The University Record, March 22, 1999

Autonomy of universities threatened

By Mary Jo Frank
Office of Communications

Historian and former U-M faculty member David A. Hollinger delivered the Ninth Annual Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom last week. Photo by Bob Kalmbach
Academic freedom and university autonomy are under attack, but today's challenges are more subtle than those of the McCarthy era, David A. Hollinger told friends and former colleagues at the Ninth Annual Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom.

Hollinger, Chancellor's Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley, taught at Michigan from 1977 to 1992. His March 15 lecture in Rackham Amphitheater was attended by more than 200, including two of the honorees, H. Chandler Davis and Clement L. Markert.

In 1954, Davis and Markert refused to testify before the Congressional Committee on Un-American Activities about their political associations and were dismissed from the University faculty. The third honoree, the late Mark Nickerson, also suspended for refusing to testify, later was reinstated.

Hollinger opened his lecture with an update on the McCarthy era, sharing a story about Nickerson. In 1954, Hollinger said, the Medical School dean had a spy at a local travel agency who would inform the dean of Nickerson's travel plans when going on job interviews. The dean then called his counterpart at the hiring school and warned, "if you hire that communist, I'll see that you never get a grant again."

Hollinger recalled when he first mentioned this conspiracy to Nickerson, "Mark became very pensive." This information helped Nickerson, for the first time, understand what had happened to his career after the suspension. During telephone interviews and in correspondence, he would be treated cordially, but when he arrived for the interview, he soon would realize he "was dead in the water," Hollinger explained.

Much of Hollinger's lecture, "Universities and Cosmopolitanism," focused on a memorandum written in 1971 by Lewis F. Powell Jr., a Virginia lawyer who would become a Supreme Court associate justice. In it Powell outlined how "big business" and the National Chamber of Commerce could finance and orchestrate programs of cultural reform to limit the influence of liberal professors. Some of the measures he proposed were implemented. A few examples:

  • Big business should find ways to sustain social scientists with "sound views" through privately funded organizations.

    Money has poured into conservative think tanks, Hollinger noted.

  • Big business should create a network of popular speakers and media leaders to promote public policies developed by scholars with pro-business views.

    Hollinger cited changes in television punditry in recent years.

  • Schools of business administration should broaden their curricula and role in campus life to compete with the social sciences.

    Business schools are pursuing more joint appointments, Hollinger said.

  • Big business should carefully supervise the writing of textbooks, monitor television networks and object to liberal biases, and publish more articles promoting "the system" in publications like Atlantic Monthly and Reader's Digest.

    All of this has been done, Hollinger said, and complaints about the liberal bias of the social sciences have evolved into charges of political correctness.

    Powell knew that it would be fatal for the Chamber of Commerce to attack academic freedom, Hollinger said. He never recommended firing faculty for subversive activities. Instead, his strategy called for persuasion rather than brute force. Powell's target was the supposed bias in the conduct of research in the social sciences rather than the personal association of individuals, and his goal was to shift the intellectual center of gravity in the social sciences, Hollinger said.

    Today, a number of factors threaten the political autonomy of universities. Among those Hollinger cited:

  • The public standing of faculty is considerably lower.

  • Faculty are divided internally regarding their relationship to society, with many seeing the real threat to the academy "as the persistent foolishness of colleagues."

  • The outsourcing of teaching to part-timers, which Hollinger said undermines the solidarity of the professoriate.

    The lack of solidarity is demonstrated by the willingness of faculty members to tolerate huge salary differences on the same campus.

    Although it always has been true in medicine and law, salaries are tied to market potential in a growing number of fields. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Hollinger said, the average salary in economics is $122,000, compared to $104,000 in the basic sciences, $98,000 in the humanities and $144,000 in business administration.

    At the University of California, Los Angeles, a professor of classics earns $80,000 compared to $150,000 for a professor of law. Salaries for new recruits range from $50,000 in mathematics and the humanities to $100,000 in business.

    Referring to the writings of cultural critic Edward W. Said, Hollinger said that Said defines the academy as an unending search for truth. Said uses two figures of speech to convey differences when discussing knowledge: the potentate and the traveler. The academic professional as a potentate is powerful and holds sway over his or her domain. The traveler is more mobile, depending less on power than motion, traversing the territory and trying to embrace as much of the world as possible.

    Academic freedom calls for creating a community of inquiry that is deep and wide, based on a foundation of faculty commitment to cosmopolitanism, according to Said. Hollinger said a rooted cosmopolitanism, in which individuals who are grounded in their own culture are encouraged to absorb as varied experiences as possible, is replacing the idea of multiculturalism in the academy.

    The historian observed that only seven years after plotting to limit the influence of liberal professors and university autonomy, Powell wrote the Supreme Court's decision in the University of California Regents vs. Bakke that established the constitutionality of affirmative action in the interest of cultural diversity. Powell's opinion, Hollinger said, was a call for cosmopolitanism and a defense of the political autonomy of universities.

    "Even an enemy, given changing circumstances, might become a friend," Hollinger concluded.