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University of Maine History Symposium Series hosts discussion with professor Nathan Godfried on academic freedom


On Monday, Nov. 15, the University of Maine History Symposium Series invited Professor Nathan Godfreid to discuss activism and social justice at universities like Harvard University during the 1930s. The event was held live over Zoom. 

The discussion, titled “‘Radicals cannot be Scholars’: Scholar-Activists, Academic Freedom, and Harvard University, 1933-1939,” conducted by Godfried, was meant to highlight the controversy within the context of scholar-activism during a time when the concept of academic freedom was challenged at many universities. 

“Scholars and university professors would get in trouble for their activism both off campus and on [campus] and the issue of academic freedom emerges as a key theme,” Godfried said. 

Godfried is a professor of history at the University of Maine and his undergraduate classes explore major political, economic and social developments of the United States during the early 1900s to present day. 

“Academic freedom has meant many different things,” Godfried said. “There is some semblance, for example, that academic freedom stresses the right of individuals to engage in any line of inquiry that may be desirable.” 

Godfried talks about how this definition of academic freedom has continued to develop over time and has been misconstrued. One major struggle that he talks about is the fact that from an administrative perspective, universities such as Harvard and Columbia University would take the leap in defending academic freedom but then dismiss scholar activists that are associated with Communism and other leftist values. 

He references Nicholas Murray Butler who was the president of Columbia University for 43 years, the longest tenure in the university’s history. In 1935, Butler gave an annual report in which he highlighted that university freedom comes above academic freedom. According to Godfried, Butler went around firing many faculty that were considered dissonant. This resulted in the resignation of many faculty members and highlights the state of division that these universities were in during the 1930s, which was a decade defined by the global economic and political crisis that developed between the two World Wars. 

“It’s a particularly potent kind of tension that develops during periods of social unrest and that’s when these issues come to the forum,” Godfried said. 

He refers to Butler as an extreme case, but that this kind of battle for academic freedom was present across the country, including at Harvard.

Professors and scholars at Harvard that were involved in radical issues at the time were subject to removal, especially if they spoke out against Harvard or members of the Harvard administration. Godfried highlights John Rayond Walsh and Alan R. Sweezy, two major faculty members that were dismissed by Harvard after acts of radical behavior that did not reflect well on Harvard. 

Their removal caused a lot of problems for Harvard because their dismissal was related to  comments Walsh and Sweezy made publicly denouncing the former Harvard President Lowell for his opposition to a constitutional amendment prohibiting child labor. Their dismissal led to an investigation of this issue and sent a particular message about academic freedom from the managerial perspective that, according to Godfried, involves acting in the best interests of the university. 

The Harvard administration argued that the dismissal of these faculty members was not correlated with their radical behavior, but then they go on to say that the problem is that these people are not seekers of truth because of their agendas. 

“They are activists in the labor movement, they are activists in these radical movements taking place off campus, and therefore by Harvard’s definition they are not seekers of truth and have an agenda and therefore are problematic,” Godfried said. 

Godfried ended his discussion by saying that Harvard is just one of the many universities that faced this issue of the repression of academic freedom and it only continued to become a greater issue during the onset of the Cold War.

According to Asif Nawaz, an assistant professor of history and international affairs at UMaine, this is the last discussion for the semester in the series and they will be returning in January with more events. 

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