Affirmation and Dissent: Columbia’s Response to the Crisis of World War I
reviewed by Walter P. Metzger - 1972
The principal merit of this slender book is that it links the assaults on academic freedom at Columbia University during World War I to precursive changes in that institution's internal structure, size, and administrative style. To the extent that historians still regard the campus repressions of that period as discrete and anomalous misadventures, chargeable to war-shock and nothing else, a contextual approach of this sort serves an important corrective purpose. While the author may not acknowledge the thesis, his archival researches support the argument that the unhappy events of 1917 were more often denouements than lapses; more often the outcomes of settled habits than the works of temporarily enfevered minds.
It is clear, for example, that the Columbia Board of Trustees had not awaited the signal of the Wilson war message to indulge its taste for inquisition. In the spring of 1916 it had summoned the eminent historian, Charles A. Beard, and several junior members of the faculty to respond in star chamber to the allegation that they had spoken subversive thoughts aloud. The immediate cause of Beard's offense was a report that he had supported a public speaker who had said "To hell with the flag." After explaining that he had not endorsed this blasphemy, but had merely included it within the privilege of free speech, Beard had been let off, though not before he had been cross-examined on what was probably the main source of trustee annoyance—his iconoclastic study of the Constitution—and not before he had been told to warn his colleagues that teachings "likely to inculcate disrespect for American institutions" would not be condoned. When the mood of the country turned to jingo, the trustees were amply prepared by established prejudices to move against opinions they disliked. The sound of the bugle altered no philosophy. Francis S. Bangs, the chairman of the board, was for "making a radical and sweeping change in the personnel of the departments of history, economics and politics"; the war gave him the gloss and the occasion, but not the initiative, for acting upon his class obsessions. It was his view that "the power of the Trustees to regulate the affairs of the University is absolute" and that professors will "stay or go as the trustees may declare." The war most certainly did not originate the confusion of stewardship with ownership, of moral obligation with legal power, that reigned in the business mind of that day. Moreover, a large part of the professorial at Columbia had already defined these officious sentinels as dangerous, and the war merely heated an antagonism that had been simmering for years.
Nor can it be said that the war caused the president of the university to lose his way. To be sure, on the question of whether nations should opt for war, and of what intellectuals should do when that die was cast, Nicholas Murray Butler did undergo an abrupt volte-face. A prominent leader of the peace movement in America, a caustic critic of European scholars who had backed their war-bent governments without reserve, Butler had to jettison a number of strong convictions in order to announce, as he did in 1917, that there "will be no place at Columbia University. . . for any person who [is] not with whole heart and mind and strength committed to fight with us to make the world safe for democracy" and that the "separation of any such person from Columbia . . . will be as speedy as the discovery of his offense." But on the question of who may speak for the university on mooted public issues, and of how and by whom the fitness of a faculty member shall be judged, the president did not display any great inconsistency. He had always believed in a division of labor and a differentiation of formal roles—the faculty to attend to research and teaching, the administration to set policies and effect routines. He had always made a fetish of efficiency, by which he did not mean tight-fisted economy (he was in fact a great expansionist, confident that the costs of growth would be sustained by increase of means) but rather the exercise of unfettered leadership—by the president first and foremost, and also by a sublieutenancy of deans. He had always known that the dominance he desired needed faculty consent to be effective; his way of gaining that legitimacy, however, was not to seek ratificatory votes from an academic senate, or follow the consensuses formed in joint committees, but to treat important professors individually, pamper them with light administrative taskloads, and dazzle them with his own omniscience, celebratedness, and self-esteem. Known as the Columbia style, this kind of managership excited in Butler's time a great deal of favorable and hostile comment. It was the cynosure of observers who envied Columbia's attributes of success—her heavy student enrollments, her eminent and productive faculty, her large and ever-increasing dower. It was an abomination to a group of academic reformers— Columbia's J. McKeen Cattell, especially— who were more opposed to the domination of the president than they were to the bigotries of lay governors, and who lavished an invective on the deputy they seldom visited on the source. But one thing did become clear about this kind of managership: it did not work very well in crises. A faculty, favored by an abundance of research hours but shorn of most institutional responsibilities, will not stand ready to give wise counsel at a time when wisdom is in short supply. An administration dominated by a papal presence will be too quick to proclaim an orthodoxy at a time when persecution is apt to be most rash.
In 1917, the University Council, a body consisting of faculty and administrators, and empowered merely to advise the president, set up a committee of nine members, a majority of whom were deans, to parry the loyalty investigation of the board. From so weak and ambiguous a parent (the only concession to shared authority at the central level of administration) a frail and ambiguous offspring could have been predicted. Reversing its original judgment, the Committee of Nine, chaired by economist E.R.A. Seligman, then acting dean of the faculties, recommended the dismissal of J. McKeen Cattell, who had petitioned a number of Congressmen to oppose a measure that would have sent conscripted soldiers to the European war-theater against their will, and H.W.L. Dana, who had participated in several antiwar demonstrations. No judicial hearing was provided; the committee's requests that Cattell not be expelled on grounds that would impugn his patriotism (was the petitioning of a Congressman a disloyal act?) and that Dana be allowed to resign after a leave of absence were both disregarded by the board. Not out of affection for Cattell, whose fondness for impolite address had made him non grata to this straitlaced faculty, but in protest against the tyranny of power and the failure of the faculty to find its authentic voice, Charles A. Beard resigned from Columbia with a ringing public denunciation of the board. There were other sputterings of moral outrage, but only one other member of the faculty had the animus, the means, or the moral courage to leave the fold. The difficult tactic of defection could not be an efficient substitute for healthy governmental forms.
One might wish that the author had worked this structural analysis with a keener eye for critical detail, and with a concern for cogent summary. Even so, the book can be read with profit, not least by those who have tried to understand what happened at Columbia in 1968. Was it not the same Columbia style of managership that the Cox Commission described as conducive to student alienation, faculty abdication, and communication breakdowns on all sides? Was it not the University Council that had so muffled faculty opinion and had become so mired in trivial agendas that the administration did not even bother to convoke it when the torrent broke? May it not be said that it was not until the closeted Kirk administration was replaced by one more open to the world and sharing that Columbia finally disencumbered itself of the legacy of its imperious, irrepressible, gift-laden, talented, but ultimately demonic old St. Nick?