Dr. David Shevin photograph

Carefree College Days

August 6, 2001

I can tell that short-sleeve weather has arrived when students in my classes start to hand me essays on the "Right to Bare Arms." Ah, College Days. Lately, I've been thinking a lot about one my earlier lessons in college life.

One of the academic freedom stories that generated a lot of press in about 1966 came out of Rutgers University, where history professor Eugene Genovese was known for his role in a growing body of critics of the Vietnam escalation. Genovese's argument was that the practices of empire carried inherent dangers, and that a reversal of American efforts would be welcome, both for Vietnamese self-determination and America's own best interest. History has proven such reasoning to be acceptable and sound enough, but such voices drew shrill charge from the right wing. Genovese himself recently commented that he was, as far as he knew, the only professor to have had Richard Nixon campaign for removal from his office. The historian recently remarked with tongue firmly in cheek, "I have the singular honor, so far as I know, of being the only professor whom Richard Nixon personally campaigned to get fired.")

Nixon, indeed, did run a powerful campaign over Genovese's outspokenness. The former Vice President was starting on a successful run for the Presidency, speaking frequently to veterans' groups, beating the war drum, and pointing to Genovese as a model of unacceptable speech. The fact that public funds went into underwriting the professor's salary was a key issue for Nixon. In one veteran's hall after another across the country, the candidate denounced the professor. While the circumstance may be far removed by years, the seriousness of the threat to academic speech deserves repetition.

That spring, University of Rochester President Wallis decided to offer Richard Nixon the podium as commencement speaker at graduation ceremonies, and the selection caused a stir among faculty. It was historian Bernard Weisberger who led the faculty petition drive over the selection. The strategy for the faculty was measured and wise, offering concern rather than alarm. Without questioning the president's right to select or the candidate's right to speak, the faculty questioned whether it was appropriate to award the speaker an honorary degree. Handing a doctoral degree, albeit symbolic, to a man campaigning nationally against academic freedom risked a brand of hypocrisy on the institution.

Several stories appeared in the Rochester newspapers, and predictably enough, President Wallis was unmoved by the faculty's appeals. On campus, the administration was doing everything it could to make life as uncomfortable as possible for Weisberger. I was best of high school buddies with Bernie Weisberger's son Jon, and it was obvious at the Weisberger house that the pressure came from off campus as well as on. "Dear Red," the hate mail would begin, before threatening violence on the home and family.

Bernie Weisberger left the University of Rochester for a very successful career as an independent scholar and author. He found an editorial position at American Heritage Magazine, wrote a number of scholarly and popular texts, including a study of labor leader Samuel Gompers. For one season, he headed a research team for Bill Moyers' "Walk Through the Twentieth Century" series. His departure created a vacancy on the University of Rochester faculty. To their credit, Rochester's department recruited Eugene Genovese as a colleague.

What I learned around the Weisberger house was that it's a good thing to speak your mind, and a bad thing to be terrorized for that same effort. Today, I look about the college faculties I know, and try to count how many still have the freedom to act as independently as the History faculty did in Rochester in the '60s. I wish it were many. It certainly should be. The sad fact is that faculty are under only increasing scrutiny since the days of teach-ins and moratoria, and the voices raised in the spirit of truly independent inquiry grow ever fainter, muffled under thick and acoustically absorbent layers of micromanagement.

Today they tell us Nixon's dead. I'll believe it when I see the wooden stake through the heart.

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