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Witch Hunting in the Universities

NO IVORY TOWER McCarthyism and the Universities. Ellen W. Schrecker. Oxford University Press, New York, 1986. 464 pp.$24.95. In 1948 a special committee of the Washington state legislature interrogated 11 University of Washington professors about their connections with the Communist Party. The University, feeling compelled to react to revelations made to the committee, conducted extensive hearings of its own into the activities of three of the 11 who refused to cooperate with the investigation

By | December 15, 1986

NO IVORY TOWER
McCarthyism and the Universities. Ellen W. Schrecker. Oxford University Press, New York, 1986. 464 pp.$24.95.

In 1948 a special committee of the Washington state legislature interrogated 11 University of Washington professors about their connections with the Communist Party. The University, feeling compelled to react to revelations made to the committee, conducted extensive hearings of its own into the activities of three of the 11 who refused to cooperate with the investigation and three others who admitted to being ex-communists but refused to provide names of their former party associates. Ultimately, the three uncooperative witnesses, two of whom admitted to being communists, were dismissed and the three ex-communists were placed on two-year probation.

These events set a pattern that would be widely repeated. During the next five years or so, hundreds of academics—a number of them scientists—were put in the perilous position of being summoned before congressional or state investigative bodies to be asked if they were, or had been, members of the Communist Party.

In this admirably thorough history of the impact of this anti-communist purge upon American colleges and universities, Ellen Schrecker estimates that only 20 to 25 percent of the academic witnesses summoned by the House Unamerican Activities Subcommittee (HUAC) chose to co operate by naming names. For the rest, the only legally defensible approach was to invoke Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. These witnesses then had to explain to their universities what kind of incriminating activity they were seeking to shield. In many cases, the university became the agent for punishing those who resisted the witch-hunt.

Schrecker's painstaking scholarship in depicting these incidents is combined with a moral fire over their outcomes. She deplores the university's role as enforcer and castigates the university community for failing to show greater support for its embattled colleagues. She concludes that “the failure to protect academic freedom eroded the academy's moral integrity.”

The abundant evidence that she presents, however, is open to other interpretations. The centerpiece of the volume is the investigations and subsequent university actions that began in 1952 with the case of Rutgers classicist Moses I. Finley and continued for two years during the height of McCarthyism. What actually happened in these cases?

Schrecker presents clear cases of 22 academics being fired as a result of taking the Fifth before an investigating committee. Thirteen dismissals were made by the New York City Board of Education on a legal technicality. Of the remaining cases, four were victimized by outside trustees; two failed to convince their colleagues that they were telling the truth; and three were treated badly by their school's administration. On the other side of the ledger, Schrecker relates 10 cases in which academics managed to keep their positions under similar circumstances, sometimes at the same schools. Even if all the instances of forced resignations, tenure denials and contract terminations are thrown into the balance, it seems a considerable over-reaction to conclude, as Schrecker does, that “America's colleges and universities had given Joseph McCarthy and the members of HUAC a say over selecting their faculties.”

One has to agree with Schrecker that American universities were not ivory towers; they were and are social institutions in part dependent upon and in part responsible to other segments of American society. Confronted with McCarthy-ism they sought to fulfill their social responsibilities by establishing elaborate procedures to reconcile academic values with institutional duty. In most cases these prolonged and cumbersome inquiries operated to insulate academic institutions from the most damaging political passions of the day. In particular, the leading private colleges and universities, which have been largely responsible for setting and preserving academic ideals, generally managed to protect faculty who refused to cooperate with investigating committees but were willing to cooperate with university inquiries.

By the standards of academic freedom that we seek to uphold today, the ways in which American universities came to terms with McCarthyism more than a generation ago seem inescapably compromising. Schrecker deserves much credit for vividly recreating the moral dilemmas of that era. Nevertheless, the evidence that she has presented fails to justify her severe indictment of the whole of American higher education.

Geiger is at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies and History Department, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520.

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Mettler Toledo