Two scholars shared their insights on topics related to issues of academic freedom Thursday during the 25th annual Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom.
Joan Wallach Scott, professor emerita at the Institute for Advanced Study and former chair of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors, discussed how concerns over incivility have led to certain scholarly work being deemed unacceptable.
And Natalie Zemon Davis, Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University, recalled how her own scholarship was affected during the 1950s when she was caught up in the attack on her husband, H. Chandler Davis, by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Chandler Davis, who also attended the lecture at Honigman Auditorium in the Law School’s Hutchins Hall, is one of three former U-M faculty members for whom the lecture series — the longest-running one in the nation on the subject of academic freedom — is named.
Davis, Clement Markert and Mark Nickerson invoked their constitutional rights when called to testify before HUAC in 1954. All three were suspended from U-M. Markert subsequently was reinstated, and Davis and Nickerson were dismissed.
In 1990, the faculty’s Senate Assembly passed a resolution regretting “the failure of the University Community to protect the values of intellectual freedom” and established the Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom.
In his introduction of Natalie Davis, President Mark Schlissel commended series organizers for “25 years of making a difference.”
“At a place like the University of Michigan, it’s essential that we never stop learning and thinking and questioning ourselves,” Schlissel said. “This is especially true of the mistakes of the past. We must confront our errors with the same rigor that we pursue new knowledge.”
In her lecture, Scott drew parallels between the Red Scare of the 1950s, and present-day cases in which faculty members have faced discipline and censorship because their work or statements were viewed as uncivil.
“Incivility is in our era what communism was in the 1950s and ’60s. In both instances, the denial of academic freedom to individuals and groups is based on the idea that their views place them outside the community of rational discourse,” Scott said.
She cited examples that ranged from criticism of Israel’s actions against Palestinians, to hate-speech codes on campuses in the 1980s, to current concerns over microagressions and trigger warnings.
“Although the call for civility suggests concern about the public sphere, in fact it is individual discomfort that is the issue in case after case,” she said.
Furthermore, she added, these controversies are occurring in the context of higher education taking on a more corporate model, where students are viewed as customers who are always right. This, in turn, affords students more power when leveling complaints about things they find upsetting, whether valid or not.
“Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas, have them question beliefs they have taken for granted, grapple with ethical problems they have never considered, and more generally expand their horizons so as to become informed and responsible democratic citizens,” Scott said.
In her lecture, Natalie Davis recalled that although she was not called to testify about her politics, the government confiscated her passport along with her husband’s, which kept her from returning to France to resume research on her doctoral dissertation.
Instead, she continued her work using volumes from the New York Rare Book Library. She cited some of those 17th century texts as examples of ways in which earlier scholars continued their work after their efforts were subjected to inquisition.
She also spoke of her experience with Charles Trinkaus, a leading Renaissance scholar and professor at Sarah Lawrence College and, later, at U-M. He also was a neighbor of the Davises when they lived in Bronxville, New York, in the 1950s.
Although they lived across the street from each other, and their children were playmates, Davis said Trinkaus never talked to her of their scholarly work or invited her to converse with him at the college where he taught.
She later learned that Trinkaus had his own encounter in 1953 with a U.S. Senate subcommittee on internal security, and he had refused to name names of people he knew as a former member of the Communist Party. Sarah Lawrence College stood by him, but the fear of being summoned to return before the committee lingered.
“Thus, when a young, politically engaged couple moved across the street from him, in which the husband had been very publicly fired from the University of Michigan and cited for contempt of Congress, it cannot have been good news,” Davis said.
“Better, then, to keep apart. So, at a time of repression, fear erodes communication and impedes the lines of friendship.”