The University of Michigan’s annual Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom was established by the University Senate in honor of three academics who were wrongfully dismissed by the university for refusing to cooperate in the witch-hunt led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee.
In September 2022, H. Chandler Davis, the last surviving member of the group, passed away. Davis was a man of firm political commitments, a remarkable man of great and varied talents. Born in 1924 in Ithaca, New York, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and after the war undertook a Ph.D. in mathematics at Harvard, which he completed in 1950.
His principal research investigations involved linear algebra and operator theory in Hilbert spaces. Additionally, he made contributions to numerical analysis, geometry and algebraic logic. He also identified the properties of the remarkable fractal known as the “Dragon Curve.”
He was a gifted science fiction writer, first publishing in 1946 and continuing to write stories until the 1960s. He believed that science fiction writers should use their stories to challenge stereotypes, such as those based on race, gender and ethnicity.
After Harvard, Davis came to U-M as an instructor. It was at this time that he was called to testify before a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Lansing. Alongside him were colleagues Mark Nickerson and Clement L. Markert, and his student friends Edward Shaffer and Myron E. Sharpe. All were “unfriendly witnesses, refusing to confess” their political dissent.
Davis, unlike the others, based his refusal to answer only on the First Amendment, waiving his protection under the Fifth Amendment. Thereby he deliberately invited a citation for contempt of Congress, so as to give him standing to argue in court that the committee’s proceedings were unconstitutional.
He got the citation, all right, but he did not prevail in court. His appeals were exhausted in 1959 when the Supreme Court refused to hear his case. He was sentenced to six months in prison, which he served in 1960. While in prison, he continued his mathematics research, and in a paper published in 1963 attached the acknowledgement “Research supported in part by the Federal Prison System. Opinions expressed in this paper are the author’s and are not necessarily those of the Bureau of Prisons.”
Meanwhile, he and Nickerson had been dismissed from the university. This action of U-M’s administration drew censure from the American Association of University Professors. Unable to get a permanent job in the United States, Davis moved to the University of Toronto, where he stayed until the end of his career, becoming a Canadian citizen.
He was a political activist throughout his life, embracing causes that fought against injustice and oppression. For several years he was a member of the Communist Party, but he had become disillusioned with it well before appearing before HUAC. Later in life he said he regretted his naiveté about the communist movement but not his activism, preferring to describe himself as “red-green eco-socialist.”
He came to regret his military service because of the use of nuclear bombs by the U.S. During the 1960s, he campaigned against the war in Vietnam and visited North Vietnam in 1971. He chaired the Toronto Anti-Draft Program and frequently hosted draft dodgers in his family home.
In more recent times, Davis became an active campaigner for Palestinian rights. He remained an activist to the last, giving an address from his hospital bed in July to an event organized in defense of the Russian mathematician Azat Miftakhov, a dissident who has been wrongfully imprisoned by the Russian authorities since 2019.
A committed supporter of the Academic Freedom Lectures, Davis often attended in person, or remotely when he became too ill to travel. He was committed to a positive approach and welcomed the chance to speak to the university that had wronged him.
At the 2018 lecture he said, “I haven’t always been sure of my own welcome here, but today I am able to speak in the name of the university.” Talking about past speakers he said, “They have been a worthy collection of academics, some were administrators, the kind of higher ups to whom we address pleas for allowing free speech. I wish more had been from the other side of the scrimmage, those whose academic freedom is under threat.”
Through his own life and work, Chandler Davis made a powerful stand in their defense.
Author’s note: Chandler Davis’ own account of his experience with HUAC can be found in “The Purge” (“A Century of Mathematics in America,” American Mathematical Society, 1989). A selection of his prose writings is in “It Walks in Beauty” (ed. J. Lukin, Aqueduct Press, 2010).
— Submitted by the Senate Assembly’s Davis, Markert, Nickerson Academic Freedom Lecture Committee