal than the rest of the American population and the other, an appeal to the academy’s progressive values and commitment to open-mindedness.

Though Horowitz parrots the AAUP's official statements about academic freedom to urge greater diversity in faculties, he ignores the Association's pronouncements that stress the college teacher's professional obligation to maintain objectivity in the classroom. This is not an obligation that is taken lightly; and, despite Horowitz's assumption that professors infuse their teaching with their personal political biases, little evidence of such indoctrination exists.

In fact, the grievances that appear on the "Complaints Center" of Horowitz's Students for Academic Freedom website often reveal more about the complainants' sense of entitlement than they do about the politics of their teachers. And, as the author of your own Red Star notices admitted, she had no evidence of such bias either.


But the damaging stereotype remains.


In arguing for the appointment of more conservatives to the academy, Horowitz not only depicts college teachers as one-sided classroom tyrants, but also dons an academically fashionable relativism to portray the world of scholarship as a stew of anarchy where, because of the postmodernist take-over, there can be no agreed-upon truth and any idea is as good as any other.

Given that situation, he insists, the academy should offer the broadest possible range of viewpoints and "should maintain a posture of organizational neutrality with respect to the substantive disagreements that divide researchers on questions within, or outside, their fields of inquiry."


Such a formulation cleverly caricatures the academic community while ignoring the professional standards of evidence, impartiality, and relevance that enable trained scholars to reach a consensus about what constitutes good work in their field.


And, more seriously, by discounting the professional expertise of academics, it invites all kinds of outsiders -- politicians, creationists, kooks, or whatever -- to meddle in the nation's college classrooms.

Does the Academic Bill of Rights language that “Curricula and reading lists…should reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge by providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints” mean that I will have to have my syllabi vetted by a committee of administrators or politicians? I teach modern American history. Will I have to include readings that I think offer an erroneous interpretation simply because the issue I’m teaching about, say it’s the VN War, has spawned a large and contentious literature. Will my colleagues in the biology department have to modify their teaching about evolution to include a unit on intelligent design even though the overwhelming consensus within their field is that it has yet to exhibit any scientific validity?


Because of the requirement that departments must consider ideological and political diversity in their faculties, does that mean that we could get into trouble if we  didn’t hire enough Republicans? What does that say about the principle of merit and of our obligation to find the most qualified candidates for a teaching position?


And, what about students, will they go to outside authorities of some kind complaining that I didn’t pay enough respect to their reasoned disagreement with my historical interpretation if they don’t get an A on their papers? How can I possibly teach and offer my students the benefit of my professional training as a historian and years of reading and research if they are free to dismiss what I say in class as simply “my opinion”?  Education under such circumstances becomes meaningless.

So far, despite some disturbing symptoms of spinelessness among trustees and administrators who should know better, the academic community has managed to hold off the most serious attacks on its integrity.


The University of North Carolina, for example, withstood some serious pressure and retained the Koran as required reading for its incoming freshman class.

But the campaign is far from over; and it is important to realize that Horowitz's venture would not have gotten as far as it did had America's higher education not already been under attack for more than twenty years.

Beginning in the 1970s, conservatives, convinced that the nation's college professors were insufficiently supportive of the business community, mobilized themselves to wrest intellectual hegemony away from the then academic mainstream.

They invested heavily in right-wing think tanks and professors who would provide an alternative, and business-friendly, source of expertise for the nation's policy-makers -- and they provided large sums of money to publicize the products of this new expertise.

By the late 1980s when the flap over political correctness emerged, this campaign was well under way. A barrage of conservative pundits managed to convince the rest of the nation that the universities were under the control of unintelligible post-modernists, man-hating feminists, racist multiculturalists, cross-dressers or worse.


Ten years later, there was an attack on tenure, abetted by educational reformers and journalists who criticized the system for harboring deadwood professors who allegedly drew large salaries for twelve-hour weeks.


Meanwhile, a concomitant and related movement to downsize the public sector was already eating away at the financial support for higher education.


While the actual dollar amounts have not declined….yet, the percentage of the universities' budgets that state and local governments have supplied has been dwindling for years.


Berkeley, which got 50% of its budget from the state of California twenty-five years ago, now gets about 34%. Federal grants which covered 73.5% of the university's research costs in the 1960s, now cover less than 60%.  Nor is Berkeley unique: the same financial crisis has affected every other institution, public and private. 

In a vicious cycle, the measures that academic administrators took to compensate for these lost revenues -- like raising tuitions and seeking corporate research grants -- only worsened matters by antagonizing the general public and damaging their institutions' credibility.


Within the classroom as well, the financial pinch took a toll. As the academy cut back on regular faculty positions, it put ever more classes in the hands of underpaid, overworked adjuncts who, no matter how knowledgeable and dedicated, could not devote as much time and attention to their students as a full-time teacher.


Moreover, as universities became ever more dependent on tuition payments, they began to cater to their students as customers who needed to be -- and demanded to be -- satisfied rather than, dare I say it, educated. Hence, grade inflation, vocationally-oriented courses, and budgets that went to football stadiums and student centers rather than libraries or full-time faculty positions.


All of these developments further damaged the quality of the education that the nation's colleges and universities were delivering and, at the same time, fed into the growing public disenchantment with those institutions that Horowitz et al. so cleverly took advantage of.


So -- to get back to the original subject of this evening's discussion -- What does all of this mean for Academic Freedom?

Quite a lot.

The threat that such enterprises as the Academic Bill of Rights pose to the nation's colleges and universities is that of an outside force dictating those aspects of academic policy that have traditionally been the province of faculty members.


Such intervention, by allowing extraneous, usually political, considerations to determine such core academic functions as curriculum development and personnel decisions, not only destroys academic freedom, but also undermines the quality of higher education.

There is a reason why we make such a big fuss about academic freedom.

It is necessary if the nation's institutions of higher learning are to carry out their primary functions of teaching and research.


Although it is related to – though not the same as – free speech, academic freedom is a professional attribute that is derived from faculty members' activities as teachers and scholars, not their status as citizens.


It consists of the practices and procedures, like tenure and faculty governance, that make it possible for professors to do their job effectively. Academic freedom is essential because that work – teaching and research – must be free from external constraints.

Scholars and scientists cannot merely follow orders; the new knowledge they produce must come from the unfettered interplay of their trained minds with the data they collect. Similarly, as teachers, academics can develop their students’ powers of rational and independent thinking only if they are themselves autonomous within their classrooms.

This does not mean that professors can do or say whatever they please. On the contrary, they must conform to the rules of their profession. They must operate within the established boundaries of their disciplines and abide by the same standards of evidence and accountability as their fellow scholars. And, of course, they must not misuse their classrooms by propounding irrelevant material or taking advantage of students.


Over time, the academy has created institutions to enforce these professional obligations – departmental committees, faculty senates, disciplinary associations, scholarly journals, and so on. Through peer review and the constant assessment of each individual’s work, these institutions ensure the quality of academic scholarship and teaching. Sloppy research will rarely get published; poorly prepared teachers will rarely get tenure. Conflicts arise, of course, but a general consensus about what constitutes good work within each field ordinarily exists.


Significantly, however, this system only functions if the men and women who enforce these norms are academics themselves. Who else possesses the expertise and experience needed to evaluate the quality of someone’s research or teaching? In almost every instance, when academic freedom is under attack, it is because outsiders seek to make academic judgments – a situation that seriously impairs the quality of higher education.


Such a situation exists today. Our already fragile institutions of higher learning are under attack as never before.


That such an attack should come at the same time as it is increasingly clear that a college education is essential to survival within the 21st century's post-modern, globalizing economy is both sad and ironic.


That a school like Santa Rosa should become so vulnerable to the mischief of a few media-savvy undergraduates with links to national political organizations shows, I think, how widespread the assault on higher education has become and little the general public -- and our own students -- understand about the nature of that education.


That ignorance is hardly farcical, let us hope that it can be rectified before it becomes tragic.



  2. College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.[4]