Academic Freedom and the Board of Trustees at the University of Illinois: A Historical Perspective

by Belden Fields

At the IPRH panel on “Academic Freedom and Free Speech across Disciplines” held at the Beckman Institute on Monday, September 29, one of the panelists Prof. Colleen Murphy said that the faculty’s effort now must be to see that the way Professor Steven Salaita was treated by the university never happens again. That is certainly a worthy goal, but we should not infer that academic freedom, free speech, and due process procedures have been rigorously defended in the past. In my experience over the last fifty years the treatment of faculty and students who have publicly espoused dissenting or unpopular views points to a different conclusion.

My association with this university has spanned more than half a century, first as an undergraduate graduating in 1960, then as a faculty member from 1965 until my retirement in 2000. I continued to teach and serve in the Senate for several years after my retirement.

When I was a student here state law (the Broyles Act) prohibited those who were Communists or members of organizations deemed by the US Attorney General to be subversive from teaching, working, or even just speaking at the U of I. Prior to my arrival on campus, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, some old guard faculty members in the College of Commerce and Business Administration tried to keep Keynesian economists (seen as pink if not red) from being hired by the Economics Department. At that time and through 1994, the Board of Trustees was elected from political party lists. Some conservative Republican members of the Board, especially Board President Park Livingston and football star Red Grange, openly supported the effort to keep Keynesians out, as did area Republican state senators Charles Clabaugh and E.R. Peters. The Republican-supporting News-Gazette enthusiastically cheered them on. Largely for his openness to recruiting Keynesians, Howard Bowen, the dean of the college, was forced out of his post in 1950. That was followed by the 1953 Trustees’ ouster of President Stoddard who had been supportive of Bowen.

During my last academic year as an undergraduate, Professor Leo Koch was summarily fired by President David Dodds Henry. The offense committed by this biologist in the Division of General Studies was that he responded to a letter in the Daily Illini that condemned necking and “petting” at fraternity and sorority parties. Koch’s responding letter argued that if consensual sex were not so stigmatized, public “petting” would be unnecessary. A far right-wing reverend who had a daughter at the U of I organized a campaign among parents and state legislators portraying Koch as part of a communist conspiracy to demoralize American youth. His summary firing by President Henry earned the U of I a place on the AAUP’s censure list of offenders of academic freedom, where it remained for several years.

In the 1960s and 70s, there were restrictions on where students and faculty could express themselves publicly. For a while, there was a designated “free speech” area on the southeast corner of the Illini Union patio. Students were sometimes arrested for holding dissenting signs (e.g., against CIA recruiting) inside the Union building. In July, 1970, fifteen faculty members in the Department of Political Science issued a statement referring to the Nixon Administration as a “criminal regime.” This followed the killing of student protestors by the National Guard at Kent State University and the US military incursion into Cambodia. The Chicago Tribune called the fifteen professors (I was one of them) “academic vipers” and said that the university did not deserve public tax money if it had professors like us. The Trustees instructed Chancellor Jack Peltason to tell us that if we did not retract the statement we would be fired. Two faculty members took their names off the statement, but the remaining 13 issued a new statement explaining in greater depth our position. (The text appeared in the Summer Daily Illini, July 30, 1970, p. 5) Chancellor Peltason talked the trustees out of firing us, but they did censure us. We rejected the censure and took it to the Academic Freedom Committee of the American Political Science Association. The committee ruled that the trustees had violated our academic freedom, but the trustees never withdrew their censure.

As already noted, after 1994 a change was made in the selection of Trustees. The nonstudent Trustees have since been appointed by the governor. While administrators have sometimes issued questionable rules, such as on what content can be communicated on university computers, and while the University Police did prevent distribution of leaflets on political and social issues to football fans in university parking lots, I am not aware of any intrusion of the Trustees into academic freedom issues until Chair Christopher Kennedy convinced the Board to deny UIC Professor William Ayers emeritus status. So far as I am aware, this was unheard of even during the Red Scare of the 1950s. That denial was followed a year of so later by the Trustees’ intrusion into the employment of lecturer James Kilgore, whose reappointment had gone through all of the proper unit and college channels. When Kilgore sought an explanation for this cancellation from Vice-Chancellor and Provost Adesida, he was met with a stony refusal to give any reason. But it was clear that either the entire Board, or Chair Kennedy himself, was involved. And now, following right on the footsteps of the Kilgore situation, we have the open intrusion of Chair Kennedy and his Board (minus one member, James Montgomery) in overturning the decision to hire Professor Steven Salaita that had gone through all of the proper academic procedures. Academic freedom, freedom of expression, shared governance, and due process are left in tatters.

“Never again”? This is a statement of aspiration. But the history of this institution shows that we can never assume that structural modifications will guarantee respect for the fundamental values of the university. Appointing rather than electing Trustees was indeed a good idea to address certain problems. “Shared Governance “ is also a good idea, but it can develop an administrator/faculty elite that becomes so tight interpersonally that the necessary critical stance required to protect academic values is seen as being hurtful, rude, or “uncivil.”  This is why organizations that maintain that critical stance, like the CFA and the AAUP, are so terribly important, not just to the faculty, but to the integrity of the university as a whole.