In the spring of 1969, the UCLA philosophy department began to search for a qualified black scholar. In a conversation with his counterpart at Princeton, the department’s chairman Donald Kalish, learned of a young student of Herbert Marcuse’s, Angela Davis. In the end, Princeton did not make Miss Davis an offer. Swarthmore and UCLA did. She chose UCLA.
Miss Davis had excellent academic credentials–a degree from Brandeis where she graduated magna cum laude and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa; one year of study in France, two years in Germany; a PhD candidacy at the San Diego campus of the University of California. After careful review of her record, interviews, solicitation of references from former teachers here and abroad, and much discussion, the department voted to recommend her for a two-year appointment.
Other officers of the university processed the department’s recommendation in a normal way, and on May 9, the Dean of the College of Letters and Science signed a one-year employment form. Kalish explained to Miss Davis that though it was the university’s intention to reappoint her provided her work was satisfactory, it was not expected that her job would last beyond two years. It may not last that long, for Miss Davis is a member of the Communist Party. She said so when later asked by UCLA Chancellor Charles Young.
In addition to a regular teaching position, Angela Davis was given a summer research fellowship to speed her dissertation. But when her troubles began, the Regents ordered Chancellor Young to do nothing that would alter her employment status. He complied by refusing to authorize payment of the fellowship money.
At the time of hiring, no one in the philosophy department knew Miss Davis’ political affiliation. No one asked. Had they known, there is no indication that their decision would have been different. No one foresaw the storm just over the horizon - not even when an FBI informer wrote a column for UCLA’s campus newspaper alleging, among other things, that the philosophy department had just hired a Communist. He did not name the person; he commended the department for hiring an academically well-qualified Marxist. His only concern, he said, was that she be so identified.
A week later, the San Francisco Examiner identified the well-qualified Marxist as Angela Davis. The Examiner’s reporter said that she was a “known Maoist” and “active in the SDS and the Black Panthers.”
Taking official notice of these two reports in its July executive session, the Board of Regents directed Chancellor Young to find out whether Miss Davis was, in fact, a Communist, and after much delay and high-level squabbling he complied, on September 5. She, as indicated, had told him she was.
That is when the newspapers woke up, and until Judge Jerry Pacht of the state’s Superior Court enjoined the Regents on October 21 from dismissing Miss Davis, the case was rarely out of the news. The Regents moved quickly to fire her, delaying the effective date only because their own rules said that she had a right to a hearing before a Committee of UCLA’s Academic Senate. The Regents also called a special meeting to remove credit from a course she was scheduled to teach. The credit issue had not arisen earlier, because Miss Davis had not been scheduled to teach in the fall ‘69 quarter. Like all other members of the philosophy department, she had had the opportunity of distributing four courses over three quarters, in any way she wanted; she had chosen to keep the fall quarter free for work on her dissertation. But when it became obvious that political chaos was not conducive to reflective, scholarly effort, and because she wanted an opportunity to prove that allegations of academic incompetence were baseless, she asked permission to teach a course that was scheduled for the fall, but not staffed. As many students had preregistered, and as the course, Recurring Philosophical Themes in Black Literature, was within the scope of Miss Davis’ academic interests and competence, Professor Kalish granted her request. It would have been irregular for him to have refused. The Regents, however, went ahead and resolved to disaccredit the course. So things stood until Judge Pacht slapped the injunction on them. Blocked by the courts, some Regents are now trying to get rid of Miss Davis by ordering Chancellor Young to set up a special committee to investigate claims that “Miss Davis is skipping lectures, inculcating her students with political propaganda, and making inflammatory public statements.” The status of this committee is unclear; different officials say different things.
The Regents’ attitude is no surprise. A majority of them have been reported as believing that “the taxpayers in a capitalistic, democratic society should not pay the salaries of professors, or the bills of students, who want to change “the system.” (The Los Angeles Times, September 22, 1969.) They have been consistent. Besides voting to prevent Eldridge Cleaver from teaching in an accredited course at Berkeley and trying to block Herbert Marcuse’s reappointment at the San Diego campus, some Regents have questioned two tenure promotions on grounds that the candidates had participated in antiwar activities. They tried to block one administrative appointment on grounds that the candidate had been a member of SDS. They objected to the hiring of Richard Flacks, a militant sociologist, on the Santa Barbara campus.
Angela Davis believes that in her case, the Regents are guilty of racism. Perhaps it is more accurate to say they have an aversion to political militants, and especially those on the Left. The two statements are not mutually exclusive, however. Capable black scholars are likely to be militant–more often, proportionally, than competent white scholars. Most well-educated black Americans who choose to teach have grasped the depth of institutional racism in America, and they react with moral outrage and a determination to “change the system.” That’s enough to make the Regents uncomfortable. Militant blacks and Chicanos are politically embarrassing. That is what Angela Davis claims. And she is right.
Nevertheless, it is not racism but academic freedom that is now the issue before the courts in two separate cases. The Regents are appealing Judge Pacht’s decision in the taxpayers’ suit entered by three faculty members and two students (two black and three white), and in which Miss Davis has formally intervened. A second action has been brought by an ambitious congressional candidate who seeks to prevent Miss Davis from teaching with or without credit, and names the Regents, Donald Kalish, and Miss Davis as co-defendants. The court will hear the second case sometime this month.
The legal, as against the political situation, is relatively uncomplicated. A university statute passed by the Regents in 1940 and reaffirmed in 1949 and 1950, bars Communists from employment. But in a series of judgments, the United States and California Supreme Courts ruled that such statutes are unconstitutional. In the key case, Keyishian vs. The State of New York, the Supreme Court declared that “mere knowing membership without a specific intent to further the unlawful aims of an organization is not constitutionally adequate basis” for excluding Communists. In the Angela Davis case, moreover, the Regents appear to have violated their own recently passed standing order, which states, “No political test shall be considered in the appointment and promotion of any faculty member or employee.”
In oral argument before Judge Pacht, attorneys for the Regents made it plain that Sidney Hook’s philosophical authority would figure importantly in their case: Communist Party membership is conclusive evidence of academic “incompetence.” Hook defines “academic freedom” as the freedom to pursue the truth without “any control or authority except the control or authority of the rational methods by which truth is established.” Communists are disqualified as discoverers or disseminators of truth, under this theory, not for mere membership in the Party, but because membership implies a commitment to practice educational fraud. Communist beliefs are heretical, but Party membership is conspiratorial. Specifically, a Communist knowingly accepts three obligations: (1) to inject Marxist-Leninist analysis into every classroom; (2) without exposing himself, to exploit his teaching position so as to give students a working-class education; and (3) again without exposing oneself, to go beyond injecting Marxist-Leninist doctrines into his teaching by conducting struggles around the school in a truly Bolshevik manner.
Though these rules first appeared in print in 1937,
Hook is mindful of them in his monograph on Academic
Freedom and Academic Anarchy, June 1968,
where he flatly declares that every Party member is
instructed “to angle or slant his position in the classroom,
and, ‘without exposing himself,’ to indoctrinate
for the party line.’” Though Professor Hook does not
think that Communists who are already faculty members should be automatically dismissed, he does favor
not hiring Communists in the first place, since the
presumption of intent to commit educational fraud is
sufficiently strong. If his general rule were adopted,
then of course a Communist scholar would have to
avoid “exposing himself” in order to get a teaching
job at all. Hook’s formula therefore requires that Communists
either not be hired, or if hired, that they automatically
commit educational fraud. Which only goes
to show that the surest way to guarantee that Communist
scholars will lie is to make it impossible for
them to teach without lying. It seems to me highly
questionable whether the injection of openly avowed,
honestly defended Marxist-Leninist beliefs into one’s
teaching should be condemned—unless one wishes to
censure Professor Hook if he injects his views about
scientific inquiry into his teaching of philosophy.
Miss Davis does not hesitate to say she will introduce her own views into the classroom, when they are relevant. She also pledges to give students ample opportunity to discuss and debate those beliefs. Though she may not accept Hook’s specific version of the canons of rational inquiry–neither do many other philosophers–she is committed to seek truth in accordance with the canons she has come to accept.
Whether Communist teachers generally practice educational fraud is a hard question to answer. My own experience suggests that when members of, say, the Administration in Washington come before a group of students and teachers, they are at least as likely to lie as Communists. That was their practice during the early days of the teach-in movement. We found that the best way to counteract that inclination to misrepresent was to expose the audience to other informed points of view. Presumably universities that give students access to many political viewpoints are doing what they should do. A heretical thought occurs: deceitful Communists may even give universities an incentive to educate better than they do.
Anyway, who knows for sure where deliberate deception leaves off and self-deception or unreason begins? For example, in an editorial, the Los Angeles Times, following the Hook line, argued that Communists were subjected to a ruthless discipline. As evidence, they cited the case of Dorothy Healy who had been fired from a Party post for having disagreed with its official support of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. In a letter to the editor, Mrs. Healy pointed out that she is still a member in good standing of the Party, that she continues to disagree with the Party’s Czechoslovakian policy, and that any political party has the right to fire functionaries who reject basic policies. One wonders what might have happened to John Bailey had he publicly, or privately, announced that he opposed Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy.
A favorite argument of Miss Davis’ adversaries is that, as a Communist, she does not believe in academic freedom. Did she not say that certain right-wing types ought to be barred from teaching? I have discussed this with Miss Davis. She would not in fact oppose hiring a fascist, provided he identified himself as such, and permitted free discussion in his classroom. But suppose Miss Davis did reject the prevailing conception of academic freedom, whatever that may be; would this justify firing her? How could it, when the very point of issue is whether someone ought to be denied a teaching position because of his beliefs? To fire her, on that basis, would be to violate any conception of academic freedom one claims to be defending. The relevant questions are: Does she conceal her belief? No. Does she defend it through reasoned argument? Yes. Does she permit her students to counter her views? Yes.
Now, if 40 percent or so of our college teachers repudiated the doctrine that a person’s beliefs ought not, per se, to disqualify him from teaching, their academic freedom might have to be violated to save academic freedom. But this is where Justice Holmes’ doctrine of clear and present danger applies. And if there is any clear and present danger to academic freedom, it comes not from Angela Davis and her Communists, but from Ronald Reagan and his Regents. Perhaps that is why UCLA’s Academic Senate voted 552 to 4 to condemn the Regent’s decision to fire her. That may also be why Chancellor Charles Young joined the opposition, saying, “I think [this Senate] should state very clearly what it means by academic freedom and its corollary, the prohibition of the application of political tests . . .” The entire faculty of the nine campuses of the University of California is in the process of declaring itself, and all signs indicate that a resolution rejecting the Regents’ position will pass overwhelmingly.
This appearance of solidarity is, however, deceptive. The faculty is reliving yesterday’s battles. Having long regretted the agonizing concessions made during the university’s “Year of the Oath,” the faculty has now been given a rare opportunity to repent past sins, which is relatively easy to do. It is when the faculty emerges from yesterday into the present that tension and conflict become visible. For one thing, the case of the young, black philosopher is a dramatic, but minor incident in a general move by Governor Reagan’s forces to recast California’s educational system in the mold that serves our “capitalistic, democratic society.” An attack on faculty tenure will be made in the next session of the state legislature, according to one Assembly member. An effort is underway to recall Judge Pacht and one other judge because of their opinions in the Davis case. Reagan has proposed meeting budgetary problems by increasing teaching loads. Supt. Rafferty banned two books, including Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, from the public schools. And most recently the State Board of Education decided that the biblical account of the Creation had to be taught as an equally plausible alternative to the theory of evolution.
As important as these overtly repressive actions (and I have given only a sampling) is the fact that the poor, especially racial minorities, are finding that a well-publicized expansion of educational opportunities is becoming a thing of the past, almost before it has had time to make a significant difference in their lives. Qualified California students will be turned down, not only by prestige institutions, but probably by many state colleges. Given the Governor’s concern for the affluent taxpayer, there is little prospect of reversing this trend during his administration. For the first time in its history, the University of California will almost certainly levy tuition fees next year. That these developments will, in combination, keep the proportion of Chicano and black enrollments low will not bring tears to the eyes of those who measure the quality of education in terms of hair length, noise level, and frequency of student complaints.
But Reagan, Rafferty, and those for whom they speak will not be with us forever. A greater danger lies elsewhere—not in blatant repression by right-wing forces, but in how their actions deflect attention from a more ominous peril.
We can now see how wrong it was to think that Governor Pat Brown’s defeat and Reagan’s victory would make it easier to radicalize people and humanize society. That argument, used by so many of California’s Left, played right into the hands of great corporate powers that influence our lives in ways that are ever more subtle, pervasive and pernicious. Analysis of faculty tensions generated by the Davis case illustrates the extent to which the Reagan-Rafferty-led repression is providing a perfect screen for other efforts to tame rebellious youths, quiet faculty dissidents, conform minds to the needs of an increasingly technological, imperfect democracy. The effects are discernible.
Within the faculty there is a group who generally oppose any policies that might rock the university boat. “Look,” they say, “if you don’t ease your attacks on the university and its officials, if you don’t respond to public demands even when they are unjustified, if you don’t stop inciting students to demand quick action in the Davis case, if you don’t avoid future appointments that might embarrass the university politically, then Reagan and his supporters will acquire the political power to destroy our institution. We have to pospone discussion of radical educational schemes and proposals. The time is not ripe for experiment. The university is not as good as it could be; but it’s a damned sight better than it will be if Reagan and Rafferty get their hooks more deeply into it. The time has come to make university practices conform to society’s expectations.”
A second, more radical tendency within the faculty community contrasts sharply with the first. Representatives of this position say, “If fear of Reaganism obsesses us, we will squander real opportunities to improve our university. It’s not enough to pass Senate resolutions and seek legal remedies; we have to beware of self-censorship. For example, are we going to back the philosophy department when it comes time to reappoint Miss Davis to the second year she was promised? If we retreat, then our most intelligent, morally committed, and energetic students will feel betrayed, and rightly so. The greatest danger in a situation like this is not overt repression; it is the kind of self-repression that paralyzes both will and reason, and wastes opportunities for genuine educational progress. Let’s convince people that Reagan’s policies will do great harm to California’s children and to her economy. Let’s fight hard for the educational integrity of our university.”
The tension between these two groups expresses an important irony. Though both are generally committed to lawful action and democratic process, the more conservative view is rooted in cynicism about American democracy. The more radical group is readier to believe that publics can be won over. Between the two groups, a majority of UCLA faculty is uneasily poised. This majority is willing to consider serious educational experimentation, including expansion of student participation in many areas of university decision-making. They see the need to rethink the function of a university in modern industrial societies. At the same time, they fear the political and educational consequences of a bold stand. In a climate of Reaganism, they tend to be more fearful than hopeful. They are hard evidence that Reagan’s election has made it more difficult, not easier, to “radicalize people and humanize society.”
The university will be hurt more before the Angela Davis controversy has died down. Only Reagan’s forces and the Communist Party have benefited from it so far. The Party, long the sick man of the American Left, has acquired a lovely and articulate star. New Left militants who regard the Party as having been co-opted into the System, view this development with considerable misgiving. Hence, UCLA’s SDS chapter announced that it will not support Angela Davis in her fight because she is a bourgeois, not a working-class, black. That is true. It is likewise true that only well-established, bourgeois institutions like the judicial system, academic tenure, the Bill of Rights, and Jesse Unruh (who was the first major political figure to attack the Regents for their actions in the Davis case) are preventing the Reagan-Rafferty forces from “cleansing” California’s schools of their “trouble-makers.”