A voice from the past warns of the Big Money takeover of the university

University of Illinois students protest firing of Professor Steven Salaita for personal views he expressed on Twitter.
(Rick Danzl / AP)

“The present primacy of public relations in the management of universities, the view that they must ingratiate themselves with the public, and in particular with the most wealthy and influential portions of it, the doctrine that a university may properly frame its policies in order to get money and that it may properly teach or study whatever it can get financed--these notions are ruinous to a university in any rational conception of it.”

Robert Maynard Hutchins was the most eminent educator in the country during his life, a reformer and visionary who built the University of Chicago into one of the leading academic institutions in the land. As a demonstration of his foresightedness, consider the words above about the influence of Big Money on academic freedom. They’re drawn from his essay “The Freedom of the University,” which appeared in the journal Ethics in 1951. (H/t Brad DeLong.)

Hutchins was writing in the heat of the McCarthyite red scare, which targeted university faculties as particular hives of supposedly subversive thought. It’s a testament both to his perceptiveness and to the persistence of anti-intellectual attacks on American universities that his words still pack so much punch today.

Astonishingly, maybe more now than they did then, for the threat from political pressure and from academic money-grubbing that Hutchins saw in the future has become reality today. We see it in the craven actions of the University of Illinois administration and board of trustees to fire Steven Salaita, a scholar of Palestinian-Israeli relations who expressed his personal views about the Gaza situation on Twitter, rather too bluntly for the university’s taste. We see it in the eagerness of Florida State University, Arizona State University and others to accept money from the Koch family despite the manacles the donations place on the unversities’ academic freedom.


We see it in the call by UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks to “extend the notion of civility” to Berkeley’s “unflinching commitment to free speech.” As I wrote earlier this month, “civility” is a weasel word designed to place limits on free speech, not to promote it. Dirks says he “did not mean to suggest any constraint on freedom of speech.” But Hutchins would have seen through that qualification. Here’s how he put it in his 1951 essay:

“If a professor can think and make his contribution to a center of independent thought, that is all that is required of him. One might wish that he were more agreeable or more conventional; but he cannot be discharged because he fails to measure up to desirable standards in these respects.”

Before we take a look at some of Hutchins’ other thoughts, a few words about him and his times. Hutchins ran Chicago as president and then chancellor from 1929 to 1951. He built Chicago’s curriculum on the “great books” system and eliminated distractions such as varsity football. The team was later re-established, but to this day its stadium, Stagg Field, is probably better-known as the location of the world’s first chain-reacting atomic pile (Enrico Fermi built it in a squash court under the stands in 1942), than for any achievements on the gridiron.

“The Freedom of the University” was largely a warning that the political and intellectual conformity demanded by a red-scared public and timid politicians would destroy the university. He extended his warning to the influence of money and public whim. He was especially wary of the manipulation of international threats to suppress dissent: “Independent thought implies criticism, and criticism is seldom popular in time of war or of danger of war,” he wrote. “Then every effort is made to force conformity of opinion upon the entire population, and the country often goes into an ecstasy of self-adoration.”

And he was hostile to efforts to control professors’ activities outside the classroom--precisely the issue in the Salaita case. “We should avoid entering [an era] in which a professor can lose his post and his reputation by holding views of politics, economics, or international relations that are not acceptable to the majority. This is thought control....When a man becomes a professor, he does not become a second-class citizen, disabled from saying, doing, or joining anything that other citizens may legally say, do, or join. The university assumes no control over his activities as a citizen and takes no responsibility for them.”

Hutchins accepted that universities needed boards of trustees, but expected them to stay out of academic affairs. “A trustee, or a board of trustees, who did not like what the faculty or a faculty member was doing should resign. It should never occur to trustees that faculty members should resign because they do not share the opinions of trustees.”
And he would have been aghast at the very idea that a university would allow a donor to dictate what should be taught with his or her money, or who should be hired or fired--limits that universities breach routinely when accepting Koch money (among that of other donors).

As we reported earlier, in 2007 Florida State’s then-economics chairman advised his colleagues that in accepting a Koch donation, “we cannot expect them to give us free reign [sic] to hire anyone we might want.” Here’s what Hutchins thought of that approach: “A university should not adopt a policy because it will bring money. It should work out its program and then get it financed.” He saw the dangers very clearly: “External control by definition prevents universities from being centers of independent thought. By definition, if they are dominated by outside agencies or influences, they are not independent and can engage in independent thought only by sufferance. Such sufferance is likely to be short-lived.” (Emphasis added.)”

He concluded as follows: “The chief danger to American education is that it will sell its birthright for a mess of pottage. The danger to it is that in seeking money it will sacrifice the purposes for which it exists.”


As the Salaita affair and the infiltration of donor money into academic decision making shows, the danger is upon us.

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