Nancy Innis

Presented at the annual SAFS meeting (May, 2002),  in a symposium entitled: Academic Freedom in the light of September 11, May 2002, based on an article published in Minerva [Innis, N.. K. (1992).  Lessons from the controversy over the loyalty oath at the University of California. Minerva, 30, 337-365].

Freedom of speech has been curtailed on many campuses following the attacks of September 11th.   Fear engendered by an elusive foreign enemy has often resulted in a threat to academic freedom.  The threat in the late 1940s and early 1950s was Communism.  At that time, the University of California attracted  national attention when a large number of faculty members refused to take an anti-Communist loyalty oath.  It all began in March 1949 when Robert Sproul, President of the University, asked the Board of Regents to approve an amendment to the constitutional oath required of  university employees.  The amendment stated: that I do not believe in, and am not a member of, nor do I support any party or organization that believes in, advocates, or teaches the overthrow of the United States government by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional methods.

This amendment was adopted by the Regents with essentially no debate, in what amounted to a closed session of the Board.  Moreover, the plan to impose this oath was only made public two months later, as the academic term was coming to a close. There was an immediate reaction on the part of the faculty.  At a special meeting of the University Senate at Berkeley (other UC campuses held similar meetings)  two senior faculty members, psychologist Edward Tolman and historian Ernst Kantorowicz, spoke out against the oath.  

Many were surprised that Kantorowicz, the noted biographer of Frederick II and an acknow-ledged conservative, spoke out.  He voiced his conviction that there were "grave dangers" in a seemingly harmless oath. Oaths change, as he had experienced in Nazi Germany, and the "harmless oath...hooks before it has undergone those changes..."  He then went on to stress what he believed to be the "fundamental issue at stake: professional and human dignity."

It was expected that Edward Tolman, an eminent learning theorist who was liberal in his social and political attitudes, would oppose the oath. Tolman’s main point of contention involved the issue of "accepted principles of academic tenure and of academic freedom."  After outlining his specific criticisms, Tolman introduced a resolution asking that the oath be deleted. But before doing so, he stated "off-the-record" that he could not and would "not sign the oath in its present form."  He urged his colleagues to join him in "this protest to demonstrate to the Regents the seriousness with which we view the oath as a threat to academic freedom..."  The resolution was approved, but with an amendment  asking that the oath be deleted or revised.  The Regents revised the oath, and sought assurance from President Sproul that this new oath would be acceptable to the Academic Senate.  Because of growing public uneasiness about Communism on campuses, the Regents now were determined to implement a policy on this issue.  The language of the revised oath was more explicit, and it now read: I am not a member of the Communist Party or under any oath or a party to any agreement or under any commitment that is in conflict with my obligations under this oath.    

President Sproul gave the Regents his assurance of Senate support, although the Senate Advisory Committee had only favored such an explicit oath if it were deemed essential for "public relations."  In fact, the media across the country were quick to attack the faculty position, and the reputation of the University was indeed on the line.  For some then, public relations may have been the most important concern at the time.

The role of President Sproul in imposing the oath, and his evident inability to foresee faculty reaction, is a question of some interest. Was the institution of the oath in March, but not informing the faculty about it until the end of the school year, a coldly calculated move on the part of the President?  Or was it the naive action of an individual who could not foresee the implications it would hold for the faculty?  Sproul was not an academic.  He was confident there were no Communists on his faculty, and may simply have assumed no one would object to signing.  His persistence in pursuing the oath, at this time, turned out to be a major miscalculation.  A threat to academic freedom was something that most of the faculty could not ignore.  And eventually, as the Regents became divided on the issue, Sproul would become part of a minority group of Regents supporting the faculty.

The following year became known as the “year of the oath,” as various efforts to find a means of implementing the Regents' policy on excluding Communists from the University – without requiring a loyalty oath – were attempted and met with failure.  In February 1950 the Regents passed what became known as the "Sign-Or-Get Out Ultimatum": individuals who had not signed the oath by April 30th would cease to be employed by the University.  The faculty was outraged and, despite internal differences that had been intensifying over the past few months, rose united in opposition.  In enforcing the oath requirement in this way the Regents were implying that the non-signers were Communists, although there had never been any suggestion that this was case.  Moreover, they were dismissing them without the opportunity for appeal – a clear violation of academic tenure.  Requiring a political test for employment in the University had far-reaching implications that went well beyond the issue of Communist party membership.  

Wanting to ensure a fair presentation of their position, faculty who opposed the oath began work on a book, entitled The Year of the Oath, which was published under the name of  George Stewart, a professor of English.  The fact that its authors worked in secret, not even communicating by telephone, is indicative of the fear and suspicion that prevailed.  And the end was not in sight; the conflict would not be resolved for another two years.  
During the “year of the oath,” an informal group of non-signers and their supporters had started to meet at the Faculty Club and in June, 1950 they established a formal organization – the Group for Academic Freedom (GAF).  Edward  Tolman was unanimously elected Chairman.   The Group was not at all homogeneous; however, irrespective of their differences and the various factors underlying each individual's decision not to sign, there was one common factor -- concern for civil liberties and academic freedom. A position based on a love for the University, and all it stands for, that transcended the expediency of the day.

The Group's mission was to "help foster academic freedom and to protect the rights and security of individual members of the faculty..."  An additional goal was to publicize their stand so that those outside the university might have a better understanding of the issues.   In a letter to President Sproul they stated three of "many good reasons" for not signing the oath: (1) that in signing "any super-imposed statements, we believe our capacity to teach, freely and honestly, is imperiled;" (2) that students' faith in the words of professors whose "freedom to pursue the truth is impaired" will be greatly diminished; and (3) that in detesting totalitarianism "we resist the idea that coercion of teachers is requisite to preservation of free institutions."  
The battle with the Regents was to continue throughout the summer, and eventually 31 professors were fired.  Twenty members of the GAF took the Regents to court and a prolonged period of litigation followed before the issue was finally resolved.  It wasn’t until in the spring term of 1953, that the non-signers were able to return to their classrooms.

Many non-signers left the University of Califirnia and promising young men and women chose not to consider positions there.  Campus life was also disrupted, as courses were cancelled and professors were distracted and uneasy.  David Gardner in what is suggested to be the authoritative account of the oath controversy concluded:  

 The history of the conflict is the story of the failure of educated, competent, and allegedly rational human beings bound together in a good cause -- the service of truth and knowledge -- to resolve their differences without injury to the University     as a whole....The controversy abetted more than it constrained public suspicion of free inquiry and independent thought and in the end won no victory for intellectual and academic freedom.

    Implications of the Oath Today

For Gardner, there was no winner and the University of California, in particular, lost.  It is in an attempt to show otherwise, and to point out the lessons from this controversy for those of us taking a stand against abuses of the University today, that I have re-examined this controversy.

As the oath controversy developed, it became clear that the issue that most concerned the Regents was not whether there were Communists in the University, but rather who was in control -- the Regents or the Faculty.   The professors had an additional concern: the imposition of a political test for employment, affirming that their beliefs and ideas were those prescribed by popular opinion.  These two issues -- academic tenure and academic freedom -- involved rights that were won years before (at Cal in 1920); rights that at the time of the oath controversy were preserved by precedent, not legislation; rights that typically were taken for granted until challenged; rights that are being challenged again today.

Tenure  The final authority in public universities was then, and still is, a board of trustees, regents, or governors.  In areas of appointment and dismissal, and in curriculum development, these boards act on the advice of university administrators who, in turn, are advised by faculty representatives.  This procedure developed gradually, and now tenure is firmly established in the constitutions of most institutions.  In the past, however, these rights were not so explicitly protected, and at the time of the oath controversy the Regents of the University of California did not consider them to be important.  In fact, it appears that the Regents, who were lawyers and businessmen not academics, had little understanding of what the rights of academic freedom and tenure meant to the academic community.  

The action of the Regents was widely reported, so that the dismissal of prominent scholars at a large and prestigious university made professors throughout the country aware of how fragile their rights were.  During the 1950s there was a widespread movement to strengthen the position of professors and, in 1958, the American Association of University Professors expanded its guidelines for academic tenure, publishing a statement outlining the procedures to be followed in dismissal proceedings.  It would be difficult to argue that the example of the treatment of the non-signers by the Regents during the oath controversy played no role in this action.  Had the faculty all signed quietly to avoid controversy, this issue of "power" would not have been raised and the entrenchment of tenure rights might have taken much longer.   

Academic Freedom  The non-signers believed that it was inappropriate for a teacher to take a political oath. In order to be able to teach effectively one must be free to think as he or she chooses, and a controlled mind is, by definition, incapable of this.  In their ruling for the non-signers, the California Third District Court of Appeal asserted that only when the University is free from the "political, religious, social and economic philosophies" popular at any particular time can "learning and the search for truth" occur unimpeded.  

There are several areas of similarity between the situation at the University of California and what is happening on North American campuses today.  The first has to do with the dependence of public universities on government funding, resulting in the necessity for administrators to give in to the social pressure of the day in an attempt to  avoid demonstrations and unrest on their campuses that might then lead to criticism of the university in the press and legislatures.

A second similarity has to do with the nature of academics. Most dedicated academics shun "getting involved" in university politics.  Often it is easier, and more personally satisfying, to avoid taking a stand.  Those who get involved do so at  considerable personal cost, as the non-signers of the loyalty oath discovered.  Fearing harassment, professors remain silent.  This was as true at the time of the oath controversy as it is now; then John Caughey (UCLA historian and a nonsigner) pointed out: "Too often, the friends of academic freedom have been roused to action only when there has been a full-scale attack to repel, a last-ditch stand to make, or a salvage job to do."  
Another parallel between the two situations is the use of name-calling and innuendo to discredit opponents and deter opposition. Just as the non-signers were labeled Communists and “un-American,” professors today who are critical of politically correct policies are attacked with slurs and threats; their ability to participate in administrative activities may be threatened and they may even lose their jobs.

Although there are significant parallels between the events of the oath controversy and what is happening at our universities today, there is one significant difference.  The threat to academic freedom then came almost entirely from outside the University. Today, while external events may precipitate abuses, the threat comes mainly from within. Social activists, who are themselves members of the University community, are putting pressure on colleagues and their administrations to react in ways that restrict academic freedom. Indeed, this infringement on academic freedom has come about by the use of the very procedures that were established to protect it.  The committees formed to make new appointments, determine course content, or hear appeals from colleagues facing dismissal now often recommend radical action.  In many cases this occurs because the more moderate committee members are intimidated into agreeing with decisions they are not comfortable with in order to avoid trouble.

Today the University, as an institution, is in jeopardy.  If it is to survive, everyone who opposes a political agenda within the University must unite.  It is unlikely that the non-signers at the University of California would have been successful if they had not formed the Group for Academic Freedom and supported each other in their cause.  SAFS has a similar mandate.  We must continue to encourage all those who believe in truth and scholarship to band together in opposition to the attacks that we now face.

1.   University of California Bulletin, XVIII (May 1949), p. 108.
2.   The speech was reprinted in Kantorowicz, Ernst H. The Fundamental Issue:  Documents and Marginal Notes on the University of California Loyalty Oath (October 8, 1950): pp. 4-5, included in the papers of the Group for Academic Freedom (CU-9.23), Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
3.   Edward C. Tolman (ECT), Address to the Academic Senate, June 14, 1949.  Group for Academic Freedom (GAF) Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
4.   Report of the Regents' Meeting June 24, 1949, Faculty Bulletin, 19 (July, 1949): 1.
5.   Gardner, David P., The California Oath Controversy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967): pp. 43-44.
6.   The question does arise as to whether by that time, with a majority of the Regents committed to the oath, it would be impossible to back down.  However, with a powerful Regent such as Neylan not committed to an oath as the solution to the Communist problem, another solution still might have been possible.
7.   Stewart, George, R., The Year of the Oath (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1950).
8.   GAF Papers.
9.   GAF Papers.
10.   Tolman to Sproul, 18, July, 1950.
11.   Gardner, David, P., The California Oath Controversy: p. 245.
12.   Stewart, George, R., The Year of the Oath: pp. 119-121.
13.   American Association of University Professors, "1958 Statement on Procedural Standards in Faculty Dismissal Proceedings" in Joughin, Louis, Academic Freedom and Tenure: A Handbook of the American Association of University Professors (Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1967): pp. 40-45.
14.   See Edward C. Tolman to President Sproul, 18 July, 1950.
15.   Tolman versus Underhill (229 P.2d 447):pp. 451-452.
16.   Caughey, John W. "Trustees of Academic Freedom," Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors, XXXVII, (Autumn, 1951), p. 439.

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