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How academic freedom fared under McCarthyism

No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities, by Ellen W. Schrecker. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 437 pp. $20.95. The subject of McCarthyism -- the generic term for a wide range of activities purportedly undertaken to root out communist subversion -- has been approached from many angles. Some studies have tried to determine whether or not specific persons accused of having been Communist Party members were indeed guilty and whether or not this automatically rendered them dangerously subversive. Other studies debate the morality of informing: naming names. Others focus on the origins of McCarthyism and its significance on the American scene. And almost anyone who studies the subject has been moved to consider the question of whether McCarthyism or the subversion it sought to lay bare was the more serious threat to the republic.

Ellen Schrecker's extensively researched history of McCarthyism and the universities ranks as the most substantial work ever to focus specifically upon the response of the academic community to the McCarthyist threat. It is indeed rather curious to think of how few books there are on this topic, in contrast to the wealth of material about the effects of McCarthyism on the entertainment industry, from Lillian Hellman's ``Scoundrel Time'' to Woody Allen's delightful movie, ``The Front.'' Schrecker, a Harvard PhD who teaches history at Princeton, begins her study long before Senator McCarthy's demagogic performances sent shock waves through many sectors of American society -- long before, even, the specter of revolutionary Russia gave rise to the first ``red scare.''

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Her account begins in the 1880s, when an early generation of reform-minded economists first discovered how difficult it would be to advocate and participate in pro-labor, anti-corporate causes while teaching at institutions vulnerable to pressure from interests opposed to such radical activities.

By the 1930s, a sizable number of professors in a variety of fields from mathematics to English literature had become members of the Communist Party or of related Popular Front organizations. Investigations were launched, the most important being that of the Rapp-Coudert committee of the New York State legislature. Better informed, more realistic, and in the long run therefore more damaging than the fanatical, harebrained crusades led by extreme right-wingers in other states, the Rapp-Coudert investigation not only served as a precedent and model for future inquiries, but it also provided the occasion for many a party member to lie about his affiliation, and so later to find that even when the charge of communism became a moot point, the charge of dishonesty might still confront him.

Schrecker's narrative, which includes dozens of case histories, many of them poignantly sad, a few even tragic, takes us through the height of the McCarthy era in the late 1940s and mid-1950s, and also follows a number of individuals through subsequent years of difficulty. Many who suffered ostracism were not ``rehabilitated'' in the eyes of the academic community until as late as the 1970s.

Schrecker clearly feels that the shadow of McCarthyism should, at very least, have provoked a serious attempt by the academic community to answer some important questions: What are the limits of academic freedom? What boundaries, if any, should be imposed upon the free exploration and expression of ideas? What rules, if any, should regulate the clash of conflicting ideologies? She finds, however, that when the pressures of McCarthyism were brought to bear upon academic institutions, these larger questions about the meaning of academic freedom became ``academic'' in a different sense. For, far from defending -- or even defining -- the right of an individual professor to dissent, the nation's colleges and universities and the AAUP (Association of American University Professors) were usually more concerned with defending the right of academic institutions to administer themselves free from outside pressure or scrutiny from non-professionals. ``Stripped of its rhetoric,'' Schrecker contends, ``academic freedom thus turns out to be an essentially corporate protection . . . invoked more often to defend the well-being of an institution than the political rights of an individual.''

Acknowledging that her study is not definitive, Schrecker notes that more research remains to be done. But her argument is reasonable and, in view of the evidence here, all too plausible.

``The academy,'' she concludes, ``did not fight McCarthyism. It contributed to it. . . . Such a discovery is demoralizing, for the nation's colleges and universities have traditionally encouraged higher expectations. . . . Here, if anywhere, dissent should have found a sanctuary. Yet it did not.''