Academic Freedom in the 1930s

Controversy over a Speech by Norman Thomas

In June 1901—as is often the fashion with a "new era"—President John C. Kilgo included a statement of the spirit and aims of Trinity College in his first report of the new century to the board of trustees. Colleges, he wrote, have "character" and a "fixed set of ideas" that the academic community holds. And the character of Trinity is one that makes it "aggressive in its efforts to develop the best interests of society." Essential to the task, he added, was the freedom to do its work. "If Trinity College is to be of any real force in education and in society," he stated emphatically, "it must be free."

By no means timid and indeed almost welcoming a fight, Kilgo was perhaps injecting much of his own philosophy and personality into his statement of the spirit and purpose of the college. Nevertheless, events in his administration—whether sought or encountered—served to mark his presidency as a turning point in the establishment of academic freedom as a vital tradition at the institution.

In 1901, Kilgo of course did not know how discerning he was in making the twin issues of social responsibility and academic freedom so prominent in his report to the trustees. In the twentieth century, as the character of the college became more clearly defined, and as its means to accomplish its aims became more stable, Duke University faced new challenges to its tradition of academic freedom.

Headlines from The Chronicle, December 3, 1930William Preston Few, president of Trinity College for 14 years and of Duke University for 16 years—a regime that lasted till 1940—influenced the history of the institution as it is known today more than any other individual. Quiet, scholarly, and seemingly shy, he contrasted sharply with his predecessor and with many other contemporary leaders in higher education. As the university community well knew, however, he had a keen sense of direction, an understanding yet firm administrative manner, and the patience to work quietly behind the scenes and wait for the right moment to voice his ideas. Indeed, when certain people questioned the propriety of the appearance on campus of a prominent Socialist, Norman Thomas in December 1930, President Few moved swiftly and quietly to explain his attitude toward academic freedom and its tradition at the university.

Thomas was then 46 years old, and widely known for his writings and as the Socialist Party candidate for president of the United States. Popular as a campus speaker, he was on a Southern tour which included appearances at nearby North Carolina State College in Raleigh and a mass meeting of textile strikers in Danville, Virginia. His hastily arranged speech at Duke was sponsored by the Liberal Club, a loosely organized student group. A reporter described his speech as "iconoclastic yet quietly sincere." Henry R. Dwire, director of public relations and alumni affairs, said that it "created no stir on the campus."

Yet within ten days of Thomas's appearance, letters of inquiry about official sponsorship of the speech and the rationale for granting Thomas a platform arrived in the offices of the president and the director of public relations. The Southern Textile Bulletin, an influential weekly trade journal published in the North Carolina mill town of Gastonia, attacked Thomas' visit to the state in an editorial entitled "They Honor Norman Thomas." Identifying Thomas as "an advocate of social equality between the races" and "one of those who seek to destroy our Government," the editorial castigated the two universities for giving him a public platform. Duke was singled out for special attention: "As one member of the Duke faculty recently accepted membership upon the National Committee of the notorious American Civil Liberties Union and another ... addressed the Foreign Policy Association in New York upon 'Communism's Challenge to Capitalism,' it is easy to name those who brought Norman Thomas to Duke University."

Proud of the distinguished and often young faculty hired to develop the graduate and professional schools, Few took special offense at the textile journal's implications of guilt-by-association against the professors: A.C.L.U. member Elbert Russell, friend and former Quaker pastor of President Herbert Hoover, and dean of Duke's school of religion since 1928; and Calvin B. Hoover, professor of economics and recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for study in Russia. Moreover, the person who had sent Few a reprint of the editorial was none other than William R. Perkins, chief legal advisor to the late James B. Duke, a trustee and vice-chairman of the Duke Endowment, and a trustee of the university.

In many ways, President Few had a special obligation to answer Perkins' request for his views on the issue. A native Virginian, Perkins was educated at Washington and Lee and had practiced law in Virginia and New York City principally in behalf of the Duke business interests. Thus he had only limited knowledge of the struggles and strengths of Trinity College in its early years. Few also knew that the personal ties between the Duke family and Trinity College of an earlier era were giving way to new relationships between the benefactors' business partners and the growing university.

In a six-page letter to Perkins, Few spoke carefully and frankly to the question of academic freedom. He pointed out that rather than an atheist and advocate of free love, as the editorial claimed, Thomas was a "Presbyterian preacher, A.B. of Princeton and B.D. of Union ... in all probability sincerely interested in the well-being of mankind." Since Few had been in Atlanta on business at the time of Thomas's speech. and since Thomas had not been invited by the university, Few had known nothing of Thomas's appearance.

"If I had been here I think I should have been obliged to let the matter go as it did go," said Few, "namely, just to ignore it and let him have his say." Of the "allusion with unfair implications" to Professor Hoover, Few said that Hoover had "an unfavorable view" of the probable outcome of the experiment going on in Russia, but that even if he had felt the experiment would succeed, "it is the part of wisdom not to ignore facts but to look them in the face and prepare ourselves to meet them."

Few's main point had a direct correlation to the issues of the Bassett Affair and the manner of its resolution. Commenting that there had always been "danger in the old South of the prostitution of higher education by politics," he added that "in North Carolina, at least, we have won that fight." Pointing out that many had feared that organized religion might handicap the development of a university such as Duke, he stated that he had never seen from any church such "unfairness and little-mindedness like this which you call to my attention." Instead, he said, it surprised him that the greatest danger came from groups interested mostly in industry and economics: "Publications like The Southern Textile Bulletin with its heat, misrepresentation, and wholesale unfairness, and the climate of opinion such as it cultivates were the ruin of the old South," Few warned, "If they are to have influence in our day they will bring our civilization also to ruin."

The president then defended the "careful selection" of faculty in "highly inflammable" subjects like government, economics, sociology, psychology and philosophy, and advocated giving them "a free hand to find and proclaim truth as they see it." Clearly, he said, "it is the business of Duke University to hear both sides of all questions." Appealing for support of his concept of "university-mindedness," Few outlined Duke University's unique opportunity in the South in 1930 to contribute to building "a civilization of really great and enduring qualities." Few said that the university would need all the power, vision and wisdom it could get, and "we shall especially need the open mind and a willingness to give a fair hearing to every well-meaning man."


Related Resources


© 1996. William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002.
This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.