THE CONTROVERSY OVER THE LOYALTY OATH AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA
at the annual SAFS meeting (May, 2002),
in a symposium entitled: Academic Freedom in the light of September 11,
May 2002, based on an article published in Minerva
[Innis, N.. K. (1992). Lessons from
the controversy over the loyalty oath at the University of California.
Minerva, 30, 337-365].
Freedom of speech has been curtailed on many campuses following the
attacks of September 11th. Fear engendered by an elusive
foreign enemy has often resulted in a threat to academic freedom.
The threat in the late 1940s and early 1950s was Communism. At
that time, the University of California attracted national
attention when a large number of faculty members refused to take an
anti-Communist loyalty oath. It all began in March 1949 when
Robert Sproul, President of the University, asked the Board of Regents
to approve an amendment to the constitutional oath required of
university employees. The
amendment stated: that I do not believe
in, and am not a member of, nor do I support any party or organization
that believes in, advocates, or teaches the overthrow of the United
States government by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional
This amendment was adopted by the Regents with essentially no debate,
in what amounted to a closed session of the Board. Moreover, the
plan to impose this oath was only made public two months later, as the
academic term was coming to a close. There was an immediate reaction on
the part of the faculty. At a special meeting of the University
Senate at Berkeley (other UC campuses held similar meetings) two
senior faculty members, psychologist Edward Tolman and historian Ernst
Kantorowicz, spoke out against the oath.
Many were surprised that Kantorowicz, the noted biographer of Frederick
II and an acknow-ledged conservative, spoke out. He voiced his
conviction that there were "grave dangers" in a seemingly harmless
oath. Oaths change, as he had experienced in Nazi Germany, and the
"harmless oath...hooks before
it has undergone those changes..."
He then went on to stress what he believed to be the "fundamental issue
at stake: professional and human dignity."
It was expected that Edward Tolman, an eminent learning theorist who
was liberal in his social and political attitudes, would oppose the
oath. Tolman’s main point of contention involved the issue of "accepted
principles of academic tenure and of academic freedom." After
outlining his specific criticisms, Tolman introduced a resolution
asking that the oath be deleted. But before doing so, he stated
"off-the-record" that he could not and would "not sign the oath in its
present form." He urged his colleagues to join him in "this
protest to demonstrate to the Regents the seriousness with which we
view the oath as a threat to academic freedom..." The resolution
was approved, but with an amendment asking that the oath be
deleted or revised. The
Regents revised the oath, and
assurance from President Sproul that this new oath would be acceptable
to the Academic Senate. Because of growing public uneasiness
about Communism on campuses, the Regents now were determined to
implement a policy on this issue. The language of the revised
oath was more explicit, and it now read: I am not a member of the
Communist Party or under any oath or a party to any agreement or under
any commitment that is in conflict with my obligations under this
President Sproul gave the Regents his assurance of Senate support,
although the Senate Advisory Committee had only favored such an
explicit oath if it were deemed essential for "public relations."
In fact, the media across the country were quick to attack the faculty
position, and the reputation of the University was indeed on the
line. For some then, public relations may have been the most
important concern at the time.
The role of President Sproul in imposing the oath, and his evident
inability to foresee faculty reaction, is a question of some interest.
Was the institution of the oath in March, but not informing the faculty
about it until the end of the school year, a coldly calculated move on
the part of the President? Or was it the naive action of an
individual who could not foresee the implications it would hold for the
faculty? Sproul was not an academic. He was confident there
were no Communists on his faculty, and may simply have assumed no one
would object to signing. His persistence in pursuing the oath, at
this time, turned out to be a major miscalculation. A threat to
academic freedom was something that most of the faculty could not
ignore. And eventually, as the Regents became divided on the
issue, Sproul would become part of a minority group of Regents
supporting the faculty.
The following year became known as the “year of the oath,” as various
efforts to find a means of implementing the Regents' policy on
excluding Communists from the University – without requiring a loyalty
oath – were attempted and met with failure. In February 1950 the
Regents passed what became known as the "Sign-Or-Get Out Ultimatum":
individuals who had not signed the oath by April 30th would cease to be
employed by the University. The faculty was outraged and, despite
internal differences that had been intensifying over the past few
months, rose united in opposition. In enforcing the oath
requirement in this way the Regents were implying that the non-signers
were Communists, although there had never been any suggestion that this
was case. Moreover, they were dismissing them without the
opportunity for appeal – a clear violation of academic tenure.
Requiring a political test for employment in the University had
far-reaching implications that went well beyond the issue of Communist
Wanting to ensure a fair presentation of their position, faculty who
opposed the oath began work on a book, entitled The Year of the Oath,
which was published under the name of George Stewart, a professor
of English. The fact that its authors worked in secret, not even
communicating by telephone, is indicative of the fear and suspicion
that prevailed. And the end was not in sight; the conflict would
not be resolved for another two years.
During the “year of the oath,” an informal group of non-signers and
their supporters had started to meet at the Faculty Club and in June,
1950 they established a formal organization – the Group for Academic
Freedom (GAF). Edward Tolman was unanimously elected
Chairman. The Group was not at all homogeneous; however,
irrespective of their differences and the various factors underlying
each individual's decision not to sign, there was one common factor --
concern for civil liberties and academic freedom. A position based on a
love for the University, and all it stands for, that transcended the
expediency of the day.
The Group's mission was to "help foster academic freedom and to protect
the rights and security of individual members of the faculty..."
An additional goal was to publicize their stand so that those outside
the university might have a better understanding of the
issues. In a letter to President Sproul they stated three
of "many good reasons" for not signing the oath: (1) that in signing
"any super-imposed statements, we believe our capacity to teach, freely
and honestly, is imperiled;" (2) that students' faith in the words of
professors whose "freedom to pursue the truth is impaired" will be
greatly diminished; and (3) that in detesting totalitarianism "we
resist the idea that coercion of teachers is requisite to preservation
of free institutions."
The battle with the Regents was to continue throughout the summer, and
eventually 31 professors were fired. Twenty members of the GAF
took the Regents to court and a prolonged period of litigation followed
before the issue was finally resolved. It wasn’t until in the
spring term of 1953, that the non-signers were able to return to their
Many non-signers left the University of Califirnia and promising young
men and women chose not to consider positions there. Campus life
was also disrupted, as courses were cancelled and professors were
distracted and uneasy. David Gardner in what is suggested to be
the authoritative account of the oath controversy concluded:
The history of the conflict
is the story of the
failure of educated, competent, and allegedly rational human beings
bound together in a good cause -- the service of truth and knowledge --
to resolve their differences without injury to the University
whole....The controversy abetted more than it constrained public
suspicion of free inquiry and independent thought and in the end won no
victory for intellectual and academic freedom.
Implications of the Oath Today
For Gardner, there was no winner and the University of California, in
particular, lost. It is in an attempt to show otherwise, and to
point out the lessons from this controversy for those of us taking a
stand against abuses of the University today, that I have re-examined
As the oath controversy developed, it became clear that the issue that
most concerned the Regents was not whether there were Communists in the
University, but rather who was in control -- the Regents or the
Faculty. The professors had an additional concern: the
imposition of a political test for employment, affirming that their
beliefs and ideas were those prescribed by popular opinion. These
two issues -- academic tenure and
academic freedom -- involved rights
that were won years before (at Cal in 1920); rights that at the time of
the oath controversy were preserved by precedent, not legislation;
rights that typically were taken for granted until challenged; rights
that are being challenged again today.
Tenure The final
authority in public universities was then, and
still is, a board of trustees, regents, or governors. In areas of
appointment and dismissal, and in curriculum development, these boards
act on the advice of university administrators who, in turn, are
advised by faculty representatives. This procedure developed
gradually, and now tenure is firmly established in the constitutions of
most institutions. In the past, however, these rights were not so
explicitly protected, and at the time of the oath controversy the
Regents of the University of California did not consider them to be
important. In fact, it appears that the Regents, who were lawyers
and businessmen not academics, had little understanding of what the
rights of academic freedom and tenure meant to the academic community.
The action of the Regents was widely reported, so that the dismissal of
prominent scholars at a large and prestigious university made
professors throughout the country aware of how fragile their rights
were. During the 1950s there was a widespread movement to
strengthen the position of professors and, in 1958, the American
Association of University Professors expanded its guidelines for
academic tenure, publishing a statement outlining the procedures to be
followed in dismissal proceedings. It would be difficult to argue
that the example of the treatment of the non-signers by the Regents
during the oath controversy played no role in this action. Had
the faculty all signed quietly to avoid controversy, this issue of
"power" would not have been raised and the entrenchment of tenure
rights might have taken much longer.
Academic Freedom The
non-signers believed that it was
inappropriate for a teacher to take a political oath. In order to be
able to teach effectively one must be free to think as he or she
chooses, and a controlled mind is, by definition, incapable of
this. In their ruling for the non-signers, the California Third
District Court of Appeal asserted that only when the University is free
from the "political, religious, social and economic philosophies"
popular at any particular time can "learning and the search for truth"
There are several areas of similarity between the situation at the
University of California and what is happening on North American
campuses today. The first has to do with the dependence of public
universities on government funding, resulting in the necessity for
administrators to give in to the social pressure of the day in an
attempt to avoid demonstrations and unrest on their campuses that
might then lead to criticism of the university in the press and
A second similarity has to do with the nature of academics. Most
dedicated academics shun "getting involved" in university
politics. Often it is easier, and more personally satisfying, to
avoid taking a stand. Those who get involved do so at
considerable personal cost, as the non-signers of the loyalty oath
discovered. Fearing harassment, professors remain silent.
This was as true at the time of the oath controversy as it is now; then
John Caughey (UCLA historian and a nonsigner) pointed out: "Too often,
the friends of academic freedom have been roused to action only when
there has been a full-scale attack to repel, a last-ditch stand to
make, or a salvage job to do."
Another parallel between the two situations is the use of name-calling
and innuendo to discredit opponents and deter opposition. Just as the
non-signers were labeled Communists and “un-American,” professors today
who are critical of politically correct policies are attacked with
slurs and threats; their ability to participate in administrative
activities may be threatened and they may even lose their jobs.
Although there are significant parallels between the events of the oath
controversy and what is happening at our universities today, there is
one significant difference. The threat to academic freedom then
came almost entirely from outside the University. Today, while external
events may precipitate abuses, the threat comes mainly from within.
Social activists, who are themselves members of the University
community, are putting pressure on colleagues and their administrations
to react in ways that restrict academic freedom. Indeed, this
infringement on academic freedom has come about by the use of the very
procedures that were established to protect it. The committees
formed to make new appointments, determine course content, or hear
appeals from colleagues facing dismissal now often recommend radical
action. In many cases this occurs because the more moderate
committee members are intimidated into agreeing with decisions they are
not comfortable with in order to avoid trouble.
Today the University, as an institution, is in jeopardy. If it is
to survive, everyone who opposes a political agenda within the
University must unite. It is unlikely that the non-signers at the
University of California would have been successful if they had not
formed the Group for Academic Freedom and supported each other in their
cause. SAFS has a similar mandate. We must continue to
encourage all those who believe in truth and scholarship to band
together in opposition to the attacks that we now face.
1. University of
California Bulletin, XVIII (May 1949), p. 108.
2. The speech was reprinted in Kantorowicz, Ernst H. The Fundamental Issue: Documents and
Marginal Notes on the University of California Loyalty Oath (October
8, 1950): pp. 4-5, included in the papers of the Group for Academic
Freedom (CU-9.23), Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
3. Edward C. Tolman (ECT), Address to the Academic Senate,
June 14, 1949. Group for Academic Freedom (GAF) Papers, Bancroft
Library, University of California, Berkeley.
4. Report of the Regents' Meeting June 24, 1949, Faculty Bulletin, 19 (July, 1949):
5. Gardner, David P., The
California Oath Controversy (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1967): pp. 43-44.
6. The question does arise as to whether by that time, with
a majority of the Regents committed to the oath, it would be impossible
to back down. However, with a powerful Regent such as Neylan not
committed to an oath as the solution to the Communist problem, another
solution still might have been possible.
7. Stewart, George, R., The
Year of the Oath (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1950).
8. GAF Papers.
9. GAF Papers.
10. Tolman to Sproul, 18, July, 1950.
11. Gardner, David, P., The
California Oath Controversy: p. 245.
12. Stewart, George, R., The
Year of the Oath: pp. 119-121.
13. American Association of University Professors, "1958
Statement on Procedural Standards in Faculty Dismissal Proceedings" in
Joughin, Louis, Academic Freedom and
Tenure: A Handbook of the American Association of University Professors
(Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1967): pp. 40-45.
14. See Edward C. Tolman to President Sproul, 18 July, 1950.
15. Tolman versus
Underhill (229 P.2d 447):pp. 451-452.
16. Caughey, John W. "Trustees of Academic Freedom," Bulletin of the American Association of
University Professors, XXXVII, (Autumn, 1951), p. 439.
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