In the "good old days," every four years a new group of professors packed bags and books and set off for Washington. In the time of Frankfurter, Douglas or Bundy, none of their colleagues held them academically accountable for the conduct of their public office, nor was there any question about their welcome back into academia when they returned. Civility was likewise extended to migrating academics who were presidents of institutions, like Wilson and Eisenhower. In those happy times no one blamed the university for the public conduct of its faculty, or was Princeton responsible for World War I or Columbia for Sputnik.
In these our latter and more degenerate times, we face different kinds of reaction to academics in government. There are two such, both of which reveal serious ignorance about how universities work, and both of which threaten academic America.
The first new reaction touches academics who serve in government and then return to their home campuses. They can be greeted with stormy crowds, both inside and outside the university, protesting what they have done during their time in public service. Equally effective are stern faculty and student moralists who conclude that their erstwhile colleagues are no longer fit to teach the young or break bread with the learned.
Manifestly, I am not talking about any kind of adjudicated criminal activity on the professor's part. The situation I describe concerns outsiders, faculty and students who work to block the return of a fully qualified professor whose public record they have judged and found wanting. Judge, jury and executioner are usually the same group of people; in fact, sometimes the same small group of people. Were such groups to look for redress to the courts or to some other government agency, they would be acting within their rights as citizens. Instead, they look for punishment in university terms and seek to prevent a professor from returning to his job as teacher and scholar. It is one thing to say a man ought to be prosecuted and move legally to begin that prosecution. It is quite another to submit a professor (or anyone else) to trial by clamor and, without any legal prosecution, by occupation, protest and impedence, stop him from resuming his academic career.
The second new reaction spreads the evil even to professors who do not leave their universities but in a variety of ways serve the government. The "crimes" in this instance for which academic punishment is sought are not deeds but the advice and opinion that faculty members offer of their understanding and learning. As in the first instance, the penalty sought is not a public one worked out legally by courts, but a university one. Those who disapprove of the advice or opinions offered demand disassociation, repudiation or even the severance of a faculty member's relation to his college or university.
Universities are complex and uneven institutions, even when serious matters of principle are involved. On the peripheral issues that preoccupy national administrations, any university will find within its faculty ranks every possible shade and tint of opinion. What keeps any college together is a set of very simple ground rules. The first rule is that opinion is not punished and thought is not policed. The second is that universities strive toward internal balance, even when they don't work swiftly. I don't know a major university that has not within the past year been criticized for pandering to the illicit lusts of the military-industrial complex or has not been scolded for insufficient devotion to the free enterprise system. Increasingly, the adage that when both sides of your backside are being kicked, you are certain you are not sitting on it may be the only public balance most universities are allowed.
A third rule warns universities against accepting hard options. Universities, like the great historic churches, are uncomfortable with the proposition "either-or." What they really want is "both-and." Even folly can contain some truth or beauty, and for this reason universities are tolerant of it. They are even tolerant of advocacy, since in most practical matters it is difficult to unscramble advocacy and opinion, espousal and exposure.
Universities obviously can and do take serious moral positions and hold to them. It is not a matter of indifference when either faculty members or students plagiarize. Cheating on examinations is a moral evil to be swiftly and severely punished. Falsifying results in experiments or research is a serious crime. Where a university has a religious tradition, at least some of its religious principles are evident in its rules of internal conduct and in the structure by which it governs itself. Very few such rules and regulations, however, have anything whatever to do with preoccupations as transitory as those that make up the daily give-and-take of politics. Few national administrations get close to eternal questions -- except, of course, in the rhetoric of their principals.
The danger of demanding academic penalties for the public performances of faculty members is that it involves the use of force. Universities can be and have been destroyed by force. Every time the king surrounds the college with his cavalry, the college collapses. Academics are paid to be bright not brave, and martyrdom has never been the long suit of intellectuals. It calls for too much saintliness, as rare in universities as in any other community of sinners. Over many centuries universities have pasted up paper walls of understanding and of tolerance that protect their members from being punished for ideas, even for new ideas, especially for unpopular ideas. Paper is thin stuff, and any real force can rip through it. To all who shout for the university to punish its Galbraiths, Kissingers, Moynihans or Kirkpatricks, I feel like echoing Robert Bolt and asking: once these paper walls are down, what will protect any of our moralism sweeps across our defenseless land?
In their very beginnings, universities learned from the church to honor their members because each bore the image and likeness of God. Academics are more comfortable seeing that image in their intelligence. Somerset Maugham once remarked that God, who gave us reason to distinguish us from the beasts, man paid much attention to human logic. The other half of that image and likeness of God is Freedom. Universities learned long ago that if freedom dies, the house of intellect comes down about our ears.
No matter how high or hot the political rhetoric in public forums, no university can accept the interference of those who shout to its departing or returning faculty members, "Either you or your head must be off and that in about half no time," without becoming a Wonderland as frightening as that once inhabited by Alice. A professor's right to teach and publish and think cannot be denied because he or she was once engaged with the epiphenomena of government and politics. We all echo a professor who in his day brought down upon his head no small amount of obloquy, within and without the academy: "Here we stand because we can do no other."