Appointment Denied: The Inquisition of Bertrand Russell

Stephen Leberstein. Academe. Volume 87, Issue 6. Nov/Dec 2001.

In February 1940 the city college of New York offered the preeminent British philosopher Bertrand Russell a position as professor in its philosophy department. City College, the proverbial “Harvard of the Proletariat,” was then a hard-pressed municipal college whose fame stemmed more from the ferment and accomplishments of its burgeoning student body than from its faculty or administration.

City could not boast of many faculty members of Russell's stature, or notoriety, in 1940. The college's facilities were as inadequate as its faculty for a day-session student body that had exploded by two-and-a-half times in the preceding decade. Supplies were hard to come by, much of the teaching was done by part-time “tutors” getting by on Depression wages, and administrators were notable for treating the students as “unwashed masses.” In City's entering class of 1938, fewer than a quarter of the students' parents had been born in the United States, and 80 percent of the student body was thought by one critic to be “of Jewish background.” The students were the restive proletariat of their time, and their teachers, many of them fairly recent alumni of the college, were not far removed from that condition. To have someone like Russell teach at City would have been extraordinary.

Russell's appointment became the bete noire of an assortment of enemies, most of them on the political right. Churchmen, embittered Tammany Hall politicians, the Hearst press, and others waged a holy war to defend the morals of New York youth from the lascivious, deviant, radical foreigner. The battle took on aspects of a comic opera. Mrs. Jean Kay, the wife of a Brooklyn dentist, sued the college's governing body, the city's board of higher education, to stop the appointment on the grounds that Russell urged his students to break laws against premarital sex, that he was morally unfit for the job, and that he had not passed a civil service exam. Her daughter Gloria, she argued, might suffer from his influence if she enrolled as a student at City. Although women were not eligible for admission to City in 1940, and Gloria had not applied, Judge John McGeehan rushed the case to trial, ignoring procedural motions. The case was often frontpage news while Byzantine political machinations were at work in the dark recesses of City Hall, in the cathedral offices of the Catholic cardinal and the Episcopal bishop of New York, and in Wall Street law firms. Within eight months, the offer to Russell was withdrawn and the City's youth were saved.

Thom Weidlich's book explores this episode in the history of New York, and of academic freedom, relying on a wealth of archival material and some personal interviews with surviving participants. A journalist, Weidlich set out to rescue the case from oblivion as a “scoop,” as he aptly titles his introductory chapter. Weidlich's interest in his scoop, however, seems almost antiquarian when he concludes that the ”event had little long-term repercussions.” Instead, he sees it as a story about morals and also as one with a moral: that “revealed religion and democracy don't mix.” While this volume puts the Russell case before us again, and greatly contributes to our understanding of how this broadside attack on public higher education and academic freedom happened, it misses the broader political context in which it unfolded.

Hounded for his pacifism and afraid for his children's safety when war threatened, Russell took refuge in the United States at the University of Chicago in 1938. Russell thought Chicago “beastly” as a city and university president Robert Hutchins a neo-Thomist. At the end of the year, he left for the University of California, Los Angeles, but he needed to earn more money than UCLA paid him to support his three young children. When City College offered him a post with the then-princely salary of $6,000 a year, Russell accepted.

News of Russell's coming to City College caught the attention of William Manning, the Episcopal bishop of New York, who had long vilified Russell as immoral and unpatriotic (Manning himself was British). Manning began the attack on Russell, calling on all the churches in his bishopric to rouse their parishioners in opposition. The Hearst press quickly took up the case, possibly because Russell had offended Hearst by giving up the column he wrote for him and, perhaps worse, by turning down an invitation to San Simeon, Hearst's California castle. Then came the Tammany Hall politicians thirsting for revenge at the administration of New York mayor Fiorella LaGuardia, whose reforms had cost them influence and jobs, including the presidencies of the two largest municipal colleges, City and Hunter. Finally, Francis Spellman, who had recently become the archbishop of New York and cardinal, joined the fray.

At times, the Russell affair was comical because of the hyperbole of the press or the bumbling of the Tammany judge who rode roughshod over the law to convict Russell of unfitness to teach in the public colleges. But the story is also tragic, because it shows how fragile was the defense of academic freedom and how vulnerable public colleges were to political reactions. In depriving Russell of his teaching post, his enemies also clearly chilled the climate for the kind of untrammeled inquiry that academic freedom is meant to protect and deprived City College students of his teaching (although not Gloria Kay, who never finished high school).

Russell's offer of a post at City College resulted directly from the reform of the municipal colleges championed by the New York College Teachers Union, which in 1938 succeeded in making tenure statutory and in putting control over hiring and curriculum in faculty hands for the first time. After LaGuardia won the mayoralty in 1933, he began replacing Tammany appointees to the board of higher education, and by 1938 the board had begun to serve as a buffer to protect the municipal colleges from political interference (for how brief a moment no one could then foresee). The role of faculty governance in the Russell case, and how it emerged, is a development not fully explored in this volume.

The Russell case soon reached the New York legislature, where state senator John Dunnigan of New York City denounced it as an example of the ”ungodly and un-American ways” of those in charge of New York's schools, and pressed the legislature to authorize an investigation. In response, the legislature resolved to condemn the Russell appointment, after which Dunnigan introduced another resolution calling for a “sweeping investigation” of the public schools. Dunnigan explained to the New York Times that many “prominent educators” had been forced to retire “for the reason that their philosophy has not been in accord with the Godless, materialistic theories of those now governing the New York school system.” The legislature voted to authorize the investigation under the auspices of the Assembly Committee on School Finance and Administration chaired by assemblyman Herbert Rapp, with a special subcommittee on subversion in New York City headed by state senator Frederic Coudert.

The Rapp-Coudert Committee helped pioneer the repressive techniques that Joseph McCarthy later made famous. The problem, as Coudert saw it, was a “liberal” permissiveness, a tolerance for the subversive ideas of faculty and governing boards. In the absence of laws proscribing “subversives,” the faculty had to be persuaded to police itself and the board persuaded to fire those who were identified as dangerous. Within a year, the Rapp-Coudert Committee elicited the denunciation of over eight hundred public school teachers and college faculty members, pressured the board of higher education to adopt new rules compelling its employees to testify before legislative committees or face summary dismissal, and succeeded in having over fifty faculty and staff (not to mention many more public school employees) fired on charges that they belonged to the Communist Party and had refused to name names for the investigating committee. The Russell case was hardly an isolated affair without long-term repercussions, as Weidlich sees it.

Seen in this larger context of the attack on public higher education, the Russell case raises two significant questions that Weidlich does not address. Weidlich blames the mixture of religion and democracy for denying Russell his City College post, but it was not the ”public at large,” as the author argues, that condemned Russell, but rather powerful interests in politics, the press, the churches, and elsewhere that shaped public opinion. Why was it so important to these interests to trammel public higher (and lower) education? Was it a growing working class, a largely immigrant student population enrolled in the public colleges, political radicalism among students and faculty threatened by the Depression, fascism, and war, or a progressive teachers' union? All of these factors might have made control of the public colleges a crucial issue in this period.

The second question raised by the Russell case but not addressed by Weidlich is why the public colleges were so vulnerable to attack, and why such natural defenders of academic freedom as the AAUP failed to stave off the attacks. The AAUP's general secretary, Ralph Himstead, for example, asked the chair of the board of higher education to “keep in mind the implications of the factor of academic freedom which is apparently involved in this situation.” Himstead telegraphed LaGuardia in March 1940, pleading with him to intervene in the case:

This message is to express the hope that you will use your influence to make sure that in considering protests members of the Board of Higher Education will be guided by the principles of freedom of thought and inquiry which in democratic countries are regarded as essential to scholarship and to [the] welfare of higher education.

Himstead wrote to the mayor again in April, this time urging him to use his influence to persuade the board to appeal Judge McGeehan's decision to try the case. In the same month, the AAUP's governing Council unanimously adopted a resolution urging the same course of action on the mayor. All these efforts were to no avail.

When we seek to understand why the defenders of academic freedom were ineffective, some factors suggest themselves: the weakening of the political Left in the period of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, the mounting attack on labor, and the opportunism of reformist liberals such as LaGuardia in striking the Russell ”line” from the city's budget, or the board chair in succumbing to the pressure of the Rapp-Coudert Committee.

Instead of exploring these larger questions, Weidlich turns the Russell case into an epistemological issue about the nature of truth. He leaves academic and political issues to other scholars. But, in the meantime, he has rendered a valuable service by rescuing the Bertrand Russell case from an ill deserved oblivion, and has powerfully suggested its relevance to our present situation, especially in public higher education.