McCarthyism and Academic Freedom on the University of Chicago Campus

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The Academic Freedom, Loyalty Oaths and Affidavits (1960-1967) files in Office of the President Beadle Administration provide an interesting record of the repercussions of McCarthyism in the academic community. By the 1950s, universities had displaced all other institutions as the heart of the United States' intellectual life. The ideas that shaped the way Americans perceived themselves and their society developed on the nation's campuses. At the same time, however, McCarthyism produced one of the most severe episodes of political repression the United States ever experienced. In her book No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities, Ellen Schrecker characterizes it as a "peculiarly American style of repression" due to its "nonviolent and consensual" nature (Schrecker, 9).

Due to universities' growing dependence on and responsiveness toward the federal government in the 1950s, most it did not fight McCarthyism on their campuses. Instead they contributed it to it. As Schrecker has written, "the dismissals, the blacklists, and above all the almost universal acceptance of the legitimacy of what the congressional committees and other official investigators were doing conferred respectability upon the most repressive elements of the anti-Communism crusade" (Schrecker, 340). Only a handful of academic administrators offered any resistance to the anticommunist tide. Among these Lionel Lewis in his Cold War on Campus: A Study of the Politics of Organizational Control calls Robert Hutchins, chancellor of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1951, "by far the most outspoken academic administrator" (Lewis, 24). His testimony before the Subversive Activities Commission of the Illinois Legislature in 1949, when the University faced charges of aiding and abetting communism, shows his direct and combative stance against redbaiting. He stated bluntly: "The policies of repression of ideas cannot work and never has worked." Hutchins set the precedent for the University's position on academic freedom in the decades that followed.

Considering the amount of materials available in the President's files, Office of Public Relations news indexes, and the Archives, the University's main contention over the protection of academic freedom in the 1960s dealt with the National Defense Education Act of 1958. The NDEA of 1958, which loaned $287,200 to 460 students, required all students receiving loans under the Act sign a loyalty oath and an affidavit form. A copy of the affidavit form found in the Archives reads as follows:

"I, (name of student), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I do not believe in, and am not a member of and do not support any organization that believes in or teaches, the overthrow of the United States Government by force or violence or by any illegal or unconstitutional methods."

This affidavit created much controversy within the University of Chicago and the academic community at large. Out of the unknown amount of the University of Chicago students receiving loans under the Act, twenty-four refused to sign the form. Fourteen educational institutions, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, either refused to participate in the program or withdrew within a year. According to a memo put forth by the Office of Public Relations, the University of Chicago announced its withdrawal from the Federal program on January 14, 1960 specifically because of the requirement for an affidavit of disbelief by students applying for assistance under the Act.

According to the archival documents of Julian H. Levi, the assistant to chancellor Lawrence Kimpton, it was decided during Kimpton's administration (1951-1960) that the major effort concerning disavowal of affidavits and loyalty oaths, which might affect the University, would be handled publicly through the American Council on Education and the Association of American Universities. This practice continued during Beadle's term (1961-1968) as well.

The file contains an exchange of letters between Vice President Richard Nixon and the heads of three Midwestern University spanning February 15 to 25, 1960. The three educators-- Kimpton, Hancher, and Heaburg—urged Nixon to support the repeal of the affidavits of disbelief in the National Defense Education Act. In his response, Nixon implied that he believed the affidavit in unnecessary and unwarranted. The University passed resolutions for the elimination of the affidavit, which Senator John F. Kennedy (Mass.), Senator Jacob K. Javits (New York) and Senator Joseph F. Clark (Penn.) joined in sponsorship. Yet Congress still declined to modify the act by removing the disclaimer affidavit requirement.
Upon his appointment as chancellor of the University in 1961, George Beadle used his inaugural address, in part, to express his position on academic freedom. In a transcript of the speech, provided in the file, Beadle characterized academic freedom as:

"Freedom of the mind—freedom to search for the truth wherever that search may cannot search for the truth with a closed mind or without the right to question and doubt at every step. Any injunction to close the mind, to arbitrarily restrict one's beliefs, or to accept on authority without doubt, violates the very concept of freedom of the mind..."

Beadle's main objection to the affidavit, according to his inaugural address, was "that a disclaimer of belief of any kind closes the mind. It is a way of saying, 'I will not think about this subject.' If we are to object to totalitarian nations suppressing freedom of thought and freedom of inquiry, we must not be guilty of doing the same." While championing academic freedom was much more prevalent in the 1960s than the 1950s, Beadle was still following the precedent Hutchins started in 1949.

According to a memo by the Office of Public Relations, on November 6, 1962, the Board of Trustees authorized renewal of student loan programs under the NDEA after the legislation was amended by Congress and signed by President Kennedy on October 17, 1962. Thus when the objectionable requirement was deleted, the University reentered the program.

In the "Statement of Academic Freedom," put forth by the Board of Trustees in 1949, it is argued, "these proposals go beyond insistence that teachers and research workers should obey the law. They make activities or associations otherwise legal the basis for disqualification and deny teachers the political rights possessed by other citizens. There is not sufficient evidence that this loss of rights is made necessary by the requirements of security." The Statement closes with "it is important that American universities resist political dictation. Each concession encourages new encroachments and makes further resistance more difficult."

Almost twenty years later the principles set forth in the "Statement of Academic Freedom" still ring true, if not more so. Now that the politics of fear, once mastered by McCarthy, have been reintroduced and refined in modern American politics, the sanctity of the educational institution is once again being tested. Personally, the closing sentences of the "Statement of Academic Freedom" brought to mind the University's symposium last October entitled "In Defense of Academic Freedom." The event was orchestrated in reaction to the controversial tenure denials of Middle East scholar Dr. Norman G. Finkelstein and Dr. Mehrene Larudee at DePaul University in 2007. The Cold War and the 'War on Terror' have both manifested themselves on college and university campuses, as is shown by the aforementioned files, and will have lasting effects and repercussions in the academic world for decades to come.


Neil W. Hamilton, Zealotry and Academic Freedom: A Legal and Historical Prespective (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1995).

Lionel S. Lewis, Cold War on Campus: A Study of the Politics of Organizational Control (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1988).

Ellen W. Schrecker, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

Various documents from the Special Collections at the University of Chicago Library including: the archives of President Hutchins papers, President Kimpton papers, and President Beadle papers.

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