Limiting Academics’ Freedom to Tell the Truth About Racism is Not New

When academics try to advocate for racial equality or teach about race, it has often been labeled communism or un-American

Op-Ed by Eddie R. Cole, originally published in the Washington Post

Last summer, the University of Nebraska president and campus chancellors were forced to defend academic freedom following a state resolution to ban teaching critical race theory. A few months later, the Board of Regents for the University System of Georgia issued new guidelines for tenure and post-tenure review policies that sparked a backlash. And similar concerns exist in OklahomaMississippi and other states where recent demands to prohibit teaching about race and the history of racism has widespread public support.

In response, faculty senates and professional associations have issued public statement after statement condemning those political efforts, which they argue weaken academic freedom. For example, the faculty senate at Virginia Tech noted, “As scholars and educators, we are called to affirm that limits on discourse and inquiry are antithetical to intellectual and psychological growth.”

But these attacks are not new and, like today, limitations placed on academic freedom have a history long rooted in racism. Race has been at the center of many of the most aggressive attempts to dismantle academic freedom in the nation’s universities.In 1940, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued its Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, a document that still guides the association today. The statement’s purpose was “to promote public understanding and support of academic freedom.” It added, “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good. … The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” Professors, the statement read, “are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject.”But academic freedom was not a colorblind concept, nor were the assaults on scholars.

In 1941, for example, Georgia Gov. Eugene Talmadge dismissed Walter Cocking, dean of the College of Education at the University of Georgia, because he believed the administrator sought to enroll Black students. Scholars later noted that Cocking did not advocate for desegregation, but he was concerned about “the plight of black Americans.” That sympathy was enough for Talmadge to fire Cocking under the ruse of fighting communism. In fact, faculty who expressed views in favor of racial equality were often branded as communists, or un-American, as a way to silence and delegitimize their claims, regardless of their race.The Cocking affair, according to one report, prompted the governor to fire anyone who supported “communism or racial equality.” Within the year, 10 more University of Georgia employees were dismissed and labeled communists.Talmadge’s attacks in Georgia resulted in the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools removing accreditation from all the state’s public segregated White colleges. That was not enough, however, to keep other states from taking similar actions at their universities, as the free exchange of ideas over issues of race remained contested.After World War II, Cold War fears of communist infiltration only accelerated the attacks on academics, particularly Black scholars.

In 1949, renowned scholar W.E.B. Du Bois had a speaking invitation rescinded by Morgan State College, a public Black institution in Maryland. Du Bois had appeared with civil rights activist Paul Robeson during the World Peace Congress in Paris and did not distance himself from Robeson’s condemnation of the United States. This posed a challenge to Morgan State officials dependent on state funding.As White elected officials increasingly tied demands for racial equality to communism, Black scholars found their academic freedoms stifled to an even greater degree. The same limitations to academic freedom also applied to White academics who expressed sympathetic views of Black Americans’ struggle for racial equality.In 1955, the same year 14-year-old Emmett Till’s murder in Mississippi garnered national headlines, the Mississippi Board of Institutions of Higher Learning passed a policy to screen all campus speakers. Historian Joy Williamson-Lott has noted that such Southern bans were used to prohibit anyone who advocated for overthrowing the U.S. or states’ constitutions — a common framing to label critiques of racism un-American. Russell H. Barrett, a then-professor at the University of Mississippi, later explained that the board had bowed to political pressure when implementing the policy because it “would reinforce the university and college administrators’ normal sensitivity to public and political criticism.” The campus and state chapters of the AAUP condemned the policy as antithetical to academic freedom, but the aggressive attacks continued.

Such was the case again in 1956, when University of Mississippi Chancellor John D. Williams rescinded a campus speaking invitation to Alvin Kershaw, an Ohio-based minister who championed desegregation. Kershaw was invited as part of the university’s Religious Week, but concern soon spread when the visiting minister said he would discuss his views on segregation if asked while in Mississippi. The governor and others retreated from supporting the chancellor’s initial decision to welcome the speaker.The Kershaw episode proved how academic dialogue was limited to ensure that faculty could not engage in ideas that challenged segregationist beliefs.The episode helped precipitate direct attacks on Williams’s leadership. His attackers cited a list of liberal speakers, the attempted desegregation by Black applicants in the 1950s and professors who supported such attempts as evidence that Williams had permitted the campus to go awry in teaching communist-inspired beliefs that hailed desegregation as viable.

Beyond canceled lectures at Southern universities and its effect on some White scholars, Black faculty across the country felt the limits of academic freedom more than any other group as politics and racism continued to entwine.

In September 1969, the University of California Board of Regents fired activist and scholar Angela Davis from her position as a philosophy professor because of her stated membership in the Communist Party. At the time, the Los Angeles Sentinel reported that 25-year-old Davis characterized the firing as an attack that affects “the entire black community and the university and obviously is an attack on the autonomy of the university.” The University of California academic council unanimously opposed the termination and defended Davis’s right to be a member of the Communist Party, despite Gov. Ronald Reagan’s demands to fire her.In late October, a California Superior Court judge ruled Davis’s firing was illegal, and she was able to stay on the UCLA faculty. It was determined that the “mere membership” in the Communist Party was not grounds for firing. However, as historian Ibram X. Kendi has argued, Reagan then sought to find another reason to fire her.

In May 1970, despite her victory the previous fall, the regents fired Davis again. Instead of citing her communist affiliations, this time Reagan and the regents justified their action as simply not renewing her contract as a visiting assistant professor.

The attacks on Davis and state-level political interference were responses to the Black activism seen on college campuses across the nation with Black faculty, again, taking the worst of racist attacks on academic freedom.Elected officials headed these attacks and garnered widespread public support. This is eerily like current issues, and it raises numerous questions about academic freedom today.

Academic freedom remains valuable to higher education. The pursuit of truth is only possible when faculty are allowed to pursue uncomfortable topics. This is the case for a range of topics, not just those that confront the nation’s history with racism. However, if leaders will not defend scholars’ right to challenge racist norms, then no scholar of any topic — climate change, political critique or others — has true academic freedom.

Part of being a knowledgeable and engaged citizen is to know the history, whether it is good or bad. That makes defending academic freedom to discuss the truth about racism essential if academic freedom is to survive.

Eddie R. Cole is associate professor of higher education and organizational change at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the author of “The Campus Color Line: College Presidents and the Struggle for Black Freedom” (Princeton University Press, 2020).

This essay is the sixth in the Freedom to Learn series sponsored by PEN America, providing historical context for controversies surrounding free expression in education today.