Academic Freedom and Austerity at American Universities

Two things happened this week at North Dakota Quarterly. First, our esteemed editor spent hours boxing up back issues in our storeroom and that allowed him to think a good bit about our forthcoming spring forum on Humanities in the Age of Austerity (for the call-for-submissions go here).

Thinking and boxing up back issues is a good combination because it allows one to stumble upon interesting material. The Spring of 1971 issue, for example, dedicated to George W. Starcher’s term as president of University of North Dakota and included Elwyn Robinson’s epic review of “The Starcher Years.” In his “Editor’s Notes,” then-editor Robert Wilkins, celebrated Starcher’s support for academic freedom and freedom of speech. He noted, in particular, that Starcher encouraged free speech and academic freedom on campus by both supporting projects like North Dakota Quarterly and by defending intellectual freedom when threatened. For example, he defended the selection of Gus Hall as a convocation speaker in 1968. Hall was chairman of the Communist Party in the United States and 1968 was the height of the Vietnam War. Starcher was also responsible for restoring funding to NDQ after a 20+ year hiatus brought about by the Great Depression and World War II.

Here are Robert Wilkins’ “Editor’s Notes” for this special edition of NDQ:

Publication of our Spring 1971 issue coincides with the retirement of George W. Starcher as president of the University of North Dakota. Dedicated to him, it contains surveys of his seventeen years of service in headline and picture montages by Harvey Jacobson and an essay by University Professor-emeritus Elwyn B. Robinson.

President Starcher dealt with many matters, as Professor Robinson’s article makes abundantly clear. Only the passage of time will determine which was the most consequential — financial aids, support of the fine arts, higher standards of student achievement, or encouragement of faculty research and publication — including the revival of the QUARTERLY after a 23-year suspension of publication. There can be no question that his concern for academic freedom received most public attention.

Coming to the University soon after the Presidential election of l952 in which Senator Joseph McCarthy played such an important part. President Starcher saw the institution weather another crisis over special loyalty oaths for teachers. ( Teachers, like all employees of government in North Dakota and in most if not all other states, swear loyalty to the United States and support of the Constitution.)

In the next decade when the Vietnam War created new tensions in the body politic and brought demands for conformity to heights not experienced in many years, incidents involving academic freedom multiplied. When the University administration approved a contest for essays on patriotism, financed by an old graduate of very conservative outlook, the editor of the Dakota Student denounced the idea. Declining to remove the editor, as some persons in the state demanded, Starcher said: “The real heart of a university is freedom to express and to criticize.”

In the spring of 1968 a much greater tumult developed over the announcement of Dick Gregory, Bishop James Pike and Gus Hall as Convocation speakers. One elected office holder, referring to Hall, general secretary of the Communist Party, U.S.A., declared that “providing a platform for this ally of the Viet Cong in a time of war may well make traitors of all responsible for the invitation.” The gubernatorial candidate of a small, but vocal, ultra-conservative party called for the dismissal of Starcher and the Board of Higher Education. The President expounded the meaning of academic freedom in addresses and press releases: “The spirit of the University is that of a place where issues are examined, and debated — not where opposing forces line up, each to suppress the other.” “To prohibit presentation of views contrary to our own,” he said on another occasion, “would be employing the very tactics of the Communists themselves which we deplore.”

The significance of the episode was summed up by President Malcolm Moos of the University of Minnesota, advisor and speech writer for President Dwight D. Eisenhower and, incidentally, coiner of Eisenhower’s term “military-industrial complex”: “As we tilt over immensely complex and combustible issues, it becomes ever more important that we fall back upon the steadying traditions of our society — the time-honored, tested, true traditions of the open society — the right to speak unmuzzled. It is this principle that President Starcher has upheld and for which this University stands the taller.”

An even greater storm blew up over the Dakota Student’s photographic use of a four-letter word in a story about the loss of $4,000 on a concert by the Ramsey Lewis Trio. One editorial called for ‘fumigation of the University.” The chairman of the Board of Higher Education suggested intervention by the Board if campus authorities did not act against the student editor. Again Starcher spoke out for the independence of the University. In an address to the Farmers Union the editor as a “24-year-old youth whose success is not yet great enough to warrant the humility that accompanies greatness,” he insisted that “America means the to … participate in the free ideas with no facts barred, and the right to be wrong, yes, up to a certain limit and with in certain bounds even the right to be offensive.”

In April 1969, in recognition of the stand on freedom of the student press and orderly self-government of the University which he had taken, Starcher received the 11th annual Alexander Meiklejohn Award of the American Association of University Professors. The citation commended his leadership in “insisting on maintaining the necessary conditions —for students to learn and grow the right to express their criticism of what they disapprove … to hear whomever the choose, and, even as the rest of us, from time to time, the right to be tasteless in points of view!”

Accepting the honor honor, conferred earlier on such men as Arthur S. Flemming of Oregon and Clark Kerr of California, Starcher observed that “the public should attempt to understand better that the professor needs to be free to speak, indeed that he has the duty to speak. The public has not fully understood the cliche that ‘the professor is one who thinks other wise,’ and that he must.” But a fill year before the incident at Kent State University, he stressed faculty responsibility: There is … a professional responsibility to protect academic freedom from intolerance, be it youthful or otherwise. We must guard against the misguided passions of those who fail to appreciate the essential freedom to acquire genuine intellectual discipline.” He praised the AAUP for its “affirmative . . . clarification of the responsibilities of the academic profession.”

Recent thinking about the role of the universities in the debate on national problems appears to be moving in the direction suggested by President Starcher in 1969. The AAUP in 1970 called on faculties to guard academic values against “unjustified assaults” by their own members, and in 1971 the Stanford chapter of AAUP proposed standards and procedures for “faculty self-discipline.”

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