To the Editor:
I would like to add some history and context to the article, “The Apolitical University," The Chronicle, December 5.) My story starts with Sputnik, the Soviet space capsule that truly rattled everyone in the United States. In response, the U.S. government passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) to provide resources so that more students would study science and engineering. This was also the time of McCarthyism and HUAC (The House Un-American Activities Committee) — thus, the legislation mandated that the universities require students to state that they were not communists (e.g., I am not, nor have I ever been…) and pledge a loyalty oath.
The University of Chicago (UC) demonstrated an institutional position and refused to use NDEA funding on campus. I know this because as a student at UC in the early 1960s, I was given a loan, backed by the university, during my first two years. This loan needed to be paid back soon after graduation. On the other hand, once the loyalty component was removed by the government, UC then provided NDEA loans. These included better interest rates, and the NDEA loans could be delayed during graduate school and parts of the principal could be written down if the recipient became a science teacher. Thus, the loan conditions were much more favorable, but we all supported the university’s position to fight against these “un-American” requirements.
UC had student sit-ins beginning in 1962. The first was to fight housing discrimination against Blacks in the south side neighborhoods surrounding campus. The sit-in took place after careful analysis and with real data that clearly demonstrated that the university was party to such discrimination and the university (somewhat) modified its policies. There were numerous sit-ins beginning in 1966, as indicated in the article, and these all reflected some component of the Vietnam War. Almost everyone on campus was fearful that the university would become an adjunct of the U.S. government by providing information that would be harmful to students. I think that the university’s earlier principled stances, like on NDEA, were forgotten by all — including some in the university administration. All discussions and reports after this time were colored by this fear. Thus, it was important for the university to stay “apolitical,” because anything less would be equivalent to becoming subservient to the war effort. The Kalven Report must be understood in that context. It allowed the university to take the high road, but it also was useful in deflecting student anger — which boiled over at least two more times in the late 1960s. It is a product of its time, and I think should always be revisited.
On the other hand, the later report on free speech, the Stone document referred to as the Chicago Principles, is an important document that should be supported in all regards. This is one point on which conservatives and liberals must agree — speech from all sides should be allowed. To me, this goes back to another event that took place in the Chicago area — the march of neo-Nazis in Skokie, Ill., in 1978 (used as a sub-plot in the movie The Blues Brothers). The ACLU was strongly supportive of this march because the element of free speech is pre-eminent. This was a ghastly spectacle in an area populated by many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Thus, the free-speech principles stated in the Chicago report is one that should be followed by all universities. Mitch Daniels, the President of Purdue University until this month has strongly supported it — based on his conservative leanings. I support it from a different perspective and it’s an approach that allows divergent sides to communicate — even if it is uncomfortable.
Should universities remain apolitical? Will the university taking positions suppress free speech? To me, the free speech issue is paramount, but that doesn’t preclude some universities from taking important positions. As I’ve suggested above, the University of Chicago was never above reproach in all regards but took a principled stand against an abhorrent aberration in American political life. But did the university squelch free speech? Never. I think that major private universities have a responsibility to take stands on important national issues — if not them, then who? It is more complicated for state institutions since they must reflect the divergent views of their state. The key issue is to ensure that the states don’t prevent free inquiry and discourse and even this element is in trouble in some states.
Department of Biological Sciences
West Lafayette, Ind.